Saturday, June 16, 2018

A Nickel Saved is a Dime Earned

When I started this blog, I had the intention of covering not just restaurants, but multiple retail spaces I found to fit in with the broken chains theme. Longtime readers will no doubt remember my exploration of the remnants of Montgomery Ward and the night I spent in a slightly sketchy motel that started out as a Howard Johnson’s in the mid sixties. My very first post here even featured a picture of the last operating Sam Goody, which I encountered in San Diego several years ago. Unfortunately, due to increased inventory and often real estate cost, relative to the typical chain restaurant, it’s tougher for a holdout franchisee to keep a store open after the corporate infrastructure crumbles. Franchising is also a less common business model outside of the restaurant industry. Retail store brands tend to vanish quickly and completely. Because of all of this, my non-restaurant posts have been few and far between.

I suppose once great retail brands in various stages of decline like Sears/Kmart, Toys R Us, and JC Penney all meet my working definition of broken chains, but they all seem a bit too visible, and I prefer to seek out the forgotten. Forgotten retail brands still in operation can be tough to find, but there are some still out there.

The modern big box retailers, dollar stores, and pseudo dollar stores like Dollar General evolved from a common ancestor. American small town main streets often contained a store known colloquially as a five and dime or variety store. The former because early on, price points of items were set at five or ten cents, not unlike today’s dollar stores, or places like Five Below who limit the cost of their items to five dollars or less. Before big box retailers took over in the latter half of the previous century, variety store filled the gap between grocery stores and large department stores, offering inexpensive household items, limited selections of clothing and toys, and anything else the typical consumer might not encounter at the A&P or Sears. Variety stores could be independent or part of countless national or regional brands. Most of those brands are long gone. S&S Kresge evolved into Kmart. Woolworth’s adopted an entirely new business model and became Footlocker. Many others ceased operations and faded into obscurity, except for one.

Ben Franklin, named for the American founding father of the same name can trace its origins back in to 1877 when the Butler Brothers started their mail order catalog business. The first Ben Franklin store opened 40 years later as variety stores were gaining popularity. The chain expanded using a franchising system and peaked at around 2500 locations. Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, got his start as a Ben Franklin franchisee.

As the early big box stores began to dominate the market in the seventies, Ben Franklin experimented with larger retail spaces of their own, but the concepts didn’t last. Emphasis on art and craft items increased to help the chain find a niche. After an ill fated attempt to open corporate owned locations in the nineties led the company to bankruptcy, and most of the remaining Ben Franklin stores closed.

Today, Ben Franklin still exists as an online retailer, owned by a company called HMStores, which seems to be unrelated to the clothing retailer H&M. The Ben Franklin website makes no mention of physical stores, but they still exist and are owned by Promotions Unlimited, which acts as a supplier and promoter for Ben Franklin franchisees as well as other chain and independent retail stores.

While I was on the road a few weeks back, between Ponderosa meals, and I found myself in East Tawas, Michigan, a small tourist town on Lake Huron, and home to one of a handful of Ben Franklin stores still operating in small towns. The outside of the store looks like it hasn’t changed it’s appearance much in the past four decades. It’s located in an old fashioned downtown commercial district with only street parking available.
What's that Pontiac Torrent doing in a photo from 1978?

I park, walk across the street and into the store and do a few laps. The store is about the size of a Dollar General, maybe a bit larger, and I’m immediately struck by how little desire I feel to buy any of the merchandise. The shelves near the front of the store are full of the obligatory souvenir t shirts and shot glasses one encounters in touristy locations like this one. The remainder of the inventory wouldn’t look out of place in a Hobby Lobby. There’s aisles full of reproduction tin signs, and wooden signs with generally positive “Live, Laugh, Love” slogans on them. There's lots of vaguely nautical tchotchkes suitable for displaying in a Michigan lakeside cottage. There’s a couple aisles with art supplies, and a limited selection of toys and games featuring licensed Emoji Movie characters made by Ty, the Beanie Baby people. I try to spend money at every place I visit for this blog, but none of this merchandise has any appeal to me, and I’m beginning to worry I’ll leave the store empty handed. Then I saw it. 

The biggest fad of 1997 meets what I can only assume was the most successful movie of  2017
Take pictures in public like nobody's watching,
Eat at Rax like you've never heard of Arby's,
Blog like nobody's reading. 
Yarr matey! This here be the type of booty I'll display in me rumpus room!

About half of one aisle was devoted to tiki decor, an aesthetic I’ve always appreciated for its kitsch value. I found a reasonably priced tiki mask and brought it home with me in a purple Ben Franklin bag. The mask is now hanging in my bathroom and the logo from the bag is now framed in my living room.
All the birds sing words, and the flowers croon. 

There are still over 300 physical Ben Franklin stores in operation, some standalone, some sharing retail space with small town grocery or hardware retailers. From what I’ve read, inventory varies a bit between stores to suit local needs. They’re the last of the old variety store brands operating out of their old small footprint stores, and they’re still fairly easy to find once you’re outside of the major metro areas. If you’re in the Continental US, you’re probably not far from a Ben Franklin, tucked away in some small town where the real estate is cheap and it's an hour drive to the nearest Target. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Ghosts of Taco Tico Past

This very taco wrapper is now framed and hanging in my living room. 

If there's one broken chain that comes close to usurping G.D. Ritzy's status as my favorite, it's probably Taco Tico. Thanks in part to its dominance in Central Kentucky during my childhood there, Taco Tico remains my favorite fast food taco chain. I grew up in a time when there were just as many Taco Tico locations nearby as there were Taco Bells. As a kid, who knew little of what was outside of Central Kentucky I thought of them as equals in terms of market share. (I was a weird kid.) In the mid nineties, most of the Taco Ticos in Lexington closed. A few soldiered on for a few years under the name Tacos Too, which I suspect was one franchisee’s strategy for avoiding paying franchise fees while still operating a very Taco Tico like business. Some of the Tacos Too locations were later converted to Popeye's, presumably when the franchisee wanted to try something new, or perhaps when they received a cease and desist letter from Taco Tico corporate.

1483 Boardwalk, Lexington, KY
Lexington's last operating Taco Tico; the 1970s vintage pueblo style building has had a fresh coat of paint since I ate here last.

Interior of the Lexington Taco Tico, a nicely maintained time capsule
5925 Terry Rd, Louisville, KY
Kentucky's other Taco Tico, located in Louisville, opened in 2007, the only operating Taco Tico not in a freestanding structure. It's also the newest operating Taco Tico location anywhere if you don't count the older, previously closed restaurants in Kansas that have reopened in the past couple of years. 

Every time I’m back in Lexington, I make it a point to eat at the one remaining (and thriving!) Taco Tico in town. I did just that on my recent trip to Kentucky. I also ate at the Bluegrass State’s other Taco Tico, located in Louisville. While visiting a few of the other historical fast food sites in Lexington, I noticed that there were still a hell of a lot of old Taco Tico buildings still standing, some repurposed, some empty. With nothing better to do, I drove around the area and photographed every building I remember being a Taco Tico. I thought I’d use those photos to document what’s left of Taco Tico’s presence in and around Lexington, Kentucky. I doubt this is a complete or definitive list. If you know of any other old Taco Tico buildings in the area, or anywhere else for that matter, feel free to make me aware of them. Below, you'll find every building I photographed with a description of what I remember about them. 

771 E New Circle Rd, Lexington, KY
This was the penultimate Taco Tico location in Lexington. My friends and I would frequent this one as well as the Boardwalk location. My best guess is that it closed sometime around 2006. It's had some new paint and awnings, and some decorative flourishes have been removed from the roofline, but the basic shape of the building is the same as it was. I'd guess fewer than half of Taco Tico buildings were the distinctive trapezoidal pueblos. The other buildings were much more conventional by comparison. Wing Hut is a local business and has another location in Lexington in the building that served as the first ever Fazoli's, among other things. 

504 Lexington Road, Versailles, KY
An impressively intact pueblo-style Taco Tico building, much like the one still in operation now houses an authentic Mexican restaurant serving cuisine far removed from Taco Tico's menu, which was  conceived in the sixties by gringos in Kansas. This location is one that turned into Tacos Too and survived well into this century. It was spared the indignity of being converted to a Popeye's.
172 Imperial Way, Nicholasville, Kentucky
Now nearly unrecognizable, this building was originally a Taco Tico. It was an outparcel in a shopping center that contained the nearest Walmart to where my family lived, so we'd often have dinner here before a mid-week Walmart run. I used to beg my parents for quarters so I could play the tabletop Pac Man game here. Like most Taco Ticos in the area, this one closed in the mid 90s, and sat empty for a few years, before turning into a Popeye's.

101 E Tiverton Way, Lexington, KY
This was the first Taco Tico I remember seeing with a Tacos Too sign out front. As you can probably guess, it was eventually turned into an ill-fated Popeye's. I had to take this picture through my windshield while sitting at a red light, as the parking lot is completely fenced off, perhaps to deter trespassers. It's been empty for years.

1445 Village Drive, Lexington, Kentucky
I had no idea there was a former Taco Tico here until I saw it in the background of a picture in an Atlas Obscura article about the piece of mimetic architecture next door, which was originally built as a mortar and pestle shaped pharmacy. Its neighbor is another nicely preserved pueblo style Taco Tico, now serving as an authentic Mexican restaurant. The two story margarita next door seems fitting and probably doesn't hurt business.
1001 Elizabeth St. Nicholasville, KY
This Shell station never housed a Taco Tico, but it's two restaurant slots that are now a liquor store and a barbecue joint were once a Popeye's and a Tacos Too. I therefore felt obliged to include it here given the connection to nearby Taco Tico locations. Not long after the Popeye's closed, its former slot did duty as a makeshift Daewoo showroom for the dealership next door during the brief window of time in which you could buy a new Daewoo car in the US.

3750 Palomar Centre Dr. Lexington, Kentucky
I saved my favorite conversion for last. That's right, this bank used to be a Taco Tico. We'd also visit this location frequently when I was a kid. I have distinct memories of mixing Coke and orange soda from the self-serve drink fountain here. This building never did time as a Tacos Too or Popeye's as I recall. I believe it's only been a Taco Tico and a bank, weirdly enough.  
So that's my attempt at documenting an extremely esoteric bit of history. I'm going to check my bank balance to see how much interest has accrued on those enchiladas I deposited.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Cops, Bees, and Banjos

  Ray Kroc’s success franchising the McDonald brothers’ quick service restaurant concept in the ‘50s and ‘60s spawned countless imitations of the McDonald’s model, resulting in a full-blown fast food boom in the early to mid '60s. This boom spawned many regional chains that thrived in that economically prosperous era when gas was cheap, cars were massive, and suburbs sprawled. But fuel crises, economic downturns, and an increasingly competitive fast food market forced many of the smaller fast food chains to close and/or be acquired by larger players in the industry in the 1970s. The small chains that survived the ‘70s were forced to employ novel strategies to ensure their revival. Often they’d open locations in smaller markets that the larger chains wouldn’t touch to ensure limited competition. Chains like Druther’s and Clancy’s would often be the only fast food in the towns where they had locations. I mention those chains specifically, because they each have a single location still open for business, and I visited both of them recently. 

Druther’s started life as Burger Queen, which opened its first restaurant in Middletown, Kentucky in 1963. Burger Queen evolved to have an extensive menu including burgers, fried chicken, a breakfast menu and a salad bar. The name change occurred sometime around 1980, to reflect the increased variety of menu items. Similar to Nickerson Farms and their Li’l Honey Bea character, Burger Queen used an anthropomorphic female bee named Queenie Bee as mascot. She was largely replaced by Andy Dandytale, a banjo-picking troubadour around the time of the name change to Druther’s. I can find no accounts of the name change having anything to do with pressure from Burger King. Druther’s peaked with somewhere around 200 locations mostly in the Southeast. There were Druther’s locations around when I was a kid, and I remember elderly relatives erroneously referring to both Druther’s and Burger King locations as Burger Queen. My father would often tell me stories of eating far too many meals at Burger Queen when he was single and just out of college.

In the early nineties, Druther’s locations near me began to close or to convert to Dairy Queen. Druther’s International Inc. had opted to retire the Druther’s brand and become a Dairy Queen franchisee, converting corporate-owned locaitons to Dairy Queens. Druther’s Franchisees were offered the opportunity to convert their restaurants to Dairy Queens and become Dairy Queen franchisees as well, with the exception of a dozen franchised Druther’s locations which were in towns that already had Dairy Queen locations. Druther’s International allowed these franchisees to retain use of the Druther’s name and continue as independent restaurants. As time went on, these restaurants changed their names or went out of business with the exception of one located in Campbellsville, Kentucky.

Druther's in Campbellsville, KY, the place to be on a Saturday mornng

I really should write an article on forgotten fast food mascots. For every Ronald McDonald and Wendy there's an Andy Dandytale or Uncle Alligator.
The Campbellsville Druther’s is the last one in operation, and has been for at least a decade. I first found it around 2005 using Mapquest and other tools of the time. (I believe the penultimate Druther’s was in Princeton, Kentucky, but it had closed by the time I drove there looking for it in 2006 or so.) They’ve been in business since the early seventies in the same location, and were initially a Burger Queen. Queenie Bee is still on their sign. I’ve been back to the Campbellsville Druther’s a few times since initially discovering it, ordering different menu items each time to get a feel for what it would have been like to eat there in the seventies and eighties. The menu has changed very little. They still seem to have the original menu board, and when I took my father there a couple years ago, he was impressed with how close it was to the Druther’s of his young adulthood. Like many places I’ve checked out, I follow Druther’s Facebook page. They often post pictures of their breakfast items. I hadn’t tried their breakfast until this trip. 

Breakfast at Druther's, not bad for six bucks including a drink. 

Original sign plaques were present here and there. 

Ancient paper instructions Scotch taped to the fry staton
A former Druther's in Lexington, Kentucky. Note the original window openings which have been filled in when smaller windows were installed. 

I pulled into the Campbellsville Druther’s late on a Saturday morning to find the parking lot packed. I had been on a broken chain bender, having eaten at Taco Tico, Ollie’s Trolley, and G.D. Ritzy’s the day before. The dining room is full of locals enjoying breakfast. I order up a breakfast plate, which comes with two eggs, a meat (I chose bacon) an in-store baked biscuit with gravy, plus hashbrowns. All that plus a large drink ran me six bucks and change. It’s all pretty good, and the eggs are cooked to order. The bacon is thick cut, impressive for a fast food joint. It’s not an especially distinctive breakfast, but it’s of good quality for a great price. I’m not able to get many pictures inside the crowded restaurant without looking like a weirdo, but I had forgotten how light and airy the tall arch-topped windows make the dining room feel. Old Druther’s buildings are tough to spot, but the tall windows are what gives them away. 

The Sidney, Ohio Clancy's. Note the remnants of the second drive thru, which is now blocked by newspaper dispensers. 

Clancy’s was a much smaller chain with around 31 locations in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee at their peak. They also employed the strategy in opening in smaller markets to limit competition. The first location opened in Noblesville, Indiana in 1965. Unlike Druther’s which essentially operates independently, Clancy’s parent company is still involved with the day to day operations of the single remaining location in Sidney Ohio, plus a couple other area restaurants according to their website, which also contains a lot of information on the history of the brand. It also says there are plans to open a new Clancy’s in Nobleville, Indiana “by 2015.”

Clancy the cop is on my receipt. Bake 'em away, toys!

Clancy’s takes its name from a character in the Keystone Kops movie character. I suspect Chief Clancy Wiggum from The Simpsons is named for the same character. Clancy's claims to be among the first to use a double drive thru They also embraced indoor seating early on. I stopped into Sidney Ohio Clancy’s for breakfast on my way down to Louisville and found an impeccably-maintained early 1970s vintage building, which reminded me a lot of Arctic Circle locations built around the same time. The dining room was spotless and seemed to have the original tile floors and light fixtures With Clancy’s logos and their Clancy the Cop mascot printed on them. A pair of curio cabinets in the corner were full of vintage Clancy’s artifacts, something I need to imitate with my collection of fast food artifacts. 

I didn’t have any personal experience with Clancy’s, but it was on the way to Louisville, and i was excited to explore a new broken chain. I stopped in early on a Friday morning to find the dining room about half full. I ordered a breakfast plate, and while the thin bacon pieces and toast didn’t quite measure up the to Druther's thick cut bacon and biscuits I’d eat the next day, the Clancy’s home fries blew the Druther’s deep fried hash brown patty out of the water. The price was about the same, around six dollars. I still have family in Kentucky, and find myself driving through Sidney often. I could definitely see myself stopping here again on my next trip down I-75. I’ve heard multiple people rave about the fries, so I’ll have to stop in during lunch hours next time to give them a try.

Both Clancy’s and Druther’s are nicely maintained pieces of history which should be preserved, experienced, and appreciated. The owners and employees of both establishments seem to do a great job of doing things the old way operating working, delicious museum exhibits that anyone can experience for the price of a cheap breakfast.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

What's Left of Lum's?

John Y. Brown Jr. is a figure in fast food history I’ve discussed before. During his long career as a lawyer, restaurateur, businessman, and politician, he had proverbial fingers in many proverbial pies. The Lexington, Kentucky native worked his way through the University of Kentucky as a door to door salesman, eventually earning a law degree. When the fast food industry was exploding in the early sixties, Brown and his wife Eleanor operated a small chain of barbecue restaurants. Brown’s experience in foodservice led to him meeting Colonel Harland Sanders at a political event in 1963, and eventually convincing venture capitalist Jack C. Massey to buy the entire KFC enterprise from the Colonel while keeping Sanders on the company payroll as a spokesman. With Brown as chairman KFC’s business model transformed from a chicken recipe sold to franchisees to be prepared and sold in otherwise independent sit-down restaurants to the traditional fast food concept that survives today.

Brown and Massey sold the KFC brand in 1971, the same year a group of investors led by Brown purchased the Lum’s restaurant chain from brothers Stuart and Clifford Perlman, who had purchased Caesar’s Palace a couple of years earlier. Lum’s origins can be traced to 1956 when the aforementioned Perlman brothers purchased a 16 seat hot dog stand in Miami beach. Lum’s evolved into an early fast casual chain, peaking at around 450 locations. Hot dogs steamed in beer were their signature menu item. When John Y. Brown took over the helm at Lum’s, he concluded that the menu needed additional distinctive items beyond lager-soaked weiners. Those of you who read my piece on Arthur Treacher’s will no doubt remember that the marketing strategies of most chains influenced by Brown all featured a Colonel Sandersesque spokesperson, and once Brown took over, Lum’s was no exception.

Enter Ollie Gleichenhaus, a notoriously cranky Miami restaurateur, whom Brown hired. Gleichenhaus brought with him his signature Ollieburger, a hamburger marinated in 23 secret herbs and spices. Sound familiar? Brown’s strategy was for Ollie to be the Colonel Sanders of Hamburgers, and 23 herbs and spices sounds much more impressive than the Colonel’s eleven. The Ollieburger was marketed as the “World’s best hamburger.” With Ollie on board, Lum’s locations began selling Ollieburgers and Ollie Fries, fries tossed in Ollie’s spice blend, alongside the beer-steamed franks. In 1979, Brown sold Lum’s to Weinerwald, a Swiss restaurant company known for schnitzel, not weiners. Brown ran for the office of Governor and Kentucky in 1979 and won. Weinerwald, in turn, declared bankruptcy in 1982, forcing most Lum’s locations to close before the end of Brown’s single term in office.

So what’s the current state of Lum’s? The short answer is that there are none left. According to Wikipedia, the last holdout Lum’s location, located in Belleview, Nebraska closed in May of 2017.

(I’m somewhat skeptical of this, as Wikipedia also says there are no White Tower restaurants left in operation, but I know of one in Toledo, Ohio that’s still open for business, albeit with a drastically altered menu.)

The long answer is that while Lum’s is gone it’s spinoff brand, Ollie’s Trolley lives on.

Ollie’s Trolley, was designed as an ultra-low cost, quick service, companion to Lum’s. Locations were tiny buildings designed to resemble trolley cars, occupying a footprint roughly equivalent to four medium-sized parking spaces. The diminutive restaurants began popping up in mostly urban settings in the mid seventies, selling Ollieburgers, Ollie fries, and not much else. There was no inside seating, and very limited, if any outside seating. Customer’s would enter a tiny room with an order counter at one side of the building to order. In a time when many fast food outlets were beginning to offer drive thru service, Ollie’s Trolley offered walk-up service only. The buildings were designed to be set up on small, cheap pieces of land, often existing parking lots, and I suspect the extra real estate and logistics needed for a drive thru would have defeated the purpose of the ultra basic concept. The first Trolleys opened in Louisville, Kentucky, and there were around 100 of them in operation at their peak. The lack of drive thru service and Weinerwald’s bankruptcy forced most Ollie’s Trolleys out of business by 1980. Near as I can tell, there are three left in operation, one in Washington D.C. which operates out of a more conventional storefront, and seems to market their Ollieburgers as a high end product, on par with Shake Shack. There’s also one in Cincinnati, still in the original trolley car building, which sells Ollieburgers and Ollie Fries. The third is located in Louisville, Kentucky, and seems to be the truest to the original concept. I opted to check out the Louisville location.

No, it's not the Neighborhood of Make-Belive. It's Old Louisville. 
Menu or middle school science fair display?

The Louisville Trolley is located in the neighborhood known simply as Old Louisville. It’s situated on a corner near the sidewalk, and shares a lot with what looks to be a long-deserted gas station. I park a block away and walk to the corner. It’s about 1:00 PM on a Friday afternoon, and I’m somewhat surprised to see a line about 15 people long stretching from the building’s door. As I get in line, I note a beefy, spicy aroma in the air. The line, made up of older working class people and a few young hipster types, (I like to think I'm somewhere on the middle of that spectrum.) moves pretty quickly, and soon I squeeze my way inside the door. I knew the order counter area would be small, but I wasn’t prepared for just how small it would be. The entire space is maybe four feet by eight feet, and there are at least four other customers in there with me. The menu board is homemade and housed in a glass case on the wall. It reminds me of an elementary school bulletin board. There are a few burgers on the menu, which clearly defines what an Ollieburger is, and calls out which burgers are not Ollieburgers, to avoid confusion when ordering. I suspect most first-timers don't research the history of the Ollieburger to the extent I have. I order up an Ollieburger with everything on it, Ollie fries, an extra cup of Ollie sauce, and because I’m in Kentucky, a sweet tea. I pay with cash, the only payment option, and pick up my food at the next window, maybe two minutes later. I walk back to my van with my food. 

The long line certainly supports the "World's greatest hamburger" claim. 

I suspect the Cajun fries they serve at Five Guys are influenced heavily by Ollie Fries. The spice mixture is similar, though not quite as hot as Five Guys. Ollie Fries are also crispier and cut a bit thinner. Just like Five Guys, my fries are on top of the bag, burying my burger. I eat a few and dip them in the Ollie Sauce until I can gracefully exhume my Ollieburger. The Ollie Sauce is an interesting take on the ubiquitous ketchup+mayo fast food special sauce. Rather than pickle chunks, there seem to be small pieces of pimento present, and maybe some of the Ollie spice blend too, though it’s hard to tell because my fries are also coated in the same spices. The sauce reminds me of the pimento cheese spread you see all over the South, but without the cheese, if that makes any sense. The elusive Ollieburger, is the main event, and it didn’t disappoint. The quarter pound patty is juicy with a complex savory flavor with hints of cayenne and celery salt. I think there’s some sage in there too. The texture is more tender than most burgers this size, but not unnervingly so, no doubt a product of Ollie’s marianating process. There’s a thick chunk of Mozzerella cheese and a generous portion of Ollie Sauce, and the flavors work pretty well together. I might forego the vegetables next time, as they seem to throw off the balance of flavors and textures a bit. I don’t know if it lives up to John Y. Brown’s world’s best hamburger hype, but it’s definitely unlike any burger experience I’ve had before, and was well worth seeking out. I’ll be back the next time I’m in Louisville.

Ollie Fries, like Five Guys fries, but good.  
The Ollieburger, pretty tasty, and historically significant. Apprieciate it on all the levels I do!

The Ollieburger, with it’s brief fame, and quick descent into obscurity, is a bit like an aging one hit wonder musician. Eating at a still-operating Ollie’s Trolley in 2018, is a bit like stumbling upon said musician giving a rare, one night only performance in a dive bar. The listener/taster is afforded a rare glimpse into a brief moment of brilliance under the patina of several decades of obscurity. It’s these fleeting remnants of near-forgotten history that keep me on the road seeking out the remaining, intact links in otherwise broken chains.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Mideighties Times

My parents’ courtship in the late seventies was apparently full of shared meals at locations of what are now broken chains. I grew up hearing stories of my mother bringing Zantigo tacos home in her purse and forgetting about them for days. When we would visit Lexington, Kentucky’s Rupp Arena when the circus was in town, my father would point out the small shopping mall inside the arena building that once housed Lexington’s Magic Pan location where he and my mother would go to eat crepes and feel fancy. When my parents wanted to feel fancier than eating at Zantigo, but not Magic Pan fancy, York Steak House was their dining venue of choice. I don’t recall ever eating at a York as a kid, but I feel like I owe some small part of my existence to York Steak House.

The first York Steak House opened in 1966 partially in response to the success of Ponderosa. Locations were often built near shopping malls which were sprouting up at the same time, in order to attract hungry mall shoppers. The chain peaked just shy of 200 locations, mostly in the eastern U.S. Though the chain had cafeteria style service, an emphasis was placed on high quality ingredients and a memorable experience. Cashiers would relay orders to the kitchen verbally, in French, to give the place an exotic feel. In 1977, General Mills bought York and began making changes to increase profitability. They began cutting corners and added a salad bar, likely to cut down on labor costs. These changes coupled with the shopping mall building boom beginning to taper off resulted in growth of the brand stagnating. Most York Steak Houses closed in the late eighties.

That's a dead mall across the street from a thriving vintage chain restaurant. 

Today, there is a single York left in operation, located in Columbus, Ohio. It’s owner, Jay Bettin, a longtime York manager bought the restaurant in 1989 and operated independently as Jay’s York Steak House, dropping the Jay’s after the trademark on the York name expired. The mall across the street is completely empty and shuttered. A nearby casino is what draws customers in these days. I was recently in Columbus for a Festiva meet, and stopped by York for lunch on my way out of town.

The old building appears to be in great shape, and is striking in design.

I found my way to the York Steak House late on a Sunday morning a few minutes before they opened, which afforded me the chance to appreciate the exterior of the tan stucco building with its distinctive red mansard roof. The exterior signage definitely had a vintage feel and appeared in good condition. Upon entering the building, I was greeted by a massive menu board with backlit larger than life photos of every entree. The interior is a bit disorienting. The building’s parking lot and main entrance are at the rear, and you walk down a long corridor around the interior perimeter before reaching the order counter. The building also has no windows. I could see how so many have beloved York Steak House memories. The giant pictures of food, and the dim labyrinth up to the order counter certainly make strong contributions to an immersive and unique experience.

The next time a cranky relative complains about millennials taking pictures of their food, gently remind them that York Steak House did it first. 

Upon reaching the dated but clean stainless steel order counter, I order up York fillets, two small cuts of beef, each topped with an individual fried onion ring. Disappointingly, the cashier doesn’t yell my order to the kitchen in French, or any other language. Undeterred, I venture on down the serving line, picking up a piece of coconut cream pie from the dessert station, a plate for the still-in-use General Mills-era salad bar, and a glass, which I fill with ice and Orange Lavaburst Hi-C. Like many Ponderosa locations, York doesn’t serve alcohol, and I get Orange Lavaburst whenever I see it on tap, ever since McDonald’s stopped selling it. My final bill is $25 and change, not a bad price considering I ordered an expensive cut and got a dessert. I could have gotten an 8 ounce sirloin for half the price.
King in the castle, king in the castle! My wiiiife!
Even the trays are vintage here. 

I carry my logo-adorned antique tray with pie, a salad plate, silverware, and my brightly colored beverage out to the dining room and grab a seat. Like every other part of the building, the dining area appears perfectly preserved, as if encased in amber, just as the Evansville G.D. Ritzy’s were. Lighting is dim, and the walls are adorned with mouldings meant to resemble the battlements of a castle. Tables, chairs, and booths all appear original, but have no doubt been recovered. I pick up my empty plate and head to the salad bar and was delighted to find that the salad ingredients were just as stuck in time as the rest of the place. Instead of fancy mixes of romaine and spinach, the only leafy greens present was shredded iceberg lettuce. Fake bacon bits were also present, along with carrot shreds and thin tomato slices that appeared to have been cut in-house. No labor-saving cherry tomatoes or pre shredded carrots here, because they weren’t commonly used in the ‘80s. In addition to a handful of other raw vegetables, there were also individual cups of Jell-O, marked by an engraved sign that looked older than I am informing the world that the red Jell-O is now sugar free. I load up a plate with a salad and snag some green Jell-O and head back to my table. I had just finished watching Wild Wild Country and idly thought about how this 1980s salad bar was probably a lot like the 1980s salad bars in Oregon that the Rajneeshees poisoned. The dining room has begun to fill up, mostly with older people and families. I don’t see anyone wearing varying reds and maroons hanging around though, so I keep eating undeterred.
I want onion rings on top of all my food from now on. 

Just as I’m finishing my salad, the server brings out my steak along with a baked potato and a dense yeasty roll the size of a hamburger bun. I’m delighted to see that everything looks exactly as it did on the menu board, including the onion rings on my steaks. The meat is tender and flavorful, well worth the price. The pie is pretty good too, and I can’t help but feel that I’ve had a genuinely unique dining experience as I walk out to my car, just as countless other York Steak House diners have felt before me.

Like the last Hot ‘n Now, the last York Steak House is impeccably run and beautifully maintained. haven’t had much desire to go back to Ponderosa since writing about them, but I’ll definitely go back to York Steak House the next time I’m in Columbus. I’ll have to figure out a way to get two meals in the same trip though because the Webbs have really been making progress on their new G.D. Ritzy’s on the north side of town. I’m hoping it will be open this summer. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Riding Fences at the Ponderosa Part 3: Ol' Green Sign and the Fool's Gold Corral

The Ponderosa sign of my youth, still in use in West Branch, Michigan. 

Modern restaurants really need more buttresses. 

Following my lunch at the Bay City Ponderosa, I made a stop or two you may hear about later on in future updates, after which I pulled into the West Branch, Michigan Ponderosa for dinner. This is the only purpose-built Ponderosa I visited on this trip, likely built in the '80s. The building had the typical architecture of the time, still in decent shape with minimal updates. It still even had the green sign with the old Ponderosa logo. This was my favorite building, but least favorite dining experience. Let's get into it, shall we?

Meal #3
Location Ponderosa Steakhouse 2882 Cook Road, West Branch, MI
Order, half rack of ribs, baked potato, dinner buffet, iced tea

The menu board at this location is screwy. It won't tell you how much any entree costs, only how much more it costs than just getting the regular buffet. Somehow, I end up paying over $20 for the meal you see above. It's 5:30 on a Saturday evening, and the restaurant is about half full, and the buffet is messy and not well stocked. At least half of the trays are almost or completely empty. There were no rolls out from the time I walked in until just before I left. There were a lot of families with unattended kids here. Children are the scourge of buffets. They're too short for sneeze guards to be effective, and they don't understand basic sanitation or germ theory. I witnessed a young girl wearing a very frilly pink dress use her bare hands pick up a peanut butter cookie off the very sparsely stocked dessert table, only to take a bite and put it back where she found it. I took it upon myself to remove the offending cookie. The ribs were decent, but not stellar.

The only real highlight of this meal were the baked beans I got from the buffet. They contained at least four kinds of beans in a sauce that was simultaneously sweet, tangy, smoky and spicy. There were chunks of bacon and pineapple mixed in there too. I may try to replicate them at home sometime. Beans and architecture aside, I don't have many positive things to say about the West Branch Ponderosa. It's a shame that such a beautiful example of 1980s retail architecture is so poorly run.

There were no writing implements or paper near this suggestion box, but it's cool to see the old logo again. 

Meal #4
Location: Ponderosa Steakhouse 1301 Pickard Road, Mount Pleasant, Michigan
Order: Breakfast Buffet, iced tea

A Golden Corral by any other name would smell as meaty

Note the strawberry biscuit on the left.

They gave me a to go cup at this location. I brought it home to add to my collection. 

From West Branch, I drove on to Mt. Pleasant, and spent the night. In the morning, I made my way to the local Ponderosa, which is one of the locations that offers breakfast. I had learned my lesson from the day before, and was the first customer in the door after they had opened. Plus, it was Mother's Day and I was trying to beat the brunch crowd. The Mt. Pleasant Ponderosa is a converted Golden Corral. Aside from signage, and the same buffet tables made to look like antique stoves, it feels like a Golden Corral.  I doubt the regulars here even noticed the change. The food is indistinguishable from Golden Corral's breakfast buffet food, with the exception of the strawberry biscuits. They're typical biscuits with the centers scooped out and filled with strawberry pie filling and topped with warm icing. They're my new favorite thing, and are on my list along with the beans from West Branch to try to recreate at home. Aside from that the food is unremarkable, the scrambled eggs are overcooked and on par with the eggs you might find at a Comfort Inn's continental breakfast, but there's also an omelette station with a cook preparing omelettes to order, so I can't complain too much about the eggs from the buffet, but it's all pretty generic.

So what kind of shape is the Ponderosa-Bonanza brand in? If the four locations I ate at are any indication, the brand as a whole is in disarray. The food, buildings, staff, prices, and overall experience at four Ponderosas relatively nearby to each other were wildly inconsistent. There were a few standout food items that I only encountered at one location or another that would have really enhanced my experience if they were available at every location. Most everything else feels bland and generic, food you could get anywhere, and often for a better price elsewhere. The steak and ribs I had were of acceptable quality and would be worth the cost, but with the exception of the impeccably run Bay City Ponderosa, the rest of the experience falls short. It seems Ponderosa is trying to be both a family friendly buffet like Golden Corral and a mid-tier steakhouse like Longhorn at the same time, and isn't doing either particularly well. FAT Brands should pick one of the above concepts and commit to it, or perhaps, make an effort to go upmarket. That's what I'd do if I were in charge.

With the hundreds of millions of theoretical dollars I've amassed with my imaginary Nickerson Farms revival, I'd acquire Ponderosa-Bonanza from FAT Brands, and immediately close or renovate any locations not operating out of original buildings. I'd revert to a logo closer to the old green and white sign with the ponderosa pine tree outline in the A. I'd stop trying to compete with the low end buffets and steakhouses, and focus on offering a premium product at a price competitive with high end casino buffets, maybe eventually using the Ponderosa name for new high end restaurants. For the other end of the market, the Bonanza name for something closer to the existing concept, but with emphasis removed from either the ordered items or buffet. New standalone locations would be built in a modern style with nods to both the '80s style buildings and the earlier ones with the western general store look.

My silly fantasy plan will probably cost much more than FAT Brands is willing to spend, and involve too much risk. Also, it's something I came up with after thinking for about 30 seconds, and therefore not a viable business plan. I imagine they'll either try to make Ponderosa-Bonanza more of a Golden Corral competitor or keep it as it is let it shamble on into obscurity as locations slowly close their doors. In the meantime, if you happen to be near a well run Ponderosa or Bonanza like the one I encountered in Bay City, enjoy it while you still can.