Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Lonely Boy

For the second year in a row, I've devoted the entire month of November to blog posts about Big Boy, and I plan on doing so every November for as long as I see fit to keep this blog regularly updated. My reasoning for making November Big Boy Month is the result of Big Boy's expansion strategy which involved selling regional franchises to operators across the country, each of whom added their own name and their own spin to the Big Boy brand. The gradual dissolution of this chain of chains and the decline of the individual regional Big Boy sub-chains makes for a deep well of broken chain stories and experiences to which I can return for many Novembers to come. The discussion of the little differences between different Big Boy operators also serve to break up the monotony of discussing a single brand at length. Menus, logos, and even the Big Boy mascot and burger all have minor variations tied to different regional franchisees, and while most of the variations are insignificant, there are still a few oddities kicking around.

Two completely separate corporate entities use the Big Boy name today. Cincinnati-based Frisch's operates all the Big Boy restaurants in Kentucky, Indiana, and all but two in Ohio, while the Warren, Michigan-based Big Boy Restaurants International, formerly Elias Brothers Big Boy, operates primarily in Michigan, and weirdly also Japan, plus five Bob's Big Boy locations in Southern California, two Big Boys in the Cleveland Ohio area, and a single location in Bismarck, North Dakota. After learning about that single North Dakota location, operating three states away from the next closest Big Boy, I couldn't get it out of my head. Not only was it the only operating Big Boy in the vast Big Boy-less dessert between the Frisch's Big Boys in Indiana and the Bob's Big Boys in California, it was likely the most unique Big Boy in existence, maybe ever. 

Harley McDowell opened the Big Boy Drive-Inn in Bismarck in 1954, using the name without the authorization of Wian Enterprises, then parent company of Big Boy. (Harley McDowell's cousin Cleo McDowell of Queens, New York pulled a similar stunt operating a bootleg McDonald's in the late '80s, shortly before his daughter married Prince Akeem of Zamunda, but that's another story.) Harley McDowell's plagiarism resulted in a trademark infringement suit brought by Wian Enterprises, the outcome of which was, for some reason, McDowell becoming an official Big Boy franchisee, changing the name of his restaurant to McDowell's Big Boy, which against all odds, and in the face of the demise of countless other Big Boy operators, is still in business today, under control of Big Boy Restaurants International, and these days going by the name of Bismarck Big Boy. 

This Big Boy stands guard by the drive thru lane. 

Stranger still, the Bismarck Big Boy, unlike every other extant Big Boy location I know of, has no indoor seating. Service is through a drive thru pickup window only, and the menu has items that you'll find at few other operating Big Boys including fried chicken and pizza burgers. Upon learning all of this I knew it was only a matter of time until I would have no choice but to visit this isolated oddity in the middle of a mostly empty state no one ever thinks about. It was a few weeks ago, when I could no longer resist the call of the world's strangest Big Boy, and took off across the Upper Midwest, making stops at a bootleg Zantigo and a Maid Rite on the way. I found my way to Bismarck on a Saturday afternoon, and headed straight to Big Boy for an early dinner. 

The owners of the Bismarck Big Boy have invested in a trio of order speaker/monitors to keep things running smoothly 

As an early adopter of drive thru service, the entrance to the Bismarck Big Boy's drive thru lane is unconventional and clumsy. I approached the restaurant from the east and found that I had to make a U-turn across three lanes of traffic to enter the drive thru, which connected directly to the main road. It was a more aggressive maneuver than I was used to making for a burger and fries, but one I made nonetheless. It was early in the day, and the dinner rush hadn't hit yet, but I could tell the Bismarck Big Boy was set up for maximum capacity, considering the drive thru had three order speakers, presumably each of which would operate simultaneously to process an three orders at once during peak times. I studied the menu board ahead of me, which seemed impossibly tall. I wanted to sample both the strange menu items as well as the classic Big Boy, and with that in mind, I ordered up a fried chicken breast with gravy and fries, a pizza burger, and a Big Boy, and proceeded toward the triangular canopy that jutted over the drive thru window from the flat roof of the little stone building that housed the kitchen. The short line of cars ahead of me moved quickly, and the employee in the single drive-thru window handed me my order as soon as my payment was processed. I drove onward no more than 50 feet where I found a few parking spots and picnic tables set up in a small park-like area immediately adjacent to the restaurant. 

Big Boy picnic

Pizza burger exterior...

...and cross section. Ignore my ugly thumb. 

It was early enough in the fall that I could comfortably enjoy an outdoor meal in the heart of the 701 area code, so I parked and selected a picnic table upon which I unloaded the plastic bag containing my order. The pizza burger captured my curiosity first. The single two ounce patty topped with american cheese and slightly spicy marinara sauce was nestled between two slices of white bread which had been grilled in a sandwich press. It was exactly as tasty in practice as those ingredients sound on paper. I would have preferred mozzarella cheese, but all in all, it wasn't bad. 

Good gravy!

I continued the parade of Big Boy oddities with the chicken. Various regional Big Boy chains have offered fried chicken off and on over the years. Some Big Boy franchisees also owed KFC franchises and sold KFC chicken in their stores in the early days of the KFC brand. The now-defunct Manners Big Boy in the Cleveland area sold Chicken in the Rough, another franchised fried chicken recipe. As an effort to stomp out the outside franchises, Big Boy offered Country Cousin's Chicken, its own brand of fried chicken to its franchisees, but to my knowledge, no Big Boy locations use the Country Cousins Chicken name today. Bismarck Big Boy seems to be the only restaurant using the Big Boy name outside of California that still serves a bone-in fried chicken product. I found the chicken itself to be nicely cooked and reasonably fresh if a little under-seasoned, but a quick dip in the gravy really brought each bite to life. The thick chicken gravy was nicely seasoned to compensate for the lack of seasoning on the chicken, and its peppery flavor served to enhance the flavor of the chicken. After the chicken was gone, I found myself using the gravy on my fries, which were thinner and much crisper, which is to say, objectively better than Michigan Big Boy fries.

Big Boy, Dakota style. 

The sauce had a paler color and milder flavor than on its Michigan counterparts. That thumb isn't getting any better looking.   

The Big Boy itself bore a strong resemblance to its Michigan counterpart with its three piece sesame seed bun, shredded lettuce, single slice of American cheese, and Thousand Island style sauce. The flavor of that sauce was a bit milder, pickley, and dare I say, Big Mac-like than the Thousand Island used at Michigan Big Boy, almost as if their sauce comes from a different supplier, which when you think about it, it's likely to. I also imagine very few people notice given the restaurant's remote location within the Big Boy chain. Regardless, I found it to be a perfectly acceptable burger. After all, Big Boy sauce varies much more wildly than this. Frisch's uses tartar sauce, while Bob's uses a blend of ketchup and relish. Another curiosity on the menu in Bismarck that I didn't get to try is a junior Big Boy with a single patty, which like the chicken and pizza burger, I've never encountered at any other Big Boy. 

The view from the drive thru. I had my butt with me, but no one seemed to mind. 

The Bismarck Big Boy was the turnaround point of my four day 2500 mile roadtrip, and despite its grueling pace, it was a trip I'm glad I made. I had initially planned a trip to California to eat at one or a few of Bob's Big Boy locations for Big Boy month this year, but for a variety of reasons that trip didn't happen. I thought this trip to North Dakota would be the next best thing to a visit to Bob's, the original Big Boy chain, but in retrospect, I'm glad I visited Bismarck instead of Burbank. With its indoor dining, and multiple locations with consistent menus, Bob's Big Boy is sure to lack the charming weirdness of the Bismarck Big Boy born out of plagiarism and litigation. Everything about its existence feels like a fluke, from the lawsuit that inexplicably turned into a franchise agreement to its 65 years of continuous existence serving the literal dozens of residents of The Flickertail State, despite the Big Boy brand having no presence anywhere remotely nearby and the restaurant itself having no indoor seating in a state known for its harsh winters. Weirder still, according to their Facebook page, the Bismarck Big Boy is now offering a mushroom Swiss burger on a Big Boy bun. If they still have it next fall, I may be crazy enough to come back and try it, and you should too. 

Raxgiving is so close I can taste it. If you'll be anywhere near Harlan, Kentucky on November 29th, consider joining me at Rax for a meal and informal broken chain conversation. 

Friday, November 8, 2019

Me and the Boys

I've spent the past 12 months feeling more than a little bit guilty about my blog post about the meal I had at the Port Clinton, Ohio Frisch's Big Boy last November. While everything I wrote about my experience was true, I should have made efforts to document an endangered brand rather than to criticize it, but the allure of being an amateur restaurant critic rather than an amateur historian captured my attention as it does all too often. I have a lot of affection for the Big Boy brand in general, and Frisch's in particular, and the more I thought about it, the more unfair it seemed that I visited only one Frisch's during Big Boy Month last year. Even worse, it was a franchised Frisch's in Northern Ohio, the edge of the chain's operating territory, hardly the best representative of the chain's 118 mostly company-owned locations. I picked this far-flung, oddball franchisee based solely on it's proximity to my Metro Detroit home, and the fact that its next door neighbor was Lake Erie. Needless to say, I could have made greater efforts to curate my Frisch's Big Boy experience, and ensure it was a more positive one.

1990s Frisch's print ad (courtesy of The Poncherello Collection)

This year, I intend to right that wrong, and in observance of the second annual Broken Chains Big Boy Month, I spent my entire weekend road tripping to four (arguably five) carefully selected Frisch's Big Boy locations in an effort to both experience and show a more complete view of the current state of the Frisch's brand, while taking in occasional glimpses of its history.

The approximate route of my Frisch's Big Boy trip (Courtesy of The Poncherello Collection)

Pre-Big Boy Frisch's matchbook showing the original two locations, (courtesy of The Poncherello Collection)

Cincinnati restaurateur David Frisch became the first franchisee of Bob Wian's Big Boy system in 1946, after Wian offered him a franchise for a fee of one dollar per year for a territory including Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and Florida. The low cost of the franchise was part of Wian's strategy to grow his brand rapidly and obtain a national trademark. Frisch's family would remain in control of the chain within a chain until 2015. After weathering storms that all but destroyed the Big Boy brand outside of Frisch's territory, becoming a separate corporate entity from the company that controlled the Michigan Big Boys and California Bob's Big Boys, and losing the Florida territory entirely, David Frisch's grandchildren sold the company to NRD Capital, an Atlanta-based private equity firm.

I grew up eating at Frisch's in Kentucky fairly regularly, and was more than a little bit cranky about the ownership change, and took out those frustrations, perhaps unfairly, on the Port Clinton Frisch's last year. Since then, the chain has made some encouraging moves, including rolling out a line of new, Big Boy-inspired burgers that offer new interpretations of Frisch's original interpretation of the Big Boy, which itself differed in several ways from Bob Wian's original Big Boy burger. Don't worry, purists, the original tartar sauce topped Frisch's Big Boy is still on the menu, but it gained some new siblings this year. I set out to try them all on my multi stop journey.

Meal #1
Location: Frisch's Big Boy 16 Weller Drive, Tipp City, Ohio.
Order: Farmhouse Boy platter with onion rings and coleslaw, Diet Coke

Typical '80s-'90s built Frisch's

Admittedly, I chose this location because it was near I-75 and on the way to Cincinnati. I did however choose the Tipp City Frisch's over its counterpart up the road in Troy because I'd had one poor experience too many at the Troy Frisch's. I was seated right away on a Friday evening, and half the salad bar was running in hot food mode, keeping a modest buffet of seafood and sides warm. Servers could be heard explaining to anyone ordering the salad bar that they could only eat from the cold side. A surprising number of people needed this explained to them repeatedly. If I'm being completely honest, the buffet looked questionable at best. It made me feel thankful that I had planned on ordering a burger.

Farmhouse Boy platter 

The Farmhouse Boy is what I ordered. It's an original Frisch's Big Boy to which a fried egg and a few strips of bacon has been added. A frequent criticism of the original sized Big Boy is that its two eighth pound patties are insufficient to fill its three-piece bun and make for a flavor profile that lacks sufficient beefiness to please the modern burger connoisseur, and reminds the eater of the Big Boy's depression-era origins. The Super Big Boy, essentially the same burger with quarter pound patties has been a menu for decades serving as the sole response to the criticism, until recently when Frisch's corporate overlords sought to address the original Big Boy's protein deficiency with a wider array of proteins. I was a fan from the first bite. The bacon and egg play well with the pickle-heavy flavor of tartar sauce, and indeed sliced pickles that top the burger. It's a great balance of flavors that tastes more complex and substantial without losing the classic signature Frisch's flavor. The onion rings were crispy, hot and sweet, and the coleslaw had the same pleasant tang it always has. Aside from the odor of sketchy buffet shrimp permeating the dining room, my in-depth exploration of Frisch's was off to a decent start.

Meal #2
Location: Frisch's Big Boy "Mainliner" 5760 Wooster Pike, Cincinnati, Ohio
Order: Bad Boy, Soup and salad bar, Diet Coke

The Mainliner Drive-In was one of two restaurants owned by David Frisch that began selling Big Boys immediately after he became the first Big Boy franchisee. The original restaurant is long-gone, and a modern Frisch's Big Boy Building now occupies the site, but the original Mainliner signs remain on the property as nods to the brand's heritage. Locals still call it the Mainliner. My Cincinnati-area friends Carl and Lorelai Poncherello brought me here after our trip to Roney's this past spring, and I knew I'd have to come back for Big Boy Month. In fact, Carl and Lorelai were with me on this visit to the Mainliner as well, and were nice enough to take me on a tour of a few interesting historical sites between the Mainliner and their home, including Frisch's longtime headquarters, and a previously undiscovered former Minnie Pearl's Fried Chicken building serving as a veterinarian's office.

Frisch's HQ; this is where the magic happens. 

Maybe don't bring your pet chicken here for a checkup. Cousin Minnie Pearl may be hiding in the shadows with a meat cleaver. 

The dining room at the Mainliner is home to a small museum of Frisch's artifacts that was added during a 2018 renovation. On my previous visit there, Carl, an avid collector of restaurant memorabilia had donated a pair of 1960s vintage Frisch's paper cups to be added to the display cases, and I was curious to see where the restaurant's management had placed them. On my way to the salad bar, I took a detour to the museum area to find Carl's cups, and was surprised and dismayed to see that they were indeed in the display case, but still stacked, one inside the other, and barely visible behind some Big Boy dolls. I had hoped that such rare artifacts, generously donated by my friend would have been displayed more prominently.

Carl's cups are hidden behind the dolls on the top left. Go figure. 

Too much spicy tartar sauce is my new favorite condiment.

Bad Boy and the bounty of the Mainliner's salad bar

I was, however encouraged by the salad bar that was impeccably clean and stocked with fresh fixins. I loaded up a plate with salad and a bowl with cream of potato soup to return to my table, where our respective orders, including my Bad Boy, had already arrived. The Bad Boy is a classic Big Boy with a slice of pepper jack cheese in place of the slice of American cheese that's normally on the lower patty, and topped with a spicy tartar sauce, which I suspect is Frisch's original tartar sauce mixed with Sriracha. I found it to have the perfect level of heat for my tastes, but no so much heat that the signature Frisch's flavors were drowned out, another outstanding variation on the classic Frisch's Big Boy.

Meal #3
Location: Frisch's Big Boy, 840 Lila Avenue Milford, Ohio
Order: Pumpkin Cheesecake, water

How could anyone not stop to take a picture of this sign?

Carl, Lorelai, and I stopped here for dessert immediately after eating at the Mainliner, mainly so we could admire the 1950s vintage neon sign out front. The building was identical to the modern Frisch's on the site of the Mainliner, but with additional seating in place of the museum. The pumpkin cheesecake tasted just as good as it did in Port Clinton last year, but someone in the kitchen had neglected to add the whipped cream and little candy pumpkin to the top.

Meal #4 Frisch's Big Boy
Location: 500 Broadway Street, Anderson, Indiana
Order: Breakfast Buffet, orange juice, water

I've never seen this style of Big Boy statue in the wild before. 

I parted ways with Carl and Lorelai not long after our stop at the Frisch's in Milford, and spent the night in the suburbs north of Cincinnati. I got an early start the next day and headed for Anderson, Indiana, home of a Frisch's Big Boy operating out of a building that appeared to be largely untouched since the 1950s. Most operating Frisch's I encounter are in structures built in the 1980s or later, and I strongly suspect that the Anderson Frisch's is the last of its kind still in operation. I had worked up a powerful hunger on the two hour drive there, and all I could think about the whole drive was trying a Breakfast Boy, a Big Boy with sausage patties instead of beef patties, with bacon and egg thrown on for good measure. Upon arrival, I took no more than a minute to admire the building and grounds, headed inside where I was seated and handed a menu that made no mention of the new Big Boys. Only the original Big Boy and Super Big Boy were on the menu. I wouldn't be having a Breakfast Boy here. Defeated, I resigned myself to eat from the Sunday morning breakfast buffet, which was mostly fine as breakfast buffets go. While the buffet food was acceptable, the beverages were severely lacking in quality. All I had to chase slightly too salty biscuits and gravy was orange juice that had an unpleasant brown color and tasted half fermented and a glass of local tap water that had an unpleasant rotten egg flavor. The lack of an up to date menu and potable water led me to conclude that the Anderson Frisch's is best appreciated from the outside.

Most Big Boy and Big Boy-descended chains offer a weekend breakfast buffet where you can get food that looks like... this. 

While the exterior of the building was a 1950s time capsule, complete with a vintage sign similar to the one in Milford and a rare early style Big Boy statue with striped overalls, fair hair, and saddle shoes, the interior looked and felt tired. The walls were rough and uneven like they had been hastily repaired and painted one time too many. The carpet around the buffet and leading into the kitchen was threadbare, and aside from a dusty display case full of more Frisch's artifacts, there was no evidence of the Frisch's brand reflected in the decor. Instead the walls were lined with Indianapolis Colts merchandise.

Mini-museum in an otherwise unremarkable dining room 

As I dry-swallowed my breakfast, I concluded that this franchised Frisch's location's anachronistic appearance is the result of an owner's resistance to change rather than a conscious historical preservation effort. They were even still serving Pepsi products. The majority of the chain converted to Coke last year, not that either would be palatable if the carbonated water in the fountain drinks comes from local sources. Though the poor water quality was concerning, the lack of the exciting new Breakfast Boy I had been craving all morning was the biggest disappointment. Frisch's corporate overlords would do well to acquire this place from its owner, give the interior the restoration it deserves, and operate it to the standards I witnessed at the Cincinnati stores.

I returned to my car dejected, but I had an idea. I was only 90 minutes away from one of my favorite Big Boys. Surely I could have a Breakfast Boy and a positive experience to conclude my trip there.

Meal #5
Location: Azar's Big Boy 6800 Bluffton Road, Fort Wayne, Indiana
Order: Breakfast Boy, chocolate shake, water

Azar's Big Boy once had 26 locations in Northern Indiana and Colorado, and operated not as a direct franchisee of Bob Wian's Big Boy, but as a subfranchisee, one of two Big Boy chains to acquire their franchise rights from Frisch's. As such, Azar's more or less has always functioned as Frisch's does in all but name. The Fort Wayne restaurant is the last operating Azar's Big Boy location. I ate there during Big Boy Month last year, and had a great experience. I had high hopes of an Azar's stop cheering me up after a disappointing breakfast, but I fear that I visited Azar's, ostensibly a very good Big Boy, while they were having a very bad day.

My milkshake...

By the time I was in Fort Wayne, it was late in the morning, and the Sunday brunch crowd was swarming the place. I parked in the crowded lot, and found my way inside, noting a handwritten sign on the door informing me that their credit card machine was down and they could only accept cash. I was seated immediately at one of the few remaining open tables, and a visibly frazzled server took my order. She returned a few minutes later with my freshly mixed chocolate shake. I hadn't had a Frisch's shake in years, but this one made me wonder why. It was the perfect thickness, pleasantly creamy, and with a richer chocolate flavor than could have been provided by Hershey's syrup alone. I sipped it, surprisingly indifferent to the throngs of diners around me as I awaited the much anticipated arrival of my Breakfast Boy.

...brings all the boys... the table.

My server returned after I'd finished the first quarter of my milkshake carrying my long-anticipated matutinal burger. I thanked her as she set it before me and disappeared to tend to a large group seated nearby. I took a bite, and swallowed it, dejected. She had mistakenly brought me a Farmhouse Boy with beef patties. I debated just eating it and not complaining, I really did, but at that point I felt that eating a Breakfast Boy was essential to my happiness, so I informed my server of the error when she had finished with the nearby group. She apologized, and returned, half a chocolate shake later, with my Breakfast Boy. I'm happy to report that the Breakfast Boy lived up to the image I had built up for it in my head. It looked and tasted like something a stoned line cook working the graveyard shift would prepare while on a lunch break, and I mean that in the best possible sense. The breakfast sausage patties paired surprisingly well with the pickles and tartar sauce, and the quarter of a chocolate shake I had left was just enough to wash it down. My Breakfast Boy-induced euphoria was cut short, however, when I witnessed a line growing to a concerning length as I was finishing my meal.

I sat, watching the line of patrons waiting to pay their bills extend halfway across the dining room, wondering if I had any hope of settling my tab and completing the 180 mile drive home in anything resembling a timely manner. After ten minutes of this, I noticed that I hadn't seen my waitress for a while. Ten more minutes passed, as the children of the large party seated near my grew restless and unruly. I was feeling increasingly on edge, as if I had not just eaten a magical sausage burger when my waitress finally appeared with my bill and an apology, indicating that the restaurant's computer system had gone down, making it momentarily impossible to print bills or accept even cash payments. Thankfully, the staff had managed to get the system to function somehow, and by the time I had my bill, the line had diminished. I quickly paid and left, as the manager was locking the entry door mentioning something about closing early.

Like a lot of broken chains that still have some semblance of corporate oversight, a trip to Frisch's Big Boy is a mixed bag. From the impeccably run Mainliner that, cup display aside, exemplifies the best of the Frisch's brand on the site of where the Frisch's Big Boy brand began, to the indifferently run location in Anderson that tempted me to rehash the Grey Gardens pastiche I used to describe Pappy's Family Pub, even a collection of carefully-planned Big Boy stops can have unpredictable results, even when visiting a known good location like Azar's. Thanks to these little surprises, I didn't even get a chance to try the last of the new Big Boys, the Big Boy Deluxe, which is topped with tomatoes, red onion, and leaf lettuce. Regardless, I came away from my my weekend immersed in Frisch's with more positive experiences than negative ones, and I'm glad to have experienced the new menu items that look to the future while holding onto an appreciation for the brand's heritage. It's great to see Frisch's corporate overlords making efforts to maintain relevance in an increasingly competitive marketplace. I may even come back to Frisch's well before next year's Big Boy Month. I still have to try that Deluxe Big Boy.

The other Broken Chains November observance, Raxgiving is drawing near. If you're able, consider joining me and other broken chain enthusiasts to celebrate the season at the Harlan Kentucky Rax in a few weeks.

Use the code OLIVE15 at checkout to get 15% off your order through the end of the year!

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Let’s Hear it for the Boy!

It’s been November for nearly a week now, and I can feel the pudgy, pompadoured, fiberglass countenance of the Big Boy beaming down at me from on high. Big Boy month is upon us. It’s a time for celebration of the once national network of loosely affiliated regional restaurant chains that soldiers on as a few unaffiliated regional chains today.

If you’re unfamiliar with Big Boy’s history, check out the introduction post to last year’s Big Boy Month, or the immensely informative Big Boy Wikipedia page.

Big Boy is perhaps the most imitated American restaurant chain of all time. The empire Bob Wian built on the back of a double deck hamburger and an adorable cartoon mascot has been widely plagiarized. The McDonald’s Big Mac, for instance, was inspired by the Big Boy Hamburgers sold at an Eat ‘n Park Big Boy in Pittsburgh. Frisch’s Big Boy in the Ohio/Kentucky/Indiana tri-state area inspired both the Burger Chef Big Shef that predated the Big Mac. For that matter, Frisch’s is arguably the inspiration for the postwar iteration of the entire restaurant chain, Jerry’s, whose parent company would go on to establish both Long John Silver’s and Fazoli’s.

Big Boy’s wide imitation by other chains is because of its early success and sudden ubiquity in postwar America. Rapid growth in the early years came from its growth strategy of selling Big Boy franchises to existing regional restaurant chains, effectively uniting them as one big chain with a bit of regional variation. This strategy would eventually become Big Boy’s undoing as many of those same chains would leave the system as their initial franchise agreements expired or cease operations when their fortunes changed.

Today, the Big Boy name is still used by two completely separate chains. At least three other chains formerly affiliated with Big Boy are still in operation as well. Last year’s Big Boy Month posts focused on four of those five chains. This year will be a bit different. I’ll be doing a deep dive into the two chains that still use the Big Boy name, visiting multiple locations of each in search of the best possible Big Boy experience from two chains that have undergone myriad ownership changes and endured steady declines in quality and territory.

My motivation for this plan is based on a fear that I did not take sufficient care when selecting Big Boys to visit last year. As a result, I wound up with a too-small sample size reflecting an overall negative experience. This year’s Big Boy visits are an effort to rectify that and document the best and most interesting locations still using the Big Boy name in the Midwest. So settle in for a month of Big Boy posts as I experience the brand two patties, and three bun pieces at a time. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ekelhafte Nostalgie

The year 1957 was a significant one for the Warsaw Pact nations. It was the year the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into space. It was also the year a new East German car, the Trabant debuted and was named in honor of Sputnik’s success. “Trabant” means satellite in German, but it also means companion, and starting in 1957, the Trabant would be a ubiquitous companion to the East German worker for the satellite Earth’s next 32 revolutions around the sun. In fact the Trabant would have the dubious distinction of being East Germany’s most popular car for much of the state’s history. 

The Trabant was never officially sold in the US, but a few found their way here. This 1962-1988 model in Proletarian Beige was on display at a mall in Michigan last year. 

The Trabant was not popular because of its merits, however. The humble automobile was motivated by a two cylinder, two stroke, air cooled engine that required oil to be mixed with the fuel to keep the engine lubricated. That oil would burn as the engine ran, producing thick, noxious exhaust, not due to a mechanical fault, but by design. Thanks to inherent limitations of the rudimentary lubrication system, and the lack of a freewheeling device in the lowest three gears of the transmission, Trabant drivers were forced to shift to neutral or push in the clutch when coasting in any gear other than fourth or risk destroying the engine by starving it of oil. The Trabant’s body was made of “Duroplast” a crude material made of cotton fibers bound together with resin. As a result, a Trabant’s body panels would soften in the rain, and folklore of goats taking bites out of Trabant fenders and doors abounded in the Eastern Bloc. The car’s top speed was just over 60 MPH, a velocity that could be attained in a short 21 seconds of hard acceleration on level ground, perhaps a little quicker downhill. Most Trabants lacked even the most basic features like a fuel gauge or automatically cancelling turn signals. Seat belts were available for front seat passengers only. A humble and mechanically simple West German Volkswagen Beetle appeared advanced, bourgeois, and decadent compared to its proletarian East German contemporary. The Trabant saw few updates for the vast majority of its production run. In fact, Trabants made from 1962 through 1988 are virtually indistinguishable from one another. In spite of all of this, however, the Trabant remained in high demand as long as the Berlin Wall stood. People waited up to 13 years to receive a new Trabant after ordering one, and on the used car market, secondhand Trabants routinely sold for twice as much as brand new ones. In the planned, state-run East German economy, a Trabant was the only car most citizens could feasibly own, and demand for the increasingly archaic vehicles consistently soared beyond the supply that the state-run automotive monopoly could churn out. I couldn’t help but think of the Trabant during a visit to the sole surviving Country School restaurant a few weeks ago

Country School is little more than a footnote in the fast food history books. Fleeting mentions of the brand online allowed me to piece together that the chain was based in Lyons, Illinois, was active in the 1960s and 1970s, and had locations in Ottowa, Macomb, and Rochelle, Illinois, as well as Evansville, Indiana. There were likely other locations as well, though their exact locations may be lost to history at this point. Country School buildings were designed to resemble old fashioned red schoolhouses, and their menu focused heavily on fried chicken, though burgers, and perhaps a few other entrees were also available. The variety of items offered on the menu and not dissimilar corporate architecture make me think that Country School was at least partially influenced by Red Barn, and may have been designed to operate primarily in small towns where they’d be the only fast food, much like Clancy’s and Burger Queen/Druther’s. At some point, the chain disappeared, perhaps due to the slowing 1970s economy or the fact that their main territory was directly in the proverbial back yard of McDonald’s corporate headquarters. Today only the Rochelle, Illinois Country School remains in operation. 

Time for school!

The building in Rochelle looks much as it would have in its heyday, clad in bright red brick, its simple gabled roof topped with a cupola that may have once housed a bell. A fenced in picnic area out front mimics a schoolyard where old-timey children might be seen pushing barrel hoops with sticks or playing marbles, jacks, and tiddlywinks. A prominent sheet metal sign out front mimics the shape of the building and stands on a pole adorned with the ABCs and assorted school supplies. Something that was likely not present during the restaurant’s heyday was the freshly renovated McDonald’s next door, standing alarmingly close to the weathered parking lot of the world’s last Country School. 

Note the vintage "Drive thru service" sign and the menacing golden arches lurking in the background. 

The stop at Country School in Rochelle was my last on a four day 2500 mile trip that took me across the American Midwest, a last-minute addition to my itinerary thanks to a tip from a reader. (Thanks William!) I arrived in town after being routed through a labyrinth of back roads and subdivisions as my GPS struggled to avoid the toll roads that make the small towns of northwestern Illinois feel isolated, despite their proximity to Chicago. It was 11:30 on a Monday morning, and the lunch crowd had already begun to line up in the Country School’s drive-thru lane. Wanting the full Country School experience, I opted to dine in, and walked into the building’s humble, but clean dining room. I studied the expansive menu board, suspecting it had grown over the years to include Windy City specialties like Italian beef and Chicago-style hot dogs, but also no fewer than 25 different burgers, tacos, hand-dipped ice cream, and fried clams. I ordered with authenticity in mind, as I do when circumstances allow, opting for a three piece chicken dinner with two sides, plus a double junior cheeseburger. 

Pleasant, but basic surroundings undermine the overcrowded menu board.

The dining area was on the small side, but didn’t feel cramped thanks to large windows on three of the four walls. Blue trim around the windows and in the corners of the vaulted ceiling along with quality wood chairs helped combat what would have been an institutional appearance otherwise. The inside of the restaurant felt especially spacious because for the duration of my meal, no one else came inside to eat, though the drive thru kept the staff busy. I had pondered my status as the lone indoor diner for no more than five minutes when an employee delivered my order to my table. 

Cremated chicken would fit right in across the street from the last operating Darryl's

Sides straight from the supermarket. 

Basic burger

I am particularly fond of the elusive fast food side dishes that aren’t based on fried potatoes, and I usually opt for baked beans and a scoopable mayonnaise-based salad when available, so I was especially looking forward to the beans and potato salad I had ordered with my chicken. I tried the beans first, and was greeted with the familiar, but not unpleasant taste of Bush’s original flavor baked beans, straight from the can with heat from a stove being the only added ingredient. I didn’t expect them to prepare the beans from scratch, but some added hot sauce or seasoning to set them apart from a cartoon hobo’s meal of choice would have been nice. The potato salad seemed to be of similar origin as it reminded me of every potato salad I’d had from a prepackaged tub from the refrigerated section at a grocery store. I moved onto the chicken, hoping it would be similar to the symphony of herbs and spices at Maryland Fried Chicken that put Colonel Harland Sanders famous 11 to shame, but sadly, the chicken at Country School was on par with the sides. There was no discernible seasoning, in the overcooked breading and the chicken itself was dry and rubbery. The cheeseburger was no better. True to the school theme, it reminded me of the burgers in my elementary school cafeteria. I was baffled.

I pondered my disappointing meal all the way back to Detroit. Had I ordered the wrong thing? I had certainly failed to observe the local custom of ordering from the drive thru and never entering the building. But the sign out front said “Rochelle’s FAVORITE place for chicken.” Surely, chicken was their specialty. And multitude of delectable side dishes should go hand in hand with fried chicken. Plus, with such a burger-heavy menu, one would assume that any Country School burger would be seasoned with the flavor of authenticity. How had this Country School in particular outlived all of the chain’s other locations despite a lackluster menu and a next door neighbor that is an outlet of the world’s second largest fast food chain? It wasn’t until I researched the fast food landscape of Rochelle and the surrounding communities a few weeks later that I was able to develop a hypothesis.

Presently, “Rochelle’s FAVORITE place for chicken” seems to be Rochelle’s ONLY place for fried chicken other than the Walmart deli. The nearest Popeye’s is 15 miles east in Dekalb. The nearest KFC is 20 miles north in Rockford, and the nearest Church’s is a whopping 71 miles away in Maywood, though at that point, I’d rather drive a few more miles to eat at Rax in Joliet if I lived in Rochelle. There has been a Culver’s in town since at least 2007, if not before, but Culver’s phased out its fried chicken chain wide in 2016. Perhaps it was while Culver’s was selling fried chicken in Rochelle, that Country School’s menu expanded to include gyros and pizza puffs in an attempt to increase foot traffic, though I’d suspect the menu grew gradually as Rochelle’s mainstream fast food outlets grew up around the Country School. In any case, the Rochelle Country School has managed to survive, selling an inferior product, thanks in part to public demand for fried chicken and a lack of a viable competitor for much of its existence. Unlike the aforementioned Joliet Rax, which is 200 yards from an Arby’s and the Lima, Ohio Western Sizzlin’ which is across the street from a Golden Corral, I can’t help but think that a well-run Popeye’s or even a KFC opening in Rochelle, would pose a serious existential threat to the Country School, or at the very least force them to add haggis, shabu-shabu, and vindaloo to their menu in an attempt to set themselves apart.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, an attempt was made to modernize the Trabant. The updated vehicle eschewed its quaint two-stroke engine in favor of a newly available Volkswagen-built four cylinder, four stroke unit that no longer required oil to be mixed with the fuel, but the archaic socialist chariot, even enlivened by a decidedly modern capitalist powerplant failed to capture the interest of the car buying public of the newly reunited Deutschland. The warmed-over decades-old spartan design simply couldn’t compete with the slew of modern western vehicles that were suddenly available to a car-starved East German public. Predictably, production of the Trabant soon ended. Over the ensuing decades, however, the Trabant became a symbol of the phenomenon known as Ostalgie. The term is a portmanteau of the German words for “east” (ost) and “nostalgia” (nostalgie) that describes a collective appreciation for the aspects of East German life that ceased to exist following reunification. Today, Trabants enjoy a status as a cult collector car across Europe and even abroad, and function as a window into a bygone chapter in history.

The Rochelle, Illinois Country School manages to embody every chapter of the Trabant’s history simultaneously. Like the Trabant in its Iron Curtain glory days, the last Country School is popular by default while offering an objectively sub-par product. Like the post-reunification Volkswagen-powered Trabant, Country School has made haphazard changes in an attempt to stay modern in a rapidly-changing marketplace. As the Trabant in a modern-day context is an icon of Ostalgie, Country School serves as a local nostalgic symbol, a reminder of a different time. While my meal at the last Country School was far from enjoyable, it was, at least a memorable experience that offered a glimpse into a chapter of history that is otherwise lost. To coin a term in the German tradition of combining words, the unchanged building and exterior signage coupled with the less than stellar cuisine provoke a sense of Grosstalgia, and I think that feeling makes Rochelle’s FAVORITE (only) place for chicken worth seeking out. 

"Lots of space in this mall!"

If you’re up for enjoying objectively good food in an underappreciated historical setting consider joining me a the Harlan, Kentucky Rax for Raxgiving next month. I’ll be there with Broken Chains swag for everyone who attends.

He probably doesn’t need my help, but if you’re interested in Trabants or other oddball vehicles, check out Aging Wheels on YouTube.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

All Size Appetites

People ask me occasionally if I have any plans to visit the last operating Howard Johnson restaurant in Lake George, New York. My answer to them is always a resounding “Not anytime soon.” The reason for this is m my research of the place shows serious deficits in both quality and brand authenticity. It’s longtime manager was unaware of, or indifferent to the nostalgic value the Howard Johnson brand had, and by all indications he failed to capture the essence of the brand in the restaurant he operated. Online reviewers repeatedly cited poor quality food and outrageous prices as complaints about the world’s last HoJo. That manager stepped down last year in order to serve jail time related to sexual harassment of his employees. Since then, there has been little improvement from what I can see.

Customer reviews from the past few months contain complaints about a deteriorating building emitting unpleasant smells, the same poor quality, overpriced food, and a rude staff. I should probably go there and evaluate the place for myself, but the poor reviews and the troubling history of the location have kept me away. For all these reasons, I consider The Howard Johnson restaurant brand dead, despite the single persisting location still using the name to serve food that bears little resemblance to the cuisine that once helped Howard Johnson become the largest restaurant chain in the US.

Even though the restaurant brand is effectively defunct, it hasn’t stopped me from exploring other remnants of the fractured HoJo empire. In the earliest days of this blog, I stayed in an EconoLodge that began life as a Howard Johnson motor lodge with a HoJo restaurant on site. I also spent a night in a former Signature Inn that had been hastily converted to a Howard Johnson hotel. Neither was an especially pleasant experience, but I imagine a meal at the Lake George HoJo would be worse.

Despite the unfortunate demise of of the Howard Johnson restaurant brand, other restaurant concepts launched by Howard Johnson still have operating remnants today, the largest of which seems to be Ground Round. The Howard Johnson company opened the first Ground Round in Massachusetts in 1969, offering both a bar and grill atmosphere and a family dining atmosphere under one roof, but largely separated under that roof. The chain spread quickly across the Northeast and Midwest, and peaked somewhere north of 200 locations. People who grew up with Ground Round will likely have fond memories of shenanigans employed in the day to day operations of the restaurant.

In their 1970s heyday, Ground Round employed a litany of Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag style gimmicks to appeal to families, including showing silent (and not so silent) films and cartoons on a large projection screen in the dining room, though Shakey’s may have done this first. Children would be weighed upon entry to the restaurant and their caretakers would be charged a penny for every pound the child weighed for the child’s meal. Free peanuts were also offered, and guests were invited to toss the empty peanut shells on the floor, not unlike Texas Roadhouse and Logan’s Roadhouse who have been known to employ the same policy off and on.

Ground Round’s fortunes went through the usual ups and downs as they were traded among a slew of corporate parents over the years, but the chain fell apart in earnest when in 2004, American Hospitality, owner of the brand at the time abruptly closed all 59 company owned Ground Round locations shortly before declaring bankruptcy, leaving the owners of the remaining 72 franchised locations to fend for themselves.

The newly disenfranchised franchisees came together to form Independent Owners Cooperative LLC to maintain the integrity and value of the Ground Round brand, much the same way Howard Johnson restaurant franchisees formed Franchise Associates Incorporated decades earlier. Since that time, the Ground Round brand has been losing locations, and is down to only 17 operating restaurants scattered across seven Northeastern and Midwestern states. I found myself in Western Wisconsin at the tail end of a 5 day 2500 mile road trip, and stopped into one of those 17 surviving Ground Rounds for dinner after a long day on the road.

Ground Round's neighbors are the typical strip mall occupants. 

It was just before sundown on a Sunday night when I arrived at the Tomah, Wisconsin Ground Round, which is situated at the end of a strip mall. Predictably, the restaurant was mostly empty, and I was shown to a table on the non-bar side of the restaurant at my request. I took a few minutes to take in the atmosphere of the place. It was dimly lit by a series of can lights and stained glass lamps hanging from the open ceiling. There were no signs of a child weighing station, but a framed peanut bag and framed photos of the Three Stooges and Marx brothers adorning the walls provided subtle nods to the brand’s gimmicky heritage. The wackiness quotient was very low overall. The place had a very generic casual dining vibe. 

Groucho, Karl, and Richard
Subtle nods to history were all over the walls. Why I oughtta...

I turned my attention toward the menu packed with large burgers and other typical casual dining type offerings. There was a problem, though. I wasn’t remotely hungry. I had eaten two meals back to back at the last operating Embers only 3 hours and 180 miles prior, so I couldn’t bring myself to order a burger at Ground Round. Out of a sense of self preservation, I opted to eat light, and when my server came, I ordered the “Lighter portion” of the balsamic chicken from the “Better for you” section of the menu. Yes, I ordered chicken at a place called Ground Round. Yes, I acknowledge I can no longer give Esmeralda Fitzmonster a hard time about ordering chicken the one time I convinced her to go to Rax with me.

Bonus points for the chilled fork.

My meal began with a salad composed mainly of iceberg lettuce served on a square green plate. The salad itself was not terribly impressive, though the fact it was served with a chilled salad fork was novel, if incongruous with the salad’s pedestrian ingredients. When my entree arrived, I couldn’t help but laugh at the presentation, which featured more condiments than actual food. I attribute this to my own limited appetite forcing me to order a light portion, and an overabundance of condiments, rather than stinginess on the part of the restaurant. My plate came loaded with four ramekins containing, a butter sauce and a bruschetta topping for my one small chicken breast, plus, curiously, sour cream and butter for my single scoop mashed potatoes. Where I come from, this stuff gets mixed into mashed potatoes before they’re served, but what do I know? I added the toppings to the chicken so it resembled the picture on the menu a bit more, and mixed in some sour cream with the potatoes. 

You know, some people like food with their condiments, said every dad ever.  

I try to eat a healthy-ish diet when I’m not on the road, and I’ve been known to order this kind of thing at restaurants that I have no intention to write about. As healthy meals go, this one was well-prepared, and tasted fine for what it was. Like present-day Ground Round, it was devoid of gimmicks and served its purpose well. What I needed that night was a light meal that would allow me to get a good night’s sleep for the final leg of my trip the next day, and that’s what I got. Had I ordered the chicken fajita egg rolls, pulled pork-topped Little Piggy Burger, or beef taco flatbread pizza that also appear on the Ground Round menu, and forced them through my digestive tract soon after both an Emberger and a breakfast skillet, I would have had a miserable, sleepless, gastro-intestinal distress-racked night. Instead, I ate light, and I’m thankful that I did. I’m also thankful that Ground Round was able to easily accommodate my requirements. 

Had I not been planning a meal at Ground Round for weeks, I would have skipped dinner entirely that night, but I was traveling on a tight schedule, and this was my one chance at a Ground Round experience. For their part, Ground Round did what the Howard Johnson brand was known for in its heyday, they catered to my specific needs. After a long day on the road overeating, I needed a light meal that could be enjoyed within the walls of a Ground Round, and that’s exactly what I got. The large menu was typical for the casual dining segment, and its wide array of dinner entrees, burgers, sandwiches, appetizers, and desserts means that most anyone who comes in will also get what they need from Ground Round. The almost completely separate bar and dining areas also allows Ground Round customers to get their preferred atmosphere along with their preferred meal, and in that willingness to cater to a diverse clientele, the Howard Johnson DNA shines through in the fading remnant of the Ground Round brand. 

Another subtle nod to history in my home. 

Howard Johnson called itself the Host of the Highways, and like any good host, they took pains to ensure the comfort of guests, whether they were stopping in for a quick scoop of ice cream, a fried clam dinner, or spending a night or two in Howard Johnson hotel. A 1960s vintage Howard Johnson print ad hanging framed on my living room wall brags that they cater to all size appetites, and I’m glad to report that their descendant, Ground Round, endangered as they may be, does exactly the same thing more than half a century later. The surviving franchisees have figured out what works about the brand and what doesn’t and distilled it to a casual dining concept that still upholds the Howard Jonson ethos better than the last restaurant using the Howard Johnson name ever could. I don’t even lament the loss of the silent movies and peanuts. Does anybody really need silent movies and free peanuts when they're dining out? I know I don’t.

(Use the code OLIVE15 at checkout to receive 15% off your order through the end of the year.)