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Northern Canadian eatery provides unusual atmosphere

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YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories - Two unsuspecting diners take only a few steps into the crowded restaurant when from behind the bar the chef blurts out, "Do you have any reservations?"

Sheepishly amidst the confusion and the noise of the packed establishment they nod their heads, a movement that was somehow noticed by the waitress out of the corner of her eye as she carried plates of food to another table.

"Good thing they called," she blurted back with her thick German accent to the cook. "Or I'd have thrown them out!"

What would pass for a significant breach of etiquette among almost every other restaurant on the continent is an accepted style of communication between staff and the customers at the rustic Bullocks' Bistro in Yellowknife. When guests finally do find room to sit among the tightly congested confines of this heritage building in the city's Old Town, ultimately they're expected to almost serve themselves, another unusual custom.

Bullocks', now in its 11th year of operation, has established itself as not only the spot in the Northwest Territories capital to dine upon local freshwater fish caught from the nearby Great Slave Lake, but the attitude and t?te-?-t?te between staff and diners has a particular charm that might only occur in this isolated northern city of 18,000. The restaurant has self-proclaimed this service as "frontier style" and when the action gets hot and heavy, patrons might be expected to work for their meal.

"Would you mind holding this plate," waitress Elke Richter says to an Australian whose hands are already full with cutlery for his party of eight. "Oh that's yours, you can start eating."

Later when that party left, those eight people made a conga line to the dishwashing area to deposit their plates.

Away from the mayhem that's a frequent occurrence during the summer season and weekends, upstairs the owner quietly performs the tedious but vital chores that keep the place hopping. Sam Bullock is the only one who prepares the fish among the other staff including wife Renata, who runs the kitchen, and three others.

Before Bullocks', Sam was studying to become a biologist although those plans have long dissipated since meeting Renata, a trained chef with aspirations of opening a restaurant. Over time, Sam has earned a reputation of being skilled with the blade in lieu of previous training in the art of food preparation.

"I've had no instructional training other than being born and raised in a Native camp along the Mackenzie River," Sam said about his Gwich'in background.

He'll gladly admit there's no glory in the business end of operating a restaurant, especially when he's laboring over his cutting board at least an hour a day preparing the fish that's eagerly awaited by a steady stream of customers. However, Sam quickly points out there's a greater reward for being a hands-on manager which includes maintaining quality control that ensures customer satisfaction.

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What's on the menu could be described as traditional Aboriginal fare of the north, although Bullocks' doesn't advertise it as such. Bullocks' predominantly serves local fish, the only imported product is the arctic char that's flash frozen and airlifted daily from the Inuit community of Cambridge Bay above the 70th parallel. For beef lovers, caribou and bison diversify the choices and occasionally muskox is served.

If Bullocks' lacks for hand-and-foot service, it makes up for it with food quality and quantity. In addition to a healthy fillet of fish or cut of steak, salad, fries and bread compliment the plates that shouldn't leave customers hungry. Besides, there's always the chance to work off your meal before too long. As the servers will bark out, treat this place like your own kitchen: if you want something, get off your bottom and get it yourself. Most of the clientele love this relaxed atmosphere.

"Ninety-nine percent think it's a big joke (and laugh) to go up and get their own coffee or drinks. Sometimes, the customers will even serve the food when the waitresses are busy," Sam shared about how Bullocks' is received.

Leaving the customers to cater to most of their own needs is also a necessity because there are only two staff members on the floor. Often looking after 30 - 40 patrons during a dinner shift, the one cook and one server also share food preparation, dishwashing and cashier duties.

"The way I would describe a day like this is like trying to hold back a waterfall with your teeth," quipped Jeremy Findlay, the other chef besides Renata.

So, is this description of "frontier style" a euphemism for overworked and under-appreciated staff? Both the owners and their staff vehemently say no.

Espousing his personal beliefs about how a store should be run, Sam rejects the common Western practice of squeezing every penny to get the most profit. Instead he's adopted the virtues of the Eastern philosophy towards business that rewards employees, not shareholders or owners.

"You provide the safe and good working conditions in addition to respect and dignity. The employer works for the employee and when it comes down to it they'll work their shirt off their backs," Sam said. Bullocks' offers annual raises and bonuses, incentives that are rare for non-management workers in the North American food industry.

But it isn't money that keeps the workers happy or, more importantly, staying at the restaurant. Bullocks' boasts a low turnover rate, stability that's also unusual in the trade. Findlay, or Fin to the regulars, was the last hire three years ago and notes with the economic boom in Yellowknife where jobs are plentiful he could work elsewhere without difficulty but it's the relaxed atmosphere that keeps him rooted.

"It isn't just the money because I can make more working at the (mining) camps but it's also how I'm treated," he said.

Despite how the place becomes a pressure cooker for the staff once the evening rolls around, there's no denying the fun and the frivolity associated with Bullocks'. After the seats are filled to capacity and with only enough room on the grill for eight plates at once, guests are advised to read the sticker when they enter the establishment: "Always late but worth the wait."