Whose poutine reigns supreme?

Journal reporter Elias Da Silva-Powell gets behind the counter at Bubba’s, Kingston’s favourite late-night spot

A familiar site to many Queen’s students, the Bubba’s cash register rings in between 300 and 400 customers on a busy weekend night.
A familiar site to many Queen’s students, the Bubba’s cash register rings in between 300 and 400 customers on a busy weekend night.
Long-time Bubba’s employee George Doulas takes a break from serving poutine and prepares a sub last Thursday night.
Long-time Bubba’s employee George Doulas takes a break from serving poutine and prepares a sub last Thursday night.

At Bubba’s Pizzeria, one thing is certain: poutine is king.

“Poutine is stencilled on the windows here, our shirts, our hats, people love the poutine,” Bubba’s employee Scott Cooper said.

The late-night Kingston landmark first opened in 1982 at the corner of Frontenac and Johnson streets. In 1985, it moved to its downtown location on King St. In 1992, it added its Hub location on Princess St. to its roster and has been a campus favourite ever since.

It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, and I’ve just arrived at Bubba’s Hub location. The restaurant is empty, but Cooper said it’s unlikely to stay that way for long as its poutine has been an after-hours staple since being introduced to the menu in 1985. An estimated 60 per cent of Bubba’s yearly sales are from poutine alone.

“People roll in at very unpredictable times, and it’s a very unpredictable job.”

Cooper introduces me to George Doulas, a fellow employee cleaning the counter. They work 12-hour night shifts at Bubba’s from 5 p.m. until 3:30 a.m. six days a week. Cooper has worked at Bubba’s for almost four years, while Doulas has worked there for 12.

The two of them lead me on a short tour through the kitchen and the prep room at the back of the restaurant, pointing out the deep fryer, steam table and the fridges under the counters. The fridges hold sandwich meat and cheese, as well as pre-portioned bags of cheese curds for poutine.

“It’s the curds that make the poutine so good,” Doulas said.

The limited kitchen space is immediately apparent, as I have to ease by Cooper on my way back to the counter.

Cooper said the cramped space at Bubba’s is as much to blame for fights as binge drinking.

“We’re working with 900 square feet of space, so we don’t have a lot of room to fit anything,” he said. “I can be standing here working and right across the counter from me is a nice drunk, a mean drunk, a violent drunk, and two guys fighting in the back.”

Despite these problems, Cooper said everyone always feels safe at Bubba’s.

“The fights that have happened here have happened between two guys who wanted to fight.”

Most of the fights are between men over women, Doulas added.

“It’s either because they’re with a girl, or they didn’t pick up a girl, or something stupid like that.”

Like most of the restaurants in the Hub, Bubba’s is set up with security in mind. Cooper said the high counters, several security cameras and doorman next to the drink fridge are all intended to reduce security concerns as almost all of the customers they serve on the night shift are drunk.

“One of the most interesting things about working here is seeing the different kinds of behaviour you can get from one person,” he said. “We see the same people coming in for a bite to eat ... and then see them later in the night and they’re a completely different person because they’ve been drinking.”

Cooper said witnessing Queen’s students’ behaviour on a nightly basis hasn’t made him dislike students.

“Before I worked here, I had heard that Queen’s students were nothing but stuck-up, rich snobs, and that’s probably the furthest thing from the truth,” he said. “To criticize someone for what their parents do is preposterous.”

Alcohol also causes a good deal of confusion, Cooper said.

“We’re cash only, and we’ve always been cash only. Somehow, we still get a ton of people asking for debit or credit. It’s the same people every week, so I guess it’s the alcohol confusing them.”

Cooper said others try to avoid paying entirely.

“We have people come in and say, ‘So-and-so down the street said you would take care of me,’” Scott furrows his brow in mock confusion. “We say ‘Who? Who determines this?’”

Although Cooper enjoys his work, he doesn’t want to do it for the rest of his life; his passion lies in criminology.

“I have to take Police Foundations [a program offered at St. Lawrence College] and then transition from that to Carleton University to take criminology.” he said.

Doulas said he plans to move on eventually, as well.

“It isn’t as busy as it used to be,” he said. “In ’98, a large poutine was five bucks, smalls were four dollars. At suppertime, we would be steadily busy.”

Now, a small poutine costs $6. A large size costs $7.75.

Cooper said he thinks the crowds have changed as well.

“As students have gotten younger, they start coming out later,” he said. “For us, it’s about the same, but it’s much harder on the bar owners.”

By 11:30 p.m., Doulas and Cooper have only served about a dozen customers. Scott makes me a hamburger sub—two cheeseburger patties on a bun, with a side of fries. It’s delicious. Fries have made Bubba’s popular, Cooper said.

“I’ve heard rumours that we sell more fries than anywhere else in Kingston.” At rush times, ensuring enough available fries takes priority over everything else, Cooper said.

“We’ll have one person who just stands here doing this all night,” he said, pulling a basket of fries out of the oil.

At half-past midnight, a young man in a suit stumbles into Bubba’s.

“Can I pay debit?” he asked with a slur.

“ATM’s over there, buddy,” Doulas said, pointing.

The man turns around and stares at the ATM, then looks at his debit card. Silently, he turns, walks into the doorframe, and trips out into the street. We watch him walk across to Pizza Pizza.

“I’ve seen a lot of drunks try and take money out with their driver’s licence,” Cooper said, adding he often sees people eat off the floor.

“I saw a girl last weekend who had her poutine slip out of the container, and she scooped it up, stuffed the poutine in her purse, and ate it like that.” By 1 a.m., things start to get busy and two men stagger in, flushed from the cold.

As it grows closer to last call, Bubba’s gets steadily busier. The crowd is an eclectic mix; some are alone or with friends; sober or almost comatose. Almost without exception, they all want poutine. Two girls waiting in line stare blankly at the security monitor on the wall.

Doulas and Cooper slide into high gear, passing each other Styrofoam containers full of glistening fries, adding cheese curds and gravy before handing them to customers. Several people occupy the corner by the ATM, passing a tin of chewing tobacco around. One wanders over to the garbage and spits casually. On the far side of the room, a glass-eyed drunk elbows his friends apart and reaches for their poutine.

“Share, huh?” he implores. His friends force him back, poutine-less.

“This is pretty slow for a Thursday,” Cooper said.

On a busy night, Bubba’s will serve anywhere between 300 and four-hundred customers.

A momentary lull falls, and Cooper wanders through the seating area, cleaning and wiping down tables.

“I wanted you to see the real deal,” Cooper said. “Saturday would have been better.”

By 2:30 a.m., the restaurant is completely empty, and Cooper and Doulas send me on my way with a box of poutine. They will spend the next hour cleaning and closing the kitchen, then head home in the wee hours of the morning.

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