A quarter century of serving customers in the Charlottetown Mall food court

The restaurant business can be a brutal one, and every milestone deserves celebration, from the first plate that ever gets put in front of a diner, to the big ones, like hitting 25 years in business. Big Burger is about to become one of those rare restaurants that make it for the long run.

“You get the same food 25 years ago as you do today,” Rita Jreij explained. “And people know us as well, the service that we offer. They come to get a smile, we know customers by name. We know customers’ orders by heart…and they love it.”

Rita knows the Big Burger business well. She was 14 when her father, Eddy Abu Rashad first opened up the gate on the small food kiosk in the Charlottetown Mall food court  (or Towers Mall as many still call it) in August 1994. 

She started on the cash, ringing up orders. 25 years later, she and her husband Charbel Jreij are now the owners of Big Burger, taking over the business from her father last May. He wanted to keep it in the family and Rita and Charbel’s skills were a natural fit.

Rita Jrej carries on the Big Burger tradition from her father
Photo credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

Abu Rashad was one of many Lebanese immigrants to PEI, who in the 1970s through today, helped shape the Island’s, and in particular Charlottetown’s, restaurant scene. Restaurants like Cedar’s Eatery, Town and Country, and The Seatreat popped up all over town, and he trained with his cousin at The Seatreat, learning the kitchen basics before deciding to open his own restaurant.

“It’s not easy to maintain a business for 25 years,” Charbel said, “especially on the Island.” 

“Especially without marketing,” Rita chimed in. “It was word of mouth.”

One of the challenges that Big Burger has faced over the years is its location. As a tenant of the Charlottetown Mall’s food court, the restaurant has no outside signage and are required to open during the mall hours only. Rent is also higher per square foot than in other more prominent and visible areas of the city. 

But they have met each of those challenges. When asked what has kept Big Burger in the mall, Rita quickly answered, “Our customers. And the food consistency.”

The Big Burger
Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Rita also attributes positivity to their success. “Everytime I hear someone say ‘it’s your mood goes into your food’, well, our mood here is always happy and caring and that goes into our food.”

From the beginning in 1994 to now, the menu has stayed relatively the same. Good old-fashioned burgers made with fresh local beef, fries, homemade gravy (from scratch, not a mix!), fresh tomatoes, onions, and lettuce, these are the keys to the success of Big Burger. 

For a time there were Lebanese options on the menu, but Rita and Charbel have brought it back to basics. “We tweaked it a little bit,” Charbel said. “We didn’t change a lot, because we wanted to keep it ‘Big Burger’. Real. We didn’t want to change that.”

There have been some updates, like an organic veggie burger and some new flavours added like a BBQ bacon and onion cheeseburger. 

“Sweet chili chicken, that’s a big seller too,” Rita said. “I just wanted to add a little bit of different…a little bit of Asian flavours, and the BBQ bacon, it’s so good.”

They proudly support Island businesses by buying fresh and local items for their menu, even if that means spending a little more money. “Everything’s fresh. Everything we cut every day is fresh, like tomatoes are fresh, the onions we do every day. We cut them and we grill them when a person orders them,” Rita explained. “Our meat comes in every day from MacPhee’s [Meats].”

As the new owners, Charbel and Rita’s backgrounds are ideal for taking Big Burger into the next 25 years. Rita spent over 15 years in the banking world, so has a great grasp of the financial aspects of the business, and having grown up behind the counter, she understands customer service and quality food. 

Charbel brings over 20 years of food and beverage experience with plenty of development expertise to the team, and they both have big plans for Big Burger.

“We are opening our second location,” Rita said. Big Burger will be part of the Founders’ Food Hall and Market, and their anticipation to get this new location up and running is palpable. 

“I’m hiring for that, we’re training for that. We’re just waiting for the green light.”

“We have the product. We have the history. We have the experience. We have all what it takes. Now is the time to take it outside the mall,” Charbel added.

They are also looking outside Charlottetown for expansion opportunities, projecting that Summerside could be their next market, and perhaps offering the Big Burger brand as a franchise.

That brand has been given a long overdue update. A new logo, new slogan, and a slow but steady approach in getting their social media presence established. They participated in Burger Love™ this year, and are focused on drawing people into the mall to try their food, recognizing that future growth is dependent on more than traditional word of mouth.

But before all that falls into place, they are planning a celebration for their silver anniversary. They’ll be running contests on social media throughout August and on August 22, they‘ve planned an afternoon party in the mall parking lot (look for the tent) to say thank you to all their loyal customers. 

“We have a lot of plans, we have tons of plans, but we’re like, ‘baby steps’,” Charbel explained. “You have 25 years of history, you want to maintain another 25 years. We want to keep that momentum going, and we want to grow it steadily but sure.”

About Cheryl Young

A “Jill of all trades” describes Cheryl to a T. From operating her own handyperson company, to selling luxury cars, to working as a film and TV crew member, her resume is diverse. But her dream as a kid was to be a journalist and she started down that path many years ago at CBC Charlottetown. Returning to her journalism roots, she’s excited to be editing Salty’s content and occasionally writing herself.

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