Renfrew — On April 1, 1973, Bob “Odi” Audette had people wondering if he was playing a joke when he announced that at the age of 24 he was leaving his factory job to become the owner of a drive-thru-restaurant on the edge of Renfrew.
“I certainly got a few looks and a few friends just couldn’t believe I was leaving my job making corrugated containers at Abitibi in Pembroke to own and run a hamburger drive-thru in Renfrew,” the owner of Odi’s Kingburger told the Leader. “I am looking out this window and the view is just as amazing as it was 50 years ago when I bought this business. Back then this was the old Highway 17. It was a busy place and there was a little ski hill right over there on Pinnacle Hill.”
He credits Keith Saunders, the original owner of the Kingburger Drive-Thru locations in Pembroke, Renfrew, Cobden and Arnprior for giving him an opportunity to purchase the Renfrew location.
Mr. Audette had worked part-time at the Pembroke location before his full-time employment at Abitibi. Mr. Saunders opened the Renfrew location in late 1971 and after just 18 months, he decided to sell the location to the same young man who had been a part-time employee at his Pembroke location.
Taking over a business sometimes requires a seasoned entrepreneur to provide guidance and mentoring, and at the age of 24, Mr. Audette sought out a person with experience who was well-connected to help make the venture a success. His earliest supporter was the late Mack Wilson, one of Renfrew’s most successful land developers and a respected businessman.
“Mack was a big supporter of Odi’s and for years he was a fixture in our kitchen. He would just sit and watch in amazement as the early morning staffers and I did all the prep work for the day,” he said. “Mack just shook his head and always commented on how efficient we all were and the best thing he could do was just sit back and stay out of the way.”
This Saturday Mr. Audette will celebrate 50 years as the owner of the family-run landmark that has been a regular stop for several generations and out-of-town customers.
When asked why at first he was resistant to having his daughter, Robin (Hisko), make a big deal of his 50 years in business, he said it is just his nature to stay in the background.
“I am actually one who likes to stay out of the spotlight and let others talk about the business,” he said. “Then I realized Robin was right when she reminded me nothing is as important as our loyal customers, some who have been coming back every year since 1973. Without them we wouldn’t have survived this long, and they are why we come here every day to serve up our food.”
“We have a retired lawyer from Montreal who calls ahead to place his order and we all laugh when we find out it is ‘Montreal Ted’ who is coming by for his order,” Mr. Audette said.
Looking back over the last half century, Mr. Audette said he never imagined owning his own business, never mind the fact he would be working alongside his daughter for almost 20 of those 50 years.
“My dad is not just a dad or the founder and owner of Odi’s, but my dad is my best friend and every day I look forward to coming into work and seeing his smile,” Mrs. Hisko said. “We are both competitive when it comes to work and each day we try to be the first one in and we kind of rub it in for whoever shows up here after the other.”
Mr. Audette is now in his mid-70s, and while most of his friends or family have retired and can usually be found on the golf course or travelling around enjoying their retirement years, he can be found in the same spot every day.
“My dad is here every day around six o’clock when it is still dark and you will find him making homemade burgers,” Mrs. Hisko said. “From day one he has insisted on using local products and you won’t find any frozen pre-made patties here. That is one of the reasons we are still busy after all these years.”
Old Fashioned Respect
Mr. Audette can’t help but laugh as his daughter brings up the original menu board to compare the 1973 menu items and the cost of each item today. Aside from the incredibly low prices such as the 50-cent milkshake or the 95 cent Cheese Kingburger, which remains the top seller at Odi’s, it is the little things that customers look forward to.
“Along with using the same sauce recipe we started with in 1973, we keep it simple so folks are not spending time making a choice,” he said. “But one thing you must acknowledge is the devotion and care that all our staff have when they come in for their shift. I have always believed in treating every staff member with respect and treat them as if they were part of my family.”
He said he pays his staff a little more than minimum wage and does his best to accommodate anytime they might need time off.
“We have hundreds and hundreds of people who worked here over the years, and many of them are students who come back each summer to lend a hand,” he said. “They may have a school concert or basketball game or something else, but we value them and try our best to make a schedule work for everyone. We are so lucky to have been blessed with dedicated staff who do not call in last minute, or don’t bother to call in and just don’t show up for their shift.”
Both father and daughter agree it is the customers, whether locals or tourists, who have made the last 50 years just fly by. Mrs. Hisko said they see customers who came to eat a burger as a young child and then as adults with their own kids.
“We even have some grandparents who were here as a child themselves 50 years ago and they drive through with their own grandchildren,” Mr. Audete said.
Every classic eatery in a small town usually has a “schtick” or tradition that makes the business stand out. In the case of Odi’s Kingburger, it is the vintage blow horn speaker that people talk about. As old as the drive-thru itself, a customer usually hears a high crackling sound of static and a voice that sounds like it is coming from inside a tin can.
Family Big Part of Success
“My brother Nathan and I convinced my dad to replace the old sign with pop-in letters with an electronic sign and that was a big change for our business,” Mrs. Hisko said. “But people love ordering through our blowhorn and when they drive up for their burger or classic milkshake, they usually have a smile and mention the intercom system.”
She grew up in the restaurant and started work at the age of 14. She said she is lucky to be able to work alongside her dad every day.
“He was so well-known around town and everyone liked him so much, I thought he was famous when I was little,” she said. “This is always a place I wanted to be because I love everything about our town and our community. We have multiple generations that come back, and I don’t think people realize how wonderful that makes us feel.”
Mrs. Hisko said Odi’s has been a big supporter of local charities, including Angelman Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that causes children to function on as little as three hours sleep a day, every day. She and her husband, Kirk, along with her mom, Karen and Odi, have become well-educated spokespersons for research into the syndrome.
“Our daughter, Ever, was diagnosed with Angelman’s Syndrome and for nine years we have had the support of our community through Odi’s to help raise money for research. We have a collection jar at the window and just last week we donated $4,000 towards research and that money came from our customers,” she said.
50th Anniversary Celebrations
On April 1, residents can drop by the restaurant and fill out a ballot for several free draws (held every hour), with prizes including a 50-inch TV and several $50 gift certificates from local businesses. Additionally, a Kingburger and Pepsi will only cost $5 that day.
A colouring contest is currently running for children ages one to 12, with four $50 cash prizes to be given out.
On April 1st and 2nd, the BeaverTails will be onsite to sell a special Odi Cinnamon Bun flavour, and $1 from every sale of this unique product will be donated to the Angelman Syndrome Foundation.
The contest runs all week with the big draw for the 50-inch TV taking place on April 8.
When asked about his impression of the Odi celebration week, Mr. Audette smiled and said, “It will be a special week for sure. But for me, you will find me here at 6 o’clock every morning long after the party is over, and this is where I plan to be every morning. But I can’t promise it will be for another 50 years.”
Odi’s Kingburger is located at 564 Stewart Street (Highway 60) in west end Renfrew.