Icons, Landmarks and Singing

This coming August (2007) I will have lived in Toronto for twenty years. I have officially spent over half of my life here. I have spent the last few years writing about Toronto in various forums, and continue to write for websites where I cover the cool and interesting parts of this city that appeal to locals and visitors alike. Yet the list of local landmarks and icons that I have visited is relatively small.

I have never been to Center Island, have only this past summer been to Casa Loma, and have done the full tour of the AGO only once. I have never ridden the GO train, as that would mean having to go to the suburbs. I made it up the CN tower my first year here, but it was rather by fluke, and I was stoned off my ass, and it was before they put in the glass floor; I haven’t been back.

Landing smack dab in the middle of Kensington Market meant that my Toronto experience was a very different one from just about anybody else’s and the little bubble of the market provided everything I could ever need. Combine that with generally being cynical and misanthropic, and the desire to avoid the cliched tourist spots becomes more clear.

It means there is some stuff I missed out on, however, and one of those things is Lick’s.

Lick’s is a Toronto burger chain most well known for the fact that their staff sing. Now when I say “singing”, you’ll bring to mind your own concept of this, depending on your personal opinion of singing in general. I once had a downstairs neighbour who was inclined to sing.

After she moved in, people would ask, “How’s the new neighbour?”

“She sings,” would be my reply.

“Oh, how delightful!” they’d exclaim, or at least the normals would. Friends into the alternative music scene would furrow their brows sympathetically.

“I didn’t say she sang WELL,” I would say. “Just that she makes some kind of very loud noise, and appears to be attempting to make it sound melodious in some way.” I would go on to explain that, as far as we could tell, the new neighbor was stricken with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, for the majority of her singing took place before she left for work each morning at about eight-thirty when she would put on a olde tymey rinkly-tinkly piano version of “You Are My Sunshine”, and would sing along at the top of her lungs. Usually between three to ten times in a row before heading out the door. Her record was eighteen times, and resulted in the gal in the basement (who worked nights) threatening to kill her.

So “singing” doesn’t necessarily equal GOOD singing.

Such is the case with Lick’s. If I recall, it was one of the reasons why I was never inclined to eat there. “They sing? While people are eating? Oh, no, let’s go for dim sum and eat chicken feet instead.”

This is not to say that I have never eaten Lick’s food. Through a well-thought out marketing plan, their burgers are available frozen through a local grocery chain. And Lick’s happens to have a really thorough selection of vegetarian options, from chili and wraps to burgers. And oh, what burgers they are.

The Lick’s Nature Burger has won awards. It is the most meat-like veggie burger I’ve ever had, beating out the quite delicious President’s Choice World’s Best Meatless burger. It oozes juices when cooking, just like a beef burger. And the only way to tell if you’ve got a Nature burger as opposed to a Lick’s beef burger is to check the edges – both burgers are machine formed and start out with an obvious edge along the circumference. On the beef burger, this edge will round off during cooking as the fat melts away, while the Nature burger keeps its shape. Topped with Lick’s signature Guk!, some barbeque sauce and accompanied by a side of fries, a vanilla cola and some vegetarian gravy, I defy anyone to tell the difference.

The problem is that to enjoy this burger, you must endure the singing. And while the lure of a delicious veggie burger was enough to bring me in, it soon became clear that the singing was not a qualifying factor in the hiring process, even though Lick’s is well-known as the burger joint where the staff sing. Because burger joints are staffed with teenagers, and at no point ever has it been cool for teenagers to stand behind a burger grill singing little ditties about hamburgers.

That’s right, I forgot to tell you, Lick’s employees don’t sing songs – there are no Top 40 hits or melodic 4-part harmonies. No karaoke versions of Cyndi Lauper or the Killers. Most of what they sing are more like chants you’d hear a cheerleader yell – little 4-line call-backs about how tasty the burgers are, or how great it is to work at Lick’s. You’d need a microscope to see, never mind measure, the enthusiasm.

To my great relief, many of the Lick’s employees didn’t even bother to sing. They mouthed the words, some of them mumbling occasionally, and replied with reddening embarrassment to the team leader’s loud chants. Fortunately, it appeared that the “singing” only took place when the staff was moderately busy. When the line-up at the cash got long and the orders were coming fast and furious, the singing stopped so the cashier could call out the items, diner-style. And when it got very slow and quiet, they all dispersed to do other tasks like cleaning the fryer or mopping the floor. I only had to endure one 5-minute burst of song, and for that I was extremely grateful.

So now I can cross another Toronto experience off my list. I enjoyed my dinner at Lick’s – it was everything a fast food burger joint experience should be, and vegetarian to boot. But it’s not one I think I ever need to relive, unless I’m in the ‘hood alone (the Lick’s I went to was in Greektown, an area full of big family restaurants where a single woman dining alone would have caused a stir) and am craving a burger.

In the meantime, I’ve bought a box of frozen Nature Burgers and am more than happy to have peace and quiet while I prepare the things.