by Jack Switzer
(The following article by Jack Switzer, was written for the Journal of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta in June 2003.)
Barney Gelfand was a pioneer in the Calgary business community. He was Calgary’s most successful and innovative early food-service franchisee, the man who brought Kentucky Fried Chicken to Alberta.
He was also very active in Jewish affairs, a stalwart of Beth Israel, B’nai Brith and Zionist causes. But he most wanted to be remembered as a husband and father. His devotion to his family is evident in a memoir he pre- pared—on audio tape—for his children. Much of the following is excerpted from the transcript of that tape, donated to the JHSSA by them.
His father, Tevye Gelfand, and a brother left Russia and emigrated to Argentina, then to Winnipeg. Tevye’s wife Rose and son Sidney joined him in Winnipeg in 1910. More brothers arrived and the extended Gelfand family ran a dairy farm in the West Kildonan area just north of Winnipeg. Tevye also had a bread delivery route in the area.
Tevye and Rose had seven children. There were five boys—Sid, Barney (born in 1913), Saul, Irwin (Spike) and Leonard, and two girls, Sally and Mary. Cousins joined them at play.
Barney recalls his parents: “Dad was quite a bit older than mother, and he was very well educated in Jewish law. He was a Yeshiva ‘bocher’ and he and mother just adored each other; hugs and kisses and loving words were the norm in our house, even though we didn’t have very much in the way of a living. Looking back, I can see that we were extremely poor. We just didn’t know it.
“The only thing they insisted on was an education. That was something everyone must have, whether Jewish or from the land we lived in. And in those days the teacher was always right. If you got the strap at school because you were bad, you also got a tongue- lashing when you came home, because you had to be wrong.
“In our home dad and mother never spanked us. If you did something wrong, he would sit you down and try to explain what you did wrong. That was more effective than any hitting. He was a very gentle type of person.
“At Passover all the family got together, and there was every year my Uncle Lou, who was by this time a “big sport” in Chicago would come back to Winnipeg. Because dad was the oldest, Lou would come to our place for the first seder. He brought presents for everybody.
“In those days, if you could afford it, everyone got new clothes for Passover. Some of my fondest memories are of the sederim that we had. My uncle Sam was a fantastic cantor. My dad was also a “Chazzan” (cantor) and the hagaddah was read in Hebrew and translated into Yiddish. I wish I had the knowledge and ability to sing like they did.
“As we got older, we worked all summer at my Uncle Joel’s farm at Stony Mountain. We had to do a man’s work. When we came back for the start of school we were given enough money to get a haircut. That was the extent of our payment for working all summer. In later years I would work in the summer for other farmers for three dollars a month and keep (board-and- room). That was a lot of money in those days.
“After school hours I worked for a butcher and delivered meat. The butcher shop was closed from Friday evening to Saturday evening (and on Sunday), so on Saturday nights we had to do all the meat deliveries for the weekend.
“I don’t know if people realize what it was like to drive a bicycle up Salter Street Bridge in Winnipeg in forty-five below zero weather, delivering meat. It was no easy chore, but I did these things to make a couple of extra dollars and to help the family if I could.
“I remember quite clearly the day my dad fell ill. He fainted, and we didn’t have a telephone so someone ran out to find one and call the doctor. We discovered he had throat cancer. He suffered in a way that I wouldn’t like to see anyone suffer. When dad passed away, Sidney was going to college, so I left school and took over the bread route.
“It wasn’t easy for a fifteen-year-old boy to deliver bread and work in the winter and in the summer. I would go into the city to get the bread and then stop at shule to say kaddish for my dad, and then go on with my deliveries.
“There were some good times. We all loved sports. My brother Saul and I played a lot of soccer. Saul was a little younger than me, and we were very, very friendly and very close. We were friends more than brothers.
“I was quite a hockey player in those days also, and a good baseball player. I was an all-around athlete.
“When I was about eighteen I decided to leave home and go to Chicago. I worked there for a year, but I couldn’t stay because I didn’t have a proper visa. Back in Winnipeg I worked in a second-hand store for a while. I got fed up with that and decided I was going to go out west (c. 1931). I took a bus to Edmonton.
“My brother Sidney had just finished medical school and had practiced in a place called Rossberg, Manitoba for a year or so. Then he moved to the mining town of Nordegg in Alberta. He had some friends in Edmonton, the Kagna family. They asked me to move into their home and gave me a room while I tried to find work.
“There was a picture of (your) mother (Sonya Kagna, known to all as Sunni) in the room—a high school picture. I fell in love with the picture, and wrote to mother in Los Angeles, where she was living then.
“Your mother never had much of a childhood. She never knew her father and I think she was about a year old when her mother died. Her father was a soldier, but was killed during a pogrom.
“She was the raised by some peasants, as a Catholic, so people wouldn’t know she was Jewish. Her Uncle Israel, who she adored, dressed as a woman and took her over the border to Poland. She became one of his children, as a Kagna.
“Her real name was Sandroff. She came to Edmonton when she was about eight or nine, deeply traumatized by all she had been through.
“When we got married (in 1940), we moved into a small basement apartment, over by the municipal golf course. When she became pregnant we bought a little place just off Seventh Street in Edmonton. That is where Elliot was born.
“I worked in a bakery for several years, until Elliot was around four years old. One day my brother Sidney called me and told me that he had bought a restaurant in the Calgary bus depot and, if I would put up some money and come and run it, I could be a partner with him. So we cheerfully moved with our belongings to Calgary.
“We ran the bus depot restaurant, Mary (his sister) and I, and then my brother Spike came out of the air force and he was there. My cousin Bob and my brother Leonard came out of the army and the air force, and they were all there working. It was just too much. We were not making any money. None of us knew the restaurant business. So I decided to join the Restaurant Association and try to learn as much about the business as I could. And I learned.
“Just at that time when I thought things were going fine, Greyhound, our landlord, decided they wanted to make the bus depot bigger. The new restaurant contract was given to some-one else.
“Then I went into a little place called the Olympic Lunch, where I slaved for hours and hours, getting up at five or six in the morning and working until late at night. I had the help of Jack Chertkow, who I became friendly with. (Chertkow owned the adjacent Olympic Bowling Lanes.) He said, ‘You go into the Olympic Lunch, and when you have enough money you can pay me.’ I was able to pay him back and eventually I bought the building.”
Success at the Olympic Lunch meant more than feeding bowlers and lunch crowd from the nearby Film Exchange. Barney and his crew— including many family members— made hundreds of sandwiches every day for delivery to local hotel beverage rooms. He also supplied meals to inmates at the Calgary police jail.
He was known for his integrity and generosity. He once loaned money to a customer to allow the man to open his own gardening business. He came to the aid of a stranded motorist, and drove the man to the airport. It was Atco founder Ron Southern; Barney became a food-service supplier to his company.
Barney opened another restaurant in 1951, the Terrace Gardens at the Stampeder on Macleod Trail. His biggest business move came in 1956 when he responded to an ad in a trade journal for a fried chicken franchise. Harland Sanders, a Kentucky “Colonel” immediately invited him to his home, and a lifelong friendship, as well as a lucrative deal, began with a handshake.
Gelfand soon opened a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet at the Stampeder Hotel. It was only Sanders’ fifth unit, the first in Canada, and the first of a dozen or so Gelfand would operate. Colonel Sanders came to the opening, and returned several times to Calgary to visit his good friend and favorite franchisee. Barney had several other “firsts.” He operated several locations offering only take-out service. This technique was efficient for the customer, and profitable for the operator. For a time, Barney Gelfand was the biggest processed-chicken and French-fried potato buyer in Canada; Calgary had the highest per-capita chicken consumption in the world, and much of this was due to Barney and his effective distribution and promotion methods.
Every Sunday afternoon, radio listeners were urged to dial “C H I C K E N” and have their orders prepared for pick-up. People talked about the “eleven secret herbs and spices.”
In 1960 he expanded the Stampeder Hotel cafe into a major restaurant, Barneys, which included the Georgian Terrace, the Kentucky Room, the Colonel’s Room, and of course, a KFC take-out. The Terrace featured a daily buffet lunch, another first for Calgary. A few years later he began operating the restaurant at the downtown Wales Hotel.
Business did not keep Barney from being a community leader. He served a term as president of Beth Israel congregation, and chaired a United Jewish Appeal drive. He contributed his time and talents to many other Jewish and civic causes. He was the first Jew to serve on the Board of a Catholic institution, the Lacombe Home, and was very involved with the Calgary Tourist and Convention Association, as well as with food- service groups.
He was quick to acknowledge the role of Sunni Gelfand. She was a motivator, assistant, consultant, hostess. She was his partner, in all aspects of their life together.
Barney Gelfand retired in 1971, and he and Sunni moved to Phoenix for several years. They golfed, visited friends, and returned to Calgary frequently. (Barney’s chain was taken over by other entrepreneurs.)
They returned to Canada late in the 1990s to be closer to their children— Elliot Gelfand of Edmonton, and Karen Sklar, Calgary — and grandchildren. Sunni, unfortunately, fell gravely ill, and passed away in 1999. They had been married nearly 60 years. Barney missed her terribly, and passed away himself just eighteen months later, in July 2001.
Sources: JHSSA Archives, Glenbow Alberta Archives, Karen Sklar and Dr. Elliot Gelfand.
Material from the JHSSA Business files was used to compile the article about Barney Gelfand’s business ventures. If you or your family owned a business in Alberta, we would be interested in learning its history. Contact the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta office (403-444-3171) and we will send you our Business questionnaire. We also collect business cards or stationery, and photos.