Sunday, July 14, 2019

Frostop Revisited

Well, Zap Actionsdower looked for a spinning mug.
Midwestern Frostops wouldn’t give him anything to chug.
He asked the Google, "Where can I go?"
Google said, "There's only two places, ya know."
Zap said, "I've seen the one down in Huntington."
Well, Google's list was down to just one.
And Zap took off down Highway 61.

The Huntington, West Virginia area is a broken chain hot spot. In addition to a Frostop and a G.D. Ritzy’s that are a block apart, there’s a Rax half an hour northwest in Ironton, Ohio, and Suzi’s, a Burger Chef holdout, an hour in east in South Charleston, West Virginia. There’s also a Jolly Pirate Donuts in town, that I really should write about at some point, but I’m not here to talk about Jolly Pirate Donuts today.

Those that read my first Frostop post last year, will remember my regret in failing to create a perfectly looping .gif of the giant spinning root beer mug on the roof of the Huntington Frostop. That failure led to more disappointment at the next two Frostops I visited in Indiana and Illinois, as neither location had a spinning mug of its own. I kept meaning to get back to Huntington to have another Frostop experience, but higher priority trips, and life in general have prevented me from making it there since I wrote my previous Frostop post.

Fortunately my recent trip to New Orleans with Esmeralda Fitzmonster took me to the heart of Frostop country. While there were once 350 Frostop locations across the US, only 13 survive today, six of which are in Louisiana. Some Google Street View research led me to deduce that the Frostop locations in New Orleans and nearby Metairie did not have spinning mug signs, and Houston Historic Retail pointed out that the Baton Rouge Frostop’s mug was also stationary. That left the LaPlace,
Louisiana Frostop, located 33 miles west of New Orleans on Highway 61 as the nearest spinning mug location.

Ever since writing about Frostop last summer and discovering the blog run by the owners of the LaPlace location, as well as their Facebook page which regularly features pictures and videos of their spinning mug, I’ve wanted to visit the LaPlace Frostop. The owners of that location show an appreciation for the brand’s history in their social media presence that was missing from the Frostop locations I visited in Indiana and Illinois. After a few days of exploring several gulf coast broken chain locations and generally being insufferable tourists, Esmeralda and I found our way up US 61 to LaPlace.

The building stands, as it has for the past 61 years, on the east side of town, next to the highway. It initially looked very much like its counterpart in Huntington, West Virginia with a sloping roof extending past the walls of the building to form a canopy, but a some point, an interior dining room was added. The mug was moved from the roof to a pole next to the building at some point as well. Esmeralda and I walked past the original exterior order windows and inside to order and eat in the building, something that it was not possible to do at any of the three other Frostops I had been to previously.

We studied the printed menu on the order counter and placed our orders, ensuring we both ordered large root beers which came with reusable souvenir cups. I was so happy to be there, I didn’t even mind when the cashier inadvertently short changed me by two dollars. We took a seat at the back corner of the dining room, and chatted while I observed our surroundings and took some discreet pictures. Based on the decor in the dining room, it appears that the dining room has not had any significant updates since in the early ‘90s, though indicates the addition itself was built in the 1960s.

The view from our table

Most of the artwork on the wall had this general aesthetic.

It was the mid afternoon lull on a weekday, and our order came up quickly. My chili dogs tasted as if they were right off the grill. The chili sauce appeared to have been made from scratch, and while they weren't my favorite chili dogs, (Mr. Quick's dogs have that honor.) they were well above average. Esmeralda ordered a Lot-O-Burger, an item that dates back to a time when Frostop was supported by a corporate entity. Thanks to 30 or so years of the remaining Frostop locations operating independently, there is wild variation in menus between locations, and this was my first time encountering a Lot-O-Burger. It turned out to be a fairly standard quarter pound burger with all the normal toppings. Esmeralda let me have a bite, and while it wasn't terribly distinctive, it was at least a decent burger, a notch or two above its analogs from one of the big fast food chains. While there wasn't anything terribly exciting about her burger, a taste of the hand-breaded onion rings Esmeralda had ordered made me regret ordering fries. It's tough to find good made from scratch onion rings, and that's exactly what these were. I'm happy to report the root beer appeared to be the authentic Frostop formula, further reinforcing my theory that the Chrisman, Illinois Frostop that serves Barq's Root Beer is the outlier.

My meal, decent dogs, forgettable fries, collectible cup

Esmeralda's meal, and the onion rings I regret not ordering for myself. 

On my way out, I ordered a specialty that seemed to be unique to the LaPlace Frostop, the wedding Cake Shake. I expected a flavor akin to the various birthday cake flavored products that have become trendy in the past few years that taste of cake batter, buttercream, and food dye, but the Wedding Cake Shake was distinctive in flavor and appearance. Topped with whipped cream and silver sprinkles, the shake nailed the appearance of a wedding cake as much as a milkshake can, and its flavor with strong hints of amaretto and vanilla is evocative of a cake one might find at an upscale bakery that churns out cakes to support the Wedding Industrial Complex.

Wedding cake shake (top view)

The best part of the entire experience at the LaPlace Frostop, however, was finally getting enough video footage of the spinning mug sign to make a .gif that loops decently. It's far from perfect, but it's as good as I can hope for it to be for a .gif that was captured and edited on my phone. Of course, I noticed too late that the mug had neon lettering on it, unlike it's Huntington counterpart. I guess that means I'll have to come back at night in order to make a .gif of it spinning with the neon lit up in order to feel truly fulfilled as a human being.

I wouldn't mind taking a trip back to the LaPlace Frostop, though. The midwestern Frostops I visited have let their brand identities languish over the years. Thanks to their isolation from other Frostop locations, I suspect that the majority of their customers don't realize that their local Frostop is part of a broken chain. That's not the case with the Frostop in LaPlace, however. Thanks to their online presence, loving restoration and maintenance of their Frostop mug, and the presence of original items on the menu, the LaPlace Frostop stands as a monument to the Frostop brand. With its indoor dining room and thoughtful menu additions it also shines as an example of what the Frostop chain might look like today had it not been abandoned by its corporate parent. As Frostops go, it's a good one. May its mug spin forever.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Mixed Caliber Luncheon

I often describe myself as a hermit, a recluse, and generally asocial, but it was recently pointed out to me that for a hermit, I seem to have a lot of friends. This was an accurate observation, but it fails to take dosage into account. I have a good many friends and well-wishers, but I don’t see many of the people in my life often. I see my extended family roughly as often as I eat at G.D. Ritzy’s, which is quarterly. Most people whom I consider friends I may see one or two times per year. Even my partner Esmeralda Fitzmonster only sees me a couple days per week, despite her living with me, thanks to our nearly complete opposite work schedules. All this is more or less by design, because I’m exceedingly okay with being by myself and have a decidedly finite tolerance for social interaction. On the relatively rare occasions when I do spend time with friends, I go big before my depleted social battery forces me to go home.

Many longtime readers of Broken Chains are familiar with my second hobby, which involves working on and road tripping my trusty Ford Festiva. These trips usually involve meeting up with friends from the Festiva community and visiting a broken chain or two along the way. An annual observance on the Festiva calendar is Ohiostiva, a convergence of Festivas and the people who love them in Columbus, Ohio. I attended Ohiostiva 2019 a few weeks ago. My brother, who those same longtime readers will surely recall is also a Festiva enthusiast, was also there, and brought along a mutual friend of ours who has little interest in Festivas, but a healthy interest in broken chains.

Matty-Mark Matlock tagged along to Ohiostiva with my brother, seeking not Festiva hijinks, but general adventure and to observe Festiva enthusiasts in a manner not dissimilar from Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees. When I first met Matty-Mark shortly after Raxgiving last year, we quickly bonded over a mutual love of Rax, cafeteria dining, and broken chains in general. His presence at Ohiostiva meant that I’d have an excuse to break from the crowd when the party atmosphere became overwhelming and share an experience with him at one of the many broken chain locations in the Columbus area. I’m happy to report we had excellent experiences at both the last operating York Steak House and the world’s newest Ritzy’s, which has greatly improved its bebop since my initial visit last fall. We also got to experience a previously undiscovered broken chain while we were in town.

Despite her name suggesting otherwise, regular Broken Chains commenter Prog Girl had little to say about my proposal to rebrand Spageddie’s using Rush frontman Geddy Lee as a spokesperson. Maybe she’s more of a Yes fan. But she did give me a valuable lead prior to my Festiva journey to Columbus when she mentioned MCL cafeterias. A quick Google search led me to a 14 unit cafeteria chain operating primarily in Indiana with a handful of locations in Illinois and Ohio, including one near Columbus in Whitehall, Ohio. A quick look at their Wikipedia page confirmed that they had crossed the Cici’s Point into broken chain territory, as the Wikipedia article contained a long list of former locations and a shorter list of operating ones.

The first MCL was opened by Charles McGaughey and George Laughner. The name, “MCL” is an abbreviation of their surnames. Like Morrison’s and York, decline for MCL due in part to them opening locations in or near malls, a losing strategy that caused many locations to close as mall shopping declined in popularity. Their official name has been MCL Restaurant and Bakery for over a decade, perhaps to distance themselves from the unfashionable image of the cafeteria.

I don't always drive a Festiva, but when I do, I prefer it to be aqua. 

Matty-Mark, who grew up eating at Luby’s and S&S Cafeterias and myself, seeking to recapture the transcendent experience I’d recently had at the last operating Morrison’s Cafeteria were eager to peel ourselves away from the herd of Festivas and have an early lunch at MCL. We drove straight to the Whitehall location after excusing ourselves early from a morning expedition to an automotive salvage yard with my brother and a few other Festiva people. Had we not been explicitly looking for the Whitehall MCL, we would have likely driven past without noticing its existence. 

Visitation will be on Saturday 11 to 3 at MCL Funeral Home
From the exterior, it’s tough to determine what kind of business the building that houses MCL could be, even the signage is vague with three meaty initials floating in a broth of fine print. The restrained, vaguely colonial architecture blends into its surroundings, and the building could just as easily be a dentist’s office or a funeral home. Matty-Mark, to my mild surprise and medium delight, was just as excited to be there as I was, and we occupied our first few minutes on the property taking pictures of the building and signage. Once we were sure we had sufficient documentation of our expedition, we headed inside, where we were greeted first by an almost classroom-sized chalkboard containing the day’s specials, then official corporate signage explaining the order process and advertising more specials, and finally, by Mr. MCL himself. 

I will not forget to post the Chef Special.
I will not forget to post the Chef Special.
I will not forget to post the Chef Special. 

Sorry to be a stickler, guys, but shouldn't the plate be blue? 

Near as I can tell, MCL does not have an official mascot in the vein of G.D. Ritzy, Uncle Alligator, or Queenie Bee, but should they ever see fit to include one in their marketing, the manager of the Whitehall, Ohio location would be a near ideal basis. Clad in a dress shirt and tie, the affable man in his early fifties bid Matty-Mark and myself a warm welcome as if we were not strangers, but long-awaited friends. As we browsed the vast panorama of food before us along the serving line, he provided descriptions of each entree, all of which had been made from scratch. Perhaps sensing our excitement and curiosity of our surroundings, he told us he had worked for MCL since 1995, beaming with pride all the while. He went on to share his passion for poultry with us pointing to the pan of stuffed roasted chicken breasts, and proclaiming them his favorite, and mentioning that he often sneaks a piece or two of fried chicken with him to the back office while he’s working on the schedule and payroll. Ordinarily, I find restaurant employees who are overly chatty during the ordering process to be unprofessional and off-putting, but Mr. MCL’s charisma and passion for his work shone through without inspiring even a crumb of curmudgeonly annoyance on my part. 

Food presentation...

...was impressive.... it should be.

Matty-Mark and I worked our way down the serving line as Mr. MCL encouraged us onward. The food looked fresh and vibrant, and we ate with our eyes first, loading up our trays with everything that looked good. As I paid my bill at the end of the line, I was surprised to find I had picked up $25 worth of food off the serving line, and so had Matty-Mark. The marketing strategy of putting all the food in view of the customer had worked perfectly on us, as it has for generations of cafeteria patrons, but we didn’t mind. We were there to sample a wide swath of the menu. As with most broken chain visits, it was more about the experience than the food.

My tray

Matty-Mark's tray

Once we were seated out of sight from the serving line the interior of the MCL didn’t look much less like a funeral home than it did from the outside. The decor was tasteful and had an understated elegance that seemed designed to facilitate a healthy grieving process. The stuffed chicken breast I had selected based on Mr. MCL’s encouragement, however, inspired little grief. Perhaps due to a savory stuffing spiked with chicken stock, and a chicken gravy on top, it was the most chickeny piece of chicken I recall having within recent memory, easily the best chicken I’ve had at a broken chain since my trip to Maryland Fried Chicken last fall. In keeping with the fowl theme, the deviled eggs were also a pleasant experience, and reminded me of childhood Easter dinners. The remainder of the side dishes were hit or miss. The macaroni and cheese lacked the nostalgic magic that its counterpart at Morrison’s had. The cranberry salad was decent. Matty-Mark reported that his mashed potatoes tasted like they had been made with instant flakes. He had also picked up a so-so chopped steak and some above average fried chicken, which made me think the entrees Mr. MCL had recommended to us were not just his favorites, but objectively the best they had to offer. 

"It was a lovely service, and he looked so peaceful."

Considering the place had “Bakery” in its official name, I had high hopes for the baked goods, but despite us being there shortly after opening time, my cornbread was cold, and tasted like it had been prepared the night before. Matty-Mark had similar complaints about the big yeasty roll he’d picked out for himself. The butter provided with these baked goods was cold, and only marginally spreadable. If I’m buying baked goods from a place that calls itself a bakery, I expect them to be freshly baked that morning, and if they’re served with hot food, I expect them to be hot. Even Cracker Barrel, a chain with ever diminishing quality of food and service still manages to crank out hot biscuits and cornbread all day every day. The cold day-old cornbread wasn’t the greatest carbohydrate calamity I’ve encountered, (That honor goes to the microwaved biscuit I had at the last operating Horne’s.) but I had much higher hopes for a chain that markets itself as offering high quality food.

I was a couple of bites into a slice of pecan pie that had an unpleasantly marshmallowy texture when Matty-Mark’s phone rang. It was my brother stranded at the salvage yard. For reasons that still have not yet been adequately explained to me, Matty-Mark had been carrying my brother’s car keys when we left the salvage yard to have lunch. We quickly got to-go boxes for our desserts and bid MCL a hasty goodbye. Despite the disappointing bakery items and questionable side dishes, I left with a generally positive opinion about MCL. The chicken was unique and tasty enough that I couldn’t help but overlook the less pleasant items on my tray. I’d like to explore other MCL locations the next time I’m in their territory, but when I do, I’ll be a little more judicious about the side dishes I pick up.

Matty-Mark and I had a memorable experience at MCL and the other broken chains we visited around Columbus that weekend, but all the interaction with the throngs of Festiva people gave me my fill of socializing. I’ll probably resume my nominal hermetic lifestyle until at least autumn. Speaking of autumn, if you’re a fan of Broken Chains and you’ll be within a reasonable driving distance of Harlan, Kentucky on the day after Thanksgiving this year, (Friday November 29, 2019) then consider joining me at the Harlan Rax in observance of Raxgiving 2019. You’ll get to celebrate Raxgiving in style by dining at one of only two surviving Rax locations that still operates an Endless Salad Bar. I’ll be there to feast and have awkward conversations with any Broken Chains fans who turn up.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Pretend You've Got No Money

My grandparents’ and great grandparents’ generations lived through a series of world-altering hard times. A depression and a couple of world wars made life in much of the first half of the previous century difficult to live through, but their perseverance made the world a much more comfortable place for their children. Once hardship is overcome, and time is allowed to pass nostalgia for the era of one’s earlier, more difficult life often ensues, and that nostalgia inspired not only a solid seven decades of movies about World War Two, but Whisperin’ Bill Anderson’s 1961 hit single, “Po’ Folks,” whose lyrics describe a his supposed upbringing in a loving family while enduring abject poverty.

If one were to open a themed restaurant today, “Poverty” would likely be at the bottom of the list of potential themes, but in 1975 in Anderson, South Carolina, restaurateur Malcolm Hare had different ideas, when he opened the first Po’ Folks restaurant, whose name was inspired by Whisperin’ Bill’s song of the same name. The single restaurant grew to a 102 unit chain, thanks in part to a 1982 acquisition by longtime White Castle imitator, Krystal. Whisperin’ Bill Anderson was persuaded to act as a spokesperson for the chain, after somehow being talked out of a lawsuit, as the Po’ Folks name was initially used without his permission. 

The Po’ Folks brand would end up paying a karmic debt for its socioeconomic cultural appropriation in 1988 when a distinct lack of funds forced them into bankruptcy, simultaneously forcing the closure of the majority of their locations and making the poverty theme feel more authentic, thanks to actual poverty.
I bought a couple of these to go boxes for two bucks each for my collection and for my friend Carl's. 
I’m lucky enough to have a single vague childhood memory of eating at Po’ Folks kicking around in my brain. It was around 1990, and I was preschool-aged and on a trip with my mother to visit her parents, my grandparents in eastern Ohio. My grandparents, in turn, took us to visit my grandfather’s mother, my great grandmother, Cordelia, about whom I remember little, aside from her apartment at a retirement home which was furnished with her uncomfortable antique furniture. My memories of lunch on the way back to my grandparents’ house was more vivid. 

Somewhere along the way, we stopped at a Po’ Folks location that had managed to survive at least a couple years past bankruptcy. Perhaps my grandparents were nostalgic for their childhoods in the Depression, though more likely, it was the only decent place to eat around. I recall the building having white siding and a tall red roof, and I recall being amused by the drinks served in mason jars. My young mind was blown by the fried fish my mother had ordered, because it still had all of its bones. The fact that a real life fish’s skeleton looked just like fish skeletons from the Top Cat and Heathcliff cartoons I was partial to made for a lasting memory. That lunch on the way back to Steubenville from Great Grandma Cordelia’s would be my only Po’ Folks memory until almost 30 years later. 

Strip Mall Po' Folks in Pensacola

Following an early lunch at the last operating Morrison’s Cafeteria, Esmeralda Fitzmonster and I continued east on Interstate 10 until we had just crossed into Florida and entered Pensacola, home of one of just seven surviving Po’ Folks locations. It was mid afternoon on a weekday when we stopped in for second lunch. The Pensacola Po' Folks is tucked into a slot of a nondescript strip mall, a far cry from the visually striking freestanding Po' Folks I remember all those years ago in Ohio. We headed inside, and were shown to a table in the mostly empty dining room. The spacious dining area's walls were sparsely adorned with antique architectural remnants and other random junk. They were the kinds of things you'd see on the walls at Cracker Barrel, but they were spread much thinner. There was plenty of wall space in between. Signage was unique, as well, as all of the signs directing customers to the hostess station and restrooms and away from employee areas were designed to look hand painted, and written in an intentionally misspelled hillbilly patois. The table cloths were printed with ads from old Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogs, just like the tables that used to be at most Wendy's locations. 

I have the strangest craving for a Frosty right now. 

Junk on the walls is spread thin here. 

Our waitress showed up, took our drink orders, and handed us menus. I had every intention of ordering bone-in fish for the sake of my own personal nostalgia, but found only boneless fillets on the menu. Shortly after I had noticed the lack of cartoon alley cat fish on the menu, our waitress returned with our drinks not in mason jars, but in regular glasses. Slightly disappointed, I ordered up chicken and dumplings, and Esmeralda ordered fried shrimp. When our orders showed up, the food looked oddly familiar. Perhaps the decor should have tipped me off, but Esmeralda's shrimp and steak fries looked just like what you'd be served at a Cracker Barrel as did my chicken and dumplings and fried apples. Had Po' Folks been a Cracker Barrel knockoff all along? I'm inclined to think so. Cracker Barrel predates Po' Folks by six years. Both chains originated in the south, Cracker Barrel in Tennessee and Po' Folks in South Carolina. Both chains offered southern cooking in a rural themed setting. Cracker Barrel menus even are written in the same folksy hillbilly dialect, though they've been toned down in the past few years. Given that Malcolm Hare stole the name of his restaurant chain from a hit country song, it doesn't seem terribly unlikely that he'd also borrow menu and decor from an existing chain as well, but in its heyday, Po' Folks at least had unique touches. Now without mason jars or fish skeletons, Po' Folks feels like Cracker Barrel stripped of its decor, country store, and breakfast menu. It's Cracker Barrel lunch and dinner, served out of a strip mall slot, at least it is in Pensacola. 

If you've ever wondered what Cracker Barrel food looks like on an old Wendy's table, then check out Po' Folks
Could you theoretically tip your server well enough that they wouldn't be allowed through this door? 

In researching this piece, I became curious about the other six surviving Po' Folks locations, and did a little Google Street View snooping to see what they had to offer architecturally. What I found was the most interesting and diverse set of buildings comprising a restaurant chain since my exploration of the hodgepodge of structures that compose Fricker's. The Pensacola Po' Folks is arguably the most boring of all the seven surviving location. I'll leave you with photos of the other six. They're a rag tag bunch of structures that reflect the actual poverty of the chain rather than the implied poverty. If you're part of the statistically insignificant group of nonagenarians who read blogs, they may just remind you of the Depression.

2001 34th Street North, St. Petersburg, FL, the last remaining purpose-built Po' Folks. This is what I remember the one in Ohio looking like, minus the palm tree. It's survival is truly a miracle on 34th Street North. I really want to stop in here if I ever find myself deep in the Sunshine State. 

2193 Florida Highway 71, Marianna FL, Shoney's has closed quite a few locations over the years, and they often get repurposed, including this one that's now a Po' Folks. 
650 Boll Weevil Circle, Enterprise, AL, Not to be confused with Western Sizzlin, or Lucky Steer, Western Steer is a mostly defunct steakhouse chain that had locaitons  all over the south. There are a couple still open today that I need to go check out, but this one closed and is now home to a Po' Folks. 

1170 East John Simms Parkway, Niceville, Florida, pretty clearly a former Long John Silvers. It's odd to see a full service restaurant in the shell of a fast food restaurant, but not unheard of.
339 North Tyndall Parkway, Panama City, Florida, Seen here with apparent hurricane damage, the Panama Cty Po' Folks is an odd little prefabricated building.

400 Ohio Avenue, Lynn Haven, Florida, Weirdest of all is this Po' Folks in what looks to be a converted residential house with a haphazard addition. 

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Tray Chic

If there’s a genre of restaurant that’s barely hanging on, it’s got to be the cafeteria. Seemingly for my entire life, cafeteria dining outside of the context of a public school or hospital basement has been popular with an overwhelmingly elderly crowd, and as the clientele has slowly started dying off, the cafeteria chains have faded away with them, slowly going the way of the automat as their patrons gradually shuffle off this mortal coil.

I grew up in an extended family where people over 60 outnumbered those under 18 more than two to one, and boy, did my living ancestors ever love going to cafeterias. I remember one particular extended family outing where I was dragged to the Lexington, Kentucky location of the now defunct Blue Boar Cafeteria chain in the also now defunct Turfland Mall. I was no older than seven, and had a particularly bad case of the flu, but that wasn’t enough for my geriatric relatives to resist the siren song of standing in line for food served from steam trays. On the way into the building, I ended up barfing what I recall to have been a superhuman amount onto the floor of the main mall entryway in not so silent protest of the excursion, but rather than taking their obviously sick child home, my parents opted instead to continue into the cafeteria, likely cajoled onwards by whatever overbearing elders were with us, locked into the tractor beam Blue Boar seemingly employed to attract old people and their long-suffering families. In retrospect, I’m not even sure that my parents got a chance let a mall employee know about my puke puddle.

Not long after that, perhaps partially due to my vomit incident, the Blue Boar closed, and the Morrison’s Cafeteria a few miles away at the distinctively green-roofed Lexington Green* shopping center became my family’s cafeteria of choice. By that time, I was nine or ten, a couple years closer to my own (presumably) eventual old age, and could at least appreciate the unique experience of standing in line in the long wood-paneled corridor, picking up a tray, selecting a salad and dessert, and requesting hot sides and entrees from ladle wielding employees who were posted along the serving line.
An actual photo of J.A. Morrison, probably

Morrison’s Cafeteria’s first location was opened by J.A. Morrison in Mobile Alabama in 1920. The single location became popular and grew into a regional chain thanks to its wide variety of made from scratch foods. The chain peaked with 151 locations in 13 mostly southeastern U.S. states. The company went through several side ventures over the years, the most successful of which was the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain, which they acquired in 1982. Ruby Tuesday would soon become the company’s main focus in the face of declining popularity of cafeterias, and the Morrison’s brand would be sold to the competing Piccadilly Cafeterias chain in 1998.

It was around that time that our local Morrison’s Cafeteria at Lexington Green became a Piccadilly, as nearly all surviving Morrison’s locations did. I recall having precisely one family meal after the Piccadilly conversion, during which, we noticed a significant decline in quality, and never returned. This must have happened a lot, because that Piccadilly location didn’t last more than a couple of years before closing completely.

These days, Piccadilly still exists, operating 42 locations, mostly in the Deep South, including 41 Piccadillys and a single Morrison’s located in Mobile, Alabama, the birthplace of the brand. Presumably, they operate the single Morrison's location to prevent the loss of the rights to use the Morrison’s name. When Esmeralda Fitzmonster, my romantic and domestic partner, suggested we vacation in New Orleans, I quickly agreed, mainly because it was a short two hour drive from New Orleans to Morrison’s in Mobile, a fact which I was reminded her of early and often in the weeks and months leading up to our trip.

The last Morrison's Cafeteria in the world

This is the closest thing you'll find to a menu at Morrison's...
We rolled into Mobile a few minutes before 11 AM, planning on an early lunch when we reached Morrison’s. I was concerned when we arrived that there would be little to remind me of my childhood Morrison’s experiences. The only two Morrison’s I recall visiting were the aforementioned location in Lexington Green, and another on the ground floor of a multistory building in Savannah, Georgia. The Mobile location, unlike these two, was a freestanding building, an outparcel of a nearby shopping mall. The architectural disparities continued inside as well. Instead of a long corridor leading to the serving line, the line itself was in the corridor, which was wide enough to accommodate a line of diners that makes a U turn, doubling onto itself, like the queue at a bank or airport security line. The ordering instructions on the wall were basic, telling patrons to pick an entree, two sides, and bread with the option to add a drink or dessert. I remember Morrison’s having a few different meal package options, including one known as “The Works” that I recall every member of my family ordering while I was forced to get a kids’ meal. I was beginning to become concerned that this lone Morrison’s was a Piccadilly in all but name. My fears escalated when I noted a distinct absence of the tall goblets of Jell-O cubes I remember always picking up from the dessert bar during my childhood meals at Morrison’s.

...but why print menus...

...when your customers...

...can see all the food...


Still, Esmeralda and I worked our way down the line. I accumulated a plate of roast beef with some Waldorf salad and macaroni and cheese, while Esmeralda selected chicken tenders. We each chose a dessert and a drink, were handed a bill to pay as we exited, not unlike at Western Sizzlin. We then were free to select a table, which we did. Once we were seated and situated, our waitress was quick to introduce herself and ask if we needed any condiments. She was equally speedy in return with the requested horseradish and honey. My fears that this Morrison’s was merely a Piccadilly in drag were mostly assuaged when I had a closer look at, and taste of my macaroni and cheese, and found that the large elbow noodles were in a flavorful pale yellow cheese sauce and topped with a layer of melted, shredded cheddar. It was the same Morrison’s macaroni that was one of my go-to selections back in the Lexington Green days. The roast beef was equally tasty, as was the Waldorf and jalapeno cornbread I had selected. I was further comforted by a surprising amount of Morrison’s branded signage including an advertisement for online ordering at our table that sported the Morrison’s logo below the URL to the Piccadilly website. I was impressed that they had gone to the extra expense to have these printed for every table at their only Morrison’s location. 

Piccadilly marketing, complete with a Morrison's logo

Our meal selections

Macaroni of my childhood

Esmeralda is something of a picky eater, and chicken tenders or an analog thereof tend to be her default order whenever she visits a broken chain with me. I occasionally direct some good-natured teasing her way over her decision to eschew the illusive and wonderful Endless Salad Bar in favor of ordering chicken tenders on our visit to the Joliet, Illinois Rax, where they were merely frozen and breaded bits of fowl dumped from right from a Tyson bag into the fryer. Morrison’s chicken tenders were different, however. Each of the three tenders on her plate was seemingly made from scratch, and consisted of easily half a chicken breast each, clearly chicken tenders done right. 

Surprise sweet potato pecan pie 

The dessert course was similarly impressive, not so much because of the chocolate cake I had selected, which while more than adequate, paled in comparison to the slice of pie Esmeralda lucked into. What she thought to be pecan pie turned out to be a pecan-topped pie with a filling made of an orange-colored, nutmeg tinged filling of either pumpkin or sweet potato. My guess is the latter given the fact that it was springtime in the south. Either way, the few bites she shared with me made me wish I had a slice of my own. 

This branded rug was in the bathroom for some reason. 

Admittedly, this isn't the nicest catering van, but it's still decidedly less sketchy than the one I saw at Grandy's. 

Thanks to lovingly-prepared food and a courteous staff, including a manager who seemed genuinely pleasantly surprised to learn that we had driven there from New Orleans just to have lunch, we had a great meal at Morrison’s in Mobile, but I had a nagging feeling that we had really just eaten at a Piccadilly with a different sign. For better or worse, I had to find out how different a Piccadilly meal was from the one we had enjoyed at the last Morrison’s. Besides, since a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012 had forced Piccadilly to close many locations, they were probably in broken chain territory themselves. A few nights later, we made the short drive from our New Orleans Airbnb to the Piccadilly Cafeteria in Gretna, Louisiana, and I had never been so glad to have a mediocre meal. 

One of 41 surviving Piccadilly Cafeterias

The building housing the Gretna Piccadilly was similar in appearance and layout to that of the Mobile Morrison’s, and made me wonder if it was a former Morrison’s itself. There were plenty of little differences in the ordering process, though. At Piccadilly, cold side dishes were already in individual containers, and you were expected to serve yourself, unlike at Morrison’s where a staff member would portion out your cold side dish in a bowl and hand it to you. Additionally, while Morrison’s had a separate counter for takeout orders, all orders at Piccadilly were fulfilled in the main serving line, a fact which we became aware of when a woman in line in front of us was placing a to-go order for her entire extended family, and oversharing to the employees information about the eating habits, shoe sizes, and sex lives of each family member for whom she was ordering. The infuriating ordeal of being stuck in line behind this woman became all the more annoying when I noticed the third difference. At Piccadilly, you pay at the end of the serving line, meaning that this incredibly chatty woman had to pay her bill, make a big production of getting cash back on her credit card transaction so she could tip the cashier, whom, it turns out, wasn’t allowed to accept tips. Once we finally reached our table we found our food was lukewarm at best, thanks to the inferior ordering and payment process of Piccadilly compared to Morrison’s. To add insult to injury, our waitress was just as chatty as the woman in front of us in line, and was weirdly quick to volunteer extensive information about how and when she went about dying her hair when we asked for no more than a refill. 

Piccadilly macaroni is similar to Morrison's, but worse, just like Piccadilly in general.

I was simultaneously pleased and disappointed to find that the macaroni and cheese at Piccadilly was also different than its counterpart at Morrison’s. The Piccadilly version while similar in appearance and constituent ingredients, was topped with paprika, which gave the whole thing an unpleasant, almost woody taste, but its inferiority to its counterpart at Morrison's meant that Morrison's identity had been preserved in Mobile. In fact, the differences in the macaroni and cheese really sum up the difference between the one surviving Morrison’s and the locations of its sister brand, Piccadilly. While there are indisputable similarities between the two brands, Mephistopheles resides in the minutiae, and the little things Morrison's gets right, Piccadilly gets very wrong. Piccadilly is today, as it was in Lexington in the late ‘90s, noticeably worse than Morrisons. To their credit, however, the Piccadilly overlords have preserved a single Morrison’s location, allowing it to retain just enough of that Morrison’s magic that it shines brighter than it’s Piccadilly relatives. If every Piccadilly were run as well as the Morrison’s in Mobile, it could mark the beginning of a renaissance for the cafeteria.

Despite the fact that I’m still the better part of two decades too young to qualify for an AARP membership, I loved every minute of my meal at the last Morrison’s, and in an age where even the low-end fast food chains are emphasizing quality ingredients and made from scratch food, a brand like Morrison’s that has marketed itself that way from the beginning has the potential to attract a new generation of customers. Since they long occupied the space between fast food and full service restaurants, cafeterias, perhaps were the first fast casual restaurants, and in the near-absence of cafeteria chains today the cafeteria format could be marketed as a unique and memorable dining experience. It certainly always was for me growing up, even when I didn’t barf on the floor.

*Some unrelated fun facts about Lexington Green: 
-Lexington Green was home to a Cinemark theater that had the classic 1980s dayglow interior decor until well into this century. 
-In a surreal coincidence, a fatal shooting once occurred in Lexington Green’s parking lot while William Shatner happened to be shopping there.