A Dusty Fast-Food Costume Sets Off a Very Canadian Bidding War

Josh Robinson, who grew up outside Halifax, Nova Scotia, can remember eating his first donair when he was around 7 years old, roughly two decades after the sandwich, composed of spiced, spit-roasted meat topped with a sweet sauce and wrapped in pita bread, first emerged as a regional delicacy.

“There’s nothing like it, there really isn’t,” he said.

Mr. Robinson, 35, is among dozens of people who have placed bids on an adult-size donair costume that is being auctioned off by the provincial government of Alberta in what has become an unlikely demonstration of the Halifax-born street food’s growing popularity across Canada.

Bidding for the costume opened on July 14 at 50 Canadian dollars, or about $38. By Wednesday, bidders had pushed the price to just over 16,000 Canadian dollars, or roughly $12,000, with weeks to go before the online auction ends on Aug. 14.

Mr. Robinson, a co-founder and owner of Blowers and Grafton, a chain of restaurants with six locations in Alberta that specializes in “authentic Halifax street food,” said he was willing to pay that much, or more, for the suit.

“It’s something we’ve actually talked about, sometimes jokingly,” Mr. Robinson said of having a donair costume for his restaurants, whose menu offerings include donair nachos, a donair quesadilla, donair poutine and a donair pizza — along with, of course, the “O.G. Halifax donair.” There are “a million different things” he could imagine doing with the suit, he said, including wearing it himself.

Mr. Robinson said that he and his business partners found the auction puzzling but also absurdly hilarious, and began bidding on the costume as soon as they heard about it. “We just had to have it,” he said.

The Alberta government said the costume was commissioned in 2015 for a public service video warning people against driving under the influence of cannabis. The idea was to have a “Mr. Donair” talk someone with the munchies out of getting behind the wheel to get a late-night snack, officials said.

After the costume was made, however, the province took the campaign in a different direction and the donair suit was never used. The auction listing says it’s dusty but otherwise in excellent condition.

As the price of the costume climbed into the thousands of dollars, Dale Nally, a minister in the provincial government, said that commissioning the suit “turned out to be a great investment for the government of Alberta.”

Mr. Nally oversees a department that is responsible for selling surplus government supplies, which he said usually means office furniture and sometimes vehicles. “We’ve gotten some strange things in over the years, but the donair costume has been the one that captivated the most attention,” he said, adding that the government’s surplus sales website was “not used to this volume.”

The site has crashed at least once under the weight of unusually high traffic, Mr. Nally said, adding that at one point, around 175,000 people were looking at the auction page.

As the attention suggests, donairs are a beloved tradition in Canada, and most notably in Nova Scotia. King of Donair popularized the dish at its original location in Halifax in 1973, according to Nicholas Nahas, who is now the owner. (Mr. Nahas has also bid on the donair costume. It could be used for advertising, he said.)

The donair, a uniquely Canadian take on the Greek gyro or the Turkish doner kebab, is the creation of King of Donair’s founder, Peter Gamoulakos. A Greek immigrant, he had a hard time selling gyros at his pizza restaurant before he made some changes to suit the Canadian palate.

Mr. Gamoulakos traded the lamb for thinly sliced beef and the thicker Greek-style pita for a slimmer one. Instead of tzatziki, the notoriously messy sandwich is topped with Mr. Gamoulakos’s signature donair sauce, made from condensed milk, vinegar and garlic.

In 2015, the Halifax Regional Council declared the donair Halifax’s official food, in part out of fear that another province would try to lay claim to its origin. The donair, the council said, was an iconic and unique food that warranted special status. That status, Mr. Nahas explained, broke the stigma of the donair as late-night food for drunks and recast it as something that can be enjoyed by anyone at all hours of the day.

As the donair has been embraced beyond Canada’s Maritimes, however, there is one element that divides the coasts: lettuce.

At some point, as the recipe made its way westward across Canada from Nova Scotia, lettuce became a standard ingredient in the western provinces. Mr. Nally, acting in his official capacity as a public official in Alberta, said a donair must have lettuce to be “an actual donair.” And because the costume was made in the west, it is topped with lettuce.

Mr. Robinson, who lives and works in Alberta but prides himself on his Haligonian authenticity, vowed to remove the costume’s lettuce.

“In Halifax, that’s sacrilegious,” he said. “That lettuce has to take a hike.”

Mr. Nahas of King of Donair agreed that the lettuce has to go and said he has consulted a vendor about removing it if he wins the auction.

“We don’t really have a limit on what we’re willing to spend,” he said. “We’re not done bidding.”

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