Author Christine Cowley shares her interview with Suyrea Knapman - The Little Red Hen Restaurant

On June 25, 2020, a beloved Collingwood landmark, The Olde Red Hen Restaurant, suffered  $1M in damage as a result of fire. In 2008, author Christine Cowley sat down with the late Suyrea Knapman, whose parents bought The Little Red Hen Restaurant in 1955. Suyrea painted a vivid picture of Collingwood and The Little Red Hen Restaurant of long ago.

The Koury Family in Collingwood

Suyrea (Koury) Knapman, in conversation with Christine Cowley, October 2008.

My parents came up to Collingwood in 1955 and bought The Red Hen Restaurant. They had avery successful food business in Toronto, Almako Food Shop, where they sold ready-prepared and imported foods, fresh oysters and shrimp, homemade breads—everything fresh. We were sold out by 2:00 on Saturday afternoons. We had customers who came from New York! But my parents weren’t ready to retire yet. They wanted a summer business and then they were going to go to California for the winter. Well, as it turned out they came up to Collingwood and bought The Little Red Hen. I came up every weekend to help out. 

It was The Little Red Hen when they bought it and they kept the name. They ran it the way it
was for a very short time and then we had it done over in a stunning colour scheme: red, grey, dark grey, light grey and white. I got the idea from looking at a bird one day while I was sitting at Sunset Point—it might have been a tern. The designer had opposed me but he agreed in the end, it was really beautiful. The funny thing was, we saw a sample restaurant done in the very same colours a year or two later, in New York City.

Soon after they started at the restaurant, my mom phoned me at the office and said, “Can you come up for a couple of days?” My father was very ill. I had a very good job, but of course I said, “Certainly.” I ended up staying for seven months and they held my job in Toronto for me. But my mother really needed my help. I went back to Toronto, but I only stayed for about four months and then I moved to Collingwood permanently. 

The restaurant was busiest in the summer and we had a staff of thirty; I did the wage cards,
worked with the chef on the menus and then typed out the menus—on stencils back then.

Now you press a button and they just whip out, you know, but back then all we had was the Gestetner machine, one copy at a time.

We had a whole lot of farm girls working for us and sometimes they couldn’t get a ride down
because they lived way up on the mountain. So, I would jump in the car and go up and pick them up. They were so good—hard-working, their shoes were white and clean and they picked everything up so quickly, because they learned to help their folks. There was a washroom out in the back of the restaurant and if any of them needed to talk to me about anything, well, that was my office! All of the girls, anything they had on their minds or whatever I could do to help them, I’d say, “Come on back,” and we’d go into the “office” to talk. 

I met my husband, Ken, while I was working at the Red Hen. He was one of the salesmen who used to come around every two weeks from all the different companies. I didn’t know it, but he’d been coming in for a long time and the girls told me he always sat so he could watch me. At that time, in Collingwood, the kids didn’t have a lot to do in town. There was no formal club for the kids. They went to school and they had things they were involved in at school and they had what they called Teen Town. It was just three doors down from the restaurant, and the kids would come in at intermission; their favourite thing to order was a cherry coke and French fries.

I got to know so many kids and I never go anywhere today where I don’t meet some of them. They still call me Siddy because that’s what they first knew me by, and they never fail to mention the cherry coke and fries.

All the meals were made from scratch, everything: fresh vegetables were brought by the farmers to our back door, fresh eggs from a lady who kept chickens, and fresh corn on the cob. We used to put out a family dinner, a whole chicken on a platter and all the vegetables around it. We had a bakeshop with all my mother’s own recipes—chocolate cake, marble cake, fresh banana cake, fresh orange cake…and her butter tarts! We sold them for 10¢ each, can you imagine? And the pastry just melted in your mouth. When the fruit started to come in, we had fresh strawberry pie, apple, raspberry, everything fresh! Nothing canned, nothing pre-prepared. The bakeshop was where the Kentucky Fried Chicken was cooked; we were the first ones to have the franchise in this area for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

So many celebrities used to come in to the Red Hen, all kinds of them. The midget wrestlers used to come up, and some big names too, some of the best wrestlers. Louie Armstrong came up. They had a concert in the arena. We had Cloris Leachman. Sometimes they were just up on holiday, or they were working on something in Toronto. But we had a lot of people that came into the Red Hen who were family people, in the summertime especially, and then all the skiers in the wintertime. We seated 145 people and we were jammed for breakfast with all the skiers.

And after the hockey games, well, they all just flooded in. We stayed open later for the hockey game to finish and they would come in, have fries or a hot beef sandwich or hamburger. My mother and I ran that restaurant for about 13 years. My mother and dad, in the early years of their marriage, had a candy-making business and they made hand-dipped candies and chocolates.

When we had The Little Red Hen, at Christmastime we used to invite some special customers—a lot of people who were alone and especially at Christmas, that can be difficult. We sent them invitations to come to dinner as our guests. We just wanted them to have a nice Christmas dinner. We brought in a volunteer staff of maybe two people and we’d cook turkey and my mother would make homemade chocolates and decorate them; she was very artistic, and they might be decorated with a bunch of violets or something like that. Ken and my mother and I worked ’til 4 in the morning doing the chocolates. But it was a fun thing. My mother made beautiful Christmas cakes for these guests and they were just a work of art.

We were strictly a family restaurant and liquor wasn’t in the picture then anyway. The only one in town who had any liquor to sell was the taxi driver, who was also the roving bootlegger. He always had a bottle for anyone who asked. It used to be quite a town!

I tell you there were only six policemen in town and I’d send the girls home in a taxi, but the taxis never ran past midnight. So, the police used to come in through the back door and we’d always do a sandwich for them—a western or a hot beef. And the sergeant said to me, “If you ever get stuck, Siddy, give us a call and we’ll run you home in the cruiser.” So, they often drove me home and they’d sit there and wait ’til they made sure I got into the house alright. Well, one time, I needed a ride home and I called the sergeant and he came by with his partner. But just when I got in the cruiser, they got a call and they had to respond straightaway. The sergeant said, “Oh boy!” ’cause they’re not supposed to do that—take passengers, but he said, “Siddy, quick put my hat on.” I was sitting in the back seat and he threw his hat back to me and so there I was, sitting in the back of the cruiser with this policeman’s hat on. I’ve never forgotten it.

12 Jul 2020

By Christine Cowley