Thursday, March 21, 2019


Older Sirloin Stockade locations have a larger than life fiberglass bull out front. This one just has a picture of one on the sign. 

The annals of chain restaurant history are festooned with formulas and fads. When White Castle achieved success selling hamburgers as something akin to health food in the 1920’s, countless imitators sprung up using the same template. Some, like Krystal, remain in business today. When Ray Kroc appropriated the McDonald brothers’ innovations in quick food service, chains like Sandy’s, Mr. Quick, and Henry’s copied the McDonald’s formula, and set up shop in the backyard of McDonald’s HQ.

Not long after that, beef prices tanked, consumer tastes evolved, and as a result, fast food moved upmarket, serving up cuts of cow more expensive than ground chuck. To borrow a term from celebrated burgerman Bob Belcher, the early to mid sixties were the years of the beef boom. Countless regional chains emerged selling roast beef sandwiches. Some like Arby’s, Rax, and Roy Rogers would go national. Others like Neba and Heap Big Beef would disappear leaving only distinctive, empty buildings behind. Even established chains like Burger Chef and McDonald’s began offering roast beef sandwiches. The upmarket fast food roast beef chains only represented a fraction of the beef boom, however.

Just a notch above the new roast beef sandwich joints were the discount steakhouses. Ponderosa, Bonanaza, York Steak House, and Western Sizzlin’ all came into existence in the early to mid sixties, offering steak, and later buffet dinners at prices that allowed middle class families to go out for steak on the regular, but as beef prices rose and tastes again changed, the beef boom went bust with few winners. Virtually every beef boom chain other than Arby’s is severely diminished or defunct today, which is why I’ve visited, and written about so many, finding further holdouts of the bygone beefy era the deeper I look.

I was recently alerted to the persisting existence of another relic of the beef boom, a regional chain known as Sirloin Stockade. The first one opened in Oklahoma City in 1966, serving steak and sides buffet-style, and rose to success during the beef boom years. Hard times came, as they did for so many broken chains, in the seventies, and by 1982, Golden Corral had purchased the 250ish unit chain. A handful of Sirloin Stockade franchisees were able to acquire the rights to the Sirloin Stockade name, and remained in business under a new corporate entity known as Stockade Companies.

Today, Stockade Companies supports 14 surviving Sirloin Stockade locations that are sparsely spread from Texas to Indiana. This number appears to be in rapid decline, as their website states they operate 80 restaurants, but even if you add all the locations of Stockade’s other alliteratively-named chains, Coyote Canyon and Montana Mike’s, the total only comes to 31. Sirloin Stockade, a near forgotten, quickly disappearing beef boom relic captured my curiosity, and I was able to stop by the Marion, Indiana location for dinner recently.

It's Saturday night in Marion, Indiana, and Sirloin Stockade is packed.

It was Saturday evening when I rolled into town, driving past both a shiny new Texas Roadhouse with a half-empty parking lot and a deserted, independent, nonspecific Asian buffet operating out of what was clearly a former Golden Corral. Both were within a couple of miles of the Sirloin Stockade, whose parking lot was nearly full. After taking the time to appreciate the white brick building with backlit signs that I suspect date back to the 1970s, I walked in the front door, and got in line to order. 

I doubt the signs have been updated since Stockade Companies became a corporate entity. 

 Pick your meat

Like most beef boom-era steakhouses, Sirloin Stockade has you order and pay at a counter before you are seated. This location, and I suspect many others, has abandoned serving all you can eat steak on the buffet, and instead offers it, and other premium proteins as an add-on to the buffet. For any halfway experienced restaurant cook, Steak is a difficult food to cook incorrectly, so with the assumption that the steak was at least passable, and therefore unremarkable, I told my cashier I’d only be having the buffet. Another employee showed me to one of the few empty tables where my waitress introduced herself and brought my Diet Dew. 

Menu boards seem generic. 

Following the exchange of pleasantries with my waitress, I navigated through the multitudes of my fellow budget-minded diners, and found my way to the salad bar, which due to the near-capacity Saturday night dinner crowd, resembled a calorie-conscious game of Hungry Hungry Hippos with an ever-changing array of disembodied arms reaching under the sneeze guard for the various salad fixins on offer. I somehow loaded up my plate, and found my way back to my table with what is essentially my go-to salad bar concoction, sliced beets and honey mustard dressing on a bed of out-of-the-bag salad mix, with small piles of coleslaw and broccoli salad alongside. It was pretty standard salad bar fare, generally acceptable and unremarkable. I ate most of it, pushing the last bits and pieces onto my fork with the little buttery Club crackers I snagged from the salad bar for that purpose. 

Y'all git yer fixins!

My typical salad bar plate. 

Next, I fought my way to the buffet which consisted of a few different self-serve food bars. One line has pot roast, while another had fried chicken and pulled pork, flanked by a plastic bag of grocery store buns. Another bar I didn’t manage to get a picture of seemed to have been designed with kids in mind, as it was stocked with mini corn dogs, chicken nuggets, pretzel nuggets, and soggy fries. Still, I saw a surprising number of adults filling up their plates from this area. With a plate full of pot roast, mashed potatoes topped with a chicken-flavored noodle goo, and some limp vegetables I weaved through the crowd back to my table, and was reminded of the food I’d find in my state university’s dining hall or perhaps in a church basement during a Sunday afternoon potluck. Nothing tasted fresh or especially good. The pot roast was lukewarm, but like at the dining hall or church I could have as much mediocre food as I wanted. 

A significant percentage of the town's population was here. 

 Behold the bounty of Sirloin Stockade. 
The dessert course was pretty standard for cheap buffets, with a bar full of cobblers, cakes, cookies, and a soft serve machine with a loud compressor and triple nozzles dripping melted ice cream onto the tray below. I sampled a few things that could have just as easily come from Ponderosa or Golden Corral, before taking my leave, noticing the place was more crowded than ever. 

Unlimited Soft Serve makes everything a little bit better. 

While the Sirloin Stockade brand has been struggling to various degrees over the past four decades, that certainly wasn’t the case in Marion, Indiana. I suspect the low price point (under $14 for the dinner buffet with a drink) keeps the crowds coming. They even seem to do some catering, if the Sirloin Stockade branded van I saw in the parking lot was any indication. Whoever owns the place seems to have found a winning strategy for ensuring their continued existence and popularity, despite not having a uniformly positive perception in Marion. 

If you have Sirloin Stockade cater your next event, they'll probably show up in this van. 

My Airbnb hosts that evening were nearby, and shared my interest in diminished restaurant and retail chains. We sat in the living room for a solid couple of hours discussing our mutual passion and they seemed to express equal parts surprise and concern that I had come to their town to eat at Sirloin Stockade. Later that night I found out why. While my meal wasn’t expensive, my stomach paid dearly for the meal I had eaten. Since the Vernal Equinox was this week, I’ll leave you with a Springtime-inspired song about my experience, sung to the tune of Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade”

♬I don’t want to flaunt it, but I spewed a lot of vomit.
It happened after I ate at the Sirloin Stockade.
I was completely sober, but in pain and doubled over.
From dining from the buffet at the Sirloin Stockade. ♬

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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Pie Day

For the first time ever, Broken Chains has a guest author. Today's post was written by Mike from Houston Historic Retail. Enjoy!

One of the very first computers I had the pleasure of using was a Compaq Presario. In the early ‘90s, Houston had quite the affinity for Compaq. The company was headquartered and operated out of Houston. Many local school districts and companies maintained exclusive contracts with Compaq up until their takeover by Hewlett Packard, and some even continue those contracts with HP. To this day, HP maintains a significant presence in the Houston area. Compaq’s history is not that different from many tech startups of the present-day. Some managers working for Texas Instruments (Yes, the TI-83 Calculator people.) decided to branch out on their own. Without an office to plan in, they met at House of Pies and drew their initial sketch of the Compaq Portable on the back of a place mat.

The “House” at the front of the restaurant was a common feature to most House of Pies Locations

The “House” at the front of the restaurant was a common feature to most House of Pies Locations. An interesting story in and of itself, the Compaq tale is just a side note in the history of House of Pies. When you first visit House of Pies, you get the feeling that you’ve seen a building design like this somewhere else before. The building is tall, long, and pretty thin. With these design requirements, it quite resembles the Original IHOP building design.

The signage featured on the exterior of the building is presumably newer. It drops “The Original” from the name.

The signage featured on the exterior of the building is presumably newer. It drops “The Original” from the name. Walking up to the restaurant, you can almost feel the age ooze from the building itself, channeling itself through the dank humid Houston air, transmuting anyone who enters the parking lot into an honorary senior citizen. With this show of age, the hallmarks of a broken chain begin to appear. Which brings us to the discussion of what exactly was The Original House of Pies. Al Lapin Jr. a restaurateur most famous for his earlier chain IHOP, founded House of Pies in the mid sixties. Both chains were owned by International Industries, a company held by Mr. Lapin, and were originally seen as sibling brands.

The original Compaq Portable computer was designed on the back of one of these place mats.

I came to House of Pies in the mid-afternoon on a Sunday. I had expected it to be quite busy especially with the after church-crowd. However, to my surprise, it was only moderately busy. I had no wait to be seated, and the entire time I was eating there was no wait for a table until well after I had ordered pie. Partly this was thanks to the staff for turning tables quickly, as well as a “Table Service Fee” of $3.50 per person per hour for any customers who fail to meet that minimum in food ordered.

The appetizers are a relatively new addition. They’ve been around for a few years but still aren’t printed in the menu.

I perused the relatively extensive menu complete before finally being greeted by my server. I considered what exactly I wanted to get. Back a few years ago when House of Pies was a regular haunt for me I generally ordered the Eggs, Potatoes, and Chopped Steak. It was a great amount of food for under $10, and there were never any issues with the taste. However, to help better represent what House of Pies has become since splintering I chose the decidedly Texan Eggs, Potatoes, and Chicken Fried Steak. When my waitress approached me I was able to put in both a drink and food order at the same time, saving an extra step.

As the dining room became busier, it was increasingly difficult to get good pictures.

While waiting on my food to arrive, I had some time to ponder the history of the chain. While I can’t find an exact number of restaurants opened, conservative estimates place it around 40. Like IHOP, they were originally a West Coast phenomenon, eventually branching out to places like Denver, Chicago, and obviously Houston. The chain experienced about ten years of growth before International Industries (The Company Al Lapin formed to run his restaurant brands) was sued by a group of franchisees who specified that they were being overcharged for supplies. In the mid-1970s, the chain was liquidated, and many franchisees became owners. From here the history gets extremely hard to track but the take-away is that without any corporate structure, the restaurants were left on their own. Today, four locations remain open, three in Houston, and one in Los Angeles. 

While resembling Burger King hash browns those round potatoes are called cottage fries.

Midway through reminiscing about a past I never experienced, my food showed up. Everything looked delicious and fried. I quickly disposed of the garnish. After all, Texas didn’t fight for its independence from Mexico for me to eat rabbit food on the Lord’s day! Using the table-supplied Tabasco to spice up my eggs, I dug in. Everything on the plate was delicious. I truly couldn’t remember the last time I had been to House Of Pies, but the quality had not declined. The only exception was the eggs, which were slightly overdone and definitely needed the help of some spice.

Although the dish doesn’t look huge here, for $9 this is a lot of food.

When I dine out, it’s a rarity for me to finish a meal. Usually, I box up around half of my food and finish it a few hours later. After skipping breakfast this Sunday morning, I was more than inclined to finish not just all my food but to order up some pie as well. My waitress took my order of strawberry rhubarb pie to the front counter where the restaurant’s bakery is. In the meantime, I got up to wash my hands and check out the bathroom. After finding it to be pretty standard, though tiny, I returned to the dining room.

The peculiar layout and small size of this restaurant pretty much make it impossible to take any stealthy pictures.

Although difficult to make out in this photo, House of Pies maintains a very small dining room. All in all, I would assume they could hold about 75 people. Most booths have four person seating. There are no chairs except for a few that are permanently connected to the limited bar seating.

Delicious and overflowing are two adjectives that are rarely used together. However, they’re the perfect fit here.

Getting back to my seat, I quickly finished my slice of pie. Not needing my usual to-go box, I was delivered my check. Which was an odd combination of handwritten slip, that had obviously been passed through a receipt printer. This technology was likely added later in life, as these locations opened in the late sixties.

That orange sign uses the original logo and script for House of Pies.

Making my way to the front, I snapped a couple of pictures of things I had missed on the way out. Unfortunately, the rising traffic meant I couldn’t get a picture of the front counter bakery.

The gold carved out lettering mixed with the brown wood makes this look like a state park sign.

I could only get a picture of the bottom half of this sign. The top half has a huge rotating piece to indicate if it is self-seating or not. The other Houston location has one, but I’m not sure that these signs were original to the building.

Overall I had a good experience, without getting to visit the Los Angeles location, I’m not exactly sure what has deviated over the years, but I’m sure things have. What sells in Houston doesn’t always sell in Los Angeles, and to add to that, House of Pies definitely sells in Houston. Within the past year they have opened two new locations, both former locations of newly-broken chain Black Eyed Pea, but that’s a story for another blog post.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Dawn's Dusk

I hate the spelling of the word "Doughnut." Writing comes easily to me most of the time. When I'm composing blog posts here, I seldom experience writers' block, but taking the time to include the entirely unnecessary G and H in the middle of the word is sure to break my concentration and result in substandard prose. Since the subject of this post is a chain specializing in the manufacture and sale of the aforementioned breakfast treat, I'm sure to be using the word repeatedly. Rather than try and dance around the use of that word, I'm going to do what many businesses have done before me, and use the colloquial spelling, "Donut." I apologize if this irks any spelling and grammar aficionados, but I don't think I'd be able to compose an entire blog post repeatedly using the correct spelling without it having a dramatic effect on my enjoyment of the Sunday afternoon during which I am writing this. Also, I've never heard of spell check. 

The donut shop is a genre of business that seems to be slowly going extinct. Places that specialize in fried dough coated in sugar feel out of step with a health-conscious world. The more successful donut places tend to downplay their fattier offerings and market themselves as purveyors of coffee drinks instead. Tim Horton's, a donut chain that exists all over Canada, and some select US markets including my own, has called themselves a "Cafe and bake shop" since 2011, de-emphasizing their donut shop image. Dunkin' recently followed suit and dropped the "Donuts" from their name to much media attention. With the modern unfashionable image of the donut, it's no surprise that there are a good many donut chains that long ago crossed the Cici's point to become broken chains.

Arthur Hurand opened the first Dawn Donuts in 1958 in Flint, Michigan, and the chain grew slowly to a size somewhere north of 60 locations in Michigan and surrounding states by the mid eighties. The name referred to the time of day when bakers would have to work to make sure donuts were ready in the morning. (Near as I can tell, Dawn Donuts never offered a donut filled with the eponymous dish detergent in place of jelly or Bavarian creme.) Many locations built in the sixties had distinctive zigzag pointy roofs. I lovingly refer to these buildings as pointybois. Dunkin' Donuts bought out Dawn Donuts in 1991, and converted a good many of the company-owned pointyboi buildings to Dunkin locations, just as many Zantigos became Taco Bells a decade or so earlier. The terms of Dunkin's buyout of Dawn Donuts allowed remaining Dawn Donuts franchisees to remain in business under the Dawn name. Of the eight independent Dawn Donuts locations that existed at the time of the Dunkin' buyout, two still exist today. Sadly, as of 2013, neither location operates out of a vintage pointyboi.

Edit: I've been informed that Dawn Foods, the corporate entity behind the Dawn Donut shops existed as a corporate entity as early as 1920, and still exists today. You can read more about them here. 

Located in Flint, the birthplace of both Dawn Donuts and Kewpee, the last pointyboi that operated under the Dawn Donuts name was bulldozed and replaced with a modern building that houses both Dawn Donuts and a Subway location. Google shows there's still a vintage sign out front, but the look of the building was too bland and modern for me. I opted instead to visit its sister location down the road in Grand Blanc. While not a funky midcentury pointyboi, the Dawn Donuts in Grand Blanc had a decidedly late 1980s appearance that I thought might provide an immersive experience. I wasn't disappointed when I visited. 

A donut shop straight out of 1989

Esmeralda Fitzmoster and I stopped by the Grand Blanc location yesterday morning for a quick unhealthy breakfast to kick off a weekend of unhealthy eating and were pleased to find a charmingly dated atmosphere. The menu boards looked like they had been brand new at the time of the Dunkin' buyout and were never changed. Seating in the dining room was in the form of built-in half booths with integrated chairs, similar to the units at the Taco Tico locations I grew up with. It was clear very little had changed here in a good 25 to 30 years. We ordered up half a dozen donuts from the glass case that composed the order counter, and took a seat. 

While not quite pointyboi caliber...

...the interior of Dawn Donuts was pleasingly retro. 

I was pleased to see they still use branded packaging. This baker character seems to be as old as the brand itself. 

I ordered my normal go-to donuts. I've listed my impressions of each below:

The powdered sugar donut has been my favorite variety since childhood. Early exposure to the powdered sugar donuts at Danville, Kentucky's Burke's Bakery made me a lifelong fan. This one was a bit crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with an odd mix of spices mixed into the dough making for hints of what I took to be clove and ginger that I didn't especially care for. It was a perfectly well-executed donut, but wasn't to my taste.
The cream filled longjohn is another of my childhood favorites, thanks to my maternal grandmother who would buy them for me at her local location of the now completely defunct Big Bear supermarket chain. This one didn't measure up to its counterparts from Big Bear, sadly. The icing application was sloppy, and the filling inside was almost flavorless. Still, fried dough plus sugar always tastes pretty good. 
Hey fellow '90s kids! Remember those Pogs that were shaped like the blades of a circular saw? Well the cruller is like the donut version of those pogs. They can have a light croissant-like texture, or simply be a uniquely shaped cake donut. This one, seen here with some excess sugar from its powdered sugar bag-mate was of the latter variety, a plain cake donut under a thick, crunchy glaze with a slight smoky flavor that weirdly reminded me of a campfire-toasted marshmallow. This was the most distinctive of the bunch, and therefore my favorite. I suspect it's an artifact of the heyday of Dawn Donuts, still available to the public decades later. 

To the average observer unfamiliar with the history of the brand, the surviving Dawn Donuts locations likely look like independent neighborhood donut joints, which they essentially are at this point. Without distinctive pointyboi architecture evoking a the spirit of a corporate image, my visit to Dawn Donuts felt like half of an experience, and while neither Dawn Donuts is in a pointyboi, there are still pointybois standing in the area, operating under different names. Thanks to demographic makeup that leads to this particular region having a strong donut culture, and an odd phenomenon of donut shops remaining donut shops after they change ownership and brands, quite a few of the surviving pointybois still house donut shops, including a single remaining Dunkin location in Jackson, Michigan. Rather than visiting a Dunkin' Donuts, though, I opted instead to visit the similar, but legally distinct, Don's Donuts, a pointyboi, former Dawn Donuts just outside of Toledo Ohio. 

Even in a slightly seedy neighborhood full of older buildings, the distinctive roof of Don's Donuts stands out. The angled entryway extends the theme of diagonal lines to the user's experience with the building. Once you're inside though, the layout is conventional, with a backward L shaped counter dictating the shape of the dinning room. The walls are plain painted cinder blocks with an institutional feel, like a cheaply-constructed roadside motel from the fifties. Everything about the place feels like a time warp, from the glass case of freshly prepared donuts at the order counter at the top of the L to the two U-shaped counters at the base of the L, flanked by low stools trimmed with bright orange imitation ostrich skin. Even the counter tops seem to be original, as they sport a well-worn floral pattern clearly from the early sixties. 

Hey there, pointyboi
Fryin' up some dough so fancy-free
Nobody that you serve could ever see the history you have inside you
The angular entryway continues the theme of pointiness. 

I stopped by and purchased a couple of the unremarkable donuts from the glass case so I could sit and loiter for a few minutes and appreciate the untouched atmosphere of the distinctive, remarkably intact, historical building. An older man behind the counter, who I took to be the owner of the place, was chatting with some regulars during my visit, and complaining about low property values in the area. Ironically, it's likely those very low property values that have kept the place running in its original form for so long. If the land it was sitting on was worth more, this endangered pointyboi would have long ago been leveled and replaced with some modern nondescript strip mall that wouldn't be worth a second look to the average commercial architecture geek.

I could stare at that countertop all day...

...and when I get bored, I can spin on these stools. 

Thanks to the Rust Belt's infamous urban decay and associated low property values, however, the the pointybois, countless broken chains, and a litany of other historic retail buildings live on as both anachronistic businesses and dilapidated husks. Because of this atmosphere, it's still possible to get both the architectural and culinary experience offered by Dawn Donuts, although the two halves of the experience are separated by a 120 mile drive. I probably would have driven much further than that for the complete Dawn Donuts experience. I've definitely driven further for reasons much more trivial.

Thanks to Keith, who writes for My Florida Retail Blog for tipping me off to both the past and present existence of Dawn Donuts. Come to think of it, he told me about Maryland Fried Chicken too. Thanks for that as well, Keith.

Thanks as well to for their information regarding the locations of surviving pointybois. 

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Monday, March 4, 2019

The Fortunate Eunuch

When Alessandro Moreschi died in 1922, an uncomfortable chapter of history died with him. Moreschi was the last of the castrati, male singers who were castrated before puberty to preserve their childlike singing voices. Castrati were popular performers in Europe from the Renaissance until the Industrial Revolution when governments and religious institutions banned the practice. Moreschi lent his vocal talents to the Sistine Chapel choir for three decades, performing well into the twentieth century, and is the only castrato to have been recorded performing solo. Recently, I couldn't help think of Alessandro Moreschi as I was dining a restaurant named for a castrated bull that is also the last surviving example of its kind.

The Lucky Steer restaurant stands just off I-75 in Wapakoneta, Ohio. It is the final outlet of a small chain restaurant empire concentrated mainly along the Indiana-Ohio border. I was tipped off to its existence, and indeed the one-time existence of the Lucky Steer chain via email by a reader. (Thanks Map Cat!) Mentions of the Lucky Steer brand online are scant, and a definitive outline of its history is nowhere to be found. The closest I can find is a forum post by a person claiming to be the founder's son. His story details chain beginning in 1945 when Guy Scheib opened the Humpty Dumpty drive-in in a converted gas station in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The restaurant, run by Scheib and his sons, was an overnight success in post WWII Indiana, and they quickly began expanding, changing the name to Happy Humpty along the way, as the Humpty Dumpty trademark was unavailable. Lucky Steer was launched as a more upscale sister chain to Happy Humpty at some point in the sixties, offering a steakhouse-like menu, with indoor seating and table service. At the peak of operations, there were around 23 company-owned restaurants in the two brand chain. Downfall came abruptly, according to the forum poster, when a business partner muscled Scheib out, and proceeded to mismanage the Happy Humpty and Lucky Steer brands, bringing about massive closures in the early to mid eighties. The only surviving location was the Lucky Steer in Wapakoneta. The cover of the menu at the lone surviving Lucky Steer tells the rest of the story. It had been a Happy Humpty at one point, before being converted to a Lucky Steer location, which was purchased by a former Happy Humpty/Lucky Steer regional manager in 1983. It's still owned by the same family today. 

The building is a nicely preserved relic of the sixties. 
I arranged to stop there for a quick bite on a recent weekend trip. Admittedly, I wasn't in a great mood. Following a disappointing dinner the night before, I was ready to be home. I also was not especially hungry, thanks to a lovely breakfast prepared by my Airbnb hosts that morning. Had I not been in the vicinity of Lucky Steer, I would have driven straight home. I had perused the Lucky Steer website a few days before, and found that the menu had evolved a bit from the initial steakhouse concept, and was now more dinerish in terms of offerings and price point. I stopped in late on a Sunday morning, figuring on adhering to a hobbitlike meal schedule that day. I had skipped second breakfast, and it was time for elevenses. I parked under the zigzag roof canopy, no doubt a Googie artifact of the site's Happy Humpty days. 

A vintage canopy that screams "Drive-In!"

Predictibly, the place was packed, and the crowd seemed roughly evenly split between adults over 70, all of whom seemed to have colds, and children under five, all of whom also seemed to have colds. I was shown past the large, airy dining room with a high vaulted ceiling and massive window looking out toward the street, to a secondary room, with few, if any windows. I was seated at a small table in the middle of the proverbial action. A large family was seated a couple of tables away, and I cringed as a woman asked for a cup of ice, then proceeded to pour her glass of chocolate milk over the ice, and slowly sip it, allowing the beverage to be slowly diluted by the melting cubes. A group of waitresses idly chatted with a customer who they seemed to know, while they blocked the kitchen door. Various children with oozing nostrils ran about unsupervised, making various ear-piercing noises as they frolicked. I didn't dare go near the salad bar.

When my waitress fought her way through the crowd, I ordered a Lucky Skillet, a breakfast skillet concoction with a base of some manner of fried potato product topped with vegetables, eggs, and sausage gravy. Learning my lesson from Country Kitchen, I specifically asked for my eggs over easy, to which my waitress replied, "You mean instead of scrambled?" Apparently here, like at the Country Kitchen in Hannibal, Missouri, eggs are scrambled by default. After taking my order, my waitress returned a few minutes later to inform me that the kitchen was out of "Chunkies" and asked if I'd like hash browns or home fries in my skillet instead. Not knowing what chunkies were, and having heard the terms hash brown and home fry used interchangeably to describe every manner of fried potato that's not a french fry, I asked for hash browns. This appears to have been the wrong answer, because my waitress gave me a funny look before disappearing into the kitchen.

The Lucky Skillet, curiously served on a plate. 
I found the potatoes. You know, boil 'em, mash 'em, stick 'em in a Lucky Skillet. 

When my skillet arrived a few minutes later, it was piping hot, and entirely edible, if a bit heavy on gravy. In retrospect, I should have ordered biscuits instead of toast. The hash browns appeared to have been made from freshly cut potatoes, but were buried under layers of mushy gravy and eggs. I suspect i it's better with chunkies, whatever they are. I finished eating quickly, paid my bill and left, slightly underwhelmed by my breakfast, but immensely put off by the atmosphere. I can't blame the restaurant for being busy at the brunching hour on a Sunday, but my own personal quirks include a strong aversion to crowds in general, and small children in particular. Lucky Steer had plenty of both. I drove off, planning a blog post in my head, the crescendo of which was set to be some quip about the steer being lucky because his inability to reproduce prevents him from being surrounded by a herd of calves with runny noses.

In the days following my visit to Lucky Steer, however, a feeling that I had not been in the right head space to give them a fair shake began to creep into my brain. I see myself as more of an amateur historian than a restaurant critic, and try, moderately successfully, not to be unfairly critical of the places I visit. Plus, I saw that they had a double deck burger, known as the Lucky Burger, on the menu that intrigued me. Pictures I found of Happy Humpty locations I found online advertised a blatant Big Boy knockoff burger called the Big Guy. I strongly suspected the Lucky Burger was a clone of the Big Guy. 

My second visit to Lucky Steer was also on a Sunday, but this time it was early afternoon. The place was just as crowded, but this time the age range of the clientele was distributed a bit more evenly, and the coughs, sneezes, and visible mucus had drastically decreased. I was delighted to be seated in the main dining room by the large window that makes up the building's glassy front facade. My Lucky Burger and fries came out quickly, despite the busy dining room.

I could find no accounts of the constituent ingredients of the Happy Humpty Big Guy hamburger, but I suspect it would have been topped with some form of tartar sauce, considering Happy Humpty shared its territory with both Frisch's Big Boy and Burger Chef, both of whom topped their double deck burgers with proprietary tartar sauces. If I'm correct, my Lucky Burger was not an authentic Big Guy, as it came with a Thousand Island-based sauce. It was also a bit smaller than I anticipated, but then again, so is a standard Big Boy, a relic of the Depression when meat was scarce. Despite its diminutive size, the Lucky Burger was a pleasant experience. It's patties were lightly charred on the edges, producing a light crunch, while the insides were still pleasantly juicy. The three piece bun had sesame seeds on all three pieces, the way Big Macs did at some point before my birth, according to old print ads and commercials I've seen. As a result, for the first time in my life, I actually got a hint of sesame flavor from a sesame seed hamburger bun. As with my breakfast, the price of my meal was more than reasonable. Including a Diet Pepsi and tip, I ended up paying just over $10. I paid more for lunch at my local Subway today. 

The Lucky Burger likely bears little resemblance to its ancestor the Big Guy, but it was still pretty tasty. 

When Alessandro Moreschi's voice was recorded, he was in his mid-forties. At the time, he was considered by even the most generous critics to be past his prime as a vocalist. Regardless, the recordings survive today, and act as a window to a time when standards of both musical taste and ethics were remarkably different than they are today. The Wapakoneta Lucky Steer functions similarly. While its menu has evolved over the years, and bears little resemblance to the initial Steakhouse fare or the drive-in offerings from Happy Humpty, it stands as our last window to a pair of nearly forgotten regional restaurant chains that are otherwise largely lost to history. I'm glad to have had a couple of Lucky Steer experiences. I'll probably return on one of may countless trips up and down I-75, provided they aren't terribly busy.

I apologize if the references to castration made anyone reading this uncomfortable for any reason. I promise it's a theme I won't discuss again, unless maybe I happen to find a Western Steer Family Steakhouse still open for business somewhere. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

Not Fricking Anybody


I was preschool-aged when our local McDonald’s moved from its 1970s-built dark brick mansard on Main Street to a new building on the north side of town, near the Walmart where land was quickly being developed. The old McDonald’s building was purchased by the city and is still in use today as offices for the public utilities department, still looking very much like it did when it was a McDonald’s. Ever since that McDonald’s became a municipal building, I’ve been fascinated by buildings with distinctive, recognizable corporate image architecture being reused for entirely new purposes. I’m not the only person with this fascination, as the Not Fooling Anybody website and subreddit, which are devoted to pictures of hastily-converted fast food and other retail buildings, came into existence to cater to people with the same interest.

I’ve explored this interest here on Broken Chains in the past, by both documenting the former Taco Tico buildings in and around Lexington, Kentucky and by going hunting on Google Earth for former G.D. Ritzy’s buildings. I was recently inspired to explore my interest further following one of my many trips down I-75 Ohio.

I happened to make a pit stop in Bowling Green, at an exit I had never previously explored, on my way back to the highway, I drove past a Fricker’s, and had to stop to take pictures of it.

The Fricker's in Bowling Green, Ohio...
Fricker’s is a regional chain of sports bars mainly in Western Ohio. They seem to be doing reasonably well, and do not meet my definition of a broken chain. Likewise, I’m not a massive fan of sports, bars, or sports bars, so their food and atmosphere are of little interest to me. My interest in Fricker’s is due to their expansion strategy, which seems to consist mainly of converting existing structures with few exterior changes beyond a coat of red paint and the addition of some stripey awnings. 

...would have originally looked a lot like the still-operational Dutch Pantry in Williamstown, West Virginia.
The Fricker’s I passed in Bowling Green was housed in a Dutch Pantry building which seemed to have had minimal modifications. It even still sported the trapezoidal Dutch Pantry sign frame. A little Google Street View research revealed two additional Fricker’s housed in former Dutch Pantry buildings. Unsurprisingly, the other two Dutch Pantry Fricker’s are located along I-75 as well, specifically in Perrysburg and Findlay. Dutch Pantry’s strategy was (and still is!) to cater to travelers, so most, if not all Dutch Pantry locations were built along major highways. 

Another Dutch Pantry Fricker's in Findlay, Ohio...

...and a third in Perrysburg, Ohio

Having found multiple Fricker’s locations in old Dutch Pantry buildings, I was intrigued. I had to see if any other husks of failed chain restaurants had been assimilated by Fricker’s. Naturally, I sat down and looked at all 25 Fricker’s on Google Street View, because that kind of thing is my idea of a fun Saturday night. I found a good many nondescript Fricker’s locations set up in strip malls, but roughly as many operating out of the buildings that once housed outlets of broken chains.

Located in Adrian, Michigan's only Fricker's is a former Ponderosa. 
Huber Heights, Ohio is also home to a Frickerosa.
While the facade of the Miamisburg Fricker's makes you remember not only The Alamo, but Lone Star Steakhouse as well. 
I see a quite a few empty and reused Ponderosas in my travels. At this point, they outnumber the operational ones, so it’s not terribly surprising to see a pair of Fricker’s locations housed in former Ponderosa buildings. Likewise, all but four of the 265 Lone Star Steak House locations have closed, so it’s not terribly surprising to see one painted red and serving as a Fricker’s. 

Look close at the tall trapezoid on the left of the Middletown, Ohio Fricker's. It once held a Chi-Chi's sign... did this Fricker's in Springfield, Ohio. 

Of all the Fricker’s locations I found, though, I was most delighted by the locations in Middletown and Springfield, Ohio. Both are obvious former Chi-Chi’s, still sporting the prominent vestiges of Chi-Chi’s signature adobe architecture under a fresh coat of Fricker’s red paint. (Sadly, there are no Chi-Chi’s locations left in North America, though Hormel still sells a line of Chi-Chi’s-branded grocery items here. There are still Chi-Chi’s locations open in Europe, and you better believe I’ll eat at Chi-Chi’s if I’m ever in Luxembourg.) Well-preserved Chi-Chi’s buildings are becoming increasingly rare. Most have been demolished or renovated beyond recognition, and I think their light touch is with their buildings is what has drawn me to Fricker’s.

When the larger chains take over an existing location, they’ll often erect new facades and erase any hint of the building’s original purpose. While in Fricker’s case it’s more likely due to a limited construction budget than an attempt at historical preservation, they walk a delicate line, adding their own corporate image to a building without significantly altering its original shape, thereby preserving its connection to a struggling, defunct, or otherwise diminished brand.

I’ve never set foot in a Fricker’s, and I probably never will, but I hold them in higher regard than I do other sports bar chains, which I also avoid, simply because they give historic chain restaurant buildings a second chance at life when most other chains would heavily modify or raze them. In a time when such buildings are becoming endangered, it’s nice to see them getting regular use with a moderately high degree of preservation.

Below are a few Fricker’s locations I could not definitively identify. I’ve captioned them with their location, and my best guess as to what I think they might have originally been. Please comment below or email me if you can tell me if any of my guesses are right or wrong. 

2599 W Michigan St, Sidney, Ohio
I think this may be a former Ryan's Steakhouse. What say you, dear reader? 

1580 Goodman Ave, Cincinnati, Ohio
This looks like a former Steak and Ale to me. Who can confirm or tell me different?

Edit: Mike from Houston Historic Retail tells me this is a former Cambridge Inn Cafeteria

8850 Governors Hill Dr, Cincinnati, OH
This one has me feeling pretty stumped, but I get a vague Joe's Crab Shack vibe from it. I'm probably wrong, but who knows what it actually is?

Edit: Multiple sources tell me this building was originally a Cooker restaurant.

Also, don’t forget to like the Broken Chains Facebook page to see when the blog has been updated. I also post a bonus picture every now and then. 

Edit: My head Lucky Steer Correspondent, Map Cat, shared a link to this grain-tastic 2007 vintage Street View image of the Richmond, Idiana Fricker's that shows the Fricker's sign in an old Lucky Steer sign frame, meaning that the Richmond, Indiana Fricker's is likely a former Lucky Steer.