Donairs Halifax

History of the Donair Pt 2: The Halifax Donair

Preface

Back in 2016 I wrote a well meaning post: Donair History Pt 1: It Began With the Doner Kebab. I wrote about how the donair evolved from the Greek gyros, which itself is derived from the Turkish doner kebab. At the time I was doing extensive research: conducting interviews, browsing the library archives, and the usual internet sleuthing. I have probably done more research on the history of the donair than, well, anyone.

So why didn’t I publish Part 2?

I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to do the donair justice. Now here we are in 2019 and I still haven’t published the damn thing!

The time has come.

I present to you my History of the Donair: the result of an unhealthy (unpaid) obsession that has spanned many years and kilometres. This is a work of love. While food history lends itself to tall tales and mythical claims, I have done my best to champion this uniquely Canadian food as accurately as possible.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Michael Dinn: donair defender, master of secret menus, all around good guy, and creator of donair.org.

The Official Story:

Photo Cred: Dagley Media

I left off in 2016 by insinuating that the Halifax donair was a continuation of the gyro’s path from Chicago to Ontario and eastwards to glory. But the path is actually direct from Greece.

The story goes like this:

Peter Gamoulakos was a Greek immigrant who wanted to bring the gyros to Halifax. He tried selling them at his pizza shop, but Nova Scotians seemed not to have a palate for lamb and yogurt in the 1970s. Undeterred, he adapted the recipe to Maritime tastes, substituting spicy beef for lamb and a sweet milk-based sauce for tzatziki. After perfecting his recipe, he opened King of Donair on Quinpool Road in 1973.

You can find this story all over the internet, but it’s not that simple.

When I looked through the archived public directories at the Halifax Central Library, there was no King of Donair listed anywhere in 1973. This is the discovery that would set my research back several years!

It turns out that the first mention of the kebab was a Mr. Doner in 1976, but the first prototype was created at Velo’s Pizza.

Velo’s Pizza

“I worked for many years to get the right recipe that would appeal to Canadians” – Peter Gamoulakos (CH 1978).

Peter Gamoulakos immigrated to Canada in 1959 and he reportedly had a pizza shop on Chebucto Road in the early 70’s called Velo’s.

In 1973, Peter took a vacation to Greece. His friend, Peter Dikaios, looked after his shop for him while he was gone, while his son, Jim, would tag along with Peter on his trip to the homeland. Peter and Jim ate a lot of gyros on their trip, and this would be Peter’s inspiration to bring this new food back to Canada.

At some point, Peter opened a Velo’s in downtown Bedford with his brother George. He also invited Peter Dikaios to be a business partner, as thanks for taking care of his shop.

Three Greeks and a pizza shop in Bedford. That’s where we’re starting. It was here that Peter Gamoulakos would try to sell the gyros.

Pork gyros at Messini Greek Gyros in Toronto

Gyros at Messini Greek Gyros in Toronto – Greek gyros are made from stacked slices of meat.

Apparently, the Velo’s crew had a hell of a time figuring out how to spit the meat without it falling apart. George had a friend in Greece send over a recipe, reportedly instructing the Galoumakos brothers to grind the meat and pack it into a loaf.  (*1 See Footnotes)

donair-meat-grilled-on-a-spit

Photo from Travel Yourself – check out her video: “What is the Halifax Donair?

Now the meat was roasting and the shop was promoting the gyros with sidewalk samples, but Maritimers didn’t take to such “exotic” flavours. The gyros simply weren’t selling.

“In Greece we only use lamb, which didn’t go over too well here.” – Peter Gamoulakos (CH 1978) (*2 see footnote).

So Peter, who had some culinary prowess, started tinkering with the recipe to come up with something that would suit the surrounding taste buds. Two things he knew: that Maritimers liked “sweet” and that they didn’t eat much lamb.

The recipe didn’t come to him all at once, in some magical Eureka! moment. These were the experimental days of the donair, the days of the early prototypes.

Meanwhile, things were becoming unstable at Velo’s. George was butting heads with the others and left,eventually opening his own shop on Spring Garden Road (in the 1976 public directory it is simply called “Donair” with “Atlantic Submarine Restaurant” in parenthesis, but at some point it was called “Greek Donair”).

Peter Dikaios bought out Velo’s from the other two, and ran it for a year or two before selling it to Submarine Sandwich.

Peter Gamoulakos’ trip to Greece and his time at the Bedford Velo’s all reportedly happened in and around 1973. His next move would be to open up his own shop, specializing in his evolving creation.

But it wasn’t King of Donair…

Did You Know?
Peter Dikaios would go on to open Halifax’s favourite coffee roastery, Java Blend.

Mr. Doner

“After many trials of mixing lamb with beef, changing the spices, adapting the sauce, Mr. Kamoulakos came up with ‘just the right combination'”. (CH 1978).

Peter Gamoulakos, with one of his brothers, (*3 see footnotes), went on to open the first Mr. Doner, which was located in Bedford. This is where he would specialize in his creation.

The final recipe involved 3 main departures from the standard gyro:

  1. The Meat: Whereas American gyros are generally a mixture of beef and lamb, a donair is unlikely to contain any lamb whatsoever. While the gyro is mildly spiced with garlic, salt and herbs, the donair is less herbal, instead having more heat (from the addition of cayenne pepper).
  2. The Sauce: tzatziki sauce is replaced by a sweet sauce of evaporated milk, vinegar and sugar. (*4 see footnotes) 
  3. The Bread: Lebanese pita from the Fancy Lebanese Bakery was used instead of Greek pita, as there was no supply of Greek pitas in Halifax.

Like the gyro, donairs were topped with chopped onions and tomatoes (but never French fries). Freshly minced parsley was also an original topping (or sauce component) that was eventually phased out.

“The reason why dad would use parsley was because… your breath would smell. The parsley would kill that and took away the smell” – Leo Gamoulakos (Halifax Mag 2011).

When customers asked Peter how to eat the donairs, he responded: “Peel it like a banana and eat it like an ice cream cone”.

Did you know?
The Gamoulakos family hails from Sparta, Greece? 

Did You Also Know?
Due to an immigration error, Peter’s name was officially recorded as “Kamoulakos” upon entering Canada. Years later he would legally change his name back to Gamoulakos, but his brother, John, would keep the K.

Doner or Donair?

“There aren’t any hot dogs or hamburgers back home. Donairs, as well as souvlakia are on every street corner in Greece” – Peter Gamoulakos (CH 1978). 

This is what a doner looks like in Germany, where its lineage is direct from its Turkish namesake.  (AleGranholm [CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The gyros was originally called “doner” in Greece, but this was criticized in the mid 70’s for being a Turkish word and eventually replaced with the Greek word “gyros” (a literal translation of “doner”, both words meaning to turn or rotate”).

Even today there is some confusion surrounding the nomenclature, and there is apparently something still called “donner” that is mixed ground meats (veal, pork or lamb – similar to an American gyros) though it is less common. Meanwhile, Greek restaurants in New York were using “doner” and “gyros” interchangeably in the 70’s. It seems even Peter Gamoulakos used “donair” interchangeably with “gyros”.

It’s all just meat on a spit, right?

“They come from Greece. In many places they call them gyros, same thing. I make my own donair sauce, I don’t make sweet donair sauce. I make original donair sauce – yogurt with garlic and cukes” – George Nicolas, of Acropolis Deli, Saint John (NB Telegraph 2003). 

This is an American gyro – did it fool you?

I would think that both “gyros” and “doner” were in the lexicon when Peter Gamoulakos visited Greece in 1973, but Peter Dikaios claims “it was never called doner in Greece”. So if Peter had not come across the word “doner” while in Greece, how did his Canadianized gyros come to be called “donair”?

The story goes that a customer asked Peter what this strange new food was called, and, put on the spot, he looked over at his imported Greek rotisserie machine, saw the word “doner” written on it and replied, “doner”. Some say he mispronounced it, others say his customers mispronounced it… But Peter Dikaios recalls that Peter said “doner” with a French accent (perhaps believing it was a French word, or maybe he just wanted it to sound fancy?).

I’m just glad we aren’t calling it “donner”, as in, “Let’s go get some donner, eh b’ys?”.

And hey – at least it’s not as confusing as the Germans naming their delicacy döner kebab (literally the same name used in Turkey).

The spelling would later reflect the pronunciation, but for now it seems Peter stuck with the original spelling. His restaurants were listed as “Mr. Doner” in the public directories for the rest of the decade.

Thanks to my sponsor: 

HTML tutorial

King of Donair

“Once the meat is on the machine, you must sell it that same day. Otherwise, throw it out – it’s good for nothing else” – Peter Gamoulakos (Chronicle Herald 1978).

King of Donair, Halifax Food Crawl 2015 (Cred: Dagley Media)

The success of Mr. Doner prompted Peter Gamoulakos to expand the business in 1976. He opened up 5 Mr. Doners that year: Quinpool Road, Robie St, Gottingen St, Dutch Village Road and Simpson’s Mall. The most successful store was the Quinpool location, which had sales of 600 donairs a day, thanks to university students and patrons of the Oxford Theatre.

Other friends and family of Peter Gamoulakos became involved in the business and a company was formed.

It is often the case that expansion can spread a business too thin, and with the family being preoccupied by other businesses, Peter decided to buy back two of the locations from the company: Quinpool Road and Dutch Village Road. He also opened a shop in Charlottetown. Only one branch stayed in the company. The rest were sold.

In order to reinforce his brand identity, he renamed his business King of Donair and prepared to franchise the business.

The cost of the secret recipe? $5,000 and the buyer had to swear on his life not to leak the ingredients. This was the cost of the franchise, of course, and included the King of Donair name, a two week training course, and Mr. Gamoulakos on the premises for the first week.

As one might expect, other donair shops were popping up in Halifax by now. Peter would supply several of them with his donair meat but most of them would eventually make it themselves to save money.

Did You Know? Peter Gamoulakos had a Halifax company manufacture stainless aluminum rods to replace those of the imported Greek rotisserie machines, which were not rust-proof. He sold them to other shops for $38 dollars a piece. Other shops, like Tony’s, were using rotisserie machines imported from Chicago, and these American-made gyro roasters didn’t have the rust problem.

Tony’s Donair

“There were immigrants working in different places, working with the Greeks, working for the Greeks, Greeks working for the Lebs. That whole entanglement and the hard work ethic of the immigrants really created a success story and the donair happens to be one of those stories.” – Leo Salloum

tonys-terry-fox

Historic photo of Terry Fox in front of Tony’s Pizza on his Marathon of Hope in 1980.

Tony Helou was a Lebanese immigrant who spent his first 2 years in Canada working at the Lebanese Bakery during the day and managing a Mr. Doner at night for a total of 104 hours a week. He saved his money and bought the Mr. Doner on Robie Street from the Gamoulakos family corporation.

This would become the iconic Tony’s Donair & Pizza.

Eventually Tony’s Donair was acquired by Abe Salloum (whose family also owns the Golden Bakery, which supplies many donair shops with pita bread). “People come here to learn the art of donair,” says (son/owner) Leo Salloum, “and many have gone to open up their own shops, like the owners of Alexandra’s – pretty much like family, since they were kids.”

Tony’s Donair present-day. (Photo Credit: Dagley Media).

Bash Toulany’s

Bash Toulany’s was once widely known as the best donair in Halifax. It operated for at least 40 years before sadly closing its doors in 2012 (or at least, that is the last year I can find a Yelp review).

Bash immigrated to Halifax at the age of 16. He started working right away, with his brother at a store downtown. After a while he was able to open his own grocery, originally on Hollis Street before moving to Duffas Street in the north end (circa 1977), but Bash eventually shifted the focus towards pizza and donairs. He made donair cones and loaves in-house and supplied other restaurants. For a while you could even find his donair meat and (frozen) pizzas for sale at Sobey’s.

At some point (before 2010) he sold the restaurant. His kids had finished university and he no longer needed to grind out a living. I am told the last owners of Bash Toulany’s were Mohammed Al-Tawil & Amjad Al-Tawil.

The Growth

“I look for unique foods, unique to the region. It is your most famous, it is the signature dish… like the New York dirty water hot dog we love it. We don’t apologize for it.” – Anthony Bourdain (CH 2014).

1977 – Greco Donair and Pizza opens in Moncton, New Brunswick. Greco Foods Limited was developed in order to supply the growing number of Greco Restaurants. It is now known as Bonté Foods and has been importing donair products to Alberta since the 1980s.

1979 – Peter Gamoulakos sells his King of Donair shops to Nick Garonis (who had worked under the table for Peter D. at Velo’s years prior) and Takis Mitropoulos, who expanded the business around the Martimes and also founded the famous King of Donair Men’s Soccer Club.

1985 – Peter Gamoulakos founds Mr. Donair in order to supply the growing number of donair shops with product. His brother, John Kamoulakos, becomes VP of Mr. Donair.

1987 – John Kamoulakos opens European Food Shop, the first shop to offer pizza-by-the-slice and donairs on Blowers & Grafton – what would become Halifax’s “Pizza Corner“. King of Donair and Sicilian Pizza would later open, making up two of the other corners (the 4th corner is occupied by a church). Pizza Corner would become the late night locale for hungry revelers for decades to come.

Video showing the late night antics at the old King of Donair on Pizza Corner (now closed). 

1989 – Nick Garonis sells the Quinpool King of Donair to Sam Nahas, who eventually acquired the Pizza Corner location and others.

1990 – Peter and Tony Nahas buy Tony’s Donair (unrelated to Tony’s Donair & Pizza on Robie St.) in the Halifax Shopping Centre and rebrand it as Venus Donair. They would then open Venus Pizza and Donair on Barrington St, not far from Pizza Corner.

venus-pizza

1991 – Peter Gamoulakos passes away. John Kamalakos takes over Mr. Donair after a legal battle with the Gamalakos family.

1994Leo’s Donair (Toulany’s) opens their donair production facility and has since supplied most of the major donair shops in Halifax with donair cones, including Tony’s and King of Donair (who each submit their own unique spice blend). The other major donair facility to come about was Baily’s (which still supplies donair meat to a few select shops, but mainly their own Elmsdale Pizza).

2005 – Johnny K sells Mr. Donair to Tony’s Meats of Antigonish. Since they’ve acquired it, Tony’s Meats has worked on product development and marketing the brand across Canada, even promoting Mr. Donair at food shows in Chicago and Toronto. They also created the “donair kit” available at grocery stores in Atlantic Canada.

2012

– Venus Pizza is rebranded Mezza Lebanese Cuisine and expands around the Halifax Regional Municipality. They specialize in donair, shawarma and other Lebanese food.

– The Pizza Corner location of King of Donair closes, due to a rental dispute. It briefly becomes a frozen yogurt shop.

2014 – While attending the Devour Food Film Festival in Wolfville, NS, Anthony Bourdain tries a donair. King of Donair brought their donair equipment to Wolfville specifically to introduce the food to the televised food celebrity.

2015 (Year Of The Donair)

“I’m a true Nova Scotian, wake up every Sunday drunk with donair on my clothing” – Quake Matthews

The donair starts to have a bit of a renaissance in 2015, and city counsel considers making donair its official food.  The motion is put forward by counselor, Linda Mosher, after hearing that Edmonton was debating whether the donair or green onion cake should be its official food. After a lengthy and controversial deliberation by city counsel, the motion passes.

The excitement is mounting in 2015, as Halifax takes proud ownership of the donair as a local delicacy and contribution to the Canadian culinary landscape.

Meanwhile, Pizza Corner’s European Food Shop closes its doors, stripping the iconic corner now of 2 of its 3 pizza shops. The site is quickly snatched up by Peter and Tony Nahas (of Venus/Mezza), who reopen it with Marcel Khoury as Johnny K’s, a donair specialty shop. It is named as a tribute to Johnny K, owner of European Food Shop and the building itself. Johnny K’s pays homage to the history of the donair by offering gyros and German doner kebabs alongside the Halifax variety.

That summer, donair enthusiast Amy Langdon organizes the first ever Halifax Donair Crawl (see footage by Dagley Media). It would have a successful 3 year run.

donair-crawl-1

The 1st Annual Donair Crawl – 2015. Thanks to Dagley Media for the photo.

Meanwhile, King of Donair sues Vancouver’s Donair King (and other royalty-themed donair shops) for trademark infringement, as they prepare for countrywide expansion.

As Halifax is busy celebrating the donair, Nick Garonis passes away leaving donair and soccer legacies behind him.

2016 – King of Donair tests the Albertan market with a pop-up in Calgary (more on that later).

2017 – King of Donair opens a stall in the Scotiabank Centre, providing Halifax sports fans with the ultimate stadium food.

2018 – Pizza Girls opens on Pizza Corner (in the former KOD) completing, once again, the three corners of pizza and/or donair.

Present Day

Virtually every pizza shop in Halifax continues to serve donair, as well as donair pizza, subs, panzerotti, egg rolls, poutine and the donair plate (French fries with donair meat, tomatoes, onions and sauce). Lettuce is still not acceptable, but there have been controversial experiments with pineapple.

Pizza Corner remains a destination for hungry, drunken revelers. King of Donair’s flagship store on Quinpool is going stronger than ever.

Restaurants in Halifax continue to create donair inspired dishes. Here are a few that have existed at one point or another: donair Pogos, donair soup, donair cupcake, donair donut, donair cheesecake, donair nachos, donair bao, donair potato chips, donair eggs benny, donair crepes, donair tacos, donair samosa, donair pot pie… you get the idea.

Clockwise from top left: donair sushi burrito (Way2Roll), Donair Soup (Super Duper Soups), Donair Cheesecake (Sweet Hereafter), Donair Cupcake (Suzy’s Shortbreads)

Sponsored by:

History of the Donair: Alberta

“Something attracted me to {the donair}. It was close to our food: it’s pita bread and spicy, quality beef, like shawarma. I thought, someday I’m going to open my own donair shop” – Chawki El-Homeira (a.k.a. “Charles Smart”). (The Walrus 2015).

simon-king-2

A Donair from Simon King in Edmonton

The donair would migrate to Edmonton in the early 80s and evolve independently of the Halifax donair, in a weird sort of parallel history. Its success is due, in no small part, to all of the migrant workers from the Maritimes. But it has become Edmonton’s street food par excellence, and nowadays more donairs are eaten in Alberta than anywhere else in Canada.

The Edmonton Donair is tidier than its Halifax predecessor. The pita bread is steamed instead of grilled, and lettuce provides a refreshing crunch. There are also chicken donairs, which are virtually unheard of in Halifax, and cheese is a common addition.

(Read about my Edmonton Donair Quest).

The Edmonton Donair would eventually trickle down to Calgary, with A&A Deli (now Jimmy’s A&A) being one of the forerunners in the early 90’s. Donairs in Calgary are often indistinguishable from shawarmas, with a variety of pickles and sauces and no clear rules. You can even find bison donairs.

Jimmy’s A&A (left) is one of the better donairs in Calgary. On the right, we have what I call “Shawarma Donair”.

(Read about my Calgary Donair Quest).

Timeline

1976 – Chawki El-Homeira immigrated from Lebanon to Nova Scotia, getting a dishwashing job in a Dartmouth donair shop. Two years later he followed other Maritimers, migrating west to Alberta with dreams of oil.

1982 – When the 1980s oil glut tanked the industry, El-Homeira needed a plan B. He remembered being inspired by the donairs of Halifax and thinking he would one day open his own shop. So he opened Charles Smart Donair on Whyte Avenue.

In the same year, Sam Tawachi would open a donair shop with his father, after seeing the success of Charles Smart across the river.

1995 – Sam Tawachi establishes Athena Donair Distributors, and begins the mass distribution of donair cones throughout the province of Alberta.

2008 – After a slew of donair-related food poisonings in Alberta, the Federal Government (through Health Canada’s “Federal-provincial-territorial Donair Working Group”) mandated that the meat be cooked twice. Since then, every donair shop in Canada must slice the cooked meat off the spit, and then grill or steam it before serving.

2015 – Scotian Style opens on Marlborough Drive in NE Calgary. This is the first of a new wave of restaurants specializing in east coast fare and probably the first pizza shop to offer a Keto Donair.

2016King of Donair has a pop up in the Kensington neighbourhood of Calgary, with all proceeds going to the Alberta Children’s Hospital. The event was to create hype and promote donairs in the hopes of opening a shop there. Hype there was! Hundreds of people waited more than 5 hours for donairs! A second pop-up event was scheduled for Sunshine Village in Banff, but it was cancelled due to concerns of crowd control.

2017Blowers & Grafton, a pizza corner-themed restaurant, opens in Calgary. A second location would come to Edmonton the next year.

The new wave of Halifax-style donairs in Calgary: Blowers & Grafton (left), Scotian Style (right).

2018King of Donair opens up shops in Edmonton and Grand Prairie, Alberta. They promote their Western expansion by hilariously creating a parody airline called “DONAIR” (get it?), and perhaps less tastefully with parody “Make Donair Great Again” hats.

Did You Know?
The e coli outbreaks of 2006 are thought to be caused by the increased demand for donairs during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as the Edmonton Oilers had made it to the final. Shops were slicing and serving the meat before it had a chance to cook.

Ontario: Not A Whole Lot Going On…

“There’s a lot of east coasters here so there’s a demand. And I got tired of waiting for somebody else to do it” – Neil Dominey, of The Fuzz Box (NOW 2012).

A donair from Halifax Donair in Milton, Ontario

Long have there been jokes about angry and perplexed Maritimers not being able to find donairs in Ontario. Meanwhile, Haligonians grow weary of explaining to new university students, year after year, that “no, it isn’t a gyro”. The donair remains relatively obscure in Ontario, and the gyro is likewise non-existent in Halifax. One of the King of Donair franchise owners attempted Ontario expansion sometime in the 90s (Kingston, ON)(*5 see footnote) but it didn’t last.

Nowadays, you’ll find donair shops sprinkled around Ontario, with varying levels of quality and know-how. Murray Wong of the Eat This Town: Ottawa is working his way through the donairs of the capital city with varying success.

Ordering donairs in Ontario can be hit or miss, as evidenced by this picture. (From: Eat This Town: Ottawa)

2004 – Collage Falafel is allegedly the first shop in Toronto selling Halifax donairs. The Albanian owners are encouraged by visiting Cape Bretoners to tap into a new market: homesick Maritimers! A recipe is sent in the mail and Collage Falafel introduced the donair with great success.

2008Halifax Donair opens in Milton. Troy Power and Jim Tsouro had worked in the donair biz in Halifax in the 1980s and decided to bring the real deal to Ontario. Nine years later, they would open a second location in Burlington.

2012The Fuzz Box (Danforth) and Hopgood’s Foodliner (Roncesvalles Village) open, specializing in greasy and upscale versions of east coast fare, respectively. Chef Hopgood notably cooks his donair meat sous vide and serves them taco-style on a faux paper bag. (Both restaurants are now closed).

Read About My Investigation of Toronto Donairs


If you know more to the story or are able to fill in any of my gaps, please contact me at lindsay@eatthistown.ca. I plan on revising and editing this page as I find out more.


Thank You:

Peter & Jim Dikaios, Leo Salloum, Norman Nahas, Leo Gamoulakos for taking the time to talk with me.

Lee-Anne Milne – for photoshop skillz.

Matt Dagley – for use of photos.


Footnotes:

(Loose Ends, Speculation, Controversy – for the Food Nerds)

(*1) Re: Gyros meat recipe.

My understanding is that Peter tried to stack slabs of lamb on a spit, like they do in Greece, but couldn’t get the lamb to stay on the spit. George consulted a friend in Greece, who instructed him to use the fail-safe method of packing ground meat into a loaf.

This is curious because I had always thought of the meatloaf gyros as being an American invention. 

It is possible that Greeks going back and forth from America to Greece would share trade secrets. It is also possible that ground meat gyros existed in Greece prior to migrating to the US.  I am told there is a dish in Greece today called “donner” which more closely resembles an American gyros. Is this a dish that was more prevalent in 1970s Greece? Were the gyros that Peter ate in Greece made of ground lamb? Were they called “donner”, “doner” or “gyros”? I have so many questions!

(*2) Re: Peter’s claim: “In Greece we only use lamb”.

This is curious because a quick Google search will reveal that Greek gyros are primarily made from pork. In fact, when I reached out to the Greece subreddit, nobody had even heard of a lamb gyros. It is possible that lamb was prevalent in the 70s, considering the first doner kebabs to be introduced from Turkey were probably lamb-based and probably were for decades. Then again…

This source states: “{The gyros} is believed to have appeared in the 19th century in {Bursa, Turkey}, a city with a large Greek population. Many say that the original form of the round was the kebaphone donor that is very similar to today, but only Muslim residents who did not ate pork consume it with lamb or beef. So the Greeks had the “privilege” of the pork. And here, perhaps, is the explanation why we find it so far in this form in our country’s grills.”

Rough translation by Google aside, what seems to be suggested here is that pork doner kebab existed in Bursa, Turkey where there were lots of Christian Greeks, and that this tradition was brought to Greece. I am skeptical. I suspect that pork gradually became dominant due to its price relative to lamb. I would think that lamb doner kebab would be more prevalent in northern Greece, (where the majority of the refugees from Asia Minor settled and where there are concentrations of Muslims) but the Galoumakos family hails from the Peloponnese, which is in southern Greece.

(*3) Re: Johnny K’s involvement.

There has been some backlash about the apparent claim that Peter’s brother, John Kamoulakos, was the co-creator of the donair. We do know that John entered into business with Peter in 1985 when Mr. Donair was established, but which brother opened Mr. Doner with Peter in the early 70’s? My news articles do not give a name, but seeing as George went on to open his own place after leaving Velo’s, it is likely that it was John.

Leo Gamoulakos (Peter’s son) is adamant that John didn’t get into the business until the mid 80s, and accuses John of inserting himself into the history. His fears were somewhat validated when Johnny K’s opened on Pizza Corner, boasting a “History of the Donair” on the wall which credits “Peter and John Kamoulakos” with the invention. But that “history” was not written by John Kamoulakos; the shop and its concept is the work of the Nahas family, owners of Johnny K’s. 

As for John, he gives credit to his brother in this video.    

An article in the Star states that John only had “unprintable” things to say about Leo Gamoulakos. “If they think I’m the creator of the donair, good luck to them. If they don’t think I’m the creator of the donair, good luck to them. Maybe Leo is the creator. Who knows?” – Johnny K (Star 2015).

(*4) Re: The Recipe for Donair Sauce

There is some debate about whether evaporated or sweetened condensed milk should be used. My 1978 article from the Chronicle Herald states that sweetened condensed milk is the main ingredient, whereas Halifax Magazine, in an interview with Leo Gamoulakos, reports that the original sauce had 5 ingredients: evaporated milk, sugar, vinegar, garlic powder, and parsley. I gather that most shops nowadays use evaporated milk, but there are shops that use condensed, or a mix of both.

There is also debate about the proper way to prepare the sauce, with some shops gently stirring as the vinegar curdles the milk, while other shops whisk it vigorously. Some shops (especially out west) even whip the sauce. Also, contrary to the oft repeated description of “garlicky” donair sauce, garlic powder is not a necessary ingredient. Some shops use it, others do not.

(*5) Re: There was a King of Donair in Kingston, Ontario sometime in the 90’s. 

I don’t know who brought KOD to Kingston and I don’t know when it closed. It seems to have been switched over to a shop called “Famous King” which is now apparently called “House of Donair”. I need to acquire more information on this chapter of the history of the donair.

Works Cited:

Arnold, Lita. “‘Donairs’ find a firm foothold”. Chronicle Herald. (1978). (Source: Halifax Central Library Archives). (Photograph of article).
Brown, Chuck. “The sweet sauce makes this Turkish, or Greek – or Lebanese delight a Maritime mystery Donair love affair”. New Brunswick Telegraph Journal. (2002). (Source).
Chronicle Herald. “Devour! The Food Film Fest: Donairs in Anthony Bourdain’s Future”. Chronicle Herald. (2014). (Source).
Dempsey, Amy. “Saga of Halifax’s first donair resembles Greek wrapsody”. The Star. (2015).
Mouallem, Omar. “The Donair Wars”. The Walrus. (2015).
Moullem, Omar. “Street Treat: Why the donair is the staple of late-night dining”. Calgary Herald. (2015). (Has some errors).
Krishnan, Manisha. “Halifax is Really Losing Its Shit Over Donairs Lately”. Vice. (2015).
Teo, Kosta. “Ο γύρος έχει τη δική του ιστορία – Από πού κρατάει η σκούφια του, πότε ήρθε στην Ελλάδα”. Enikos. (2017).
Toole, Brittany. “Nova Scotia donairs are infiltrating the country and we couldn’t be more thrilled”. CBC. (2017). 
Woodbury, Richard. “A Perfect Mess”. Halifax Magazine. (2011). (Source).

If you have something more to add, please e-mail me at lindsay@eatthistown.ca

    24 Comments

  1. Not making any claim here. But in 1981 I was stopping fairly often at the King of Donair on Quinpool before driving home to St Margarats Bay after working late. Because I ate while driving I started asking them to use a sub bun instead of the harder to hold with one hand pita. And then to toast it. And later to add cheese while roasting it. They thought I was crazy. Every new employee tried to argue with me. But I got my way. Now I’m sure someone else had it before me. That’s how the world is. But I did come up with the Donair sub independently. With the KOD guys of course.

    Reply

    • Let’s just say you were the inventor! lol Have you heard of the “Bubba Sub”? A donair sub with garlic butter and cheese but no veggies. Been trying to track down its origin story for a while. Turns out every small town has a guy named “Bubba”!

      Reply

  2. Very well done! I remember Velos back in the day. Never a Saturday in my parents house without Velos leftovers from the night before. Also, I have friends from England who had only ever heard of a lamb donner before moving here. They like ours better :).

    Reply

      • I do remember Mr Doner. Three reasons my parents would go to Bedford – House of Mei Mei, Ranch and Reef and Mr Doner. I don’t remember it being there very long though, couple of years maybe. Greco had the worst donairs going when they first opened. I don’t know about now, wouldn’t risk honestly.

        Reply

    • Good question! On their web page they tout their business with the invention of the donair. I was looking through the public directories today and Peter’s name was still tied to Velo’s at least into the mid 70’s. He must have sold it at some point. It’s quite likely that the current Velo’s is connected to the original, but with changes in ownership.

      Reply

  3. Just so everyone knows there is some wrong facts in here the first Donair shop in Canada was actually where alexandreas is on queen st

    Reply

  4. Great article! I am wondering since a coworker mine wants to try an “official” Donair… Where would be the place to go, in Calgary, for the perfect Donair?
    Or one that closely represents a Halifax one?

    Reply

    • 100% Blowers & Grafton… I live in Edmonton now and go the YEG location but I was in Calgary for 2 years prior.. Originally from the North End of Halifax. B&G ships their Donair Meat in from NS and always have.. they make a premium thick donair sauce that is the best I’ve had in Alberta or in Halifax. I’ve had the opportunity to chat with the owner on a few occasions (in YYC and YEG) and he is an absolute stickler for details and food quality. The owner had a donair and pizza shop in Halifax too, I think it was down by the waterfront. Their seafood is the best I’ve had outside of the Maritimes and beats out most places I’ve had back home too and somehow they charge the same or less than what you pay back home.. I would attest this to the relationships the owner has built with suppliers back in the maritimes. Incredible garlic fingers too.. super cheesy and buttery… real whole belly fried clams from NB.

      Your only other close option on the map would be the mentioned Scotian Style pizza shop… I have plenty of experience with them too.. especially before B&G finally opened.. the guys there were literally making a Donair Meatloaf for 2 years!! It was terrible.. and also shows so much about their standards and understanding of not only food quality but traditional NS foods. The quality is just not there with any of the foods I’ve tried there.. and they really don’t have the same intelligence when it comes to preparation and cooking of these often delicate ingredients. I have a lot of nightmare stories from my friends about this SS place.. safe to say don’t bother. It seems they have honestly been trying to copy B&G on many front over the past year.. including now recently adding whole fried clams to the menu.

      https://www.avenueedmonton.com/Restaurants-Food/Dining-Out/New-Notable-Blowers-Grafton/

      Reply

  5. Excellent article you hit all key points about where it came from and were its at now
    THANK YOU FOR INCLUDING US
    Jim
    President of HOD
    HALIFAX ORIGINAL DONAIR

    Reply

  6. Centertown Pizza in Ottawa prides itself on the Original Halifax donair. We found it accidentally after moving here and craving our late night fix. Walking in asked right away if it was the real halifax donair. The owner chuckled and said come in my Maritime friends and fed us the real deal. He owned a place in Dartmouth and moved to ottawa. Knew all of the owners and Toulanys. We now have a new friend and spot to get our donair and feel like we step into Dartmouth a bit by visiting with him. I gave been known to deliver some Brothers pepperoni to him knee in awhile as well after a trip home.

    Reply

  7. A new place just opened up on Bloor St. W. called “East Coast Donairs”. They serve a Halifax-style donair with sweet sauce. It’s not as much of a favour burst as donairs from down home, it’s much smaller & they use red onions not white…but it’s as close as I’m going to get here and I’ve gone back a couple of times so it can’t be that bad.

    Apparently there’s a pub on Queen St. East called The Thirsty Duck that serves Halifax donairs but I haven’t tried it yet. Based on the name of the pub, I wonder if they are Haligonians, so fingers crossed their donairs are authentic.

    Reply

  8. There used to be a place in Montreal called Donair Cite that had donairs. Went there quite often. The owners were from Sackville with a family member owning Peter’s Pizza. They went through some troubled times and closed. When they left, the recipes went to an employee who had worked there. It was brought to a place called “Café-Crêperie En Couleur”.

    You can find various sorts of donair related items on the menu. It’s good for a fix when you crave a taste from home.

    Reply

  9. Pingback: Groceries in The Core, Almonak, A Subway Closes * Halifax ReTales

  10. I very much enjoyed your work in the donair in Halifax. I’m a native Haligonian and I’ve enjoyed the donair ride. In the late to mid 70”s when I was 12/13 I remember my older brother taking me to “ Greek Donair” on spring garden road near South Park st. That place was always lined up and it was owned and operated by 2 or 3 Canadian born young women in their 20’s as I recall . Honestly haven’t tasted a donair as good as back then at that location. Jus sayin !

    Reply

    • I am putting together some pieces to the puzzle, and I think that this might be the donair shop that George Gamoulakos opened after he left Velo’s. It is listed in the public directories simply as “Donair” until 1980 when it is listed as “Greek Donair”. I wonder when the name changed on the awning and when the women took over the business?

      Reply

  11. There are places in Ontario where they make a donair true to the Halifax roots. There was a place in Oshawa but i don’t remember the name but most notably is i. Ottawa called Centertown pizza and donair and they advertise that they make authentic ” Halifax donair ” and let me tell you that is 1000% accurate. I spent a week up in Ottawa and i ordered from them so much ( twice a day everyday ) that they knew and refered to me by name. Donairs are really the only thing i miss about the Maritimes and it’s a shame that because i live in Montreal, I’m deprived.

    Reply

Post a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.