Friday, February 15, 2019

Three Meals at Country Kitchen



Late last year, I took a week long, ten state road trip that took me to virtually every place I ended up writing about in January of this year. I had carefully planned out an itinerary that would take me to as many broken chains as possible, but the morning after a 600 mile chain restaurant marathon in the upper Midwest followed by a restless night in a noisy Airbnb in Iowa that was essentially a glorified Motel 6, I slept a couple of hours later than I intended, ruining my plans for the day.

My blown itinerary had in included a stop at the last Mister Donut in the US, located in Godfrey, Illinois, but Mister Donut was five and a half hours away and closed at 2 PM. My late departure meant that I wouldn’t be in the area in time to stop there before they closed for the day. Thankfully, I was still on track for my quarterly pilgrimage to Evansville, Indiana, home of my favorite G.D. Ritzy’s locations, where I’d be having dinner that evening and lunch the following day, but the midday meal on my way to Evansville was suddenly in question. Rather than researching potential stops, I opted instead to roll the dice, and point my car toward Evansville, keeping an eye out for a lunch stop that might generate blog content.

I was in Hannibal, Missouri when I was beginning to feel hungry, and coincidentally spotted a Country Kitchen, a broken chain I had been meaning to check out for months. I took this as a sign from Uncle Alligator, Burger Chef and Jeff, Queenie Bee, and the rest of the pantheon of diminished chain restaurant mascots that it was time for me to research and write a Country Kitchen post.

Two guys named Bill opened the first Country Kitchen in Cincinnati in 1939 selling nickel hamburgers and ten cent steak sandwiches. The single location grew into a local chain through the ‘40s and ‘50s, and in 1958, the Bills, Johnson and Goodman, began franchising their restaurant concept, which eventually evolved into a full service restaurant with a full menu of diner food with extensive breakfast offerings. The chain was sold to Carlson in 1977, and the hospitality conglomerate expanded the chain across the US, peaking at around 340 locations. Economic downturns in the late ‘70s and increased competition from fast food chains forced Carlson to get creative with marketing Country Kitchen. They eventually conceived the Country Inn hotel chain, which was meant to include a Country Kitchen restaurant in the hotel or on the same property, Howard Johnson style. Few Country Inns would get this treatment, however. In 1997 Carlson sold the Country Kitchen brand to Kitchen Investment Group, the largest Country Kitchen franchisee, but retained the Country Inn brand.

As market demographics and tastes have changed over the years, Country Kitchen has been struggling to remain relevant and shedding locations ever since leaving Carlson’s brand portfolio. Of the 340
Country Kitchens that were in operation during the Carlson era, only 28 remain today, mostly in the Midwestern US with a few outposts on the coasts and a single surviving location in Canada.

Upon seeing the Country Kitchen open for business in Hannibal, I hatched a plan. I’d eat there, and later visit the Country Kitchen in Marshall, Michigan that I had driven past a thousand times when I was on the way to somewhere else on I-94. Maybe I could even find a third one open somewhere within a reasonable distance so I could get the full breakfast, lunch, dinner experience at three different locations. With visions of an elaborate blog post dancing in my head, I walked in the front door of the Hannibal Country Kitchen and was immediately transported back to 1992. 


Early '90s nondescript architecture at its finest



Meal #1
Location: Country Kitchen, 4803 McMasters Avenue Hannibal, Missouri
Order: Smoked Sausage Skillet, pancakes, Diet Coke
Summary: Ovum Falsa

Inside it's clear the place hasn't changed much in the past 25 or so years. 


The building housing the Hannibal Country Kitchen has an aesthetic rooted squarely in the early ‘90s. The building styled to resemble a farmhouse with its prominent gables and long front porch and the interior decor with its blond wood and brass accents are all straight out of the Better Homes and Gardens and Southern Living magazines my parents kept around the house when I was a kid in the ‘90s. The look would have been charming in its day, but has not aged well in my opinion. Even so, the dining area was clean, and high ceilings gave it a pleasant light airy feeling. I was pleased to find a surprising amount of reasonably modern seeming signage and marketing materials. Unlike a lot of fading restaurant chains, Country Kitchen is working hard to lure customers with regular promotions. 

Yet marketing materials are everywhere. 

I should have bought a gift card for my collection.


I was quickly shown to a booth near the kitchen. It was late morning on a Saturday, and the place was moderately busy. My waitress came and took my order in a reasonably quick timeframe. On the menu, the smoked sausage skillet I ordered was pictured with sunny side up eggs. I assumed she’d ask how I wanted my eggs prepared after I ordered, but instead, she disappeared without asking a single follow-up question. I assumed I’d be getting my eggs as pictured on the menu, which would have been fine, but the skillet showed up topped with unpleasantly dry scrambled eggs, denying me the simple pleasure of runny yolk in every bite of my skillet breakfast. Additionally, the slices of smoked sausage nestled among the boring, not even a little runny, scrambled eggs were just on the wrong side of the line between caramelized and burned. As I mentioned in my post about my visit to the last operating Horne’s, I have high breakfast standards as a result of the numerous Coney Island-style restaurants around me in my Metro Detroit home, but I think anyone would have been disappointed by the sausage and eggs. The pancakes, at least, were decently light and fluffy and came with three different syrup flavors. 

The pancakes didn't quite redeem the abomination on the right. 

To my surprise, my waitress brought a handheld electronic credit card reader to my table when it came time to pay my bill, which allowed me to pay at my convenience without leaving the table. I never thought I’d see such a modern appliance in a setting so dated, but it was welcome. One of my greatest annoyances is when a server drops off my bill and disappears for ten minutes, or worse, takes my credit card with the bill and runs to some obscure alcove in the bowels of the kitchen to run my card and steal my identity. Any restaurant that lets me pay my bill electronically at the table will get more business from me. I’d drive back to Hannibal just so I could pay this way again, though I’d be more specific when ordering eggs next time. 




Meal #2
Location: Country Kitchen 3150 Ohio Route 350 Lebanon Ohio
Order: Country Boy burger platter with fries and coleslaw, Wild Blueberry Flapjack Cake, Coke Zero
Summary: “The Old Home Fill ‘er Up and Keep on a-Truckin’ Cafe”



Thanks to a misspent youth watching movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Citizens Band, I’m a massive fan of 1970s trucker and CB radio culture. The undisputed king of trucker music in this era was Bill Fries, who used the stage name, C.W. McCall. (I, Zapediah Q. Actionsdower, don’t understand why anyone would want to use a pseudonym for their public persona.) You’ve probably heard, “Convoy,” McCall’s biggest hit which inspired a Sam Peckinpah film of the same name, but this particular Country Kitchen location reminds me of one of his deeper cuts, namely “The Old Home Fill ‘er Up and Keep on a-Truckin’ Cafe,” a song which details a trucker’s courtship with Mavis, a waitress at his favorite truckstop, known as the Old Home Fill ‘er Up and Keep on a-Truckin’ Cafe. The song’s chorus repeats the comically long and folksy name of the place repeatedly, and concludes with McCall proclaiming, “They’ve got a real nice place there.”

This place made the last Country Kitchen look brand new by comparison. 


“A real nice place” is also how I’d describe the Lebanon Country Kitchen. The diminutive brick building with its Waffle House-esque yellow mansard roof is situated just off I-71 northeast of Cincinnati. An ancient billboard by the interstate advertises its presence, and a busy, modern Flying J truck stop is right next door. The Country Kitchen has big rig parking too. The anachronistic Country Kitchen stands in stark contrast to its shiny new neighbor. Once you’re inside, the Country Kitchen, it’s clear the place dates back to a time when every car had a CB radio and half a dozen ash trays, and transporting Coors beer east of the Mississippi was considered bootlegging. From the paneling on the walls to the shingled awning over the kitchen area, the whole place felt straight out of a ‘70s road movie. I half expected Sheriff Buford T. Justice to come in and order a diablo sandwich and a Dr. Pepper.
The view from my seat; they're not ashamed of that microwave. 


The place had a retro, but not retro on purpose feel. 


At the direction of a sign telling me to seat myself, picked a vinyl swivel chair at the ancient counter. Despite the vintage greasy spoon vibe of the place, it didn’t feel dirty. I’d go so far as to call it spotless. The odd juxtaposition of dated and clean put me at ease as I perused the menu. It was my second Country Kitchen meal, so even though it was late afternoon, I ordered a typical lunch, which included a Country Boy burger, Country Kitchen’s answer to the Big Boy, which I ordered with fries and coleslaw in Big Boy fashion. 

Not a great photo, but I had to bob and weave through a very busy truck stop parking lot to get a shot of the old sign by the interstate. 


As I sat at the counter awaiting my order, I noticed the place beginning to fill up with mostly older people, who all seemed to know the staff. It was 5:00 on a Saturday and the regular crowd, as if prompted by some unseen and unheard Billy Joel cover band, was shuffling in. The previously quiet little dining room took on a warm family atmosphere as the crowd exchanged pleasantries and tired jokes among themselves and with the staff. I took them to be a mix of locals and truckers who stop by regularly when passing through. 

A little uninspired, but still better than Frisch's. 

Just as I was beginning to tire of people watching, my order arrived. The Country Boy is unusual among Big Boy imitators, as it’s toppings include a tomato slice, which, while unorthodox for this particular burger genre, was not unwelcome. The special sauce the menu promised seemed to be nothing more than mayonnaise. Still, it was on a genuine three piece bun, and according to my research, I was lucky to find a Country Boy at all. It’s not listed on the Country Kitchen website’s menu, and multiple online customer reviews of other Country Kitchen locations seem to note its absence. In ordering it, I stumbled onto an officially discontinued menu item still hanging on at a handful of locations. With so few Country Kitchens left, could this be the last one that serves a Country Boy? It certainly seems possible if not likely. 


More current marketing; This time I couldn't resist. 

I still have dreams about this cake. 
I found more current marketing when the dessert course came, in the form of a paper sign on the table advertising a “blueberry flapjack cake,” which couldn’t resist ordering. The layers of maple creme between wedges of subtly sweet cake freckled with baked-in blueberries that were set before me seemed overly sophisticated and out of place at an old truck stop, but this was the best thing I ate on my Country Kitchen excursion. Despite it intentionally being served cold, it perfectly encapsulated the essence of eating a blueberry pancake breakfast while being a perfectly satisfying dessert. I didn’t even mind that it added six bucks and change to my bill. Everything about this particular Country Kitchen led me to conclude that they’ve got a real nice place there. Ask for Mavis if you ever stop by.

Meal #3
Location: Cafe by Country Kitchen, 2487 M-139 Benton Harbor, Michigan
Order: Kitchen Sink Omelette, hash browns, pancakes, Diet Coke
Summary: “Breakfast for Dinner”



As I was googling the Marshall, Michigan Country kitchen to check its hours of operation, I was not terribly shocked to learn that it had gone out of business. With only enough time for a day trip, and with a self-imposed deadline for a Country Kitchen post looming, I drove an hour past the husk of the Marshall Country Kitchen to the next nearest location in Benton Harbor. Annoyingly, the Benton Harbor location was a “Cafe by Country Kitchen,” essentially a Country Kitchen that only serves breakfast and lunch. This blew my plan of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at three different Country Kitchens. Even though I was there at 11 AM, I’m counting my visit there as breakfast for dinner since it’s my third and final meal of my exploration of the Country Kitchen brand.

R.I.P. Marshall Country Kitchen. I hardly knew ye. 

In many ways, the Cafe by Country Kitchen in Benton Harbor, Michigan is similar to its counterpart in Hannibal, Missouri. The building is a similar, if not identical design. Much of the same dated decor is present on the inside. Additionally, it’s clear the restaurant’s surroundings were past their prime. After exiting the interstate, I passed two abandoned motels and a handful of seedy gas stations in the less than one mile stretch from I-94 to the restaurant. 

Long live the Cafe by Country Kitchen in Benton Harbor!

Once inside, however, I found a dining room as clean as the one I experienced in Lebanon, Ohio, and unlike its fraternal twin in Hannibal, Missouri, there appeared to have been a few updates made in this century. It was late morning on a Sunday, and the place was packed with the typical mix of the after church crowd and people with hangovers. I was seated at one of the few empty tables. Resigning myself to breakfast food, I ordered a kitchen sink omelette with pancakes. 

The view from my table. I believe the tile and stone in the kitchen area to be modern additions. 

This breakfast is the best dinner I ever had at 11 AM. 
 

My order took the better part of half an hour to arrive. I overheard my waitress say one of the cooks didn’t show up and the kitchen was backed up as a result, but what showed up at my table was the best omelette I’ve had since my trip to Omelette Shoppe. It even surpassed the omelettes I get from my favorite Coney Island on the regular. While it didn’t have quite the diversity of ingredients the Perkins Everything Omelette contains, the green peppers, onions, hash browns, bacon, and sausage provided a nice balance of flavors and textures. I didn’t even mind that the pancakes only came with one flavor of syrup. 

Award winning


A post-meal trip to the bathroom revealed several awards on the wall in the corridor, the most recent being 2017. Despite the chain’s ever-shrinking footprint, Kitchen Investment Group appears to be actively involved in attempts to keep the brand alive, whether it be new menu items, awards bestowed to franchisees, or up to date marketing materials. I couldn’t help but think that if Country Kitchen has a chance at a future, it’s future would resemble the Benton Harbor location. 

Limited menu with an eye toward optimizing profitability. 

Demographic changes have led to hard times for many family restaurant chains with menus full of classic diner food. Bob Evans and Denny’s have both shuttered quite a few locations recently. For a smaller chain with shallower pockets like Country Kitchen, these struggles must look especially ominous, but the Benton Harbor Cafe by Country Kitchen as employed a savvy strategy to weather the storm.

A wise woman once posed the question, “Why does anybody in the world ever eat anything but breakfast food?” Whoever devised the Cafe by Country Kitchen concept took this prompt and ran with it. The breakfast menu is Country Kitchen’s strength. Brunch chains like First Watch and Wild Eggs are thriving right now while evening diners prefer more upmarket restaurants that serve alcohol. By ditching the lackluster dinner menu and money-losing evening operating hours from Country Kitchen, Cafe by Country Kitchen, plays to its strengths, and becomes a perfectly viable breakfast joint with a few token sandwiches and burgers on the menu for the lunch crowd. While the building is dated, and its neighbors are decaying, a few updates, like tile against the back wall and an impeccably clean dining room make the interior of the restaurant feel almost modern and perfectly pleasant. It’s a place I could see myself returning to if I happened to be in Western Michigan at breakfast time. Realistically though, I can’t help but think that he revamp of a few locations is insufficient and came at too late a time to save a struggling, fragmented, restaurant chain whose 28 surviving locations are spread coast to coast across 16 states and one Canadian province.

In the early 1980s, Howard Johnson restaurant franchisees found themselves orphaned. Their corporate parent had been divided and sold off in pieces to owners that had little interest in maintaining the restaurant brand. The franchisees joined forces to form Franchise Associated Incorporated (FAI) and worked together to keep the franchised locations in operation while maintaining brand identity. A few efforts were made to modernize aging buildings and menus, but FAI didn’t have the resources to keep the Howard Johnson restaurant brand current, and ceased operation in 2005. Today, the Howard Johnson restaurant brand is essentially defunct.

I can’t help but think that Country Kitchen’s current status is analogous to Howard Johnson’s during the FAI era. Both are dated, shrinking restaurant chains that were separated from their respective companion hotel brands and put in the control of franchisees. Despite valiant efforts by FAI, Howard Johnson restaurants faded into obscurity, and as dining trends continue to change, and the value of the Country Kitchen brand continues to diminish, I foresee a similar future for Country Kitchen in the coming years. For now though, two thirds of the surviving locations seem to be more than decent, based on my informal survey with a sample size of three restaurants. If you like those odds, and happen to be near a Country Kitchen, give them a try while you still can. Two thirds of you will be glad you 
did. 


Thursday, February 7, 2019

Same Food, Different Name



Approximately zero of my loyal readers would be surprised to learn that in my adolescence, I was a massive fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s unique brand of novelty music. His clever reworkings of pop songs, and his brilliant, yet underrated original songs spoke to my specific sensibilities, and indeed the sensibilities of a certain type of middle schooler in general. As I grew older, my enthusiasm for Weird Al waned, but I occasionally give him a nostalgic listen on Spotify, both to hear the classic songs I listened to on my Sony Discman in the ‘90s and to check out his later works. “Lame Claim to Fame” is a song from his 2014 album, Mandatory Fun, that I’ve latched onto lately.

The song is basically a long list of the narrator’s circuitous, unremarkable connections to minor celebrities, and while my sister never took piano lessons from Ralph Nader’s second cousin, I feel a connection to the song, not because of an interest in celebrity culture, but because this blog is essentially a list of my own lame claims to fame. Whether I’m trapped in the Drive Thru at Central Park, playing Big Boy Bingo all November long, or getting a G.D. Ritzy’s tattoo, the accomplishments I brag about to my friends are all pretty silly. Of all my dubious achievements, the one I’m perhaps the most proud of is visiting every surviving Rax Roast Beef location. 

I got this tattoo a couple of weeks ago. If you follow the Broken Chains Facebook Page, you already knew about it.

I started out as a Rax virgin, and began my quest by first visiting the three freestanding Rax locations in Ohio, finding them completely underwhelming and failing to understand the present day appeal of Rax until I visited the charming time capsule that is the Joliet, Illinois Rax. I went on to dine at a fourth Ohio Rax that was haphazardly cobranded with Long John Silver’s, which sadly has since closed. Finally, I visited the impeccably run Harlan, Kentucky Rax last fall, and the competition of my travels to every Rax became the story of the first Raxgiving

Rax, like roughly half of the brands I explore here, still has a corporate parent in charge of the brand, and unlike places like Kewpee, Hot ‘n Now, or Uncle John’s Pancake House, Rax franchisees do not enjoy the level of autonomy that comes with surviving the demise of a parent company. They’re also required to pay franchise fees, which, ideally, would give them the benefits associated with being part of an established, thriving chain.

Following a long, complicated history of mergers, acquisitions, name changes, restaurant closures, and general decline, the Rax trademark ended up in the control of Rich Donohue’s company, From Rax to Rich’s. (a company name which sounds like it could be a title of a Weird Al deep cut;) Donahue, a longtime Rax manager, turned Rax franchisee, turned Rax CEO seems to have adopted the strategy of simplifying the menu of his own Rax location in Ironton, Ohio, and the other two Ohio Rax locations have followed suit. The limited menu is no doubt a reaction to the massive and ever-changing list of food offerings that scared loyal customers away from Rax in the ‘80s. The result of this strategy is that the Ohio Rax locations are limited to a lackluster menu of sandwiches and sides that fail to make them stand out in the modern fast food landscape. While the Illinois and Kentucky Rax locations thrive and make for a perfectly pleasant meal experience thanks to their impeccably maintained ‘80s style Endless Salad Bars, the salad bar-less Ohio Rax locations feel utterly generic beyond the nostalgic novelty of the Rax brand. While the salad bar locations felt vibrant and busy on my visits, the stripped-down Ohio locations I’ve visited have never seemed especially popular. It would stand to reason, therefore, that a franchised Rax location bound to the spartan modern menu has little incentive to remain affiliated with the Rax brand. 



Judging from timestamped photos on Google and Yelp, the Rax in Bellefontaine, Ohio shed its Rax branding at some point between April and September of 2017, and became the similar, but legally distinct Rancher’s Roast Beef* whose signage bills itself as as having the “same food, different name” spelled out right below a prominent labelscar of the Rax logo. The building is unlike any other current or former Rax I’ve come across. The green and tan stucco on the outside makes me suspect this is one of the few Rax locations that was built in the early ‘90s after the buildings with slotted windows and solariums fell out of favor. As a result, I don’t believe this location ever had a salad bar. Inside, the walls are bare except for advertising a Disney vacation planning service, perhaps the owner’s curious side hustle. In addition to the cartoon mouse-based revenue stream several factors seem to have kept this particular not-quite-Rax in business in a time when fully 99% of other Rax locations have closed for good. 


"Would you care for a Disney vacation with your sandwich?"

The building is situated near the intersection of two major highways that see a decent amount of traffic. Additionally, Bellefontaine’s Arby’s is located at the far end of town. Rancher’s also boasts a 24 hour drive thru, which could be an attractive alternative to the Waffle House across the street, which is sure to be crowded after the bars close. Likewise, the nearby McDonald’s closes at midnight. Losing the Rax name and the obligation to pay franchise fees surely reduced overhead significantly. Presumably, the Rax brand has so little recognition these days that losing it didn't cause a significant dropoff in business, especially since not much changed other than the name. 
 
There's still a little Rax magic left in this old menu board, just no Rax logos. 
The interior is clean, but a little rough around the edges, and generally bland. There’s a small dining area with no decor to speak of. The menu board is an ancient Rax unit with any and all branding removed. During my first visit, I ordered up a regular roast beef sandwich and a barbecue beef sandwich. Unlike every location still flying the Rax flag, Rancher’s has a self-serve Coke Freestyle machine which looks quite incongruous in the well-worn dining room. Drinks at all other surviving Rax restaurants are poured by the staff behind the counter, ‘80s style. 

Sauceless

Sauceful

Despite the different name and modern beverage service, my sandwiches were virtually indistinguishable from their Rax analogs, with the barbecue beef having the perfect blend of smoky, spicy, and tangy flavors hiding behind an overpowering sweetness that no doubt comes from an alarming amount of corn syrup in the sauce. The regular roast beef was distinctly Rax as well, which is to say, it tasted like a regular roast beef at Arby’s, except with slightly thicker, chewier meat. Unlike the official Rax locations in Ohio, my food came out hot at Rancher’s. 

Rax by any other name would taste as beefy. 


The next time I was in the area, I stopped by again, this time to sample the CBB, Rancher’s version of the Rax Bacon Beef and Cheddar also known as the BBC. What I got was a decent imitation, though the roll was a bit smaller, and the cheese sauce didn’t have the right flavor. I’ve seen modern pictures of containers of a proprietary Rax-branded cheese sauce, and I suspect that since Rancher’s no longer have access to it, they’ve substituted an off the shelf Cheez Whiz-type product. They also didn’t bother to warm it up, so I got a sandwich with hot beef and bacon and room temperature liquid cheese. The real Rax BBC would blow this imitator away, even if it came from the worst Ohio Rax. To quote Weird Al, “If it’s getting cold, reheat it!” On the bright side, my twisty fries were freshly cooked, and tasted just like Rax twisty fries, which is to say they tasted just like Arby’s curly fries. I also got a seriously tasty peanut butter shake on this visit, which is a shake flavor I haven’t seen at any Rax.

Overall, I’d put Rancher’s a notch above its Rax counterparts in Ironton, Lancaster, and Circleville, Ohio, but several notches below the Harlan and Joliet locations. It’s roughly on par with the dear departed Long John Silver’s Rax combo as an odd Rax-related curiosity with a decent interpretation of Rax food. If you’re looking for a Rax experience in Ohio, and you don’t mind not sitting in a solarium and a palpable absence of Uncle Alligator from the menu, you could do worse than dining at Rancher’s. 

Generic fast food. 

In the United States, parody is considered fair use, and as a result, “Weird Al” Yankovic is not legally required to get permission from musical artists to parody their songs. (He gets permission anyway because he’s a nice guy.) I’m not as well versed in fast food law as, say, an actual lawyer, but I can’t help but think that From Rax to Rich’s could build a decent legal case against Rancher’s for infringing on their intellectual property. After all, they seem to be blatantly imitating, and not meaningfully transforming the Rax concept. I doubt however that From Rax to Rich’s has the legal budget or the manpower necessary to pursue litigation at this point. I suspect Rancher’s and Rax will coexist until one brand or another closes up shop without as much as a cease and desist letter being sent. 

 

*Confusingly, the Rancher’s in Bellefontaine seems to have no affiliation with restaurants also called Rancher’s Roast Beef in nearby New Carlisle, Washington Court House, and Greenfield, Ohio. These Ranchers are owned by a former Arby’s franchisee.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Pay as You Exit



Imagine you’re running a dated, but still thriving chain restaurant in a small town, and a lone weirdo comes in for lunch. He thinks he’s being sneaky taking pictures of signs, menus, the dining room, and his food with his phone, but he’s not. He takes forever to order, and is way too excited about the seemingly mundane signs and decor of your business. After generally making a spectacle of himself for the duration of his meal, this solitary eccentric proceeds to leave the restaurant without paying, snapping a picture of the door on his way out. Would you be annoyed? Would you call the cops? Had I been the manager of the Western Sizzlin’ in Lima, Ohio, the answer to both of those questions would probably be yes. Few of you will be surprised to learn I was not the restaurant manager, and that in fact, I was, am, and always will be the weirdo.

Western Sizzlin’ is a chain that has special meaning to me. During my Central Kentucky Childhood, my cousin Fifi Actionsdower worked as a waitress at the local Western Sizzlin. As a result, every celebratory family dinner would be had there, and we’d always ask to be seated in Fifi’s section presumably so my father, Aunt Sis (of G.D. Ritzy’s fame), and Granny Nova Scotia Actionsdower, could each leave Fifi a generous tip. As a kid, I loved going there. The salad bar had unlimited tiny ham cubes. (We called them ham boxes in my family.) There was fried chicken on the buffet, and the dessert bar was every kid’s dream, with a soft serve machine you could operate yourself and a topping bar that included gummy bears. Even when the adults lingered long after the meal to discuss their various boring adult topics at length, I didn’t mind. I kept going back to the dessert bar and constructing increasingly elaborate soft serve creations. Some were even topped with ham boxes. The magic didn’t last forever, though. Our local Western Sizzlin’ closed in the early 2000s, and I’d go more than 15 years without eating at another one.

Nicholas Pascarella opened the first Western Sizzlin’ in Augusta, Georgia in 1962. According to company folklore, Pascarella’s vehicle suffered a flat tire while he was out scouting locations to open his restaurant, and that Pascarella was convinced by employees at the tire shop repairing the flat that he should open for business in Augusta. The business grew to a regional chain under Pascarella’s management, peaking at around 350 locations. Nicholas Pascarella died in 1988, and the business was sold to Pizza Hut cofounder Frank Carney, and promptly entered chapter 11 bankruptcy. Since emerging from bankruptcy, the Western Sizzlin’ brand has changed ownership multiple times and is currently owned by Biglari Holdings, the same company that’s currently running Steak ‘n Shake into the ground. There are around 52 Western Sizzlin’ locations open today, mostly in the southeastern U.S.

I was not overly optimistic as I made my way down I-75 to the northernmost surviving Western Sizzlin’ in Lima, Ohio. Chains that still have a corporate parent involved tend to be a mixed bag, but Uncle Alligator, the patron deity of endangered chain restaurants, was smiling a big toothy ‘gator grin on me that day and sent me a good omen.

My low tire pressure light came on.

On any other ten degree day, this would have been annoying, but I was on my way to a location of a restaurant chain that began with a flat tire. Clearly this was a good sign. I hopped off the interstate and aired up my tires at a gas station. I confirmed that I had indeed been blessed with a nail in my right rear tire. Gambling that the leak was slow enough that it wouldn’t cause me significant problems, I opted not to put the spare on, and continued with my trip, arriving at the Lima Western Sizzlin’ a short while later.

Meanwhile back at the ranch...


Corridor to deliciousness
This dining room felt like a Star Trek Holodeck simulation of the Western Sizzlin' of my youth. 

I was pleased to find the building housing the restaurant largely unmodified since its construction in 1978, resembling a long, low ranch house with big windows and dark green trim. It appeared exactly as the Western Sizzlin’ of my childhood did. Upon entering, the interior of the building completed the time travel that the exterior began. The layout and decor of the inside of the place were just as I remembered. Even the same coin operated machines were present in the entryway. It felt like the beginning of a family birthday dinner in 1996 as I snaked my way around the perimeter of the dining room in the corridor designed to handle a line of hungry diners. I found my way to the order counter, and after taking a few moments to be indecisive, ordered up a petite sirloin with a baked potato and a trip to the salad bar. I promised myself I’d stop in on my return trip the following day to sample the bounty of the buffet and make myself a ham box sundae for nostalgia’s sake.

In retrospect, I don't recall there being a cash register at the order counter. Strange.

I took my tray and headed to my table with a minor nagging thought that I had forgotten something. Had the employee running the order counter run my credit card? Surely she must have. I even had a receipt right there on my tray. I selected a booth in a roughly equivalent spot to the area in which my family would sit at our Western Sizzlin’ in my youth, and headed to the salad bar, determined to sample as much as I could. I loaded my salad plate up with a variety of salad bar offerings, all of which were perfectly fresh and tasty. The potato salad really stood out, as it appeared to have been made with mashed potatoes. Maybe it’s their way of using leftover mashed spuds, but I found the presentation novel, and even preferential to conventional potato salad.

The salad bar was nicely kept and had decent variety. 


Upon my return to my table, I found my tray had been removed, and replaced with a steakhouse trope, namely a basket of yeast rolls with cinnamon butter. They’re a trope for a reason, though, and that reason is deliciousness. I was halfway through my second roll when my steak arrived. I’ve said before that steak is tough to mess up, and this steak was decidedly not messed up. Western Sizzlin’ sears the top of the steak as well as the bottom as it cooks, and refers to steaks cooked using this process as FlameKist™ steaks. I don’t know that the FlameKissing™ process had a noticeable effect, but as sirloins go, this one was more tender and flavorful than average. The potato was nicely cooked, and whoever had prepared it did that thing where they cut the top of the potato and squeeze the ends together so fluffy potato guts spill out. I like it when they do that thing. As if I hadn’t eaten enough starches, my steak came with a piece of buttered Texas Toast, which I must admit wasn’t entirely unwelcome.


The steak was pretty great, but look at those potato guts!


Upon finishing my meal and attempting to discreetly take a few more pictures, I took my leave, and walked across the parking lot to my van where I was entering my next destination into my GPS, when a man waved outside my window attempting to get my attention. I cautiously opened my window a crack to see what he wanted. When he informed me I had failed to pay for my meal, it immediately made sense in retrospect. I definitely didn’t remember paying when I had ordered, and what I thought was my receipt was actually a bill, which I should have paid on the way out. Embarrassed, I quickly followed my pursuer back into the restaurant, feeling grateful that he had dealt with the misunderstanding in such a gracious manner. He explained that people paid on the way out so that pricing adjustments could be made if they had any complaints, and that he had noticed I was taking pictures inside and figured I was from out of town and therefore unfamiliar with the process. He wasn’t wrong, but I was also mortified he noticed me attempting to document the undisturbed interior of the restaurant. I’m always a little self-conscious when I’m taking pictures in public, and I make efforts to maintain a low profile when I do. To have been noticed geeking out over an old steakhouse, and forgetting to pay my bill made me more self conscious about my natural awkwardness than usual. Luckily my benevolent pursuer didn’t mind any of this too much, and when I attempted to explain myself by saying I hadn’t been to a Western Sizzlin’ in 15 years, and I had happy childhood memories associated with the brand, he opened up, stating that he had gotten his start with Western Sizzlin’ decades ago washing dishes and that he sees a lot of nostalgic patrons coming through. Based on this conversation, I took him to be the owner of the place, and as such he surely had a good deal of experience dealing with weirdos like me.

Right...

...out of...

...my childhood!

Awkward moments aside, I had a great meal at Western Sizzlin. I once remarked that my sad dilapidated local Ponderosa would quickly close if a Golden Corral opened across the street, but the Lima Western Sizzlin’ is literally across the street from a Golden Corral, and still manages to not only survive, but thrive. The building is outdated in the best sense of the word, and is clean and nicely maintained. The food was well above average quality, and it goes without saying that the staff was more than courteous. The value for money was good too. When I finally did pay my bill, it was under $15, a pretty great value considering all I got. I would say that I plan on returning soon, but the whole forgetting to pay thing was sufficiently embarassing that I didn’t make it back for the buffet on my return trip. My entirely reasonable level of social anxiety will probably keep me away from the Lima Western Sizzlin’ for a couple months, but I’ll be back eventually. You, the reader, should check it (and Kewpee) out too if you’re ever in the area. Just remember to pay as you exit.

I'll be back for you, buffet...

...someday.


Saturday, January 26, 2019

The (Nonspecific) Chef




In a couple of weeks, I'll have been travelling in pursuit of broken chain experiences for a full year. In that year, I've made some unexpected discoveries that I found truly surprising. The outlets of otherwise extinct, or at least rapidly disappearing chains I thought I'd never have the opportunity to visit make me constantly recall the title of my very first blog post. With every holdout business I stumble upon with help from my loyal readers and Google, I repeat it like a mantra.




I've consistently been surprised and impressed with the places that are still open for business as usual, decades after the majority of their sister locations have closed up shop. Just when I think I've discovered everything within a reasonable driving distance, I turn over more rocks and find more places that call to me with the siren song of obsolescence.

Once a Burger Chef, always a Burger Chef

Over the summer, I visited a place called Suzi's Hamburgers located in South Charleston, West Virginia, and found it to be a relatively faithful recreation of a mid 1970s Burger Chef including operating out of an era-appropriate Burger Chef building. I had previously assumed Burger Chef to be completely extinct. In my excitement, I composed a blog post that, in retrospect, I realize discusses the history of the chain a bit too much, and my experience at that specific location not quite enough. A few months later, to my ever-increasing surprise, I would be afforded a second chance to write about Burger Chef. 

This is The Chef. In addition to reasonably-priced chicken biscuits, he makes burgers. 

While I was in the Volunteer State visiting Central Park locations, I found myself in Cleveland, Tennessee, a town whose Central Park is situated just around the corner from a restaurant called The Chef. I had known about The Chef for years thanks to the building's familiar pentagonal front facade, and cryptic posts about it on old Burger Chef fan sites. While the building is a 1966 vintage Burger Chef structure, and the name of the restaurant's name evokes the building's original purpose, I couldn't find any evidence on any website of it having anything resembling Burger Chef food. Through the lens of Yelp or Google, it looks like a generally well-regarded breakfast and lunch joint operating out of an old Burger Chef building. I figured I'd stop by for an early lunch on my way out of town just to check the building out. I didn't hold out much hope for the menu to retain any Burger Chef items. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong, and that much of the lunch menu was true to not only Burger Chef, but the era of Burger Chef in which the building was constructed. 



It's at this point that should probably provide you with a little history. I'll try my best to keep it brief. Burger Chef was founded in the early 1950s as a subsidiary of a restaurant equipment company based in Indianapolis. The chain grew quickly by franchising during the postwar fast food boom, eventually becoming the #2 fast food chain behind McDonalds. Cashflow issues led to Burger Chef being acquired by General Foods in 1968. Lacking experience in the restaurant business, General Foods implemented sweeping changes across the chain with mixed results. (They also owned, and similarly mismanaged Rax and Ponderosa around the same time.) Building designs were updated. Marketing strategies and logos changed frequently. In the 1970's a Roy Rogers style topping bar was added, and flame broilers were discarded in favor of electric griddles. General Foods' mismanagement of Burger Chef led to Hardee's acquiring the brand in 1982, and quickly converting corporate-owned Burger Chef locations to Hardee's locations. The few remaining franchised Burger Chefs closed up shop over the next 14 years as franchise agreements were allowed to expire. The last restaurant to use the Burger Chef name closed in 1996. Fans of the chain regarded Schroeder's Drive-In in Danville, Illinois, a Burger Chef that changed its name, but not its operations when its franchise agreement expired, as the last true Burger Chef. Sadly Schroeder's closed in 2015.

In present-day West Virginia, Suzi's is probably best known for it's various breakfast biscuit sandwiches that rival Tudor's Biscuit World, West Virginia's homegrown chain, known for all things biscuit-related, but their lunch menu is the closest thing to the 1970s iteration of the Burger Chef menu that you'll be likely to find anywhere. Hamburgers are cooked on an electric griddle, and are prepared and topped as they would have been in the Burger Chef days. Close analogs of later menu additions like the Chicken Club sandwich and Fisherman's Fillet are available. The topping bar is present in the lobby, and appears to be an original Burger Chef unit. In fact most everything about the building is '70s era Burger Chef, including not only the structure itself, but the indoor and drive thru menu boards. In my mind it's less a fast food joint, and more a fast food museum, a glimpse into the past to an era when Burger Chef was still a major force in the fast food industry, but was clearly in decline, and trying desperately to reinvent the concept to stay relevant in an industry where its market share was shrinking. 

Modern order counter under a distinctively Burger Chef vaulted ceiling


If Suzi's is the best surviving example of a 1970s era Burger Chef, then The Chef is easily the best surviving example of a 1960s era Burger Chef. It's building has had some updates over the years, but all the trappings of a second-generation Burger Chef building, known internally as a "Cosmopolitan II" design, which retains the basic shape of the earlier Burger Chef building design, but adds an L-shaped indoor dining room flanking the kitchen. I stopped by during the transition from breakfast to lunch on a weekday. The original Burger Chef menu boards are long gone here, and have been replaced with a couple of flatscreen monitors. I ordered a drink and sat in the lobby, staring intently at the menu screens until they changed over from breakfast to lunch. After taking a minute to parse the names of the burgers in an effort to determine what Burger Chef items they might bear similarity to, I returned to the order counter and requested what the menu called a Big Deluxe and a Super Deluxe, suspecting the words "Big" and "Super" might indicate they are copycats of the Big Shef and Super Shef, which were fixtures of the Burger Chef menu.
Modern-day Big Shef, perhaps my favorite Big Boy imitator. I just love that tangy zip, y'all!
Within a few minutes, my order was ready, and with cautious optimism, I unwrapped the first sandwich. Sure enough, it was a double deck burger on a three-piece bun with a pair of two-ish ounce patties, a single slice of cheese, shredded lettuce, and a chunky white sauce. It was a renamed Big Shef, Burger Chef's knockoff of Bob Wian's Big Boy, which beat McDonald's knockoff, the Big Mac, to market. My first bite confirms the sandwich's true identity. As with the Big Shef I had at Suzi's, (They call theirs the Double Decker.) the sauce had the unmistakably tangy zip of Miracle Whip, which served as the base for the special sauce Burger Chef put on the Big Shef. Unlike Suzi's however, this Big Shef had the flavor of the 1960s, as the patties had been cooked in a flame broiler as they would have prior to the General Foods era. You've gotta love food that's era-appropriate to the building. If Suzi's is the 1970's exhibit in a hypothetical Burger Chef museum, The Chef is its 1960s counterpart. 


and a modern-day Super Shef; Add some sesame seeds to that bun, and it could pass for a Whopper.
I then gave my Super Deluxe, aka Super Shef a try. This is my first Super Shef, as I usually opt for a Chicken Club of Fisherman's Fillet as my second sandwich in addition to my customary Big Shef when I visit Suzi's. The original Super Shef was a deluxe burger with all the typical toppings garnishing a quarter-pound patty, essentially, Burger Chef's answer to Burger King's Whopper. Unsurprisingly, with it's flame broiled patty, The Chef's version of the Super Shef tastes strikingly similar to a Whopper. Given the ingredients, this is unsurprising. Likewise, Burger Chef's historic relationship to Burger King also contributed to my utter lack of surprise over the flavor of the Super Shef. General Equipment, Burger Chef's initial parent company supplied Burger King with flame broilers during the King's early days in business. Burger Chef, then a subsidiary of General Equipment used the same broilers. It's therefore no great mystery why the flavor of the Super Shef is so similar to the Whopper. 

When I build my dream house, I want it to have a room that looks just like this. 


As I finished up eating, I took a stroll around the dining room to bask in the vaulted ceiling glory of a historic Burger Chef structure. I was pleased to find framed pictures of the building as it looked in full Burger Chef regalia as well as a photo of the original menu board featuring the Big Shef and Super Shef at 1966 prices. The management here isn't shy about the business's heritage. Like Suzi's, they've expanded the breakfast menu for wider appeal. The building's interior has been modernized, but it's clear they're proud to be a former Burger Chef. They've preserved the Burger Chef menu, building, and brand to the greatest extent that they could given the legal and logistical constraints of outliving the Burger Chef brand by 37 years and counting. After a year on the road, The Chef gives me hope. 

The same building, 52 years ago

Sadly, The Chef serves Coke products rather than RC Cola these days. In many ways, RC Cola is the Burger Chef of colas. 

I dread the day that I run out of places to visit and write about for Broken Chains. I've recently found myself casting a wider net and travelling farther in search of places that are still operating under their original names. Places like The Chef, Suzis, and indeed, Fowlerville Farms and Farmstead, give me hope that there are more holdouts of broken chains nearby hiding in plain sight, doing business as they always have, but under new names so as not to arouse the legal teams of whatever corporate entities control their brand names today. Though they rarely use it, Hardee's parent company, CKE, is very protective of the Burger Chef name, hence the necessity of former locations disguising their true identity. I look forward to the prospect of tracking down other holdout businesses conducting business as usual under new names. When I find other broken chain locations that have entered witness protection, I'll be sure to out them here. Hopefully my writing will serve to increase their foot traffic without getting them sued. 




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