Canada 1973: Meet Me At Jigg’s

Across Canada and around the world, we all have a special spot that represents our hometowns or childhood neighbourhoods – a playground, coffee shop or other local attraction that just says “Home,” no matter how modest or unassuming that landmark may be.

In 1973, the first full calendar year of my life, the village of St. Peter’s, Nova Scotia saw the arrival of that special spot, which has introduced generations of locals and visitors to the joys of soft-serve ice cream, clams and chips, and my all-time favourite chicken sandwich.

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That place: Campbell’s Dairy Freeze, established by the husband-and-wife team of George and Esther Campbell less than a hundred metres away from the St. Peter’s Canal National Historic Site. Since George was also known as “Jiggs,” that nickname quickly stuck; I can’t recall a single person ever saying, “Let’s head down to the Dairy Freeze for a sundae” or “I’m feeling a mite peckish; off to Campbell’s we go.” It was always, “We’re going to Jiggs” or “Wanna go to Jiggs?” or, for me and my sister and dozens of other kids around eastern Richmond County in the ’70s and ’80s, “Can we PLEASE go to Jiggs? PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE?”

Since the place was so successful, very little changed, from the menu to the decor. The above photo was taken by Toronto Star feature writer Amy Dempsey during a 2007 visit to her native Richmond County and placed on a travel blog she was writing at the time. If you grew up in the county anytime over the past four decades, you might have had trouble figuring out the year that picture was taken if I hadn’t just identified it for you; that’s how basic and straightforward Campbell’s/Jiggs has been throughout that time.

Seriously, though, why mess with success? The hallmarks of Campbell’s/Jiggs – delicious burgers and fries, thick creamy shakes, incredible hard, soft and sundae-style ice cream, to say nothing of friendly service from familiar local faces – always brought us back. Jiggs and Esther Campbell and their modest little take-out by the canal’s swing bridge were part of our community. The first obituary I ever read in a newspaper was that of Jiggs Campbell when he passed away in 1985; to my 12-year-old mind and heart, it truly felt like a death in the family.

Esther soldiered on, however, running the business well into her nineties and preserving the menu items and flavours that had won us over for so many years. This included the famous “Jiggs Chickenburger,” excitedly introduced to me by my high-school friend Tanya (Adamsson) Ruppell in 1991 and, subsequently, a staple of dozens of Campbell’s/Jiggs visits (by myself and with family and friends) over the following quarter-century. With all due respect to other food-service providers around the Maritimes – including The Chickenburger, a staple in Bedford, Nova Scotia that now operates a satellite location at the Robert L. Stanfield International Airport – I’m sorry, folks: nothing beats a Jiggs Chickenburger.

(Left: Enjoying a Jiggs Chickenburger at my parents’ place shortly after the end of my 10-year high school reunion in 2000. Yes, it’s really that big, and that’s when you only order it with ketchup. Right: My sister-in-law Debora MacKenzie and her daughters, Rebecca and Jessica Howard, excitedly awaiting their Campbell’s/Jiggs orders during a visit to Nova Scotia in 2010. They were all living in the Belgian capital of Brussels at the time; I suspect there isn’t anything like Campbell’s/Jiggs in Brussels.)

How much has Jigg’s meant to me and my family over the years? It was the first place my wife Cathy and I stopped after our wedding reception, getting their delicious soft-serve vanilla cones in our suit and bridal gown en route to our honeymoon cabin. That took place in 2008, a year after Esther Campbell received the Jack Hartery Memorial Lifetime Achievement Award from the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce. 

Even though Esther passed away in 2011, the Campbells/Jiggs tradition lives on today. Two long-time business owners from my native L’Ardoise, Louis Boudreau and Blaire Martell, have run the place for the past five years, taking a major step forward when they demolished the original building in 2014 and rebuilt it as Jigg’s Take-Out over the following months, holding its grand re-opening in the spring of 2015.

Unlike the previous Campbell’s Dairy Freeze set-up, Jigg’s Take-Out now offers shaded seating overlooking the beautiful southern coast of Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lake, and its menu options now include a chance for you to pre-order lobster and have it cooked on-site. (It doesn’t hurt that Martell, who leases the building to Boudreau, is the owner of Lobsters ‘R’ Us, an incredible Cape Breton success story with customers around the world.)

Boudreau, who has built up an impressive catering and food-service legacy in southern Cape Breton, has taken other steps to punch up the Jigg’s menu. It also includes several milkshake flavours, cheesecake, an ice-cream mix known as the “Jigg’s Tornado,” and additions such as donairs,  sweet potato fries, the spicy Gator Burger (a new personal favourite) and Jalapeno Burger, and the Canal Burger, made with Thousand Island Dressing. You can even get gluten-free and peanut-free options if food allergies are an issue for you or your family.

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And, to answer the question I know you’re dying to ask: Yes, they kept the original Jiggs Chickenburger recipe. And yes, it still tastes as delicious and satisfying as it did on that life-changing evening back in 1991. Drop by when they re-open in April and see for yourself.

(Visit the Jigg’s Take-Out Facebook page in the meantime, at this link.)

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