Monday, December 10, 2018

The Big Money




While most present-day broken chains tend to operate similarly, occupying some space of the broken chain spectrum ranging from decline under ownership of an inept corporate parent to a state of being completely defunct, the overarching story of how each chain got to its current state tends to be much the same, regardless of which chain I write about. It’s usually some combination of a series of changing market trends and poor business decisions that causes a chain to decline sufficiently to be worthy of my attention. Where the stories differ is in the founding of each chain.

For every business that is the result of long hours of labor by an individual, or a small group of partners, there’s another that’s the creation of a faceless corporate overlord, filtered through marketing departments and focus groups before opening its doors to the public. Despite efforts to the contrary, these brands created by committee can fail just as spectacularly as their grassroots counterparts. Some were so ill-conceived that they barely existed at all. That’s the case with Spageddie’s, a little chain created by a big company.

It was the early ‘90s, and Brinker International, parent company of Chili’s and a litany of other restaurant chains off and on over the years, was looking to expand its portfolio of Italian restaurant concepts to compete with General Mills’ Olive Garden. Brinker had recently acquired Romano’s Macaroni Grill and was interested in creating a downmarket companion Italian chain to compete in more segments of the market. Spageddie’s was their effort to fill this gap. A test location opened in Plano, Texas in 1992. From there, Spageddie’s grew to around 20 corporate and franchised locations stretching from Florida to Michigan, each boasting a menu developed, in part, by Brinker executive chef Johnny Carino, who would eventually go on to leave Brinker to start his own restaurant chain. Poor sales led Brinker to sell off Spageddie’s in 1997. Quality Dining Incorporated, a Chili’s franchisee, and perhaps the only Spageddie’s franchisee was the buyer.



Following the ownership change, Spageddie’s locations slowly closed over the next two decades eventually, leaving just one location open in Lafayette, Indiana. On my way out of town the day after eating two meals at nearby Dog ‘n Suds locations, I stopped by for lunch to see what the world’s last Spageddie’s had to offer. I was taken by surprise when I saw the building’s facade didn’t match what I had found on Google. It seems the quintessentially ‘90s structure had undergone a renovation since the photo was taken. The building had been toned down considerably compared to its initial appearance and foreshadowed an utterly generic experience.


It was just after opening, 11:00 on a Sunday, and I was quickly shown to a table. Every trope of Italian restaurant decor surrounded me. Plastic grapes spilled out of a wooden wine press, while giant wooden circles on the wall symbolized casks of Italian wine in the next room, though the only thing present on the other side of the wall is the parking lot of the Quality Dining-owned Chili’s next door. Italianate bottles of mystery liquid adorn nearly every flat surface in the place. The walls were painted to resemble Tuscan Marble, but whole setup felt about as Italian as the Super Mario Brothers, and as generic as Pong. 

What can this strange device be? When I touch it, the manager tells me to knock it off. 
The view from my table. 

My server arrived and presented me with a complimentary appetizer, a loaf of bread which came with a plate of toasted garlic and olive oil. She also presented me with a menu that had no writing on the front cover. Inside the names of the menu items made repeated references to “Papa.” As I suspected, the last operating Spageddie’s seems to have an identical menu to Papa Vino’s, Quality Dining’s other Italian concept, which has two locations of its own in operation nearby. After thoroughly inspecting the menu, I ordered chicken Parmesan, my go-to Italian restaurant order, and was a little surprised when the server failed to ask any follow up questions about my preferred salad and dressing. Unlike every Italian restaurant ever, a salad doesn’t come with your entree at Spageddie’s. This is one of the few attributes that made Spageddie’s feel unique. It’s a shame it wasn’t a positive one. 

No-name menu


Yes, I kept the paper wrapper. It'll get framed and hung on my wall eventually.

When my order arrived, I noted it’s generous portion with three large chicken cutlets on a bed of pasta. I would have rather had a smaller entree and a salad, but near as I could tell, that wasn’t an option. The execution of the food was competent, but unremarkable beyond its size. I managed to eat about half of it before I threw in the proverbial towel. 

So much dense food. 

 
An otherwise underwhelming experienced was brightened by the bathroom wall which was adorned with larger than life, photo-realistic pizza wallpaper. I found myself wishing that the distinctive toilet pizza aesthetic extended to the whole bland establishment. Sadly, I can’t see this uninspired iteration of Spageddie’s ever escaping small town Indiana obscurity. There’s still a glimmer of hope for the Spageddie’s brand, though. 

What was left after I ate all I could manage
How I wish the look of rest of the place matched the bathroom. 

Brinker sold only the domestic rights to the Spageddie’s name, meaning that outside of the United States, Brinker can open as many Spageddie’s locations as they like. I propose they relaunch the brand in Canada, reaching into their deep pockets to throw the requisite number of loonies and twonies at Rush frontman Geddy Lee for him to agree to be the spokesperson for the chain, which will, of course, be rebranded as SpaGeddy’s.

I'd buy Italian food from this man, and you should too. 
A Geddy Lee spokesmanship makes sense beyond the obvious name association. Lee has a distinctive look that lends itself well to marketing materials, and is well-liked by the public in his role as Canada’s preeminent rock and roll grandpa. He’s also a wine enthusiast, and could assist with the curation of a Geddy Lee-branded wine list that would be sure to increase SpaGeddy’s wine sales and bottom line. Restaurant decor could forego the standard Italian Restaurant trappings and adopt a sci-fi prog rock aesthetic to match their spokesman’s image. What could be more fun than chowing down on a plate of SpaGeddy and meatballs with Red Barchetta sauce in a dining room with its own laser light show projecting visuals to match 2112 or La Villa Strangiato being played simultaneously? Assuming proper execution, the restaurant would have massive appeal to Rush fans, which is to say, all Canadians. Perhaps the slight change in name would allow for expansion back into America without infringing on Quality Dining’s rights to Spageddie’s in the U.S, but SpaGeddy’s should follow Rush’s path to success, honing it’s act for a crowd of friendly Canadians before attempting to generate widespread appeal in America and the rest of the world.

With a little imagination, and infinite resources, Spageddie’s in SpaGeddy’s guise could offer a unique and memorable experience to its patrons. It’s a shame we live in a world of finite resources with a Geddy Lee who chooses free will, and therefore has the ability to turn down a generous offer to lend his name to a restaurant chain.



Special thanks to Mike from Houston Historic Retail for researching Spageddie’s and tipping me off to their existence.

Be sure to like the Broken Chains Facebook page to receive updates about new posts and see some additional content occasionally.

Also, I recently wrote an article for Tedium about my experiences visiting broken chains. You can check it out here.


Monday, December 3, 2018

Raxgiving



In America, fourth Friday in November is the unofficial beginning of the holiday shopping season. At big box stores and malls all over this land, folks line up outside the night before, sometimes setting up lawn chairs and tents, hoping to be early enough in the door in the morning to be one of the lucky few to get the pre-bait and switch “doorbuster” price on the season’s hottest new rooty-toot-toot or rummy-tum-tum. The event is an easy target for criticism by columnists, bloggers, and anyone seeking likes and shares on the socials, but the people that bemoan the frenzy of consumerism that marks the day after Thanksgiving seldom offer any alternatives to make the day pleasurable and memorable.

The consumer observances that follow the infamous Friday in late November all seem to have been created as a response to it. Small Business Saturday reminds us to support our local independent merchants. Cyber Monday is when online retailers seek to compete with brick and mortar stores by offering deep discounts on popular merchandise, and Giving Tuesday serves as a prompt to support our favorite charities. The broken chains, not technically small businesses, since they’re part of larger brands, and still decidedly for-profit, so not charity cases either, somehow get lost in the shuffle, and are not known for offering significant discounts following the Thanksgiving holiday. I aim to remedy that, by replacing Black Friday shopping with a new holiday that I like to call Raxgiving.

Rather than standing in bitter cold and enduring numerous aggressive shoppers in a crowded, chaotic store as fluorescent lighting, Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey assault your senses immediately after you’ve been roused from three hours of sleep on a too-small twin bed in your childhood bedroom, exhausted from having cooked and eaten a literal feast, all the while barely tolerating the various Cousin Eddie types that make up your extended family, I humbly suggest an alternative. Instead of abusing your body and mind by taking part in competitive shopping immediately following Thanksgiving, take a break. Get a full night’s sleep, and make an excuse to take a few hours to yourself. Use that time to visit a nearby (or not so nearby) outlet of a struggling, near defunct, or otherwise diminished chain, and buy yourself a nice meal, an ironic T shirt, or a few cans of marked down cranberry sauce, whatever they’re selling at the place where you end up. The business will appreciate your patronage more than the crowded big box store up the street, and in turn, you’ll have a  recharging experience in an atmosphere that is likely to be quiet, relaxed, and charmingly outdated.

To understand why the day is called Raxgiving, you should probably hear the story of how I celebrated the very first Raxgiving almost two weeks ago so you can share the story with your friends and well-wishers. It goes like this:
Even in the '80s when there were 500 Rax locations, this one would have been a contender for best view. 

I awoke in the spare bedroom of my parents’ house in Central Kentucky, having spent the past two days driving down from Michigan and preparing essentially the entire Thanksgiving meal, which incidentally, included pecan pie made with Stuckey’s pecans. After two solid days of family time and generally making Thanksgiving happen, I was ready for some alone time, so Friday morning, I pointed my car toward Harlan, Kentucky, home of the one operating Rax location I had not yet visited.



The Harlan Rax had been on my list to check out for months. Along with the Joliet, Illinois Rax, it’s one of only two Rax locations that has a functioning salad bar, and is the last operating Rax in the Bluegrass State. With its view of the Appalachian mountains out the solarium, it’s also a strong contender for the most scenic Rax location.



I arrived late in the morning, and after taking the time to appreciate the largely unmodified ‘80s vintage building and signs, walked in. Like the other Rax that retains its salad bar, the Harlan location has ‘90s vintage signage and menu boards. One panel of the latter advertises a hot food bar on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for $10 including a drink. Knowing I can get a BBC sandwich or barbecue cheddar potato at any of the four Rax locations in Ohio, that do not offer salad bars, I opted instead for the unique hot food bar, which also included access to the every day salad bar.



Just as in Joliet, a nicely stocked, tidy salad bar awaited me. Rather than the taco meat I encountered in Joliet, though, this Rax offered fried fish, on its hot food bar along with homemade soups, beans and cornbread, and fried potatoes, most of which I sampled. I suspect the hot food bar menu varies day to day. I’ll have to plan a trip here on a Saturday and/or Sunday to get the full hot food bar experience. The food was unimportant compared to my surroundings however. 

First course from the Endless Salad Bar; I went for variety

Second course; This soup was made from scratch

The third course tasted better than buffet fish had a right to. 

Replace that flatscreen with a fuzzy CRT, and this picture could be from 1985. 
Of the six surviving Rax locations, this one feels the most authentic. Like the Ironton and Lancaster, Ohio locations, it’s a purpose-built 1980’s era structure with the signature long, narrow windows running down the sides of the building and the classic Rax solarium in the front, but unlike its counterparts in Ohio, this location makes use of vintage signage and has a fully functional salad bar and buffet. The Joliet Rax has a salad bar and buffet as well, but is housed in an older building which was built in the era when Rax was known as Rix, and while it’s immensely interesting building, it’s had some interior upgrades and doesn’t feel as authentically Rax. The Harlan Rax on the other hand, retains most of its original fixtures and furniture, aside from some patina here and there, it’s largely as it was three decades ago. It’s a truly amazing working museum exhibit that exemplifies the Rax “Fast food with style” motto. 

I'd guess this sign has been on the wall for at least 20 years. 

Finding the Raxiest Rax, and completing my travels to every operating Rax location is cause for celebration, hence my suggestion of the yearly observance of Raxgiving. While Raxgiving can be spent at not just Rax, but a location of any broken chain, certain traditions should be observed. I’ve laid out a few suggestions of Raxgiving traditions below:

  • Whatever broken chain you visit on Raxgiving, be sure to spend money there. Your patronage keeps the broken chains in business for others to enjoy.
Support America's favorite sandwich place so all of America may enjoy it. 

  • Immerse yourself in your surroundings and revel in the uniquely anachronistic customer experience a broken chain provides.
    A drinking fountain in a fast food place? How crazy is that? 
  • Visiting a broken chain by yourself isn’t mandatory. If you have friends or family around for Thanksgiving that you’d like to spend some additional time with, invite them along to make a memory.

    For instance, I met up with my uncle at Rax. He happens to be an alligator.
  • Remember to take the time to honor the memory of any former locations you encounter along the way.
I spotted this Arby's in Corbin, Kentucky on my return trip. If you look closely, you can tell it began life as a Rax. I paid my respects by using their bathroom and buying a chocolate shake. 


So that’s my modest proposal for the next trendy new unofficial post-Thanksgiving holiday. If you plan on celebrating next year, start planning soon. As of the time I’m posting this, there are only 361 days left until next Raxgiving.




Thursday, November 29, 2018

Searching for Richard Woodruff



Found him!

These increasingly wintry days of late fall serve as an annual reminder to me of one autumn during my childhood in which my father’s Chevy Cavalier developed a coolant leak originating from the heater core, which due to its difficult to access location, is a labor-intensive and costly part to replace. My father, being frugal and not terribly technically inclined, balked at the quote he got from the mechanic to repair the leak, and upon hearing the mechanic reply that he could simply bypass the leaking heater core with a nice cheap length of rubber hose, jumped at the opportunity to save a few hundred dollars, perhaps not fully understanding that the hack would leave him without a heater in his car.

My younger brother’s fifth birthday came a few weeks later in early December. At the time, he was obsessed with trains, and my mother made arrangements for my brother and a few of his friends to take a short ride on a train pulled by a vintage steam locomotive. The plan was that my mother would haul the preschoolers in her toasty warm Ford Taurus wagon, to the rail yard where the train departed, while my father and I would show up early in the aforementioned heatless Chevy and purchase tickets for the group.

We left the house early that morning, which just happened to be the first bitterly cold day of the season with temperatures in the single digits (Fahrenheit), apocalyptically cold by Central Kentucky standards. My father and I got in the car and shivered our way to what turned out to be a deserted railyard outside of Versailles, Kentucky (pronounced by locals as Vur-sails). We sat and waited for someone to show up. I was ten years old, and had been enjoying this chilly adventure with my father, until we had been sitting in the car waiting for twenty minutes or so, and noticed how cold I was becoming, even in my puffy blue winter coat and acid washed Bugle Boy Jeans. I regretted not wearing more layers, and my father was pretty clearly regretting not having his car fixed properly. It was a solid hour of sitting in the frigid car before someone showed up to sell us tickets, and good while longer before my mother showed up with my brother and his friends to board the train.

To this day, I remember that day being the coldest I have ever felt, and I say that having lived in Michigan and Montana for the past ten years. Following the ordeal of enduring the frozen car, my father rewarded my suffering with breakfast at the nearby Shoney’s restaurant, where we lingered, grazing from the weekend breakfast buffet until feeling returned to our extremities so we could brave the frosty drive home. I think it was that day that sparked my lifelong sense that my younger brother received preferential treatment from my parents. After all, he never had to suffer near-hypothermia in an economy sedan to ensure I had a happy birthday, but the ordeal also gave me a memorable experience with my dad, and sparked my love of Shoney’s.

From then on, every time our family went out to dinner for my birthday or as the result of me bringing home an acceptable report card, I’d ask to eat at Shoney’s, where I’d get their spaghetti and meatballs, a side of baby back ribs, or the seafood buffet if we happened to be there on a Friday. My parents were Shoney’s fans too. We’d stop there to eat on several family vacations through the south, and I even remember staying at a Shoney’s Inn motel once back when some Shoney’s restaurant locations had Shoney’s-branded motels nearby, not unlike the Howard Johnson’s locations that sprang up in the sixties. Sadly, my relationship with Shoney’s wasn’t destined to last. Sometime around my late middle school/early high school years, all the Shoney’s locations in and around Lexington closed suddenly.

It’s at this point where readers not in the know are beginning to wonder why I’m talking about Shoney’s during Big Boy month. It may come as a surprise to some of you that Shoney’s founder Alex “Shoney” Schoenbaum was a Big Boy franchisee, and that until 1976, Shoney’s was known as Shoney’s Big Boy. The separation from the Big Boy system came as the result of Big Boy looking to set itself apart from other Big Boy Restaurants, and expand beyond their Big Boy territory which included several southern states.

Eat’n Park, another former Big Boy franchisee with locations mainly in and around Pittsburgh has a similar story. Eat’n Park founders Larry Hatch and Bill Peters became Big Boy franchisees when Bob Wian was looking to expand his empire’s territory. Wian offered many early franchisees a 25 year agreement with a $1 per year franchise fee as a means of growing his brand quickly. Like many early Big Boy chains, Eat'n Park started in a drive-in format before transitioning to indoor table service, hence the name Eat'n Park. When Eat’n Park’s 25 year agreement expired in 1974, management opted to leave the Big Boy system and operate independently.

As a result, both Eat ‘n Park and Shoney’s expanded outside their respective territories, and now have locations within 65 miles of each other in Eastern Ohio. I’d characterize both brands as reasonably healthy regional chains, but given that they’re both pieces that have literally broken off from the then-larger Big Boy chain I’m considering them appropriate to write about here. My goal was to dine at both Eat’n Park and Shoney’s to see if I could spot any Big Boy influence more than four decades after each chain had renounced its Big Boy affiliation.

 There I was driving around, the east side of Ohio,
I asked directions from some no-name chump, he looked kind of like a rhino.
He told me that his favorite warrior princess was Xena
I stomped on his feet, and asked "Where should I eat?"
He yelled "Eat'n Park Medina!" ♬

Eat'n Park Medina.


My first stop was the Eat’n Park located in Medina, the funkiest, coldest town in Ohio. My experience with Eat’n Park is limited. Not since my great uncle Bluto Actionsdower’s funeral in Steubenville in 2008 had I dined at an Eat'n Park location. Come to think of it, that might be the only time I’ve been to an Eat’n Park. I showed up late on a Sunday afternoon for an early dinner, and stood around in the unusually spacious lobby, admiring the pies in the display case below the counter waiting to be seated. I was shown to a narrow booth near the salad bar. I was pleased to see that this salad bar appeared to be of higher quality than the ones I had encountered in the past at both Big Boy and Frisch’s Big Boy. It even sported a sign advising parents to accompany small children. To my left, on the half wall dividing the adjacent rows of booths, there was a vintage printed directory advertising Eat’n Park Big Boy with the Big Boy himself prominently displayed. Likewise, the menu featured an item known as a “Super Burger,” which looked familiar, incorporating the Bob’s/Elias Brothers three piece sesame seed bun and Frisch’s tartar sauce.

Note the Smiley cookie on the sign. 

I ordered up a Super Burger, fries, and the salad bar, and began to exercise my primal hunter/gatherer instincts as I piled a plate with salad fixins, another with coleslaw, cornbread, and slices of a sweet cinamony quickbread, which may or may not have contained pumpkin, plus a cup of the potato soup my waitress had recommended. Despite the odd hour and the mostly deserted dining room, it was all fresh and delicious.

Behold Eat'n Park's bounty!


My burger and fries arrived when I was halfway through the bounty I had collected from the salad bar. I was pleased to see that the burger was cooked properly and had patties larger than the standard Big Boy, but smaller than the Super Big Boy. It was also topped with a pickle, like the Super Big Boy I had at Azar’s. The taste was not dissimilar to an increasingly hard to find well-made Frisch’s Big Boy, with the welcome addition of sesame seeds. The fries, and salad bar coleslaw were unremarkable.

Expectation...

...is reasonably close to reality. 

I will! Thanks, cookie bag!


I finished the meal with some fresh fruit from the salad bar and a smiley cookie, both an inexpensive dessert item, and a mascot, introduced in the mid eighties, to fill the void left by the Big Boy mascot. The Smiley cookie is everywhere on Eat’n Park marketing and signage, so it felt wrong not to get one. I found it to be a perfectly acceptable iced sugar cookie.

The cookie mascot is everywhere, including this rare bathroom-based food advertisement. 

While I wasn't officially eating at a Big Boy, I left Eat'n Park feeling like I'd had an especially good Big Boy meal, and gotten a decent value for my money. My bill was a couple dollars less than at Frisch's and at the Big Boy in Michigan, and I feel like I had gotten more food that was of a higher quality. The restaurant felt clean and reasonably modern, and the staff was professional and courteous. My friend, Mike, who runs Houston Historic Retail, recently asked me if Big Boy would be better had Eat'n Park and Shoney's not left the brand. My reply to him was that Big Boy as a whole wouldn't be any better, and that Eat'n Park and Shoney's would probably be worse. Eat'n Park in particular really seems to have taken the basic Big Boy concept and tweaked it to appeal to modern clinentele in a manner that has eluded both Big Boy and Frisch's. Despite the lack of current Big Boy affiliation, my experience at Eat'n Park was my second favorite of Big Boy month, closely following Azar's.



My Shoney's experience on the other hand, was... unique. Having spent the night nearby, I stopped into the Dover, Ohio Shoney's for an early lunch around 10:30 the following morning. It happened to be the day after Veterans Day, and I was surprised to find the parking lot nearly full. It was between the breakfast and lunch rush on a Monday morning, so I was anticipating having the place (nearly) to myself. A sign on the door indicated that veterans could eat for free at this particular Shoney's all morning. The promotion certainly seemed to have drawn a crowd.

Classic, but weathered building. 


Everything about the building was a throwback to the Shoney's restaurants I grew up with. Other Shoney's locations I've encountered recently seem to have been recently renovated with updated facades and signage, but that was not the case here. The building was the same '70s era ranch style structure with a low gable on each side. Likewise, all the exterior signs featured the older puffy letter Shoney's logo. The interior looked to date from the early 90s, and I was instantly transported back to the day I thawed out at that Shoney's in Versailles. The color palette was decidedly pastel, and the faux skylight over the buffet was a distinctive feature I had nearly forgotten about, but the memories came rushing back when I saw it. Predictably, the interior of the place felt a little bit tired. The seats in the booth I where I had been seated weren't attached to the floor. One of the lights in the fake skylight flickered a little bit, and the stuffed Shoney bear toys atop the buffet looked as though they'd been there since the Clinton administration. The other diners didn't seem to care though.

The dream of the '90s is alive at Shoney's. Note the various iterations of Shoney Bear.

The Veterans Day crowd at this particular Shoney's skewed older. I'd guess the majority of them were Vietnam-era veterans, most of whom had opted to dine from the buffet, which seemed to contain an odd combination of breakfast foods and lunch/dinner sides and entrees, along with the typical salad bar fare. I was glad I was there for a burger and I didn't have to brave the buffet crowd. Still, the crowded atmosphere made it tough for me to get many pictures of the interior. The Big Boy influence was a little tougher to spot on the Shoney's burger menu than at Eat'n Park. I ordered up a Double Decker burger and fries, figuring I should at least eat a burger with two patties.


The steak knife is necessary to keep the upper layers from sliding off. 


The sandwich that arrived at my table was monstrous. It's two patties each looked to be half pounders, and there were copious amounts bacon and cheese tucked between them. There was no center bun, and no special sauce. There was little, if any Big Boy influence here. Regardless, I felt compelled to eat the whole thing. I had a three and a half hour drive home, and leftovers in a to-go box wouldn't keep that long on the passenger floorboard of my car. I choked the massive beefy, greasy thing down along with the fries, trying, in vain to draw any similarities between it and the Big Boy burgers I'd been eating the rest of the month. Just as the bun, fully saturated in beef and hog fat began to disintegrate in my hands, I spied the dessert menu, and saw that both strawberry pie and hot fudge cake were offered. Both are longtime dessert items at both surviving Big Boy chains. I had found the Big Boy influence. Overjoyed, I ordered a piece of the strawberry pie, only to be told that despite multiple advertisements for it displayed around the restaurant, the seasonally offered pie was out of season and not available. At that point, I asked for my bill. A light slice of strawberry pie was one thing, but I simply couldn't begin to think of eating a dense and rich hot fudge cake after unhinging my jaw to consume that ridiculous burger. Regardless, I was glad to see that the Big Boy influence at Shoney's extends past the breakfast buffet, and the Shoney Bear mascot, which looks suspiciously similar to the Big Boy in a bear suit. Upon returning home, and recovering from my food coma, a little research indicated that the Shoney's Double Decker was perhaps conceived to be the antithesis of the Big Boy hamburger.

The old Shoney's logo is still on display most prominently at this loction.


But the sexy new logo shows up on the menus. 

Around the time of the chain's separation from Big Boy, some unnamed Shoney's executive derided the Big Boy as "A Depression burger, (with) a lot of bread and no meat." They had a point. The base Big Boy is pretty skimpy by modern standards, but the Shoney's Double Decker is most definitely an over-correction that leans heavy on the meat. If I had it to do over again, I think I'd ask for a single patty burger with a side of tartar sauce or thousand island if I wanted to approximate the Big Boy experience at Shoney's, but maybe that would be cheating the arbitrary rules I made for myself on this expedition to various Big Boy and Big Boy-adjacent chains.

I was glad to have found artifacts of the Big Boy brand at both Eat'n Park and Shoney's. Going looking for the remnants of the Big Boy influence at both restaurants may have been my favorite part of Big Boy Month. This post also marks the conclusion of Big Boy month content, at least for this year. I hope you've enjoyed this series. I may try to make it an annual tradition. I'd like to visit one of the few remaining Bob's Big Boys, and perhaps a formerly Big Boy-affiliated JB's restaurant. Both brands exist only on the opposite side of the US from where I live, though. I have yet to board a plane in pursuit of a broken chain, but I may have to one of these days.


Monday, November 19, 2018

Hail Azar!



Hi guys. Thanks for sticking with me. I know it's been a rough Big Boy Month so far. My last couple of posts have come off sounding like angry Yelp reviews, and everyone knows the true meaning of Big Boy Month is to say nice things about Big Boy. We've all grown up with the stories about how if you maintain a positive attitude regarding Big Boy restaurants all November long, the Big Boy himself will sneak into your house while you sleep and fill your shoes with tartar sauce (or thousand island if you live in Michigan.) I've got to straighten up and fly right if I have any hope of waking up to my good Chuck Taylors brimming with regionally variable special sauce. Good thing I went to the last operating Azar's Big Boy a few weeks back, and had a perfectly acceptable lunch. Thinking back on it really makes me feel the Big Boy month spirit. 

I really like the Looney Toons aesthetic this rug brings to the party. 

An old Azar's location built in the Googie style. Look it up. 

The Azar Brothers, David, Alex, and George opened their first restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1954. Their arrangement with the Big Boy brand was unusual, but not unheard of. Azar’s operated as one of at least two subfranchisees of Frisch’s Big Boy, rather than being a direct franchisee of Bob Wian's Big Boy system. As such, Azar's operated very similarly to Frisch’s, offering tartar sauce on their burgers and Buddie Boy sandwiches. There were once around 26 Azar’s Big Boy locations operating in the very noncontiguous territory comprised of Northern Indiana and Colorado. Today, there’s just one Azar’s left, still controlled by the founding family, open for business in Fort Wayne where they started. Longtime readers of this blog and people who know me in real life will know that I can't resist the siren song of the last operating location of an otherwise defunct restaurant chain. Azar's Big Boy is perhaps the Big Boy location that best exemplifies the kind of place I seek out.

Standard Marriott-era Big Boy building with unique Azar's signage. 


The last Azar's Big Boy still has unique menus. I found this exciting, and you should too. 

However, I didn’t have high hopes on my way to Fort Wayne. Since Azar’s was a Frisch’s subfranchisee, what I anticipated was a Frisch’s with a different sign, and my opinion of Frisch’s was not high. Still I was curious enough to make the three hour drive. I arrived midday on a Saturday and found Azar’s tucked away on a quiet corner on Fort Wayne’s south side. It was housed in a 1970s era building with recognizable Big Boy architecture of the era and a vintage Azar’s sign out front. I was surprised to find a decent amount of unique branding in the entryway. Old photos of old Azar’s locations lined the walls, and an Azar’s Big Boy rug decorated the floor. I was shown to a table in the solarium and was surprised to find I had been given a menu with unique Azar’s branding. It resembled an older Frisch’s menu, but the name "Frisch" was nowhere to be found.
The view from my table; I love a good solarium

My waitress was quick and attentive despite the dining room being mostly full of thanks in part to the weekend breakfast buffet. Fearing another Big Boy burger with dry overcooked eighth pound patties, I ordered a larger Super Big Boy, which has two quarter pound patties, plus an extra slice of cheese. I looked around while awaiting my order and found decor that was essentially identical to a modern Frisch’s. The condiments on the table were all branded with the Frisch’s logo. I imagine printing Azar’s sugar packets for one remaining location doesn’t make business sense, and Frisch’s corporate still has a say in the decor package, which felt perfectly pleasant, if a little generic. 

This Big Boy belongs at the end of movie credits after the key grips, because this Big Boy is the Best Boy. 
When my food arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find an extra pickle slice atop my burger, something I had never encountered at a Frisch's Big Boy. I have absolutely no proof that this is the case, but I suspect the extra pickle on top is something that Azar's had always done to set them apart from Frisch's. Even if it's a recent addition it's a nice little extra that makes what is already a unique Big Boy a little more unique. (Not even Cleo McDowell, real person and father in law of Prince Akeem of Zamunda, thought to put a pickle slice on top of his Big Mick burger.) The Super Big Boy was perfectly prepared, with patties that were cooked through, but not dry, and was topped with just the right amount of tartar sauce. It had the flavor of the Frisch's burgers I remember from high school. The fries were standard crinkle cuts, as they are at Frisch's, but were freshly cooked, and a little seasoned salt from the shaker on the table gave them a nice smoky flavor. The coleslaw was functionally identical to Frisch's coleslaw, which is to say it was pretty good. 

There can't be many of these Azar's signs left. 

When it came time to pay, the cashier had the decency to leave the register after we had concluded our transaction, thus enabling me to swipe a complimentary lollipop from the basket near the register. I assume they're mostly meant for kids, but I never pass up a free lollipop whether I'm at Big Boy or the bank.

(I had no such luck with the lollipop basket back at the Port Clinton, Ohio Frisch's. After the manager saw fit to mock the way I ate my pumpkin cheesecake, he lingered at the till, daring me to grab a free lollipop so that he could taunt me a second time. It's worse at the Michigan Big Boys. They don't even offer free lollipops.)

The depth of field in this picture symbolizes the deep history of the Big Boy brand, or something. 

I walked out the same foyer adorned with old photographs of old Azar's locations with my lime green complimentary confection and receipt in hand as I walked the perimeter of the building to take my final photos of the exterior as senior citizens dining inside pointed and gawked at me through their tableside windows. I didn't care. I had found a Frisch's worth eating at, and it wasn't really a Frisch's at all. It was an Azar's, the last of its kind. This is where I'll be stopping for my Big Boy fix from now on. I'll be back often. It's the perfect lunch stop if I'm on my way to Evansville for dinner at G.D. Ritzy's.