John Dys outside his Wooden Shoe Cafe 3292 Cambie Street, Vancouver 2015 Photo by Rania

John Dys outside his Wooden Shoe Cafe 3292 Cambie Street, Vancouver 2015. Photo by Rania

The BC Legend, John Dys, passed away on April 30th, 2020. He lived in Cambie Village, and had several businesses here over the decades. Here is an interview he gave to us in August 2015.

The Dutch Wooden Shoe – John Dys

In 1970, John Dys opened a burger and chicken joint called the The Frying Dutchman on the 3400 block of Cambie Street where Black Dog Video now is.

“It was a wonderful little community back then,” he reminisces. “We had a butcher, a baker, and even a used car lot on the corner at W.18th where the TD Bank now stands. Jim Pattison was a young salesman working there back then.”

“When the BA Gas Station (British American) was torn down and they built this little place, I moved over here to my current location in 1978 and renamed it The Dutch Wooden Shoe.”

And there it is, in a few short sentences, Dys gives us a picture of a bustling little community that houses the history of a Vancouver neighbourhood.

I arrived in 1955 from Holland with only $50 in my pocket. The Dutch government paid our way, and gave us $50 to start our new lives. There were no jobs in Holland and it cost them more to keep us there. “

Dys and his friends were to go up north to work, but the day they were to leave, he had a car accident and was left behind. As he tells it, “I got into the restaurant business by ‘accident’.”

“There was an ad in the paper asking if any young man was interested in the food business. I was interested in food so I paid the guy a visit, and next thing I was managing the Delmar. The owner retired, and I inherited the business.”

The Delmar was a drive-in burger bar on the southwest corner of Cambie and W.12th. People drove up to the parking lot, got out of the cars, and walked up to a window to place their orders.

“It was the only place in Vancouver that was open 24hours and it was a wild place. We had a guard with a fierce German Shepherd. We served burgers and fries. There was no McDonald’s back then.”

By 1962, Dys had three Delmar burger stands at the PNE’s annual fair. They were very popular, and he decided to have a poll as a gimmick for the 1964 provincial election. People could “vote” by the burger they ordered.

“Back then the media couldn’t conduct polls six weeks prior to an election, and I was warned that I couldn’t either. But they couldn’t do a thing about it since my burgers were named for my staff. I just happened to have staff named the same as the guys running for office. You can’t fault me for having an employee named Bennett.”

The burger polls run by Dys became popular for their accuracy in predicting the outcome of provincial elections.

“They were accurate because they reflected the whole province. Everyone across BC came to the PNE and everyone ate burgers.” Dys’s burger polls predicted the outcome in 1964, 66, 69, and 1972.

“In 1972, Mr. Bennett was behind in the polls. One of his men came to ask me how many burgers it would take for him to advance. I refused to give him an answer, and refused to take his money, so he bought one thousand burgers. We needed fifty big boxes to pack them. He went downtown and to Stanley Park to hand them out. Mr. Bennett still lost that election.”

By then the media could do polls.

In 1975 he opened a De Dutch Pannekoek House at King Edward and Knight, then one more at Broadway and Cambie and one at Main and Terminal. His two sisters each ran one, and he kept the one on Cambie. He went on to franchise them. The idea of a big pancake with toppings came to him after seeing the popularity of this concept during a trip to Holland in 1974.

“Back in the 1970s, we had a five and ten cent store here on Cambie. The busses got washed on the block that now has the Pacifica Building (between W.14th and W.16th), and Jersey Farms was where the Olive Building and Shoppers Drug Mart now stand. “

“I bought my house close to here for only nine thousand dollars and it’s now worth $2 million. Rent for The Frying Dutchman was only $250 a month, and now I pay close to $4000.”

When asked about what the best part of Cambie was back then, Dys is quick to answer, “There was a variety of businesses, and they all closed on Sunday. Nobody worked on Sunday; we could all rest and be with our families.”

When asked about the worst times on Cambie, he responds, “In the 1990s suddenly you had nothing but hair salons and nail salons along Cambie and all the main shopping streets in Vancouver. I’m glad that’s turning around now and we’re getting more restaurants and shops again.”

“I’m 80 years old now, and I’m retired. I still handle the franchise and its twenty two locations, and I still come in to The Dutch Wooden Shoe every day, but I consider myself retired.”

Mr. Dys holds six decades of memories of a changing Vancouver, from drive-ins, to restaurant chains, to dairies, bus washes, five and dimes, and a young salesman named Jim Pattison. He recalls the province-wide popularity of the Pacific National Exhibition, and the evolving rules of election polls, and Sunday openings. And he’s seen it all right here in the Heart of Vancouver, Cambie Village.