“We hear about people driving across the country to visit Halifax and one of the things on their list is to try the donair.”
– Norman Nahas
The most famous dish in Halifax is an unlikely front-runner in a maritime city. The donair is a re-imagined Gyro—born in the 1970s—from the mind of cook Peter Gamoulakos, a Greek immigrant. Today, the King of Donair is still serving up one-of-a-kind experiences worth the wait. The chain of restaurants is dominating the East Coast and slowly expanding out West. The King of Donair was the first of its kind in Canada when it opened doors in 1973 in Halifax on Quinpool Road, and the original location is still operating. With a recipe that has taken the award for best donair over 16 consecutive years, the King of Donair is no longer allowed to compete.
Sticking to the same recipe that pioneered what is now the official food of Halifax, vice-president of the King of Donair, Norman Nahas is looking westward. With a sensationally popular pop-up in Calgary, the King of Donair had people lining up for over five hours and around city blocks just to try a taste of the East Coast. “People were lined up before we even landed,” said Nahas. “We were almost shut down by the fire department because people were blocking exits.” The crew raised close to $5,000 for charity within a handful of hours.
For Haligonians, there’s a feverish pride surrounding the Halifax donair; seeing it paired with lettuce, or eaten with ketchup, is close to sacrilege for most. At its purest, the donair is a pita wrapped around tomato, onion and donair meat, covered in the sweet donair sauce crafted by Gamoulakos back in the 1970s. The spicy meat and sweet sauce mix together for a taste experience that Nahas loves to serve up.
While locals still haven’t had their fill, Nahas is looking as far as British Columbia to open up new locations and bring this taste of the East to newcomers. “We have a bunch of great franchisees lined up and we’re looking for others in key cities across the country.” With a lot of demand in Alberta, Nahas is looking to be the supplier of donair.
It’ll be some time until Ontario and Quebec see the King of Donair moving in. “You need to have all your ducks in a row before you get in that market,” he says, feeling that they need more brand recognition in those areas. Expansion in Nova Scotia is still happening; the King of Donair has recently secured a vendor space in the Scotiabank Centre akin to Toronto’s Rogers Centre. The rest of the East Coast is a burgeoning market. With foodies from New Brunswick, PEI and Newfoundland asking for a local chain, Nahas is looking in key areas for people to represent the brand.
Celebrity appearances are more common than one might think at the landmark restaurant. The King of Donair has served the Trailer Park Boys, comedian Jim Gaffigan, UFC fighter Elias Theodorou and many more. The store was used as a set during an episode of the Trailer Park Boys—a quick browse through their Instagram and Twitter accounts reveals all the love for this now famous food.
Halifax is unique as the only city in Canada that has an official food—the mighty donair. “You would think Montreal would have poutine or the smoked meat sandwich,” said Nahas. “But this is actually voted in by the politicians.” It’s a move that benefits all of Nova Scotia, especially within the tourism sector. It’s a big pull for the maritime province. “We hear about people driving across the country to visit Halifax and one of the things on their list is to try the donair,” said Nahas. Guests from as far away as BC are a common occurrence.
Nahas attributes some of his success to the culture that has been grown up around the Halifax donair. “It’s not just about filling a void in your stomach,” he says. “Those that have had donair before, it’ll bring them back to a memorable story.” Selling the idea of an authentic donair experience and consistently meeting guests’ expectations—this is how the King of Donair has been doing it right for over 40 years.