Saturday, August 11, 2018

We Like Roy! We Like Roy!

In discussing the history of the businesses I visit, I often find myself penning long-winded, soporific paragraphs about the mergers and acquisitions of the companies involved with the inception and decline of each restaurant and retail brand about which I see fit to write. One name seems to come up more often than others in these piles of plain prose. That name is Hardee’s.

Under the guidance of both Hardee’s Food Systems and later parent company Imasco, The Hardee’s operating territory was expanded by buying out and fully converting other fast food chains to the Hardee’s brand. Hardee’s strategy of acquiring and assimilating struggling regional chains is the reason you’re hard pressed to find anything resembling an operating Sandy’s, Burger Chef, or Dee’s Drive In today. Hardee’s assimilation strategy would come to an end in 1997 with their acquisition from Imasco by Carl’s Jr parent company CKE. Until then, every brand Hardee’s acquired was completely swallowed up, except for the one brand that Hardee’s regurgitated.

Like Hardee’s, Roy Rogers was made up of an amalgam of brands, and spent the first couple decades of its life under the Marriott corporate umbrella. The brand evolved from RoBee’s, a roast beef sandwich chain started by a group of Big Boy Franchisees in 1967, the same year Marriott acquired Big Boy. They would go on to acquire RoBee’s the following year. The name change came as the result of legal pressure from Arby’s citing similarities between the two restaurants. Big Boy founder and Marriott board member Bob Wian knew Roy Rogers personally and was able to convince the prolific western film actor to lend his name to the new, east coast-based enterprise. The first Roy Rogers opened in Falls Church, Virginia in 1968. The brand would expand its footprint along the way with the acquisition of the Baltimore-based Gino’s chain. When Roy Rogers absorbed Pappy Parker’s, in the early ‘70s their menu gained Pappy’s fried chicken and burgers making them competitive with the dominant fast food genres of the day. The chain would peak somewhere north of 600 locations thanks in part to a fiercely loyal clientele

Hardee’s, ever megalomaniacal, and seeking to expand their footprint into the Midatlantic region acquired Roy Rogers from Marriott in 1990, and converted company-owned locations to Hardee’s. Many converted locations retained fried chicken on their menus. The pre-Thickburger era Hardee’s Burgers that replaced the Roy Rogers burger line were not well received by customers, and Hardee’s failed to thrive in former Roy Rogers locations. Many of the Roy Rogers-Turned-Hardee's locations were hastily sold off to other brands in the ‘90s, leaving just 24 free standing Roy Rogers locations plus a handful of travel plaza locations in operation, all of which were owned by franchisees.

Pete Plamondon Sr. was one of those franchisees. He was previously a Marriott executive heavily involved with the Roy Rogers Brand before leaving the company and opening his own Roy Rogers in 1980. Having purchased Hardee’s and It’s legacy brands from Imasco in 1997, CKE restaurants had little interest in developing Roy Rogers, and sold the brand to Plamondon in 2002. Plamondon and later his sons Pete Jr. and Jim have been slowly expanding the brand’s presence ever since. Today, there are a total of 55 or so Roy Rogers locations in six states. I ate at the Cumberland, Maryland location a couple weeks back.

I had been on the road since 5:00 that morning, with nothing other than an orange scone from an Ohio Turnpike Panera to eat all day when I darkened the doorway of the Cumberland Roy Rogers at lunchtime. This was mostly by design. I had perused the Roy Rogers menu via their website a couple days before and marveled at the bounty of entrees and sides they had to offer. I wanted to be able to sample as much of the menu as possible, as this would be my only Roy Rogers stop. Since Roy Rogers began as a roast beef chain, I wanted to try the sandwich that started it all. I was also intrigued by the Double R Bar Burger, a cheeseburger topped with ham. There’s also a wide array of unique sides. I went with baked apples and macaroni and cheese. The uniqueness continued at the drink fountain where I was intrigued by Fanta Birch Beer on tap, the first non-fruit Fanta I’d encountered. It was lunchtime on a Sunday, and the place was packed, but the staff was more than capable of handling the crowd. The line moved quickly, and I had my order within a few minutes. 

Roast beef sandwich and Double R Bar Burger before fixin's...

Y'all git yer fixin's!

...and after

Since the early eighties, all Roy Rogers sandwiches are prepared with meat and cheese only. Patrons then dress their sandwiches with vegetables and condiments from “Roy’s Fixin's Bar.” (Burger Chef implemented a similar system around the same time, but instructed customers to order sandwiches “with or without,” either with the default toppings or plain to be dressed from the Burger Chef Works Bar.) Roy’s Fixins Bar has the typical burger toppings, plus a few unconventional selections like pico de gallo and banana peppers. The normal burger condiments are there too, plus the roast beef ones, sauces similar to, but presumably legally distinct from Arby’s Sauce and Horsey Sauce. I load my sandwiches with my preferred accoutrements, and sit down to eat. Both sandwiches seem to be high quality. Unlike Arby’s and Rax processed mystery meat, my roast beef sandwich is actually made from intact pieces of cow, sliced off an actual roast. It reminds me of the sandwiches I’d make out of leftover Sunday roasts when I was a kid. Likewise, the burger has a pleasant steaky quality, but it kind of overwhelms the ham. The sides were perfectly adequate and novel, if a bit incongruous with the sandwiches. I’ll have to order chicken and some more of the sides on my next trip. I want to experience the bulk of the menu here eventually. 

Shiny new building exterior

Thoroughly modern menu

Seasonal limited time menu item

The building appears to be a newer construction, and feels like a modern fast food joint with up to date signage and menu boards. A color palate with a blend of reds and oranges coupled with modern architecture gives the place a modern feel with nods the the brand’s late 1960s heritage. There are posters from Roy Rogers movies all over the walls, and various western themed elements to acknowledge the chain’s original spokesman. Somewhat bizarrely, there’s a lifesize cardboard cutout of longtime Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. in the lobby, plus a few posters of him scattered around the property. He’s apparently Roy Rogers spokesman these days, which is a bit confusing, but somewhat necessary considering Roy Rogers, the person, has been dead for two decades. Still, there’s a plaque with a likeness of Roy Rogers by the order counter with some corporate ad copy about great tasting food and service with a smile. Although the place is busy, the lobby is clean and is a perfectly pleasant place to be despite the crowds. I have no idea if all the surviving Roy Rogers locations are this well run, but I’m inclined to think they are considering this is my first every Roy Rogers experience. Everything about this location has left me intrigued and wanting to experience more. I may have to plan a Ponderosa-esque trek through the Tidewater to experience several meals at different Roy Rogers locations one of these days. 

Now here's Roy...

...and his buddy Cal

Being swallowed up by Hardee’s meant certain death for every other fast food brand that met that fate, but Roy Rogers was able to escape the fate of complete assimilation by the Hardee’s hivemind and come out the other side with a fast food concept that feels both novel and still thoroughly modern despite minimal changes over the years. Whether you chalk up the survival of the brand to Roy Rogers fans not accepting Hardee’s moving in on their territory, the dedication of the Plamondon family, Hardee’s spreading themselves too thin, or some combination thereof, I’m excited that Roy Rogers still exists and seems to be thriving within its regional market. In fact, it really only has broken chain status because the chain is a tenth of its former size. All other indicators show that the Roy Rogers chain is anything but broken. It would be great to see a few more of my beloved endangered fast food brands enjoy similar resurgences, and I’d be overjoyed to be telling a similar story about the comeback of my beloved G.D. Ritzy’s in a few years.

Speaking of, the new Ritzy’s in Columbus is set to open any day now, run by chain founder Graydon Webb and his sons Corey and Bryan. I’ll be making regular trips there once they’re open. If Roy Rogers is any indication, a father-sons team reviving a beloved family fast food business is a winning combination that has the potential to be a regional hit with both old and new fans. I sincerely hope that my acquaintances, the Webbs, have all the success and more with Ritzy’s that the Plamondons have had with Roy Rogers. Like Roy Rogers, G.D. Ritzy’s offers a unique, high quality experience at a reasonable price and is just as deserving of a successful revival, with or without Cal Ripken tagging along. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Scatter My Ashes at Darryl's

The blog post you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. 

I’ve mentioned before that my parents courtship in the late 1970s was full of Broken Chain stories. Long before their Zantigo and York Steak House dates, my birth-givers, Herb and Judy Actionsdower, were simply work colleagues, think Pam and Jim in the first couple seasons of The Office. It was during that time that my mother was horrified to learn my father ate nearly every meal at the local Burger Queen, and thought that perhaps if he had a woman in his life, he might learn better eating habits. Naturally, she began setting him up on dates with her friends, roommates, and cousins. According to my father, none of the dates went especially well, until he and my mother became involved, but it was my father’s date with my mother’s cousin Agnes that got me thinking about Darryl’s. 

The Lexington, Kentucky Darryl’s opened in early 1977 in an imposing, two-story building clad in raw wood with shuttered round-top windows. Its outward appearance simultaneously reminded a casual passerby of a Western saloon, French chateau, a dive bar, and a pirate ship. The interior of the restaurant housed a two story dining room with themed sections and innovative seating including booths in jail cells and antique elevator cars. The bar area housed an actual English double decker bus.

Having just opened, the new Lexington Darryl’s was the hottest dining spot in town, and seeking to impress, my father brought Agnes there for dinner, after which, according to my father, she ghosted him. My words, not his, but it was the 1970s equivalent of being ghosted to be sure. This doomed Darryl’s date was one of many between my father and women my mother set him up with that would eventually lead to my mother herself dating my father. Nearly 40 years later, my parents are still married, but the Lexington Darryl’s is long gone.

The Lexington Darryl’s closed in 2002, and served as a pop-up Halloween store for a couple of seasons before being bulldozed and replaced by a Walgreens. It was one of 36 locations across nine states, all of which were similarly over the top in interior design. The chain, was founded in the early 1970s by three partners, whom I sincerely hope were named Larry, Darryl, and Darryl, and arrived at the name of the restaurant democratically. Darryl’s would enjoy brief success before being passed between a series of increasingly neglectful parent companies, who forced the chain into bankruptcy in 1990 and 2002, eventually whittling the location count down to just one.
Remember Darryl's? It's back in wood fired grill form!

The Greensboro, North Carolina Darryl’s was rescued from obscurity by local businessman and lifelong Darryl’s fan Marty Kotis (his real name). Pains were taken to modernize the existing Darryl’s building and reintroduce original Darryl’s recipes. The new concept was dubbed Darryl’s Wood Fired Grill. While on a trip across North Carolina last week, I visited the Greensboro Darryl’s, because I can’t pass up a broken chain.

I wasn’t traveling alone. I was joined by my significant other, Esmeralda Fitzmonster, who previously had joined me on trips to the Joliet Rax, The Farm, Henry’s Hamburgers, and Mr. Quick. It’s mid afternoon on a weekday, and the place is dead. There are maybe ten other patrons in the building. I kind of prefer this, as there are fewer eyes on me while I’m semi-obnoxiously taking pictures of the dining area.

At our table, we await the arrival of our server, and watch as a waiter chats with an older couple at a nearby table for an uncomfortably long amount of time while we continued to wait. As time passed with no one coming to take our drink order, it became increasingly obvious that Chatsworth over there was our server as well. I take the opportunity to examine my surroundings. 

Behold, the movie room!
Glamorous lighting
No foolin' the decor was seriously impressie. 

Were in one of several themed sections in the dining area. The window shades seem to have old movie posters printed on them. The doorway to the bar area is adorned with a red velvet stage curtain, and a sign above the doorway to the drink station indicates it’s accessible to “cast members” only. There’s also a modern video projector hanging from the ceiling with a pull down screen in one of the windows by my table. This leads me to believe that they show movies here occasionally. It sounds like a novel idea, but I wonder how well it would work in practice in a noisy restaurant.

Chatsworth finally finds his way over to our table and takes our orders. I order barbecue chicken, and Esmeralda orders a wrap and some baked potato soup. We also order the pimento cheese and cracker appetizer for two reasons:

1. We’d been in the south for almost a week and hadn’t had any pimento cheese yet.
2. Darryl’s made from scratch crackers seem to be legendary among fans. 

Caviar of the South

The crackers are large and irregularly shaped with a bit of seasoning. They’re similar to pita chips in texture, but not quite as hard. They pair nicely with the pimento cheese, which appears to have been made from scratch. 

Restaurant Jail
Lunch in an Elevator
Casual dining or county fair?

Look close and you'll see Larry King's mugshot.
Try and make a shiv out of that terlet. I dare you. 
While we wait for the main course to arrive, I go exploring upstairs. I only ate at the Lexington Darryl’s once as a kid. Because I was in the grilled-cheese-and-chicken-finger demographic at the time, I don’t remember much about the food. My strongest memories are of the atmosphere. Just as I remember from childhood, the upper level of the restaurant was a labyrinthine collection of themed seating areas including a booth in an elevator, another in a replica of a Ferris wheel car, a jail themed area with celebrity mugshots and stainless steel tables, and a couple of booths with their own dedicated staircases leading up to them. Esmeralda noted that working as a server and carrying food up and down stairs would be a pain. I suspect there’s a service elevator hiding somewhere in the building. Also of note was the auxiliary unisex bathroom upstairs in the jail area which contained authentic prison-spec stainless fixtures. By the time I got back to the table, Chatsworth had delivered our food. 

I really enjoyed this chicken. 

Esmeralda’s wrap was unconventionally seasoned,but not unpleasant, and my chicken was flavorful and indeed tasted as if it had been cooked on a wood fired grill. Speaking of fire, As we were dining, we noticed a tall plume is thick gray smoke rising from behind a gas station across the street. As soon as we became sufficiently concerned that calling the fire department became a topic of conversation, the smoke disappeared. It would reappear as we were leaving the building. Another employee overheard our conversation and offered the following:

“I know what the smoke is. Want me to tell you?”

“Sure!” One or both of us replied.

His face twisted into a mischievous grin and he replied, “It’s a crematorium!”

Upon hearing this tidbit, I’m not horrified. Maybe it’s the slightly spooky funhouse atmosphere at Darryl’s that also made it a fitting home for a Halloween store back in Lexington also served to desensitize me to the burning human remains across the street. Maybe it’s because I’m picturing the crematorium being run by a real life version of Mort the Mortician from Bob’s Burgers who walks across the street to Darryl’s for lunch with a real-life version of Teddy the handman. Either way, it didn’t scare me away. I could see myself eating here again the next time I’m rolling down I-40.

I really enjoyed my meal at Darryl’s. I came in expecting to re live a little piece of my childhood, and that definitely happened. I was also pleased to find that the last remaining Darryl’s had been nicely evolved and modernized as a restaurant concept while retaining the elements that made it successful in the first place. I hope they can continue to survive and thrive. I’d love to see them make a comeback with more locations. Plus, The crematorium makes for a good anecdote, and if my father’s experience At Darryl’s is any indication of my future, I expect to marry one of Esmarelda’s cousins any day.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Don Pablo's Last Stand

It was Lexington, Kentucky in the late '90s. The local Chi Chi's was well into its final decline, and my  parents, who lived in San Diego years earlier, were in search of the next place where they could get an approximation of the Mexican food they fell in love with in Southern California. I was ten years old when they loaded me and my brother into the Taurus wagon for a weekend dinner at Lexintgon's new Don Pablo's. I remember being impressed with the restaurant's interior with its approximation of the Hollywood version of a Mexican town square. I also recall being amused at my straight laced father ordering something called a chimichanga. I remember nothing about the food I ate. My parents presumably felt the same way, because we never went back.

The first Don Pablo's was opened in Lubbock, Texas in 1985 by DF&R restaurants. The chain grew quickly, peaking at around 120 locations in the mid 1990s, making them the second largest full service Mexican chain restaurant in the US, behind Chi Chi's. The brand would eventually be acquired by Applebee's franchisee Apple South, who would go on to sell off their Applebee's franchises to focus on the Don Pablo's brand, and in turn, change their name to Avado. Things did not go as planned. Avado filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and again in 2007 as locations rapidly shut down. In 2008, Don Pablo's was acquired by Rita Restaurant Corporation, who attempted to expand the brand, but ultimately declared bankruptcy itself in 2016. Closures of Don Pablos locations have been happening regularly for more than a decade. With its string of acquisitions followed by bankruptcies, a person more superstitious than myself might speculate that the Don Pablo's brand is cursed. At the time of this writing, there are six Don Pablo's in operation, all of which are company-owned, but up until last week, there were seven.

Last Sunday, I stopped by the Cincinnati Don Pablo's for lunch on my way out of town. That very restaurant would be out of business by the following Friday. The closure came abruptly with no formal indications until the day of closure. Up until now, every place I've visited in my travels for this blog is still open for business. It was probably inevitable that I ended up eating at a place just before it closed for good, and it's not terribly surprising that this is the place where it happened.

The Cincinnatti Don Pablo's was housed in a tall brick building in the moderately trendy Rookwood Common shopping center. The building appears to have been heavily renovated to match what was Don Pablo's standard archetecture at the time. However, it's clear from the matching brick smokestack next door, a remnant from a long defunct tool and die plant, that those who designed the building wanted the public to believe it to be an unmodified vintage structure.

Cheap Menu side 1

Cheap Menu side 2

I walked through the building's faux vintage distressed front doors shortly after the 11 AM open time. A waiter grabbing menus from the podium mumbles in assurance to me that someone will be right with me. He's right, another employee, presumably the manager, seats me a minute later. I'm greeted in my booth by the same mumbly waiter. I order a Coke Zero, having seen it on the menu, and he mumbles that they don't have Coke Zero. I ask him for a Diet Coke, and he nods and disappears. When Mumbles returns with chips and salsa, and my beverage, I order a carnitas plate from the cheaply printed single page menu. While I wait for my food to arrive I try the salsa. It's somewhere between chunky and completely liquid. What chunks there are have the consistency of soggy paper. It's salsa from a jar, or more likely, a large industrial can. 

Something's ruining the illusion that I'm in Mexico. 

My surroundings were not unlike the Don Pablo's I remember from childhood. There's lots of stucco and faded-on-purpose painted signs on the wall. They really want to you feel like you're in a Mexican village in a B movie western, or some parody thereof. Were it not for the giant American flag hanging from the rafters of the place, I'd almost expect the in-famous El Guapo to make an appearance. Just as I'm quickly returned to reality when Mumbles shows up with my order, and awkwardly holds the plate in front of me without setting it down, forcing me to grab the unpleasantly hot plate myself. I guess it's hard to hire good waitstaff for a place that could shut down at any minute. Another waiter serving a family at a nearby table is wearing a Don Pablo's shirt three sizes too small and visibly dirty jeans. Still, Mumbles is quick to bring me a refill on my Diet Coke.

This is fine. 

The food looks decent enough. The rice and beans appear to be made from scratch, as are the tortillas. In fact, I notice another employee making tortillas at a station behind a windowed area, designed to be viewed by customers. It's a little gimmicky, but the tortillas are pretty good. There's a garnish plate with pickled onions, half an avocado, and way too much cilantro. The tacos I make with the carnitas, tortillas, and garnishes are pretty good, but no better than what I could get at a Qdoba or Chipotle.  A week after eating them, I remember nothing about the beans, which I take to mean they were not overly impressive or terrible. For those that insist that beans are inherently forgettable, I'll point you to my post about the West Branch, Michigan Ponderosa. The rice had odd bits of seasoning in it that stuck to specific points on my tongue and made it feel as if it was being stabbed by several needles. I didn't finish the rice. In general, the food was fine, not awesome, not terrible, but certainly not worth the close to $20 I paid for it including a decent tip for Mumbles.

My local independent Mexican restaurant is one of my favorite places to eat. It's owned and run by three generations of a Mexican-American family, who maintains a nice blend of authentic and pleasantly unique offerings. They have a large menu full of distinctive dishes that can't be found anywhere else. There's traditional, distinctively Mexican offerings like tender cactus and menudo, a beef tripe soup, as well as the typical burritos and enchiladas. Regardless of what you order, you'll get something that you can't find anywhere else for a decent price. They do exactly what Don Pablo's doesn't do, and it sets them apart from the chains and keeps me coming back. The remaining Don Pablo's locations all seem to be as visually striking as the recently closed Cincinnati restaurant, and it makes for a memorable, if a bit dated, atmosphere, but without a few innovative menu items to justify the cost of eating there, Don Pablo's can't be competitive with the quick service Mexican chains or the independent Mexican restaurants.

The chances of Don Pablo's making a comeback seem low. The fact that they've survived for this long seems like a fluke. I suspect they owe their survival to longtime rival Chi Chi's pulling the plug on nearly all of their US locations in 2004. With no franchisees to keep the brand alive after all the locations are gone, and with minimal value associated with the brand, Don Pablos as we know it may soon be gone. If you want one last Don Pablo's experience, you should visit your local location while you still can, and don't be surprised if it closes for good a week later.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Surf and Turf

Lately, I’ve been keeping an eye on Long John Silver’s. I eat at lunch at one a couple times per month, just to see what they’re doing in attempt to attract new, younger customers. Back in 2011, Yum! brands, who owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell sold off its underperforming A&W and Long John Silver's brands to separate groups of franchisees of each respective brand. Since then, there have been new LJS logo and building designs implemented sporadically across the chain as well as new menu items additions like fish tacos, baked fish, and fried Twinkies. Seemingly all these changes are attempts to modernize what is a dated concept with an aging customer base. Still, with an active corporate parent and around 900 US locations, Long John Silver’s isn’t exactly what I’d consider a broken chain. The reason I’m discussing them at all is because of one franchisee who is attempting to increase the appeal of their location by incorporating a unique second franchise under the same roof. Our old friend Rax Roast Beef long ago lost its battle to remain relevant, but still maintains a handful of locations, mostly in Ohio. I discussed most of them at length a few posts back, but today I want to talk about just one Rax location. 

This is a Rax‽
If you’re not looking for the Rax in West Union, Ohio, chances are you’ll miss it. The owner of the West Union Long John Silvers Has found a way to haphazardly incorporate a Rax franchise, serving a limited menu, under one bright blue, cupola-adorned roof. The building is a typical 1980s Cape Cod style Long John Silvers with Yum! era updates. A much smaller Rax sign sits below the big yellow Long John Silver’s sign. That and vinyl Rax logos applied to the glass entrance and exit doors are the only hints that this aging seafood joint will also serve you a BBC and twisty fries. 

I suspect the Drive Thru sign was sacrificed to add the tiny Rax logo.

Inside, it’s a typical 1980s vintage Long John Silver’s with early 2000s Yum! interior appointments. The one exception is a large square Rax menu board by the register supplementing the LJS board behind the counter. Though poorly incorporated, the Rax board is backlit and looks more modern and of higher quality than the cheap opaque boards at the other Ohio Rax locations. The full Long John Silver's menu is available, along with what I imagine are the most popular Rax items, including roast beef, turkey, and ham sandwiches, twisty fries, and baked potatoes. Redundant items like fish sandwiches and chicken tenders are missing from the Rax menu. Rax shakes are also nowhere to be found, which is kind of a shame. I'd be into a shake and shrimp combo. 

Seafood menu in back, landlubbers' menu to the left

There was previously a second Long John Silver's with a similarly incorporated Rax menu in Georgetown, Ohio, but it appears that location is now a Little Caesar’s, and only a Little Caesar’s. West Union, Ohio is therefore the only place where this odd surf and turf combination is available and I took full advantage. I stopped by for dinner one rainy Saturday evening and ordered up a regular Rax sandwich and a Long John Silver’s fried fish rhombus, plus some coleslaw, because I like coleslaw. The batter dipped diamond of processed fish tasted hot and reasonably fresh, and the roast beef sandwich was easily the best I’ve had at an Ohio Rax. It had a decent amount of meat that was nice and hot and beefy tasting, nearly as good as at the Rax in Joliet, Illinois. I had considered throwing the fish on the sandwich but decided against it when I noted its above average quality. 

This meal is possible only at one place on the entire planet.

There are a few other odd touches here and there. A similar menu board is set up in the drive thru, and the employee working the speaker greets customers by saying, “Welcome to Long John Silver’s and Rax!” Its a truly unique fast food anomaly that I’m glad I could experience. Additionally, I can also now say I’ve been to every operating Rax in Ohio and every operating Rax period except for one. I'm coming for you Harlan, Kentucky Rax!

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Burger Chef is Alive and Her Name is Suzi

Aside from the sign, this place looks much like it would have as a Burger Chef 40 years ago.

When I started this blog, I had a few assumptions, one of which was that Burger Chef was deader than a keg of doornails, and having been born after the majority of Burger Chef locations had closed or been converted to Hardee's, I had not and would never encounter any dining establishment bearing any meaningful resemblance to Burger Chef within my lifetime. While I did my best to accept it, the lack of Burger Chef in my life nagged at me. I'd idly while away hours looking at pictures of former Burger Chef locations and old advertising materials, reading about the chain's history, even purchasing and reading Flameout: The Rise and Fall of Burger Chef, a comprehensive history of the brand, written by the ironically surnamed John P. McDonald. It was this ravenous consumption of Burger Chef related content that led me to one place where there's still a little bit of Burger Chef magic left, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Burger Chef evolved from General Equipment, an Indiana-based supplier of restaurant equipment. Among other products, General Equipment supplied Burger King with its flame broilers in their early days. General Equipment executives, Bob Wildman and Frank and Don Thomas opened their first restaurant in 1954 to showcase their line of machines to prospective customers and the general public. The restaurant was an overnight success that would be developed into the franchised business that became known as Burger Chef. The first franchised locations opened in the late fifties, and expanded quickly. Franchisees were carefully vetted, and as a result, coupled with the fast food boom of the late '50s and early '60s the majority of franchises were successful. To aid expansion, Burger Chef would cosign the mortgages on the restaurant properties of new franchisees. This practice led the company to the brink of not having enough collateral to support new loans. In need of additional capital, Burger Chef accepted a buyout offer from General Foods in 1968. This was a common problem in the fast food industry at the time. Burger King was acquired by Pillsbury around the same time for similar reasons.

During the '60s and early '70s, the Burger Chef brand evolved, and brought about innovations that would become standard in the fast food industry. Burger Chef was the first major burger chain to offer a fish sandwich, mainly to cater to franchisees in predominately Catholic areas who were losing business on Fridays. (Ray Kroc infamously tried to market a pineapple sandwich called the Hulaburger to remedy this same problem for McDonald's franchisees before settling on the much more popular Filet O Fish.) Likewise, Burger Chef's double decker Big Boy knockoff burger, the Big Shef beat the Big Mac to market. Burger Chef was also the originator of the kids meal, with their Burger Chef and Jeff characters and Funmeal line. They even unsuccessfully attempted to sue McDonald's when they launched the Happy Meal a few years later.

With infusions of cash from General Foods, Burger Chef continued to expand rapidly, becoming the second largest American restaurant chain in 1971 with over 1,200 locations, within 100 or so of McDonald's at the time. The General Foods takeover was what eventually would bring about Burger Chef's decline, however. Unfamiliar with the restaurant business, General Foods mismanaged the brand. They made frequent changes to Burger Chef's logos and buildings. Franchise agreements had few provisions requiring franchisees to update their buildings, and many didn't, resulting in a lack of brand consistency.  The constant changes in signage and packaging along with pressure to modernize buildings served to alienate longtime franchisees, as did newly appointed corporate personnel overseeing franchised locations on a regional basis. Flame broiling was even eventually abandoned in favor of burgers cooked on electric griddles. The lack of consistent branding and an increasingly antagonistic relationship with the franchisees, as well as rapidly approaching market saturation caused growth to stagnate as other brands continued to grow internationally. The beginning of the end occurred in 1982, when General Foods' Burger Chef division was sold to Imasco, a Canadian tobacco conglomerate, who had purchased Hardee's the year previous with the goal of quickly amassing a nationwide fast food chain. 

Burger Chef's mostly midwestern market made for a significant territory expansion when added to Hardee's mostly southern market. Around this time, most Burger Chef locations converted to Hardee's locations. Burger Chef franchisees located sufficiently far enough away from the nearest Hardee's were offered Hardee's franchises. Burger Chef franchisees in existing Hardee's markets, located too close to existing Hardee's locations were allowed to continue to operate as Burger Chef until their franchise agreements expired. Most of the remaining Burger Chef franchisees had either closed, changed restaurant formats, or at least had changed their names by the early 1990's. The last remaining Burger Chef, located in Cookeville, Tennessee changed its name to Pleasers in 1996 following an ownership change, and would eventually close.

Schroeder's in Danville, Illinois is what most fans consider to have been Burger Chef's last stand. After their franchise agreement expired in 1992, they changed their name as well as the trademarked names of their menu items, and continued business as usual well into the current decade. Their decline came quickly after an ownership change and ultimately led to their permanent closure in 2015. I missed my chance to eat at Schroeder's, and I thought, I'd never have a chance at a Burger Chef experience, until I stumbled upon a few mentions of a former Burger Chef location in West Virginia operating as Suzi's. They seemed to be known more for breakfast biscuit sandwiches than burgers, but the pictures I saw of original Burger Chef menu boards on the inside of a well-preserved General Foods-era Burger Chef building caught my attention. A newspaper article mentioned the place was partially owned by a former Burger Chef regional manager. The presence of a double decker burger on the menu that I suspected was a debranded Big Shef meant that the first time I was anywhere near South Charleston, West Virginia I'd be taking a trip to Suzi's seeking out the next best thing to Schroeder's.

Original drive thru menu and speaker. The Burger Chef logo would have originally adorned the center panel. 
Indoor menu board, I believe the Chicken Club and Works Bar panels to be original Burger Chef units. 

A spur of the moment trip down to Lexington, Kentucky for a family gathering plus some extra free time while I was down south meant that I was able to make the six hour round trip from Lexington to South Charleston and back (with an obligatory quick stop at the Huntington G.D. Ritzy's on the return trip). It's midday Saturday when I hop off I-64 in South Charleston, rolling past a Hardee's near the off ramp, whose presence I suspect helped to preserve the Burger Chef that would become Suzi's. I park in the mostly full parking lot and marvel at the original drive thru menu board, and walk into the impeccably clean, yet decidedly vintage dining area. The staff are attentive and wearing matching uniforms. To my delight, a General Foods-era menu board is still present, with modern menu additions added in matching font. The Burger Chef Works Bar, stocked with burger toppings and condiments is also still there. I'm tempted to order a biscuit sandwich, but I came here for Burger Chef food, and breakfast biscuits are plentiful in West Virginia. I order a Chicken Club, and a Double Decker and take them to a table for examination.

The Works Bar in all its simulated woodgrain gory

My new favorite chicken sandwich
The Double Decker, a renamed Big Shef, that seems to be very close to its late 1970's iteration

Burger Chef's novel plastic sandwich wrappers are long gone, as is any branded packaging. My sandwiches are in plain white Styrofoam clamshell containers. The Chicken Club, which was a late '70s menu addition, is exactly as it is pictured on the menu board with a breaded fried chicken breast and four strips of bacon. It's appearance is uncanily accurate to the illustration. To my delight, it's been cooked fresh, and is a really tasty chicken sandwich. I dissect the Double Decker to evaluate its authenticity. I find all the trappings of a Big Shef, the double cut bun, single slice of cheese, and finely shredded lettuce and a white special sauce containing relish and minced onions. I take a bite and am greeted with the unmistakable tangy zip of Miracle Whip. I believe this to be authentic Big Shef sauce or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The copycat recipes I've encountered all call for Miracle Whip rather than mayonnaise. The beef patties have been cooked on a griddle, rather than flame broiled, which is consistent with the General Foods-era vibe of the place. I believe this to be as close to an authentic Big Shef as one is likely to encounter anywhere. The same can be said for the Chicken Club. They both seem to have been made to order. There are a few other items on the menu, I suspect to also be recreations of Burger Chef items, so I'll have to give them a try on subsequent visits. I'll be back to enjoy every sandwich.

While Suzi's isn't the frozen in time Burger Chef-in-all-but-name that Schroeder's seemed to be, it's a nice blend of new and old. The expansive breakfast menu seems well-integrated into the operation and signage of the place. Likewise, it seems to be clean, well-run, and reasonably prosperous. Most importantly, they're keeping the old Burger Chef recipes alive. I suspect this is the most Burger Chefish place left in operation. If Schroeder's was the most authentic remnant of Burger Chef, I'd wager that with Schroeder's gone, Suzi's is the next best thing. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Old Red Barn Ain't What it Used to Be

In 1938, a professional fisherman named Hendrick Goosen was trawling the Indian Ocean off the coast of South Africa and caught a strange looking bluish purple fish about five feet long with an oddly shaped tail, and two pairs of leglike fins. Upon returning to land, Goosen contacted a local museum curator for assistance in identifying the fish. Eventually it was determined that the mysterious creature was a coelacanth, a species that was thought have been extinct for 66 million years. The discovery of a living coelacanth sparked a craze among ichthyologists and museum curators that led to fisherman being paid exorbitant amounts for capturing coelacanth specimens for study and display. I felt something akin to that excitement when I was contacted by a reader who told me that just outside of Milwaukee, a single location of the long-dead Red Barn chain was still open for business.

Joe, you’re my Hendrick Goosen. This one’s for you.

Business partners Martin Levine, Jim Krist, and Don Six opened the first Red Barn in Springfield, Ohio in 1961, riding the wave of the fast food boom of the early 1960s. Menus were fairly expansive for the time, offering burgers, fried chicken, and fish. Red Barn marketing often featured three Muppetlike characters known as Hamburger Hungry, Fish Hungry, and Chicken Hungry to emphasize the diversity of proteins to cater to whatever you, the customer, might be craving. Red Barn was also an early adopter of salad bars, and offered their double-decker Big Barney burger years before McDonald’s introduced the Big Mac. (Both were imitators of Bob Wian’s Big Boy, along with the Burger Chef Big Shef, Burger King Big King, Carrols Club Burger, Burger Queen/Druther’s Royal Burger, Wendy’s W, along with countless others.) At their peak, Red Barn boasted around 400 locations in the US, Canada, and Australia. Corporate acquisitions and mergers eventually led to Red Barn being under the corporate umbrella of City Investing, who also owned Motel 6 at the time. City Investing had no interest in operating restaurants and primarily acquired Red Barn for their real estate. Company-owned locations closed, and franchise agreements were allowed to expire. Most Red Barn locations were closed well before the end of the 1980s.

Having lost the rights to use the Red Barn name, a group of holdout franchisees banded together to continue operations with a new name, The Farm. Alterations were made to menus and signage to reflect the new name. Trademarked product names were also changed. The Big Barney became the Farm Boy. The Barnbuster quarter pound burger became the Farmbuster. The remaining franchisees continued business as usual, over the next few decades as remaining locations closed for good one by one. Following the closure of The Farm in Bradford, Pennsylvania at the end of 2015, The Farm in Racine, Wisconsin became the last operating location, and the closest thing to a Red Barn experience available to the present-day fast food connoisseur.

The Farm sports a tastefully modified vintage Red Barn sign.

The order counter has a retro feel, even with modernish menu boards. 

The Farm in Racine is tucked in a cracked parking lot on a slightly seedy corner on the south side of town. The building is an original, purpose-built Red Barn, tall and barn-shaped with red glazed brick and a Rax/Wendys style solarium protruding from the front. Updates appear minimal. The sign is an original Red Barn unit modified as part of the name change, but the twinkling incandescent bulbs are still present around its perimeter. Restrooms are only accessible from outside the building, a relic of a time when a fast food joint with tables and restrooms for customer use was still a new idea. (Clancy’s restrooms had a similar setup, as did some of the older Taco Time locations I visited while living in Montana.) The interior of the building retains its vaulted woodgrain ceiling, original tri color vinyl booths, and tile along the front of the order counter. It’s clear maintenance isn’t a massive priority here. To the average passerby, the building might appear abandoned. An unkempt weeping mulberry tree obscures most of the building’s front facade, and its branches rest on the solarium. The asphalt parking lot is in dire need of sealing and new paint. Tall weeds grow from the gravel patches around the perimeter of the building. Even the large yellow letters that spell out “THE FARM” on the front of the building are in sad shape with faded and peeling yellow paint. Inside, lighting is dim, and the air smells and feels greasy. Every booth seems to have some degree of torn upholstery. The tired condition of the property conveys an overwhelming sense of impending closure. The locals didn’t seem to mind any of this though.

This is the most flattering angle I could photograph the building from. If I owned the place the first thing I'd do is bring back the Big Barney, and the second thing I'd do is cut that tree down. 

While imperfect, this is the nicest unoccupied booth I could find. 

Planters and wallpaper borders have an early '90s Taco Bell feel. 

The high, paneled ceiling was pretty cool. 

I was still running on eastern time and came in for dinner at around 4 PM on a Friday. While not packed, they appeared to be doing steady business. The staff’s professionalism was on par with the average fast food employee. The menu seems to have evolved a bit since the Red Barn days. The Big Barney/Farm Boy was nowhere to be found, nor was the salad bar. Two types of fish, cod and lake perch were available, the latter no doubt added to the menu to suit local tastes in a town situated right on Lake Michigan. (No, beer battered coelacanth isn’t on the menu, at least not on the day I was there.) Frozen custard has been added to the menu at some point, because Wisconsin. Hamburger and Chicken Hungry were hitting me hard that day, so I ordered up a two piece chicken dinner with fries and coleslaw, a Farmbuster, aka Barnbuster, and a scoop of rocky road.

Mediocre chicken would have been much better fresh.

The burger formerly known as Barnbuster

Having been born just as most Red Barns were closing, this is my first Red Barn experience. I went in with a healthy curiosity about history and my judgement untainted by nostalgia. I understand that many of you reading this may hold a special affinity for Red Barn and/or The Farm.  This makes it my unfortunate duty to report that the food was unimpressive. Understand that I'm not judging the entire Red Barn brand based on the quality of the food at the restaurant owned by the last holdout franchisee. Three decades plus is a long time for The Farm to have evolved and devolved away from the original Red Barn standards. The fried chicken, reportedly made using Red Barn’s recipe, tasted like it had been sitting under a heat lamp for too long. Likewise, the Farmbuster had a lukewarm patty that tasted like it had been cooked much earlier in the day. Toppings were Whopperlike in taste and texture. Imagine a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder patty (from back when McDonald’s still used frozen quarter pound patties) with Whopper toppings on a corn flour-dusted bun, and you’ll have an idea what it’s like to experience a present-day Farmbuster. The fries were the standard crinkle cut variety that could have just as easily come from White Castle or Del Taco. Vintage Red Barn ads show shoestring fries closer to McDonald’s-style cut.

Unpleasant dessert, not original to the Red Barn menu

I’m not exaggerating when I say that the frozen custard was the worst I’ve ever had. The marshmallows tasted stale, hardened past the point that lowering their temperature would harden them, and the almonds were the thin, unsalted slivers that are more at home in green beans than in ice cream. The chunky marshmallows and almond shards were also far too numerous, making for an unsettling mouthfeel. You could make the case that the less than fresh burger and chicken I had were perhaps, authentic, relics of a time when fast food was designed for minimum cost and maximum convenience with freshness as an afterthought and that my expectation to receive freshly-prepared food at an off-peak time may have been a bit too lofty, but the way a purveyor of frozen custard situated in America’s Dairyland mangled what is objectively the best ice cream flavor is what really soured me on the food at The Farm.

Images of The Farm in Bradford, PA on the fansite,, show that both the Big Barney/Farm Boy and the salad bar were available. I can’t help but think that the now-closed Bradford location would have offered a more authentic Red Barn experience, but while I’m a little sad I missed my chance to visit that location, I’m very thankful I didn’t miss out on Red Barn completely.

The coelacanth isn't an especially pretty or commercially viable fish, but the fact that the species survived unnoticed by humans while thought to be extinct is immensely interesting. I feel the same about The Farm. Though my dining experience there wasn’t especially positive, I’m grateful that it was brought to my attention, and I’m glad I was able to have a fleeting glimpse of what it would have been like to eat at a Red Barn while it’s still possible. Good, bad, or ugly, finding that remnant of an otherwise defunct brand and experiencing a bit of history firsthand is always a positive experience in its own way. I’d rather have a bad meal at a location of a broken chain than to not experience it at all.