For most Canadians, April is simply the bridge between a long winter and the promise of summer. In Prince Edward Island, however, April has been beefing up its profile, bringing Islanders out of hibernation in droves with the promise of, well, burgers.
Entering its ninth year, PEI Burger Love has become one of the Island’s most highly anticipated food competitions of the year. The dearly held tradition has put the spotlight on P.E.I. beef and the importance of supporting the Island’s cattle producers.
Ten summers ago, Robbie and Melody Dover, partners in life and business, decided to make an adventure out of road-tripping around their home province by searching for the best burger. A 100 percent Island beef burger with inventive toppings created by chef Ilona Daniel of Stanhope Beach Resort was the unanimous winner. Before the trendy push to eat local, it was commonplace to see restaurants on the Island advertising P.E.I. oysters, mussels, lobster and potatoes, but the origin of their beef was rarely revealed. The Dovers could taste that difference in Daniel’s burger.
As the owners of Fresh Media, a local marketing agency, the couple saw the opportunity to develop a campaign celebrating P.E.I. beef and creative Island chefs. They partnered with Prince Edward Island Cattle Producers, a grassroots organization representing the Island’s 500 beef producers, and just like that, PEI Burger Love was born.
In 2011, the campaign’s first year, the couple convinced 14 restaurants to come on board, racking up 5,517 burger sales in one month. By 2018, Fresh Media was collaborating with 84 restaurants that sold over 180,000 PEI Burger Love burgers (not to be confused with regular menu burgers) in 30 days. To put that into context, the Island’s entire population is approximately 152,000, meaning more burgers were sold during the month than there are residents of P.E.I.
From Tignish to Souris, restaurants Island-wide have had to hire additional staff for the month of April and seasonal restaurants have opened their doors several weeks earlier than normal to participate.
The PEI Cattle Producers has also seen positive impacts from its partnership with the campaign. All restaurants must sign an agreement to use only P.E.I. beef from Island abattoirs in their Burger Love creations. Executive director Rinnie Bradley said the campaign has raised the profile of the cattle producers and helped showcase the quality of Island beef to both chefs and consumers.
Bradley suggests that a number of factors led to the beef’s distinct flavour profile, including the high-quality forage and the older age at which cows are processed. Bradley also noted that demand for Island beef locally and across the country is on the rise, and local grocers, including Sobeys, have responded by stocking more P.E.I. beef.
As for the burger lovers themselves, the competition has been the source of much excitement, research and planning among devoted fans and newbies. The big burger reveal doesn’t take place until the first morning of the campaign, leaving the plan-ahead folks wondering where to eat lunch on the first day. Some groups plan road trips and share burgers at each stop. One dedicated burger lover, Al Douglas, helps raise money for the P.E.I. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association with his annual burger bus tour on the first day of the campaign.
For its part, Fresh Media promotes “responsible burgering” and encourages folks to go online and rate the burgers they’ve tried. The burger that receives the highest averaged rating is crowned Most Loved Burger.
The array of ingredients, including in-house condiments, deep-fried accompaniments, waffle buns and myriad cheeses, is impressive. Some restaurants aim for the wow factor in terms of size, while others seek to impress with unusual flavour combinations and catchy burger titles that gain ground on social media.
As the Dovers look forward to their 10th anniversary in 2020, they’re thrilled to see the campaign continuing to grow and evolve. Each year, they’ve created new elements, such as a partnership with PEI Potato Growers to promote Burger Love Frydays, a Baby Bump contest for moms-to-be, and a burger recipe contest for amateurs.
In 2017, Fresh Media introduced the Give Back Burger fundraiser, giving participating restaurants the option of donating $1 for each burger sold to the United Way of Prince Edward Island. Over the past two years, $120,000 has been raised to support food security grant programs and initiatives.
The economic impact of PEI Burger Love was estimated to be more than $4 million in 2018 alone—quite impressive, considering it all began with an innocent road trip. It’s a true love story and worthy of your own Island burger tour.
You have the entire month of April to eat your way, tip to tip.
Be sure to visit peiburgerlove.ca for this year’s lowdown!
Shannon Courtney is former editor-in-chief and co-founder of Salty, Prince Edward Island’s comprehensive food and farm digest. Shannon completed her Masters of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University, focusing her thesis research on how local food systems both depend on and create social capital. The holistic-nutritionist-in-training has milked Jersey cows in Australia, almost overdosed on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and explored Vermont’s foodscape beyond Ben & Jerry’s.