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THUNDER BAY, Ontario — Carved in stone high above the door to the Hoito restaurant here is a motto in Latin: Labor Omnia Vincit — Work Conquers All.
Founded as a cooperative in 1918, the basement restaurant is a vestige of a period in Canadian history when radical labor unions urged general strikes as part of their campaign for economic and social revolution. It is also a symbol of the several waves of immigrants from Finland who flocked here to work in this paper-mill town, railway junction and port on Lake Superior.
But in some ways, it is food that has conquered all. Even in its heyday as a political hotbed, the place was best known as a destination for a solid meal. Today the Hoito is arguably Canada’s most famous pancake house, particularly beloved for its formidable Finnish pancakes.
“It’s kind of a flagship restaurant for the Finnish community,” said Jari Leinonen, a Finnish-language teacher who stopped in for lunch with friends after cross-country skiing at one of the five Nordic ski areas in this city of about 109,000.
While the Hoito has never left the basement of the Finnish Labour Temple, an imposing Edwardian pile, it has long been the hall’s most vital element. The building opened in 1910 as a joint venture of the New Attempt Temperance Society, a local Finnish group, and the Finnish branch of the Socialist Party of Canada. The party, said Michael Beaulieu, a labor historian at Lakehead University here, was effectively a front for the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary union better known as the Wobblies.
Though the Wobblies called for a new order in the hall upstairs, the Hoito was opened less for recruiting revolutionaries than to fill a need. Language barriers, discrimination in hiring and other factors meant that many of the city’s Finns ended up as lumberjacks in the seemingly infinite woods surrounding Thunder Bay, or Port Arthur and Fort William, as the former twin cities were known then. During downtimes and seasonal layoffs they would pour into town. As a cooperative, the Hoito offered its members cheap all-you-can-eat buffet meals.
“You could get a fair meal, but it’s also the place where you can make contacts, find work, find out which camp to go to and which camp to avoid,” Mr. Beaulieu said.
The restaurant’s ownership and fortunes inevitably became tangled up with radical Canadian labor politics. After the federal government banned the Wobblies as a World War I security measure in 1918, the hall’s ownership passed for a period to One Big Union, a similar Canadian labor movement. Later, a split in the group led communists to build their own, much less grand Finnish hall and restaurant next door, although that restaurant soon failed. From above a storefront across the street, the security service of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police kept tabs on both establishments, occasionally crossing over to arrest and deport Finnish firebrands.
Today, one of the few reminders of the Hoito’s socialist legacy is a hand-stitched Wobblies logo tucked into a corner of a small museum upstairs. The hall and the Hoito are both owned by the Finlandia Association of Thunder Bay, an ethnic club, but it is the restaurant’s profits that largely keep the building going.
Its customers are mainly a mixture of tourists and members of the Finnish community, most of them elderly. Several of the oldest go to the Hoito for all of their meals.
“Take fast food, cafeteria and your own kitchen table, and blend it all together,” said Beth Henderson, the restaurant’s union shop steward and a waitress whose 19 years at the Hoito have left her with an impressive knowledge of most customers’ names. “You won’t really find that anywhere.”
And outside Thunder Bay, you won’t find many places that serve the Hoito’s style of Finnish pancakes, which bear no resemblance to fluffy American-style pancakes. They are each the size of a dinner plate, heavy and dense. That denseness comes from a high concentration of eggs. The Hoito goes through about 32,000 eggs a month, most of them for pancakes.
The Finnish pancakes are also a novelty for Finnish tourists. Despite their name, the pancakes appear to be an all-Canadian creation of bush camp cooks. But they are usually not served with Canada’s other contribution to breakfast, maple syrup. There are no maple trees in the spruce and birch woods surrounding Thunder Bay. Instead, the Hoito offers sugary fruit toppings or artificial syrup.
“We could never get rid of the pancakes,” said Ron Harpelle, a university professor who volunteers as the Hoito’s president. “We sell more pancakes than anything else.”
Mr. Leinonen said the low price and vast size of the pancakes fit his budget and appetite when he was a university athlete in the early 1970s. “I used to eat here guaranteed once a day, sometimes twice a day back in those days,” he said after a pancake lunch. (A serving of four pancakes today costs $6 Canadian, about $4.85.)
Except for a few regular selections, traditional Finnish dishes are now limited to daily specials. The menu is dominated by conventional diner food like hot turkey sandwiches (albeit served with “Finnish style” beef gravy). But while the food may be served quickly, it favors fresh ingredients over frozen. Henry Vaananen, a real estate broker who began eating at the Hoito when he arrived from Finland in 1958, recommended karjalan piirakka, a small dense pie made from rye flour, with a filling of potatoes, or sometimes rice. “It’s beautiful,” he said as Ms. Henderson delivered a Finnish sausage lunch to his table. “You have to eat it with egg butter — boiled egg mixed with butter.”
In a nod to its collectivist past, the Hoito recently restored a few long communal tables of the sort Mr. Vannanen sat at almost 60 years ago. But its interior of birch veneer walls with blue wood trim is otherwise little changed from its last renovation about 40 years ago.
The steep cost of roof and electrical upgrades, and the addition of an elevator, made it appear earlier this year that the restaurant’s future was in jeopardy, just as its building received a plaque denoting its status as a national historic site. The sale of some unused real estate, a crowdfunding campaign and a new tenant for the hall have quelled the crisis for now.
But other restaurants and groups in Thunder Bay, including the Lappe Nordic Ski Club, long ago moved in on the Finnish pancake business.
“There’s lots of competition now in town for pancakes,” Mr. Harpelle said. “Honestly I can’t tell the difference. But people swear they can tell the difference between the Hoito pancakes and the other pancakes, and that’s what they show up for.”


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