- »Burgers & Bracelets: The Story of Calen ‘Big Wheel’ McNeil
Burgers & Bracelets: The Story of Calen ‘Big Wheel’ McNeil
Poker is a cutthroat business. Those at the top of the game make a living off of exploiting weaker opponents, using their chips as weapons, and bullying the smaller stacks. They will bluff and check raise an adversary into oblivion with no qualm. Calen ‘Big Wheel’ McNeil is one of the best there is at employing these tactics. And does so with a smile on his face. But away from the table, he’s genuinely a nice guy with a big heart. It’s true, he has no problem kicking someone when they’re down when the cards are flying, but outside the confines of a poker room, he is working hard to do the exact opposite. He’s trying to lift people up.
The 49-year old, who lives in Victoria, British Columbia, after moving there in 1992 to attend college, has been playing poker since 2004. He was part of the poker boom, the so-called ‘Moneymaker Effect,’ and has successfully managed to turn his hobby into a very lucrative pastime. He’s always had a knack for the game. Business too.
Full Houses & Fine Dining
“I’ve been in the restaurant business since 1999,” he said, recalling the early days at Zambri’s, a highly-acclaimed Italian restaurant, which he co-owns with Peter and Jo Zambri. They’re a brother and sister combo who are like family to him. The three are very close. In fact, Jo is his ex-wife, and the two have maintained a healthy friendship and working relationship.
The positive reviews have been rolling in ever since. Zambri’s, once an obscure little eatery, has been named ‘Best Casual Italian Restaurant’ by Vancouver Magazine. While Eat magazine honored it with its ‘Chef of the Year’ award. So good, the Urban Peasant James Barber once called it the “nicest little Italian restaurant in BC, probably in Canada,” and has labeled the food as “terrific.”
Confidence breeds confidence. As his fine dining establishment took off, so too did McNeil’s poker win rate. Not only was he providing red wine with pasta primavera to happy customers at dinner, he was now starting to serve up ‘coolers’ to the poker world. Today, he continues to stir the pot on both fronts. An affable Canadian, McNeil is what you might call a ‘table captain,’ meaning he likes to push the action when he’s playing. The chatter too. And he’s not averse to putting all his chips at risk, if he thinks it’s the correct move.
McNeil has won more than $600,000 playing tournament poker. His largest score ($277,274) came at the 2013 World Series of Poker, as part of the infamous ‘Canadian Invasion,’ when Canadians stole the show by winning 10 WSOP bracelets in all. McNeil outlasted 1,013 other players to capture Event #20 (Omaha Split Eight or Better) for his first ever gold bracelet.
“The only thing that mattered was the bracelet, I didn’t care about the money. Any good sportsman, whether it’s hockey, baseball or basketball, cares about winning. I have a bunch of friends who have bracelets, my best friend in poker Dan Idema has won two of them, so the fact I’m part of poker history now is a pretty cool thing for me.”
It was no easy accomplishment for McNeil. The final table of that event was stacked with elite players. Including Todd Brunson, a two-time bracelet winner and the son of poker legend Doyle Brunson, Tony Ma, also a bracelet winner, Stephen Chidwick, an elite pro from the UK, and John Monette, a three-time WSOP champion who’s pocketed close to $4 million playing mixed games. McNeil had to first survive those sharks, then beat the experienced Can Kim Hua, who was making his third final table appearance at the World Series, heads-up for the title.
It was the culmination of a lot of hard work. McNeil figures he clocked “10,000 hours” playing poker before that magical moment. Incredibly, the following year, he almost repeated the feat by going back-to-back in the same event. He fell just short, finishing fourth out of 1,036 players for $79,608. Incidentally, Greg Raymer, the 2004 world champion, was also featured at that final table (7th).
Still chasing his second bracelet, McNeil will no doubt get more opportunities. He is consistently reaching the money stages. In 2019, he cashed four times at the WSOP. He had six cashes the year before. He is well versed in all poker disciplines, but admits Omaha is his favorite variant because it “suits” his game.
Big Wheel Burger
Another thing that suits McNeil’s game is his reading ability. He’s very perceptive, and his time in Las Vegas hasn’t just been about poker. Not only has he been sizing up his opponents, extracting their verbal and physical tells through close observation, but he’s been keeping a keen eye the culinary landscape as well. After a few summers there for poker, he began to notice a trend in the fast and casual restaurant market, with places like In-N-Out Burger, Five Guys and the Shake Shack.
“My nickname is Big Wheel, and I had visions of it being the perfect concept for a burger restaurant,” he said.
Those visions became reality. In 2011, McNeil and his partners opened their first Big Wheel Burger in Victoria, and have since opened three more. Most recently in Nanaimo. In the coming months, a fourth Big Wheel Burger will open its doors to the public in Courtenay.
“Our burgers are ground in-house every day using hormone-free, range-fed, AAA beef, and our products, when possible, are sourced locally. We pride ourselves in fast, friendly service. We’ve taken inspiration from the classic American cheeseburger and re-created it with quality, fresh ingredients. Essentially, we have gone back to the basics.”
Are there similarities between poker and business? Yes. They are very connected. In both ventures, you are always taking calculated risks and need to evaluate both your opportunities and threats quickly. Often times, you have to make big decisions with limited information. McNeil makes it look easy.
Why Burgers? They are a timeless product. Smart. They’re also tasty. And, they fit nicely with the company’s character-driven, community-minded attitude.
“I have always had the philosophy in business, ‘look to give back before you take.’ I always try to make sure my staff and customers are happy first, then I can go from there. It’s also a real positive thing to focus on community, because it aligns your business interests with those of people around you. If the community has an issue, I want my employees to be right there helping to resolve it.”
Bringing Real Change
McNeil and his colleagues have striven to create a classic burger joint experience that not only enhances staff and customers, but the environment as well. The Big Wheel Burger Community Foundation was created to focus on fundraising efforts meant to effect real change, and better people’s lives. Since its inception, the foundation has helped organizations like Victoria Hospice, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Mustard Seed and Hero Work. It also helps support social impact documentaries, like Us and Them, as part of an education and awareness program.
The last few months, during the Covid-19 worldwide pandemic, McNeil and his team have been busy doing what they do. Helping people through a rough time. Despite being impacted by the lock down, like many other businesses across the country, and forced to trim its workforce from 110 employees to the current 70, the foundation has pushed on relentlessly.
“Community was already a big part of our culture, so we had a big advantage. We were able to mobilize fundraising efforts quickly, to help the community, like nurses and front-line workers, and that was huge. It put us in great position to get back to doing what we do best, and that’s cook burgers.”
Back in April, the Foundation carried on with its good deeds by sponsoring a new initiative from the Food Eco District. It’s called My FED Farm, and for the past two months has been supplying families and laid-off workers with garden kits to help support their own food needs.
“We hope to get 500 backyard gardens started over the course of four months, that’s the goal,” he noted.
It’s an amazing goal, and a great accomplishment. Poker, business and community spirit? In poker parlance, you might call that an unbeatable hand – a helping hand.