A North York institution for nearly 40 years, The Belly Buster Submarines has finally surfaced in downtown Toronto.
Anyone who grew up in North York within a 10-mile radius of The Belly Buster Submarines has had a memorable Saturday night there. Well, not really Saturday night—more like 3 o’clock on Sunday morning. And not exactly memorable—more like captured in a series of garbled texts and unintelligible voicemails. Since 1974, this little sub shop on Yonge Street has been catering to nearby construction workers, residents, and, yes, the young and inebriated. In fact, across the back walls, there are faded photographs of some of those customers, who will rhapsodize about the Super Stack sub of ham, salami, and turkey, the faux-wood booths that haven’t changed since it opened, and the melodic ding of the microwave nuking crispy bacon for a special triple-bacon sandwich request.
That’s what owner Chris Passilidis is hoping to recreate with his second Belly Buster location, which lands squarely downtown (and which, he’s hoping, is the first in a line of franchises). For this venture, Passilidis brought on new partners Michael Kimel and twin brothers Jian and Page Magen. A website was built; Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts were created; merch has gone up for sale; and press releases made the rounds. After four decades, Belly Buster is trying to go from cult favourite to mainstream success.
“[Page and I] started bringing Belly Buster to parties and catering events about four years ago, but I’ve been coming here for the past 20 years,” says Jian, 34, in the back booth of the North York spot as customers continue to trickle in after the lunch rush. “I asked Chris why there was only one location. When he said he tried to expand earlier but it didn’t work out, I felt like we needed to earn his trust and give it a shot.”
So the brothers, who own Magen Boys Entertainment event-production company, teamed with Kimel (who helped them open a few night clubs on King West) and sat down with Passilidis to map out a plan. Passilidis, Belly Buster’s owner since 2004, thought the best approach would be to first target university towns like London and Guelph. The brothers instead wanted to start somewhere within reach, like downtown, where many of the customers who grew up with the shop are now living and working as adults.
Downtown won, and everyone agreed that it was crucial to preserve the shop’s iconic logo and red-and-yellow colour scheme, which reminded Jian of Hulkmania heydays. “Why would I want to tamper with a tried and tested product?” he says. “We’re just using our skills in business, marketing, and social media to continue the growth.” The brothers say they’ve received other offers to revive similarly nostalgic brands, but they’re focused on this for now.
Some devotees claim what makes a Belly Buster sub different is the finely shredded iceberg lettuce that adds a delicate crunch; others argue it’s the soft bread from Toronto Bread Company; and many connoisseurs believe the key is that the meats are piled slightly past the ends of the sandwich, ensuring the last bite won’t just be bread. Fear not, fans: The subs are the same at the new shop, right down to the delicious microwaved bacon. “That was the traditional way it was done, and we just maintained it,” says Passilidis.
Sure, the King West location is bound to be a little more modern than its predecessor. The paint is brighter, there’s a Twitter handle under the menu, an iPad replaces the register, and the wall of customer photographs is weeks old, rather than decades. But at lunch, the line still snakes out the door, with customers waiting for the Belly Buster sub, a special that’s been on the menu since the restaurant’s inception: thin, salty deli meats (roast beef and salami) smothered in mushrooms and hot peppers and sandwiched between soft bread ($7.85). The Bacon Combo (ham, turkey, bacon, $7.65) is still stacked high and tastes extra good with mustard, mayo, and sub sauce (a basic but zesty combination of vinegar, oil, and spices). And on weekends, vaguely coherent club crawlers still roll in at 3 a.m.
“Basically, everything has to stay the same,” says Passilidis. “We got to keep what people experienced over the years.”
The Belly Buster Submarines, 389 King St. W., 647-748-1588.