Friday, October 11, 2019

You've Gotta Know the Territory

"What the heck, you're welcome, join us at the diner...

The first stop on my recent trip across the Midwest was at the Joliet, Illinois Rax which I initially visited and wrote about last summer, for a quick, just for fun, pre-Raxgiving Rax lunch. While enjoying a dessert of salad bar Oreo fluff and strawberry shortcake, I got my phone out to view my route to my next stop, a bootleg Zantigo all the way in Minnesota. I had expected to take I-90 across Wisconsin, but my navigation app instead routed me across Iowa via I-80. Since this unexpected turn of events had occurred under the solarium of the Joliet Rax, I could only conclude that my new route was the result of the divine intervention of Uncle Alligator. I had recently learned from a reader (Thanks Alex!) that the uniquely Iowan restaurant chain, Maid-Rite, had shrunk well past the Cici’s Point and into broken chain territory. This unexpected route change gave me the perfect opportunity to have a Maid-Rite experience. I hastily plotted a route to a Maid-Rite location near the interstate in Davenport, and left Rax, offering up a salad bar crouton to Uncle Alligator as tribute on my way out.

Two hours and one Mississippi River crossing later, I had entered The Hawkeye State, like a modern-day Professor Harold Hill, handsome smooth-talking charlatan that I am, and no sooner had exited the interstate in search of the Maid-Rite that would provide my second lunch of the day. This would be the second Maid-Rite experience of my life. The first was a disappointing stop at the only official Maid-Rite in Ohio, which is attached to a dirty Sunoco station in Piqua. (A formerly-affiliated, presently unofficial Maid-Rite is a beloved institution in Greenville, Ohio.) I was looking forward to a definitively Iowan Maid-Rite experience at what I hoped was a long-standing location. Maid-Rite is, after all, among the oldest surviving American restaurant chains.

Maid-Rite began with Fred Angell, a butcher from Muscatine, Iowa who developed a unique blend of beef cuts and spices, ground to a proprietary texture. In 1926, he opened his first restaurant, selling sandwiches containing his beefy creation, not pressed into patties, but loose, like a sauceless sloppy joe, also known as a tavern sandwich. The single, carry-out only restaurant grew to a chain of franchised sit-down units across Iowa and surrounding states, peaking somewhere around 130 to 150 locations. Angell’s family lost control of the chain in 1984 when Maid-Rite was sold to a pair of business partners, one of whom abruptly backed out of the deal shortly before the other died. A years-long legal battle then ensued as the families of each of the partners fought in court over ownership of the Maid-Rite brand. During that time, a court order prevented new locations from opening, and a lack of corporate organization oversight resulted in a decline in quality and widespread closures. The brand never seemed to fully recover from that era, and today, Maid-Rite is down to 31 operating locations, 20 of which are in Iowa.

The Maid-Rite story as told by vinyl letter decals.
It's hardly Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac, or any of them other highfalutin' Greeks.
The format of surviving Maid-Rite locations seems to vary wildly, with some Maid-Rites operating out of decades-old family-owned restaurants, while others are modern free standing units. Others still, like the one I visited years ago in Ohio, operate out of gas station, strip mall, or food court slots. Had I planned a trip to Maid-Rite more than a couple of hours in advance, I would have attempted to carefully select the Maid-Rite I’d be visiting, ensuring that it best exemplified both the history and the current state of the brand. Instead, I chose the closest location to I-80 in Davenport.

Back in Davenport, I was proceeding up the street in a suburban commercial area. As I approached the location where my GPS said the Maid-Rite would be, I eagerly scanned the horizon for the telltale stop sign of the Maid-Rite logo, which confusingly, never seemed to appear. As I arrived at the promised Maid-Rite location, I found only a Family Video. Something wasn’t right. I pulled into the Family Video lot to study the GPS screen more closely, and suddenly I saw it.

The Glenview, Illinois-based Family Video operates over 500 video rental stores in the U.S. and Canada. Thanks to low corporate overhead, and some savvy business moves, they outlived Blockbuster to become the largest video rental chain in North America. One of Family Video’s many strategies that has allowed them to remain in business nearly a decade into the streaming era is leasing out subdivided retail space in their stores to other businesses. It’s not uncommon to see a hair salon, gym, or a pizza joint occupying space under the green metal roof of a Family Video store. Just off I-80 in Davenport Iowa, one corner of an operating Family Video building houses a Maid-Rite location. Upon discovering this, my first impulse was to look for other Maid Rite locations in the area that might be a bit more Maid-Riteish, but I ultimately decided to eat at the Family Video Maid-Rite. It was simply too weird to pass up. 

Cash for the movie rental, cash for the loosemeat, cash for the crinkle fries, cash for the CBD

Family Video with a capital V, and that doesn't rhyme with M, and that stands for Maid-Rite
Giant food! don't you understand?
Friend, either you're closing your eyes
To a situation you do now wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
By the presence of giant food in your community.

They'll be trying out Grapette, trying out Mil-Kay, trying out IBC and Hires like root beer fiends! Well, I should say!

Once I was inside the restaurant, I quickly forgot that I was in a Family Video building In fact, it barely even seemed like I was in a chain restaurant. The dining room was completely separate from the video store and lacked the generic corporate feel of a place affiliated with a chain that still has an active corporate structure. Instead, the atmosphere of the place felt like an independent sit-down diner, what my neighbors in Metro Detroit would call a “Coney Island” for reasons I’ve never fully understood. There were servers waiting on tables, vintage advertising signs on the walls, and faux vintage red vinyl chairs at each table with matching stools at the counter, the black and white checkerboard tile floor completed the trifecta of generic, independent faux-retro diner decor, though a massive three-dimensional rendering of Maid Rite sandwich on the wall provided a unique counterpoint to the cliched decor. A little research after the fact revealed that this particular Maid-Rite was owned by a franchisee who operates five locations billed as Maid-Rite Diners, offering the classic Maid-Rite sandwiches plus an expanded menu of breakfast and lunch diner food. There were even several conventional patty-based burgers on the menu. can eat your fill of all the food that you buy yourself."

I had little interest in the expanded diner menu, and when my server asked for my order, I ordered up an original Maid-Rite with the default mustard, pickle, and onion along with fries. It was mid-afternoon on a weekday, and the place wasn’t terribly busy, so my order arrived quickly. The Maid-Rite sandwich tasted different from the one I remember eating in Ohio a few years previous. The Ohio Maid-Rite had a mild, almost sweet flavor, while the one I was eating in Iowa tasted more bold and beefy. It’s entirely possible that I am remembering the flavor of the Ohio Maid-Rite incorrectly, but it seems at least equally likely that two locations of a diminished, not terribly well-organized chain that are hundreds of miles apart may be using different recipes and preparation methods for a signature product. (That certainly seems to be the case with Taco Tico.) At any rate, the Maid-Rite not quite burger, not quite sloppy joe tasted great. The soft, steamed bun was topped with the perfect amount of meat to compensate for the bit that that inevitably spilled out the bottom, and the toppings complemented the aptly named loose meat without overpowering it. Future trips I make across Iowa will from now on, include at least one Maid-Rite stop. The fries were generic crinkle cuts, but had a slightly olive-ish aftertasted, as if they had been fried in olive oil, but that may have been a hallucination on my part, as I was still recovering from the initial surprise at the prospect of having lunch at Family Video. 

76 French Fries were in my lunch today... 

...with (at least) 110 beefy pebbles close at hand... 

...and with a spoon, in place to help me stuff my face, and save me from using my bare hands!

Seeing that branded to-go cups were available, I asked for a to-go refill of my Diet Dew as well as a chocolate shake for the road, thus ensuring that I, and my cup-collecting pal, Carl Poncherello of Roney’s fame, would each have a Maid-Rite cup to add to our respective collections. The shake was blended to order, but appeared to be based on soft serve ice cream from a machine to which milk and syrup were added. Regardless, it was a perfectly acceptable shake, tasting smooth, yet homemade, without the telltale icy chunks that are often part of shakes blended from scooped ice cream.
The cup on the left gave me a bit of a fright when I got it home...
 I almost shipoopi'd myself!
I continued westward with those, and other cups I had collected along the way on a trip that took me all the way to North Dakota, only washing them out when I returned home a few days later. When I went to wash the Maid-Rite cup that had contained my chocolate shake, I was greeted by a very angry spider inside the cup, the diameter of whose body was a good deal larger than the X-shaped straw opening on the lid that had been in place since Davenport. I can come up with two, roughly equally distasteful explanations for how the spider got there. Either, it was the sole survivor of a milkshake full of Iowa spiders that I had ingested but failed to notice while careening down I-80, or that my car is infested with magical spiders capable of teleportation in and out of sealed vessels. Just to be safe, I’ll plan on avoiding Maid-Rite shakes in the future and enlisting the services of an automotive exterminator/exorcist to ensure my vehicle remains free of enchanted arachnids. I’m not sure what I am meant to learn by encountering a live spider in my milkshake cup, but I suppose Uncle Alligator works in mysterious ways. 

Goodnight my sandwich, goodnight my love. 

If you’re free the day after American Thanksgiving this year and you’ll be within a reasonable distance from the wilds of southeastern Kentucky, consider joining me for Raxgiving at the Harlan, Kentucky Rax where we will dine together under the benevolent gaze of Uncle Alligator.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Zapata Zigs to Zantigo, Zags to Zanz

Late last year, I took a tour of a few different locations in Minnesota that fit the Broken Chains theme. The trip resulted in a tiny narrative about the Bonanza in St. Cloud and a full post about the last operating Happy Chef restaurant in Mankato, but the stop I made at a recently re-opened Zantigo in St. Paul was my favorite of the trip, thanks chiefly to Zantigo's connection to a family anecdote I grew up hearing. My meal at the St. Paul Zantigo resulted in a blog post that erroneously assumed that anything remotely resembling Zantigo did not exist after Pepsico's acquisition and phase-out of the brand in the mid-80s, and before the brand's revival in the '90s by former Zantigo Manager Don Kaelble. I even went so far as to lament the "dark Zantigo-less years"of the late '80s and early '90s. I should have known better.

If there's one thing that I've learned in tracking down experiences to write about here, it's that in the chain restaurant world, it's not at all unusual for a franchisee or two of an ostensibly defunct chain to remain in business decades after their corporate parent fades away. Often, those holdout franchisees acquire the rights to the brand, as is the case with chains like Rax and Dog 'n Suds. In other cases, holdout franchisees change the names of their restaurants and menu items, but carry on as they always have. I've visited two different former Burger Chefs that have done just that, and I have a lead on a third. It was therefore not surprising when I learned that Zantigo had never fully disappeared.

After uploading that initial Zantigo post, I continued having my silly adventures and writing sillier narratives about them until I was stopped in my tracks, as if contained by some manner of Roddenberrian forcefield grid. An entity known only as “Z” commented on my Zantigo post and informed me of Zanz, a former Zantigo that had been in continuous operation in Mankato, Minnesota since the early 1970’s, back when Zantigo was called Zapata. Starting in the late '80s the Mankato Zantigo became Zanz after PepsiCo phased out the Zantigo brand, and Zanz had functioned as a Zantigo in all but name ever since. Upon learning this, time seemed to freeze all around me, and could only be unfrozen by a visit to Zanz. At least that's what the Z-Entity told me as it shape-shifted and taunted me. I had little choice but to drive the 700 miles back to Minnesota for the second time in less than a year so I could appease both the Z-Entity and my curiosity about Zanz.

Not your typical Zantigo building
It was after sundown when I arrived, road-weary and hungry. The sun-faded taco on the backlit plastic sign below glowing red letters spelling out ZANZ marked the end of my journey. The name, "Zanz" was different enough from Zantigo to keep the lawyers placated, but similar enough to let the general public know what they could find inside. I walked across the parking lot, under the building's long canopy that hinted to its past life as a drive-in, and into the building's small dining room.

Interior dining area, note the unique light fixture. 

I had my doubts about how authentic of a Zantigo experience I could expect at Zanz, since the building was not a standard example of Zantigo's corporate architecture. It had clearly been converted to a Zapata from something else before it became Zantigo, and finally Zanz. From the outside, the building lacked the stucco walls, arched windows, and tall wedge that made its estranged cousin in St. Paul look the part of an authentic vintage Zantigo building, but once I was inside, those doubts melted away like shredded cheddar in a Chilito. Every flat surface was covered in terra cotta, Spanish tile, woodgrain, or gold formica. Tall, amber-tinted light fixtures hung over every booth, and while the panels in the menu board were modern, they had what I took to be its original frame. It was the vintage Zantigo interior I had hoped for, in vain, in St. Paul. In fact, Zanz seemed to occupy the opposite end of the Zantigo spectrum from its Twin Cities counterpart.

This chain restaurant blog is quickly becoming a tile blog. 

The St. Paul Zantigo, was clearly a purpose-built Zantigo building, but it had been updated extensively, inside and outside to suit a modern aesthetic. The color and decor in St. Paul were decidedly modern, and the old backlit menu board had given way to modern flatscreen monitors. (These updates were likely a necessity, as the St. Paul Zantigo was a Taco Bell for many years before it reverted back to a Zantigo location, and it was likely extensively remodeled during the Taco Bell era.) The interior at Zanz, on the other hand, was a perfectly preserved 1970s time capsule, quite possibly the most complete Zapta/Zantigo interior left in existence. If the St. Paul Zantigo, and the other locations around the Twin Cities are representative of the modern Zantigo brand, Zanz serves as an unofficial reminder of the brand's heritage.

Hey, remember when this tile blog was about chain restaurants?

My plan was to compare and contrast the Zantigo and Zanz experiences further by ordering the exact same thing at Zanz as I had at Zantigo. When the cashier nodded me over, I started with the same mild Chilito and chips and cheese I'd had in St. Paul, but panicked slightly when I could not find a Taco Deluxe on the menu. Thinking on my feet, I ordered a taco burrito instead, and took a seat to await my order, and ponder the difference in menu, and the nature of Americanized Mexican food in general.

Despite them being modern, the panels of the menu board have a vintage feel. 

Multiple sources state that during the modern Zantigo revival era, Don Kaelble and company made a few additions to the Zantigo menu. I suspect the Taco Deluxe, a hard shell taco inside a softshell tortilla with a layer of refried bean adhesive was one of these additions, likely made to compete with the similar Taco Bravo from Taco John's and the recently discontinued Double Decker Taco at Taco Bell. I suspect no such menu item existed in the first wave Zapata/Zantigo era during the 1970s and '80s, and that the addition to the menu was never made at the independently operated Zanz. While I was slightly disappointed not to find a Taco Deluxe on the menu, I was excited to try a Taco Burrito.

The wrapper is twisted at the end of the Chilito, just as it is at Zantigo.

Longtime readers know I'm a massive fan of a Mexican fast food chain known as Taco Tico, which, like Zantigo, has Midwestern origins and also like Zantigo, was founded by someone who was not even remotely Mexican. Taco Tico has their own version of a Taco Burrito, that is, a burrito shell stuffed with fast food taco ingredients, known as a Sancho. The abscence of a Taco Deluxe at Zanz afforded me the opportunity to try what I took to be Zantigo's equivalent of the Taco Tico Sancho, apparently a staple of Midwest-Mex cuisine.

Zanz Chlito cross section. Ignore my ugly hand. 

I started with the most easily replicable menu item, the chips and cheese, and found like at Zantigo, they consisted of white corn tortilla chips under a layer of shredded cheddar jack, microwaved to form a melty blanket atop the simple, yet delicious appetizer. I then moved onto the Chilito, which had failed to thrill me in St. Paul. It's unofficial counterpart in Mankato, however was more to my taste. Perhaps it was a different tortilla, was a bit more generously filled with the chili-like Chilito sauce, or maybe my previous experience helped me manage my expectations, but at any rate, I enjoyed Zanz bootleg Chilito a bit more than the official Chilito I'd eaten in St. Paul, even if the flavor of the filling was nearly identical.

Taco Burrito cross section

I then moved onto the Taco Burrito, which I unwrapped to find was little teapot-like, short and stout, compared to the long and slender Sancho at Taco Tico. A couple bites revealed the meat inside to be identical in flavor to the taco meat I'd had in the Deluxe Taco at Zantigo the previous winter, and a generous layer of shredded cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion, provided a nice contrast to the warm beef. It's clearly a menu item best eaten fresh before homeostasis renders the fillings uniformly lukewarm, but it was delightful, if ephemeral.

I stopped by on my way out of town the next morning for more exterior photos. I think that's a Signtronix sign? Can any sign aficionados confirm? 

Having experienced the extremes of the Zantigo brand, it's tough to say which I enjoyed more. While inarguably similar, the modern Zantigo and the vintage and unofficial Zanz occupy two distinct places in my mind. Zantigo, a brand saved from the brink of obscurity and given new life has all the trappings of a modern fast food chain, yet is distinctively different from both the Taco Bells and Chipotles of the world, clearly a viable competitor in the quick serve Mexican segment, with what I hope is a bright future in the Twin Cities and beyond. Zanz, on the other hand feels like the combination of a beloved local mom and pop, which it essentially is, with a connection to both an endangered brand and a bygone era of fast food. It lacks modernity in every aspect where Zantigo has heaps of it. If Zantigo is a modern fast food chain, then Zanz is the working fast food museum that I love to stumble upon. I'm immensely grateful to the Z-Entity for alerting me to its existence, as I am to everyone who sends me tips about places I should check out. If you're reading this, and have a broken chain location in mind that I've not yet visited. Don't be shy. Comment below, email me, message my Facebook page, or slide into my Instagram DMs. I'd love to hear about your favorite surviving location of an endangered or defunct brand, and maybe even visit it and compare you to a recurring Star Trek character.

Or if you're in the mood to travel to a remote town in Eastern Kentucky on a busy holiday weekend, you can tell me all about your favorite place on November 29th at the Harlan Kentucky Rax, where I'll be hosting Raxgiving 2019. I'll be around to hand out free Broken Chains stickers, along with another surprise or two while we enjoy a meal at my favorite Rax.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Diner Fun

If one were reading back through the early posts of this blog, one would likely be stricken with a sense that the writer was in the process of figuring out what form the blog should take. Before I settled into the rut routine consistent format to which regular Broken Chains readers have become accustomed, I was throwing a lot of different types of posts at the proverbial wall to see what might adhere. There was the time I pondered in writing whether I should buy an appliance from the online retailer that calls itself Montgomery Ward, the time that I thought making tacos in my own kitchen was noteworthy enough to discuss at length, and who can forget the time I made three posts about a trip to every operating G.D. Ritzy's, when it really only needed to be a single post? (I was slow to learn my lesson, because I did the same thing with Ponderosa a few weeks later.) But of all my early blunders the one that stands out to me most today, is my failure to research the restaurant chain, Miner-Dunn when I first heard of them over 18 months ago.

Spiner's Gun

Another of my haphazard early posts was built on the gossamer premise of a visit to a Starbucks that used to be a G.D. Ritzy's that was situated next door to a thematically and culinary similar Schoop's restaurant. It's a post I probably would not have written today, because it's at best, tangentially related to the theme of diminished chain businesses. Starbucks is obviously not a broken chain, and neither is Schoop's, which is a thriving regional chain operating primarily in Northwestern Indiana. However, in researching Schoop's, I found that the chain's founder was previously the owner of a Miner-Dunn restaurant, a fact that in my inexperience, I didn't find notable enough to remember, and promptly forgot. I only rediscovered it recently while preparing for a trip to the last operating Miner-Dunn location.

Harold Miner and Ralph Dunn opened for business selling hamburgers from a six stool counter in Hammond, Indiana in 1932, and quickly became a rare depression-era success. The single restaurant grew into a local chain in Northwestern Indiana, but slowly shrank to a single, beloved location open for business on US 41 in Highland, Indiana. I stopped in on a recent road trip to see what kind of experience the world's last Miner-Dunn had to offer.

Good thing they're real. I hate the pretend kind. 

I felt a pang of longing as I drove past the masterpiece of Googie architecture that houses Johnsen's Blue Top Drive-In a block north of Miner-Dunn, but near as I can tell, Johnsen's was never part of a chain, and therefore not right for the theme and consistent format I've cultivated for this blog over the past 20 months. I pressed onward, briefly until I found consolation in the glow of the tall vintage neon of the Miner-Dunn sign out front of the brick and wood shingled building. I promptly parked, and headed inside, noting the pushed-in brick in the side of the building where it had recently been struck by an errant SUV. As usual, I was running on eastern time in the central time zone, and I had shown up for lunch shortly after the restaurant's 10:30 AM opening time. Upon entry, I was promptly shown to a booth and provided with a laminated trifold menu.

Order the most historically significant meal, quick!

I hadn't expected the menu to be so large. I had envisioned a depression-era burger joint that offered burgers and fries with little to no variation, and not much else. Instead, I was greeted with a large menu full of soups, salads, sandwiches, and a baker's dozen different burgers. I was unprepared for this, and told my attentive server I'd need a minute when she showed up to take my order. The menu had seemingly grown over the past 87 years, and included options as modern as a western bacon cheeseburger, a burger topped with nacho cheese, a Big Boy-inspired "Salad Burger" topped with lettuce and thousand island, and the Major Dunn which comes topped with an onion ring and fried egg. As enticing as these options were, I was seeking authenticity, attempting to order the burger a depression-era customer would have experienced at Miner-Dunn, promising to gladly pay Tuesday for a hamburger today. I lingered for a minute when I saw my culinary frienemy, the olive burger on the menu, but ultimately decided on the basic cheeseburger when my server returned.

I ordered my cheeseburger with everything on it, which prompted the server to clarify if I wanted the "Miner-Dunn" everything. While Miner-Dunn offered a wide variety of burger toppings, a note on the menu specifies that in Miner-Dunn parlance, ordering a burger with everything will result in a sandwich topped with mustard, ketchup, relish, and onion. I took this to be a tradition that went back to the earliest days of the brand, and confirmed I did indeed want the Miner-Dunn everything. Using more jargon I had acquired from a thorough perusal of the menu, I also specified that I wanted it deluxe. At Miner-Dunn, deluxe means with fries and a serving of soft serve after the meal. Noting my expert order, my server disappeared and left me to bask in the hospital gown green aura of the Miner-Dunn dining room.

The view from my table

As with many places I visit, the decor was dated, but the building was clean and well-maintained. The Ford Explorer-shaped dent on the outside of the building was its only apparent imperfection. The edifice was immaculate aside from the scar of that recent calamity. The floral wallpaper and woodgrain surfaces inside brought back memories of the the kitchen in my granny Nova Scotia Actionsdower's house, which also boasted a floral sofa, harvest gold carpet and brown tile in the bathroom. Even the ketchup bottle on my table was the classic Heinz glass bottle that so many restaurants have shunned in favor of its squeezable plastic cousin. It was after a brief look around and a trip to the cramped, but sparkling clean bathroom that my food arrived.

You can barely see the damage. 

Obligatory floor tile detail

The burger was of the smashed patty variety, with its crispy edges hanging over the edge of the plain white bun. Smashing a raw ball of meat on a hot grill is a proven method of cooking a large amount of hamburgers quickly, and I assume this method had been around since the beginning. The taste was the transcendentally beefy experience I hoped it would be, as the meat tasted fresher and more premium than anything one would find at a larger, more successful chain that claims to use fresh never frozen beef. I don't recall ever having relish on a burger before, but it's a habit I could easily see myself getting into, as the sweet-sour pickleish flavor offered a counterpoint to the mustard that rendered the ketchup redundant. The fries' irregular shape and curl revealed them to be made from fresh-cut potatoes, but unlike many fresh-cut fries, these had a pleasantly crispy outside, indicating that they had been not only fresh cut, but twice fried to ensure a crispy crust, no doubt just as they had been nearly 90 years ago before pre-cut frozen french fries existed. The perfectly prepared potatoes lent an additional air of historical authenticity to the meal.

It had been a while since I had seen one of these. Pro tip: hold it at a 45 degree angle with the business end pointed downward and tap the little embossed 57s on the side and ketchup will come out every time. 

This was a great burger. I'd get a double next time though. 

When time came for dessert, I had the choice of soft serve vanilla ice cream, orange sherbet, or a swirl of the two. I opted for straight orange, and added a slice of pecan pie, which my especially helpful server offered to top with whipped cream. It was a suggestion which I emphatically accepted. She returned quickly, with a paper souffle cup overflowing with a K2-sized mountain of orange sherbet next to a slice of pie with an Everest-sized peak of canned whipped cream. I cleansed my palate with a few bites of perfectly acceptable sherbet before moving on to the pie.

I almost want to print this picture out and carry it in my wallet. 

Now, friends and neighbors, I fancy myself a pretty good baker of pecan pies. I use a variation of this recipe which I modify slightly, mostly by adding extra bourbon and using Stuckey's pecans when I can get my hands on them. I had long considered my own pecan pie to be my favorite, until I tasted Miner-Dunn's pecan pie. Whatever blend of brown sugar, butter, spices, and extracts they use is far superior to my blend of Old Grand-Dad and nuts from a gas station. The burger and fries were far above average, but the pie at Miner-Dunn will make it difficult for me not to stop in for a slice or two on future trips down I-94. It almost makes me wish I wasn't locked into the format of tracking the surviving locations of diminished chains so I could go off in search of more scrumtrulescent pie slices, but that very format is what makes my experience at Miner-Dunn so special.

Seeking out the remains of the diminished, struggling, and all but defunct brands has led me to experience all manner of good, bad, and ugly places, and in the face of bad and ugly, the good places seem better. Had I not experienced an incorrectly assembled breakfast sandwich at Grandy's, a microwaved Pillsbury biscuit at Horne's, or straight up food poisoning at Sirloin Stockade, I don't think I would appreciate finding a place like Miner-Dunn nearly as much as I do. Regardless of the quality of the food and experience, though, my primary goal is to experience and document the often overlooked glimpses into history that the locations of broken chains offer. It's the desire to find those experiences that guided me to this familiar format and away from making tacos and shopping for air fryers, and I wouldn't it any other way.

If you want to share a historic chain restaurant experience with me and other Broken Chains readers, then come join us for Raxgiving dinner in November at the Harlan, Kentucky Rax, the location that in my estimation, best exemplifies the 1980s heyday of the chain.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Individual Seeking Authentic Lactose Yearns Steadfastly

In my various silly adventures to surviving locations of broken chains, I try my best to find the essence, or at least what remains of the essence of the brand represented by each location. My curiosity and desire to document forgotten history motivate me to seek out the food and experiences that are represented by prickly, subjective, adjectives like “authentic” and “quintessential.” My success in finding the quintessentially authentic in the places I visit is varied. When circumstances allow, I try to visit multiple extant locations of the same chain to gain a well-rounded appreciation for the current state of a brand. However, in many instances, the lack of multiple surviving locations, and indeed my own limited time and resources prevents me from gaining the increased frame of reference that comes with stops at several outlets of the same brand.

I had been meaning to visit a couple places in Western Pennsylvania for months when I was afforded a narrow window of time to visit Pittsburgh on my way home from Johnstown, Pennsylvania where I ate at the last Pappy’s Family Pub. I had just enough time to stop just north of the city in West View at Isaly’s, one of around five survivors of a chain that once had over 300 units. Isaly’s, whose name rhymes with “fries, please” began with William Isaly whose chain of dairies spawned a chain of dairy stores which featured small restaurants. A loose corporate structure allowed the chain to expand rapidly, and by the early 1960s, Isaly’s locations were spread from Pennsylvania to Iowa. Isaly’s was known for its “chipped-chopped” ham sandwiches, "skyscraper" ice cream cones, which featured a tall, conical scoop of ice cream perched atop an ice cream cone, mirroring its shape. Advertising often used the mnemonic “I Shall Always Love You, Sweetie” to help customers remember the correct spelling of Isaly’s name. Most notably, however, Isaly’s developed an ice cream novelty that consisted of a square of vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate and wrapped in foil, the Klondike Bar, which has a fascinating history all of its own. Eventually, Isaly’s fell victim to the same loose corporate structure that had allowed it to grow so quickly. A lack of consistency and corporate oversight, coupled with widespread changes in the dairy industry caused the chain to shrink rapidly in the 1970s. The city of Pittsburgh had long embraced the Isaly’s brand to a greater extent than other markets, and the Pittsburgh area today is where three of the five remaining Isaly’s locations remain open. All remaining locations using the Isaly’s name seem to operate largely independently. While there wasn’t an abundance of consistency between Isaly’s locations in their heyday, there seems to be even less today.

Isaly's is among the most photogenic businesses I've visited for Broken Chains. 

My schedule was tight, and I could only visit a single Isaly’s location. I pored over Google Maps photos of each Pittsburgh-area Isaly’s, eventually deciding to visit the West View location based on the photos I found of its nicely-preserved interior. Surely, I could get a authentically quintessential Isaly’s experience in West View. I found my way into town on a Saturday morning. Isaly’s is situated on a quiet street lined with small storefronts on the ground floors of two and three style buildings in an old, but still vibrant neighborhood. I parked on the street at the end of the block and walked half a block uphill to Isaly’s. Following an ownership change a few years ago, the official name of this location was changed to the “I Shall Always Love You, Sweetie” mnemonic, but the sign of the building remained unchanged except for a period after each letter to reflect that it was an abbreviation for the full name. What awaited me past the minimally modified sign made good on Google’s promise of a time warp interior. 

Inside, it's a museum of old Isaly's decor and signage.

Original light fixtures hung from an ornate tin ceiling. Vintage Isaly’s signs and advertisements lined the walls. The tile floor was nearly identical to the tile floor in the bathroom I had when I lived in an apartment building that was built in 1937. While there were reminders of modernity here and there, it was clear that the owners of the West View Isaly’s had a deep appreciation for the brand’s history and wanted to share that appreciation with clientele. I could at least rest assured that I had found the most  authessentially quinthentic Isaly's dining room. I eschewed the modern tables and chairs and settled into an old built-in booth with an ancient Formica tabletop.

I really want to know what I could have won at Isaly's 60 years ago. Or are they raffling off that vent hood? 

A server appeared with a printed menu whose cover contained more allusions to the legacy of the Isaly’s brand. I decided then and there to order breakfast, and follow it up with ice cream to make the most out of my only planned Isaly's meal. Isaly’s specialty chipped ham was available as a breakfast side, so when I my server returned I ordered the pecan pancakes I always seem to end up ordering when I can, along with a side order of ham. 

I too am ashamed of the things I've done for a Klondike bar. 

Why yes, I do have a fixation with tile floors. Thank you for noticing. 

While waiting for my order to arrive, I played a word game with myself, trying to come up with other backronyms that could be represented by the constituent letters of Isaly’s. My fondness for raw denim nearly immediately led me to “Indigo Should Always Line Your Shins.” My cursory knowledge of former Cincinnati Bengals fullback Elbert “Ickey” Woods’ signature celebratory end zone dance resulted in “Ickey Shuffle Always Leaves You Sore.” Finally, I broke out the thesaurus app on my phone to string together a mnemonic to help me remember either Kentucky’s first governor, or the state where country musician Dwight Yoakam was born, but not both facts. “Isaac Shelby Antecedently Led Yoakam’s State.” I was pondering a fourth acrostic that involved iodine salve when my food showed up.

Pretty great pancakes. 

The pancakes came with individual cups of imitation maple syrup like you'd find at a continental breakfast at a mid-priced hotel, but the cakes themselves were fresh off the griddle and delicious. The ham was exactly what I expected, deli ham warmed up on the grill, but it was good quality ham that provided a salty counterpart to the sweet pancakes. I'd get it again, even if it wasn't the arithmetically quasquicentennial breakfast side of Isaly's. I was so busy pondering the flavors and significance of the briny, porky, historic, breakfast protein, that I didn't notice my server drop off my bill. Since my arrival the place had started to fill up, and the staff were busy tending to other customers. Not wanting to inconvenience the busy staff or stand out as a tourist in the busy neighborhood restaurant, I decided, in the moment to skip the ice cream and continue on my journey home. It's a decision I regret. 

I like my Waffle House hashbrowns scattered, smothered, and covered and my Isaly's ham chipped, chopped, and grilled. 

Since my visit to Isaly's, I haven't had an opportunity to go back to try the ice cream at that or any other locations. I haven't even had a chance to visit one of the handful of Pittsburgh-area grocery stores that I learned too late carry Isaly's branded ice cream. Indeed, all my recent travels and upcoming posts have led me to travel west from my Metro Detroit home, not east. I've had to settle for the occasional Klondike bar from my local Meijer for my Isaly's ice cream experience, but Unilever has been the sole producer of Klondikes since 1993, and my Eastern Ohio born and raised mother tells me that the modern Klondikes don't taste anything like Isaly's Klondikes did in the sixties. My Isaly's experience, while uniquely retro and historically hammy, falls short of feeling quintessential or authentic without ice cream, but that's something I'll have to live with for at least a few months until I get back to Pittsburgh. 

One of the many reasons I can't get back to Pittsburgh for Isaly's ice cream any sooner is that I'll be at Raxgiving at the Harlan, Kentucky Rax in November. If you're a fan of Broken Chains, the blog, or broken chains, the surviving locations of mostly defunct restaurant and retail chains, consider joining me for a meal and informal conversation. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

Rippin' Off the Ritz?

American Dennis
British Dennis

If the analytics tool I use to monitor page views for this blog is correct, approximately 82% of the recent readers of Broken Chains access it from a device with an American IP address. Another 2% access Broken Chains using a device with a British IP address. One could make any number of educated assumptions based on this data, but the assumption relative to today’s topic is that approximately 84% of the recent readers of this blog are familiar with a character known as Dennis the Menace. What might surprise the average American or British Broken Chains reader is that Dennis the Menace is a name used by two similar, yet distinctly different characters on either side of the Atlantic. 

Two separate cartoonists created each character, who share a name, a tendency to cause mischief, and a penchant for horizontal stripes. While American Dennis and British Dennis have a few differences, British Dennis is a few years older and is more of a troublemaker than his American counterpart who is younger and usually well-meaning, but inadvertently menacing. The similarities are striking. Surely, one must be an imitation of the other, right?

The last G.D. Ritzy's mascot sign in use, Huntington, West Virginia

I make no secret for my love of the down, but not out G.D. Ritzy’s restaurant chain that once boasted 120 locations. My enthusiasm for Ritzy’s and their surviving locations was a major catalyst that drove me to start this blog in the first place, along with some strong encouragement from my friend, Cosmo Roadpacer. Last spring, I visited all six of the loosely affiliated surviving locations, plus a seventh that would open the following fall. Not long after that, I had a G.D. Ritzy’s logo tattooed on my right arm. I was predictably interested when I learned of a nearly extinct restaurant chain that used a similar name and seemed to predate my beloved G.D. Ritzy’s by several decades.

Ritzee Hamburgs, Battle Creek, Michigan

Ritzee Hamburgs in Battle Creek, Michigan is the last surviving location of a local chain that once had multiple locations in Battle Creek, plus a few others in nearby, Jackson, Grand Rapids, and perhaps also Kalamazoo during its 1950s heyday. Given that imitation runs rampant in the fast food industry, whether it be Kewpee’s influence on Wendy’s or Big Boy’s influence on the Big Mac and Big Shef, I was curious to see if Ritzee Hamburgs had any direct influence on the similarly-named G.D. Ritzy’s, which began in Columbus, Ohio in 1980, well after the heyday of Ritzee Hamburgs. 

I suspect the sign predates the building. 

I found my way to Battle Creek early on a Friday evening en route southwest to Indiana. I parked in the shadow of the tall, angular neon sign advertising 79 cent burgers, and walked toward the imposing brown facade of the building adorned with hand painted signage. When I entered the building, it was clear it had received few updates since the 1970s. The booths were covered in harvest gold Naugahyde, and potted plants hung from the ceiling in macrame holders. That same ceiling was adorned with curious faux stained glass, faux skylights, while the floor was covered in the same faux woodgrain tile that I recall seeing in 1970s-built McDonald’s locations. The spartan menu board appeared era-appropriate to the rest of the dining room, and the drinks section included “imitation lemonade,” a drink just as authentic as the skylights. While the interior of Ritzee Hamburgs was equally dated as the practice of calling burgers “Hamburgs,” nothing looked to be alarmingly dirty or in disrepair. As with many of the places I visit, Ritzee was stuck in time.

The menu is anything but ritzy...

...but the dining room exudes all the 1970s luxury of a Chrysler Cordoba.

To anyone over the age of 30, these are McDonald's floor tiles. 

I ordered up a Ritz cheeseburger with everything as well as an olive burger, plus fries. (I don’t especially enjoy olive burgers, but I encounter them frequently when traveling in western Michigan. I order and force myself to eat one every so often in hopes that they’re an acquired taste.) After ordering, I took a seat, and took a few minutes to bask in the anachronistic majesty of my surroundings. It was a brief bask, though as my food was delivered quickly to my table on actual ceramic plates. 

That's an olive burger all right. 

Here's a conventional Ritzee burger.

I was curious if the burgers would bear any resemblance to those at G.D. Ritzy’s, and while both chains refer to their quarter pound burgers as a “Ritz” that’s where the similarities ended. The Ritz cheeseburger before me had a relatively thick, circular patty on a sesame seed bun. “Everything” at Ritzee means mustard, ketchup, pickle and onion. The fries were standard crinkle cuts, and the olive burger was… covered in green olives. While the food was decent enough, it was clear that G.D. Ritzy’s thin, irregularly-shaped, lacy-edged burger patties smashed flat on a ripping hot grill, on unseeded buns topped with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise in addition to ketchup, mustard, pickle, and onion had no direct relation to the burgers at Ritzee Hamburgs. Likewise, the crinkle cut fries at Ritzee had no resemblance to G.D. Ritzy’s shoestring fries. Ritzee also lacked the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, made from scratch ice cream, and Art Deco theme that make G.D. Ritzy’s feel fun and unique. Satisfied with the lack of similarity, I finished my meal, bused my table and walked out the door through the parking lot to my car, thinking there couldn’t possibly be a direct connection between Ritzee Hamburgs and G.D. Ritzy’s, when I saw it, another hand painted sign by the door featuring a fancy man with a mustache monocle, top hat and tuxedo who bore a striking resemblance to G.D. Ritzy’s mascot who wore a bowler hat, and in his earliest incarnations also had a monocle and mustache. Could the Ritzee Hamburgs fancy man have been the inspiration for the G.D. Ritzy’s fancy man? It at least seemed possible. 

Ritzee fancy boy
Early G.D. Ritzy's fancy boy,
note the mustache and monocle

In the US, Dennis the Menace comic strips first appeared in newspapers on March 12, 1951. Across the Atlantic on the very same day, issue 452 of the comic book, The Beano were on sale at newsstands all over the UK, a few days ahead of their March 17th issue date. Those comics were the first to feature the British Dennis the Menace. That’s right, both Dennises the Menaces first appeared on the very same day on different continents, created by different cartoonists for different publications, none of whom knew about the other Dennis. By all accounts, it was a complete coincidence. These kinds of coincidences happen occasionally in the chain restaurant world, notably to Waffle House and Burger King. Based on my experience at Ritzee Hamburgs, it seems likely that the similarities in name and mascot were at least mostly coincidental.

According to Wiktionary, the word "Ritzy" describing something elegant or luxurious is an eponym derived from the name of Swiss hotelier César Ritz, founder of the high-end hotels known today as Ritz-Carltons. The name of both restaurant chains is therefore likely to have a common etymological ancestor in César Ritz. Additionally, the disappearance of the monocle and mustache from the G.D. Ritzy's mascot implies that the operators of that chain at least gained an awareness of Ritzee Hamburgs. I tend to assume the original G.D. Ritzy's was created with no awareness of the similar Ritzee mascot, after all, what makes a fellow look ritzier than a monocle and mustache? Adding them seems like a decision that was reached organically in the case of both chains. I do however, suspect that at some point G.D. Ritzy's management became aware of the pre-existing Ritzee Hamburgs mascot and removed the mustache and monocle from their own mascot to prevent the possibility of finger pointing or worse, litigation.

A hamburger for under a dollar is as hard to find as a sit-down Pizza Hut.
I was on my return trip from points west of Battle Creek with this post fully written in my head, when it occurred to me that I hadn't tried the 79 cent burgers advertised on the ancient sign out front of Ritzee. I stopped by as an afterthought to see how much burger 79 cents would buy in 2019, this time ordering via the drive thru. While the burger I received was a little light on meat and heavier than bread than is ideal, it has way more of both than what you'd find on a White Castle slider, which costs a few cents more. It's the ritziest sub-one dollar burger I've encountered in this decade, and like every other menu item at Ritzee Hamburgs, it's also completely unlike anything at G.D. Ritzy's, mascots aside. 

If you'd care to join me in an in person discussion over food that is strikingly similar to what you'd find at Arby's, consider coming to Raxgiving at the Harlan, Kentucky Rax this November. I'll be there to hang out with readers of Broken Chains in a thematically appropriate setting.

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