Sunday, October 14, 2018

Careful, Man! There's a Sandwich Here!



It’s funny. I can look back on eight months of achievement, on Ollieburgers eaten, Kewpees visited, old Taco Tico buildings photographed. I’ve accomplished more than most restaurant and retail bloggers who focus on locations of endangered brands in Michigan and surrounding states, and without the use of my right nostril. What makes a broken chain, dear reader?

Is it having a drastically diminished location count and reduced value as a brand, no matter the current size of the chain? Isn’t that what makes a broken chain? I’m paraphrasing dialog from my favorite movie, but perhaps I’m right.

Blimpie, Blimpie America’s Sub Shop. I encountered one, open for business on a recent trip to Michigan’s upper peninsula. Are you surprised at its existence, reader? Open Blimpies still exist… Open Blimpies still exist. 




I took this photo last weekend. As you can see it is an operating Blimpie, run by franchisees who were able to achieve despite market domination by Subway. Zap will fill you in on the details.


On its surface, Blimpie looks like a healthy chain with a near national presence. There are currently just shy of 250 Blimpies open or set to open in 35 US states, but compared to the over 2000 Blimpie locations across 47 US states and 15 foreign countries that were open when Blimpie franchisee Jeffrey Endervelt’s investment group purchased Blimpie from chain cofounder Tony Conza In 2002, Blimpie is looking pretty broken these days, especially compared to the other green and yellow sandwich place, Subway, which boasts over 26,000 US locations alone making it the largest restaurant chain in the US, ahead of McDonald’s by a wide margin.

The similarities between Blimpie and Subway are numerous. Each chain’s original location opened in the mid sixties with the first Blimpie opening a year before the first Subway. They were in close proximity to one another as well. Pete’s Super Submarines in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the sandwich shop that would become Subway was only 70 miles from the first Blimpie in Hoboken, New Jersey. Both offered similar cuisine with menus consisting of the Italian-inspired sandwiches popular on the east coast known as hoagies, grinders, subs, poor boys, zeppelins, and countless other regional nicknames. Both chains expanded rapidly through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s through franchising thanks to a low startup cost and minimal building requirements that allowed both Subway and Blimpie to set up in strip malls, food courts, and gas stations seemingly on every corner.




With so many similarities between the two chains, it can be difficult to fathom why Subway thrived while Blimpie floundered. My research revealed at least two reasons for this. Blimpie was founded by three partners, the aforementioned Tony Conza, Peter DeCarlo, and Angelo Baldassare. Baldassare left the company early on leaving Conza and DeCarlo in charge. The two remaining partners effectively split the company in two over a disagreement regarding expansion, leaving DeCarlo in charge of a new company that controlled Blimpie in the core New York/New Jersey market and Conza in charge of the original company operating Blimpies elsewhere. Both companies shared the rights to use the Blimpie name. Following Conza’s departure in shortly after the company’s sale in 2002, Blimpie was sold a second time to Kahala Corporation, which was itself sold twice between 2013 and 2016. Mergers and acquisitions of parent companies and the associated changes in direction tend to make restaurant chains shrink rapidly, and Blimpie was no exception. Contrast this with Subway, whose founder Fred DeLuca acted as CEO from 1965 until his death in 2015. DeLuca’s sister, Suzanne Greco took over as CEO following her Brother’s death. With four decades of persistent vision from the chain’s founder, Subway was able to step in and saturate markets where Blimpie locations closed. Even the recent closure of 1300 or so Subway locations, the result of changing consumer tastes and the revelation that Subway’s best known spokesman, Jared Fogle, is a literal child molester, barely makes a dent in Subway’s location count. They seem to be weathering the storm reasonably well, all things considered.



The other reason for Blimpie’s downfall in the face of Subway’s success seems to be marketing. In the 1990s, Blimpie’s marketing emphasized high quality ingredients including fresh cut deli meat. Subway’s marketing touted low prices and capitalized on the low fat diet fad and emphasized a menu with many low fat options, offering up Subway’s sandwiches as an alternative to burgers and fries. Health and budget conscious consumers ignored Blimpie’s fresh cut meats, and flocked to Subway, who incidentally receives their meats pre-sliced in plastic pouches. Until the sale of Blimpie in 2002, Tony Conza himself appeared in Blimpie commercials, but following the buyout, I don’t recall seeing much Blimpie marketing at all, perhaps because the new owners slashed the marketing budget, perhaps because all the Blimpies in my local television market had closed. Either way, in the ensuing years, a lack of attention from Blimpie's parent company allowed Jimmy Johns to dominate the premium sub market.

Blimpie today has locations from coast to coast, but with extremely spotty coverage. Unless you happen to live in a rare market that's home to a successful Blimpie franchisee with multiple locations like Atlanta or Boise, or an area where Blimpie has a corporate presence, like Northern New Jersey where, presumably, Peter DeCarlo’s company is still in control, or Phoenix, where the corporate entity that controls the rest of Blimpie is based, then chances are you haven’t eaten at a Blimpie lately.

♫Six,
Six dollar,
Six dollar regular sub combos♫

I recently set off on a long weekend jaunt to the wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula with Esmeralda Fitzmonster with no intention of doing any Broken Chains related exploring. At least, that was the plan until I noticed a Blimpie within walking distance of the hotel where we stayed in Ishpeming. It turns out it’s one of only ten Bimpies in Michigan, and the only one in the U.P. Upon noticing its presence it occurred to me that the last time I recall eating at Blimpie was on a fourth grade field trip nearly a quarter century ago at Lexington, Kentucky's ill-fated Festival Market downtown shopping mall. I knew I had to check out the UP's only Blimpie while I was so close by.

I wish I hadn't already talked about a rug at Bonanza tying the place together. It really would have fit the motif of this post better, in the parlance of our times. 

Our first full day in the UP had been a long day of exploring the area's hiking trails and Marquette's downtown, after which Esmeralda and I returned to the hotel in Ishpeming, and while she napped, I walked across the parking lot to the Blimpie. It was early evening, and the place was empty. I was the only customer. I imagine it's more of a lunch place. Two employees were there to take my order and prepare my sandwich. I ordered a Blimpie Best, a cold sub containing four separate Italian-sounding meats. Just as with Subway the sandwich was assembled in front of me, with whatever toppings I chose. Compared to Subway's variety of sandwich toppings, however, the selection here felt limited. There wasn't much beyond lettuce, tomato, onion, and a couple different peppers to choose from. Likewise the bread choices were limited to white and wheat. I opted to dress my Blimpie Best on white with the aformentioned lettuce, tomato, and onion, plus some banana peppers and a curious creamy Italian dressing. I added a bag of Funyuns and a fountain drink (Diet Mountain Dew) to make it a combo, and sat down to enjoy my sandwich and my surroundings.

Only '90s kids will remember TVs like this.
Is this what the kids call a e s t h e t i c ?

The exterior of the Ishpeming Blimpie is not much to look at. Blimpie, like Subway doesn't seem to have much in the way of architectural guidelines for the exterior of their buildings, but the Blimpie's interior was another matter. With a hodgepodge of signs and accessories from the past 20 or so years of Blimpie history, the place feels a little bit like a Blimpie museum with its mixture of new logos and old. The walls and even the ceiling are covered in bright, high contrast colors. With the bright red ceiling fans against purple and white ceiling tiles, yellow walls, and checkerboard tiles on the front of the counter, the vibe reminds me a lot of the insane dayglow decor that Cinemark movie theaters had in the '90s. A wall-mounted CRT TV/VCR in one corner completes the illusion that it's 1996 again.

How I wish this fan were a giant spinning root beer mug!

The sandwich was... interesting. I like a good Italian sub, and there's no shortage of good ones in Metro Detroit. They typically get the balance of flavors right using a carefully curated blend of meats, cheeses, and condiments. The Blimpie Best stood in contrast to the sandwiches I find in independent Italian delis near home. The several highly seasoned meats coupled with the peppers and dressing reminded me a bit of licking a pine tree, and not in a good way. The vortex of herbs and spices simply did not play well with each other. On the plus side, they had been more generous with the meat than at the typical Subway, and the bread was, in my opinion, better, less chewy than at Subway. No one would accuse Blimpie of using yoga mat chemicals in their bread. At six bucks plus tax for my little combo, the price wasn't bad either. While I didn't love the sandwich I ordered, I'd come back to this Blimpie and order something else the next time I was in town. The interior decor alone is worth the price of a meal, but this location may not exist in its current form the next time I find my way to Ishpeming.

A Blimpie Best combo, not bad for six bucks. 
The Blimpie Best, about Subway 6" size. 
This Blimpie can be yours!

Multiple signs on the windows and on one side of the marquis note the owners are retiring and selling the entire business. I wish them the very best, but know that ownership changes often spell doom for franchised businesses like this one, especially in such an isolated market with no other franchisees around. I've often entertained fantasies about buying a franchise in some obsolete restaurant chain and striving to run it as the best example of that chain that I could, and briefly entertained a fantasy of taking out a loan  and buying the Ishpeming Blimpie. When I floated the idea to Esmeralda, she pointed out that I'm a hermit who doesn't like interacting with strangers, and that's not exactly conducive to running a restaurant. When I mentioned other similarly introverted restaurateurs like Luke Danes and Bob Belcher, respectively of Gilmore Girls and Bob's Burgers she pointed out that they're both fictional characters. I can't refute her point, I'll stick to my day job, but the idea of doing my part to keep the Blimpie brand in the aloft as the sole location in the more pleasant of Michigan's two peninsulas has been my favorite fantasy since returning home.

"Your car was parked in a Blimpie customer zone. Perhaps they towed it"

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Who Are the Dutch?




Remember that episode of Seinfeld that opens with Jerry and George in the coffee shop, and they both have mustaches? They have the following conversation:

George: What is Holland?

Jerry: What do you mean, 'what is it?' It's a country right next to Belgium.

George: No, that's the Netherlands.

Jerry: Holland is the Netherlands.

George: Then who are the Dutch?

“Who are the Dutch?” It’s a question I set out to answer without visiting the Netherlands. How could I even think of travelling to another country when I’d be leaving behind so many undiscovered broken chains in America? Instead, I traveled to the Dutchest place I could think of that fit the Broken Chains theme, one of the three surviving locations of the Dutch Pantry restaurant chain that once boasted highway-adjacent restaurants all over the eastern United States.

Nothing is more Dutch than the American flag. 
The original Dutch Pantry was opened by mother and son Lottie and Jess Kemberling in Snelinsgrove, Pennsylvania in 1945. Dutch Pantry’s business model of catering to highway travelers and expanding via franchising was a common one in the years after World War Two thanks to a strong economy and expanding highway systems. Dutch Pantry found success in the fifties and sixties as did many similar chains, and like it’s competitors, Howard Johnson’s, Stuckey’s, Horne’s, and Nickerson Farms used eye-catching architecture to attract customers. Typical locations had red and white striped enamel tile roofs, prominent cupolas, and signage adorned with windmills and tulips. As the economy slowed, and locations began to close, the brand’s survival became increasingly dependent on their largest corporate franchisee, Sohio Oil subsidiary Hospitality Motor Inns, who operated Dutch Pantry restaurants near their motels. Shortly after becoming a publicly traded company in the early seventies, Hospitality Motor Inns was acquired by notoriously unscrupulous and generally unpleasant hoteliers Harry and Leona Helmsley who leased the restaurants to a corporate entity known as Rains International who, in turn managed day to day operations at each location. The Helmsleys and Rains allowed their Dutch Pantry restaurants, the bulk of the chain by that point, to languish, limping their way into the eighties. When Rains failed to pay rent on the 35 or so restaurants they ran, they were evicted, effectively killing the chain. However, somehow, despite all odds, three Dutch Pantries, all of which were owned by Hospitality Motor Inns, and later the Helmsleys, managed to survive. The Williamstown, West Virginia Dutch Pantry along with its counterparts in Clearfield and DuBois, Pennsylvania somehow managed to survive the Rains International evictions and remain in business to this day.

The $3.95 special was liver and onions, kind of a bait and switch, unless you happen to like liver. 

Like so many who had entered the Williamstown Dutch Pantry in the past several decades, I was a road-weary traveler. I came in for an early dinner after a long day on the road, having driven south from my home in Southeast Michigan so to South Charleston, West Virginia, so I could revisit Suzi’s, a Burger Chef holdout, only to turn back to the north so I could dine at both Dutch Pantry and later, the nearby Omelet Shoppe in Parkersburg. Thanks to a mixup with my Airbnb host, I wasn’t able to check in to my accomodations for the evening until later that night, so the nap I was planning on taking before dinner didn’t come to fruition. It was going to take a good meal and a charmingly obsolete atmosphere to lift my spirits, even if I did have a Big Shef for lunch earlier that day. 

Aside from the modern roof, the building is as it was when new. 

The Dutch Pantry in Williamstown is right next to I-77 at the final West Virginia exit before the highway crosses the river into Ohio. While quite visible from the interstate overpass, thanks to a still vibrant roof and tall sign, the restaurant is nearly invisible once you exit. Only a small antique sign hints at the restaurant’s presence, tucked behind a 1990s-era Go Mart convenience store. The building looks much like it would have when new. Though its enamel tile roof has been replaced with a modern metal one, it’s still bright red. The building’s remaining trim and exterior decorative elements appear original and nicely preserved. Immediately to the rear of the restaurant is the motel that was once a Hospitality Motor Inn, now showing its age a bit, and changing ownership so often that Google Maps isn’t sure what it’s calling itself this week. In retrospect, I probably should have stayed there rather than in an Airbnb. It would have made for a nice companion piece to the post I wrote about spending the night in a sketchy EconoLodge that was once an orange roof-era Howard Johnson’s. 

Upon entering the restaurant, I admired the original round lunch counter to my right so intently that I neglected to take a picture of it. Various trinkets and a few prepared foods were for sale at the shelves near the door. It’s all pretty similar to the merchandise you’d find in the country store half of the average Cracker Barrel, but there are some jars of local apple butter and other spreads that look interesting. A hostess appears from the kitchen and shows me to a table at the opposite end of the restaurant. (The gift shop area separates the lunch counter area from the main dining room.)

Main dining area

All this stuff is for sale. 






















The dining room felt old, but well-maintained. Much of the rustic decor on the walls was for sale, with a price tag hanging on each item. As I studied the delightfully anachronistic menu, it dawned on me that after my long day on the road, I was in the mood for a big pile of comfort food. The menu didn’t disappoint, offering a wide selection of gravy-soaked proteins, most of which, including the meatloaf I ordered, were curiously served on a bed of stuffing. My food came out quickly and was hot. I imagine they have a few meatloaves in the oven and in warmers most of the day. Still, it tasted reasonably fresh, and the flavors worked well with the stuffing underneath. The mashed potatoes were made from actual spuds, not freeze dried flakes, and the coleslaw was nondescript, but not objectionable. 


Meatloaf dinner; Note the layer of stuffing. 

"Putting pictures of the desserts on the place mats is sure to increase sales, or my name's not Dick Whitman... whoops."

As I ate, I admired the paper place mats on the table that also serves as dessert menus. They looked like they had been printed fifty years ago, and I pictured a stockpile of boxes holding hundreds of untouched reams of half century old place mats hiding out in some back room of the Dutch Pantry. The brilliant marketing strategy of featuring desserts prominently, no doubt formulated by some day-drunk Don Draper type, worked on me, and when it came time to order dessert, I asked for apple fritters. 


The famous apple fritters, worth stopping for even if you don't have a bizarre interest in near defunct restaurant chains. 

If Dutch Pantry had a signature menu item, it was probably the apple fritters. Just about every news article and forum post I could find about Dutch Pantry mentioned them by name. When the fritters were dropped off at my table, they more than lived up to the hype. The fritters, basically three large doughnut holes, were fresh cooked, right out of the fryer, and inundated with powdered sugar. They had perfect cake doughnut texture, crispy on the outside and soft in the inside with a wonderful cinnamon flavor, and bits of apple throughout. To hell with your pumpkin spice latte. Dutch Pantry apple fritters are the real flavor of fall. I’ll order a dozen to go on my next Dutch Pantry visit. 

So who are the Dutch? I’m afraid that Costanzian conundrum persists after my visit to Dutch Pantry. It turns out that despite the windmill and tulips on the sign by the road, Dutch Pantry is named for the Pennsylvania Dutch, who originated in Germany, not the Netherlands and are called Dutch because of some long forgotten English-speaker mishearing the word “Deustch.” Much of Dutch Pantry’s decor and architecture is inspired by the ornate barns constructed by Pennsylvania Dutch settlers and the cuisine is inspired by their Amish and Mennonite descendants. Even the name Dutch Pantry is meant to evoke the bountiful food supply that could supposedly be found in many Pennsylvania Dutch households. Maybe a trip to Amsterdam, New York, Holland, Michigan, or The Hague, New Mexico will clear things up, but for now, I have no idea who the Dutch are.

For a more informative, but decidedly less silly take on Dutch Pantry, plus pictures of the round lunch counter I failed to get a picture of, be sure to check out the Dutch Pantry page on highwayhost.org. 



Monday, October 1, 2018

Ovum Obscura





Just about every fall during my tween and teen years I’d miss a couple days of school to take a trip with my grandparents to Hershey, Pennsylvania. My grandfather was an avid antique car enthusiast, and we’d make the pilgrimage to Hershey every year for a massive car show and swap meet where he and I would walk through endless rows of old cars with hordes of surly old men milling around in unironic trucker hats proclaiming their past military service, preferred sports team, and/or car make of choice. It was invariably a grueling three days of interminable walking, usually in inclement weather, subsisting on greasy carnival food and Hershey bars, rising at 4 or 5 in the morning to drive an hour from York, Pennsylvania, where hotel rooms were drastically cheaper than in Hershey. In retrospect, my grandma’s routine of spending all day indoors, hanging out in Chocolate World, a sort of shopping mall selling an obscene assortment of Hershey-branded foods and souvenirs, seemed slightly more sane than the all-day slogs through chilled and damp parking lots Grandpa and I would endure in an effort to see every last Pierce Arrow, Packard, Pontiac, Pacer, and Pinto. The whole ordeal would be bookended by a pair of ten hour drives to and from our old Kentucky home. It was on those drives, sitting in the back seat of my grandfather’s grandpa-spec Lincoln or Cadillac with Guy Lombardo or Rush Limbaugh playing ad nauseam on the radio that I first became aware of the restaurant brands that didn’t exist outside of my normal Central Kentucky bubble.

It was on that endless trek through Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania that I first saw signs for Rax, Roy Rogers, and Tudor’s Biscuit World. My grandparents, who grew up during the Great Depression, never stopped at any of them, opting instead for picnic lunches of ham salad and Twinkies from a cooler at highway rest areas, but I vowed I’d be back to each place when I was a weird adult with the wherewithal to take a pointless roadtrip and share the experience with strangers on the internet.

It was on one of those drives that I noticed a curious business during a gas stop in some obscure corner of West Virginia, housed in a long narrow building with a red mansard roof. Large plate glass windows showed limited seating surrounding an open kitchen. A sign sitting on tall poles in the parking lot read OMELET SHOPPE, with one word sitting atop the other, each letter with its own backlit plastic panel. It was surreal. Everything about the place screamed “Waffle House!” except the sign. It was like I was staring across a rift in space-time at some alternate reality’s version of Waffle House. The memory never fully left me, but at some point a decade or two later I was unsure if Omelet Shoppe was a distant memory or a fever dream, that is until earlier this year.

I was driving through the outskirts of Indianapolis when I saw it again, the same 12 panel, two word sign on high telescoping poles that once beckoned interstate travelers to an Omelet Shoppe. This one had long been neglected. Panels were missing and damaged. (I later learned that the building that was the Omelet Shoppe became an Indian restaurant, that confusingly retained some of the Omelet Shoppe menu.) That derelict sign confirmed the reality of my fuzzy memory, and I began scouring the internet for any information on what I now knew to be a restaurant chain. I can usually find at least a brief Wikipedia entry for the places I write about, but my research on Omelet Shoppe turned a website for the brand showing four locations owned by an entity known as Blue Ridge Best Foods still open for business in Virginia and West Virginia, with two locations in each state. Further research found a fifth operational location in Alabama, a firsthand report of a former location near the Iowa/Illinois Quad Cities, and a few additional former locations with similar operations and slightly altered names like Omelet Spot and Omelet Stoppe. With locations spread from Alabama to Iowa, I could only conclude that Omelet Shoppe was once a fairly large chain that had declined to the point of having only a few holdout locations left in operation. This is nothing new for me, but the fact that the brand was largely forgotten intrigued me more than most of the places I visit. The idea of being able to document a brand that had become obscure to the point of not even having a Wikipedia article in the year 2018 made the prospect of visiting Omelet Shoppe and writing a Broken Chains post about them too tantalizing to resist.

Omelet Shoppe signage; Note the cre8ive spelllling
Paint that roof yellow, and it could pass for a Waffle House

As soon as I could, I packed up the car and headed to my nearest operational Omelet Shoppe, located in Parkersburg, West Virginia. I found my way to Parkersburg by way of South Charleston so I could stop by Suzi’s for a Big Shef en route. I spent a Saturday night in Parkersburg, and stopped by Omelet Shoppe for breakfast on my way out of town Sunday morning. It was a little after 8 AM when I drove the few miles up I-77 to the Omelet Shoppe, which was situated between an abandoned Shoney’s and an abandoned Long John Silver’s with a couple of motels not far off. The place was busy, and I had trouble finding a parking spot in the cramped parking lot. My vague memory of encountering an Omelet Shoppe on that adolescent road trip came flooding back. The building had the same rough dimensions, proportions, and layout as a Waffle House, and the same sign made up of individual square tiles for each letter, employing creative spelling so one word fits nicely atop the other. A Humpty Dumpty-like anthropromorphic egg character greeted me from a sign on the outside of the building by the door. The presence of an "Ollie's Supreme Omelet" on the menu led me to conclude his name was Ollie.

Drydocked LJS


Heeeeere's Ollie!

Omelet Shoppe menu, breakfast on the front...
..Lunch and dinner on the back

Inside, it would have been easy to believe I was in a Waffle House, as the layout of the dining room and kitchen were just about identical, to the Waffle House layout, with a high counter immediately in front of the grill, and low counters surrounding the kitchen elsewhere with booths along the outer wall. Even the orange tiles along the back wall of the dining room looked familiar. I could swear I had seen the same tiles in an older Waffle House I'd visited somewhere. It made me wonder how many Waffle House buildings are converted Omelet Shoppe locations. I'd bet they were pretty common at some point in history. It certainly wouldn't be a difficult conversion. I took one of the few open seats at the high counter. A small industrial dishwasher just on the other side of the counter was spitting droplets of hot soapy water into the air and precariously close to other customer's plates of food. With mild trepidation I removed the single page laminated menu from its perch behind the napkin dispenser and ordered a sausage gravy-topped Country Boy Omelet when my waitress arrived. When I ordered hash browns as well, she asked if I wanted cheese or onions added to them. If I were a wittier person, I would have responded in Waffle House parlance informing her that I'd love them scattered, smothered, and covered, but Instead, I offered a simple, "Sure!" and she set off to hand my order to the line cook behind her. 

I swear I've seen these tiles in Waffle Houses. Tell me you have too so I know I'm not going crazy. 

The open kitchen would look familiar to anyone who has spent time in a Waffle House. The large flattop grill is situated in the center of the long, narrow kitchen. Bacon crisps on the grill under rectangular weights with worn wooden handles, while hash browns cook in round metal rings, forming them into perfect potato cylinders when plated. The only minor differences from the typical Waffle House that I see in the kitchen layout is that there are only two waffle irons, where Waffle House has four, and the milkshake mixer used for thoroughly whipping eggs into a froth for omelettes is a Ray Kroc-style multi mixer with multiple mixing heads. Most Waffle Houses use a single-barrel mixer. I'm mildly amused that each chain's food prep equipment is true to its respective name in the face of so many glaring similarities, but it makes logical sense that Omelet Shoppe makes more omelettes than Waffle House and Waffle House makes more waffles than Omelet Shoppe. 

My Omelet Shoppe meal; Gravy was necessary to keep the light, fluffy eggs from floating away. The hash browns have been scattered to incorporate the onions, which is why they're not cylindrical. 

Despite the crowded dining room, my order is set before me within a few minutes. The omelette would look familiar to anyone who has ever had a Waffle House omelette. It's on the small side, likely made with three eggs, but the time they spent being aerated in the milkshake mixer makes them implausibly light and fluffy. The fillings and gravy make for a nice flavor balance that pairs well with the fluffy eggs. I'm not exaggerating when I say the hash browns were indistinguishable from Waffle House hash browns, which is to say that they were pretty good, crispy on top and soft in the middle, topped with a slice of melted American cheese. The meal also came with a biscuit, which I saw the line cook pull out of a large plastic container of cold pre-baked biscuits. He then split it and placed it on the grill. It's better than it probably has a right to be, leaps and bounds ahead of the microwaved Pillsbury biscuit I had at Horne's earlier this year, but not quite up to the standards, of wild, wonderful, West Virginia's many Tudor's Biscuit World locations. Come to think of it, this is my third consecutive trip to West Virginia without a Tudor's biscuit. I'll have to remedy that on my next visit.

It seems like Shoney Bear has been hibernating for an awfully long time. Maybe someone should go check on him. 

Just as Big Boy imitator Jerry's operation reminded me of an extremely well-run Frisch's Big Boy, Omelet Shoppe felt like a Waffle House location operating at peak performance. The service and quality of the food exceeded any Waffle House experience I've had in recent memory. As is often the case, the fittest franchisees have survived to thrive in their market, in this case, presumably running the Shoney's next door out of business. While the entire operation seemed strikingly similar to Waffle House, it would be unfair to accuse Omelet Shoppe of blatant plagiarism without knowing the history of their brand. It's possible that Waffle House as we know it today may have been influenced in some way or another by Omelet Shoppe. Even if that's not the case, it's well known that Waffle House cofounder Joe Rogers was a former manager of the now extinct Toddle House chain and that Waffle House itself was a fairly blatant copy of Toddle House. Throw the similar Huddle House chain into the mix and the whole genre of vaguely southern, small footprint, highway-adjacent, greasy breakfast joints starts to seem pretty inbred. It's tough to say which chain is ripping off the other, especially when the history of Omelet Shoppe doesn't seem to be well documented. 

Can Ollie offer you a nice egg in this trying time? 

The lack of information about Omelet Shoppe still bugs me even after eating there, but I take solace in the fact that I was able to experience an operational location firsthand. I'm sure the history of the brand is known by someone somewhere, but it doesn't seem to be published anywhere on the internet, at least not that I could find. If you're reading this and know something about the Omelet Shoppe chain, or any other tidbit that you think I might find interesting, then please leave a comment below, or email me at the link above. I'd be delighted to help document the history of Omelet Shoppe before it's lost to history. 


Saturday, September 29, 2018

Dissimilar and Not Quite Extinct




This is a follow-up to my previous post Similar, but Legally Distinct. If you haven't read that post, consider going back and reading it before reading this one. 

Visiting multiple locations of a broken chain that still has more than one location can be immensely informative. Stops at different outlets of the same brand give you a more complete picture of the state of an endangered chain from a uniquely comprehensive perspective. My travels to every operating (G.D.) Ritzy’s showed how franchisees can vary in their day to day operations if left alone for a decade or two, plus how the chain founder’s vision can be modified to appeal to a modern audience. Visiting every remaining Rax (except one; I’m coming for you, Harlan, Kentucky Rax!) showed me how great (and not so great) a Rax experience can be. When I visited four Ponderosa Steakhouses in a single weekend, it became clear that the chain was in disarray, but my trip to the lone Bonanza Steak and BBQ showed that there was still a glimmer of hope for the Ponderosa-Bonanza brands. I have also long entertained fantasies of of taking a two week road trip to all 15 or so remaining Taco Ticos that are spread from Iowa to Louisiana with a large clump of locations in and around Wichita. It was with this mindset that I realized that when I visited the three Lima, Ohio Kewpee locations and a couple locations of the related Halo Burger chain, I wasn’t quite getting the full Kewpee experience.

Not long after I dined at the Lima, Ohio Kewpees, all of which have the same owner, I took a trip to Racine, Wisconsin to visit the last operating Red Barn. While researching Racine, I learned it was also home to another of the five remaining Kewpee locations, and that the fifth was less than two hours from me in Lansing, Michigan. Naturally, I visited the Racine Kewpee while I was in town, and I found my way to the Lansing Kewpee last week. The Kewpee chain hasn’t had any meaningful corporate support in close to fifty years and the Michigan and Wisconsin Kewpees have different owners than the Ohio locations. I was curious to see how close the experience was at the outlying Kewpees compared to the three Lima locations.

Kewpee, named for the then popular, but objectively creepy looking Kewpie doll figurines was founded in Flint, Michigan In 1923 and grew to 400 locations around the Great Lakes by the start of World War Two. The chain fell apart in the sixties when a new owner attempted and failed to impose a modern franchise agreement on the longtime owners of Kewpee restaurants. Kewpee was a favorite spot of a young Dave Thomas, and it heavily influenced Wendy’s which opened its first locations while Kewpee was in sharp decline.

A 1990s interpretation of the 1930s

During the two days Esmeralda Fitzmonster and I spent in Racine, Wisconsin, we didn’t really adjust to central time. We found ourselves ready for lunch at 10 AM on a weekday when we parked a couple blocks away from the Kewpee in downtown Racine, opting to walk the rest of the way. The building, according to roadarch.com, a 1997 recreation of its circa 1939 predecessor, was instantly recognizable from a block away thanks to its sign featuring a Kewpie doll, resembling a fully nude, crucified, pointy-headed infant. True to it’s design, the inside and outside of the structure looked older than its 21 years with its glazed bricks, porthole Windows, and low U-shaped counters. There’s a glass display case built into one wall at the rear of the dining area full of vintage Kewpie dolls. I made a point of not looking at, or getting near it. While the architecture was distinctive and felt appropriate for a brand with such a long history, it also bore no resemblance to the prewar Kewpee in downtown Lima nor its two 1960s vintage counterparts across town. 

I don't get how this sign is supposed to make people hungry. 


The food and service were also at odds with the Lima locations. Upon entering, the surprisingly crowded dining room, Esmeralda and I ordered at the register, received our orders wrapped to go, and sat down at the counter to eat. It was only then that we noticed that employees were taking other customer’s orders where they sat and bringing their food on plates. The Lima Keepees employ a more traditional fast food ordering system and do not offer table service, or plates other than plastic trays. 



Yes, I saved the wrapper, but I hate looking at it. 

I order up a burger with mustard, pickles, and onions, Dave Thomas’ preferred burger toppings, plus fries and a chocolate shake. Despite a half century of divergent evolution, the square, ragged-edged burger I received was functionally identical to the Kewpee burgers I’d experienced in Lima, and just as with the Lima Kewpee Burgers, it reminded me of Wendy’s original burgers more than a little bit. The culinary similarities began and ended there, however. The fries were crinkle cut, unlike the straight cut fries in Lima. Likewise, my chocolate shake was made of blended milk and ice cream, and tasted homemade, while the Lima Kewpees use a soft serve machine to dispense their Frosted Malts, a product that’s like a better version of a Wendy’s Frosty. Likewise the Racine Kewpee menu lacks the chili and freshly baked pies that are available in Lima, but does offer fish and chicken sandwiches that aren’t available at the Ohio Kewpees. Overall, the experience was perfectly pleasant aside from the decor, but if you remove the Kewpee name and dolls, it didn’t feel terribly distinctive. 

Downtown Kewpee in the shadow Michigan's capitol.

It took me a while to visit the Lansing Kewpee, but a few days ago, I found my way there. It was late afternoon on a weekday, and like the Racine location, this Kewpee was downtown. I parked a couple of blocks away, took a moment to admire Michigan's Capitol building, which was directly in front of me, then made my way down the street to the Kewpee. It's the only non freestanding Kewpee still open, housed in a short brick building crammed between taller buildings. There's a Yoga studio upstairs. People who look like they do yoga are filing in and out of the shared entryway as I walk in. I don't look like I do yoga. I look like I drive around and eat hamburgers.




Immediately upon entry, I'm met with a large red and white porcelain "Kewpee Hotel Hamburgs" sign, that looks to date from the early days of the Kewpee brand. A little research revealed that this location dates back to 1923, and is therefore the oldest Kewpee still in operation. The interior of the place with its exposed brick, arching alcoves, and tufted booths feels old and comfortable. The business is still run by the family of the original owner, and outside signage reads "Weston's Kewpee Restaurant." It feels like one of thousands of mom and pop burger places, which it essentially is. I doubt many of the regulars here know that Kewpee was ever a chain. Still, there are Kewpee artifacts here and there on the walls, mostly the same blue and white monochrome logo that's on the top of the menu. It's an odd time of day and the place is nearly empty. A sign near the door tells me to sit whereever I want. I oblige, and a waitress greets me at my table. I order a Diet Coke and review the paper menu. It's the most extensive Kewpee menu I've seen, with only a small section near the top devoted to hamburgers. Shakes are nowhere to be found, but this Kewpee is true to the chain's Michigan roots. 

You have to flip the menu over to get to the burgers.

The likelihood of encountering green olives on a hamburger increases dramatically the further west one travels in Michigan, and I suspect the Flint-born Kewpee was slinging olive burgers from the very beginning. The Lima Kewpees, which dress each burger to order, offer green olives as a topping option. Halo Burger, which is a descendant of Kewpee also has an olive burger on the menu. While green olives were conspicuously absent from the Racine Kewpee, they're prominently featured on the burgers of the lone remaining Michigan Kewpee. Three different topping options and patty sizes work out to nine different burgers being present on the menu at Weston's Kewpee. When my waitress returns with my drink, I order up the mid sized King Deluxe which comes topped with olive sauce, lettuce, and tomato. She warns me that it has olives on it, expressing concern that I was expecting something akin to a Whopper. If only she knew I've forced myself to consume olive burgers repeatedly to the point of almost enjoying them. 

Historic burger on a trendy bun with a side of middle school cafeteria fries

My order came up quickly, and the first thing I noticed was the brioche bun. I suspect it to be a recent addition given the recent brioche fad and the fact that it's the first I've seen at any Kewpee. The olive sauce seems to be little more than a mixture of olives and mayonnaise, which is consistent with just about every other Michigan olive burger I've had. Despite the differences, the burger is a Kewpee hamburger where it matters, in the patty. It has the signature square shape with ragged edges and uniform thickness I've come to appreciate from the other four Kewpees. Despite the inconsistencies elsewhere, a Kewpee burger patty is perfectly consistent across five locations in three states that have been operating essentially independently since the early 1970s. The operators knew that it was that meat puck that made them successful, and tailored the rest of their businesses as needed over the years.

Meals at all five Kewpee locations gives a comprehensive frame of reference of what remains of the Kewpee brand. It's tough to say from my 21st century viewpoint which is the most authentic. Maybe they all are in their own way, or maybe none of them are. The Lima locations feel the most modern, frozen in an era when the Kewpee chain was struggling to remain relevant and adapt to the changing fast food landscape, yet they seem to offer the most authentic menu. The Lansing Kewpee has a storied atmosphere, and a long history, but the majority of its menu is a decided departure from the original Kewpee offerings, and the Racine location simply feels like a tribute to Kewpee, the burger joint equivalent of a cover band. Each has its own merits, and offers a pleasant, if inconsistent experience, but the blend of consistencies and inconsistencies is what makes these places interesting and worth travelling to in the first place. 


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Stuckey's Stuckey's Stuckey's!



Shortly after finishing my post about the last operating Horne’s, it occurred to me that I had mentioned Stuckey’s here one time too many, and not unlike Beetlejuice, saying “Stuckey’s” repeatedly seems to spontaneously summon a blog post about them into being. People from the south and/or over a certain age no doubt have memories of stopping at the Stuckey’s locations along major U.S. highways to gas up, use the famously clean facilities, and maybe buy a pecan log roll or souvenir or two while on roadtrips. Like its offspring Nickerson Farms and Horne’s, Stuckey’s was one of the early chains with a business model centered around catering to travelers in areas where not much else was around.

William Sylvester Stuckey Senior got his start in the 1930s selling freshly harvested pecans from the orchard on his family’s farm out of a roadside shack in Eastman, Georgia. The business would eventually grow and evolve into a restaurant, gas station, and novelty shop housed in a building with a teal blue roof. The pecan theme evolved as well. Stuckey’s wife, Ethel, would supply the store with pecan candies to supplement the plain pecans already on the shelves. After WWII, Stuckey began to franchise his business, and blue-roofed buildings began to pop up in sparsely developed spots along major highways where traffic was heavy, real estate was cheap, and competition was limited. Stuckey’s peaked at around 350 locations all over the US. Like most early businesses set up to cater to American motorists, decline come for Stuckey’s in the 1970s. Fuel shortages, economic recession, and increased competition from the national fast food chains all made it difficult for Stuckey’s to remain competitive. The brand had been acquired by Pet Inc, makers of Pet evaporated milk, in 1964, and by the ‘70s they had little interest in evolving the Stuckey’s brand. The chain had shrunk to around 75 locations when William Sylvester Stuckey Junior bought his father’s legacy back from Pet in 1985.

The history section of the Stuckey’s website proclaims the reacquisition of the brand by the Stuckey family as a triumph, and states 115 locations are currently open for business. However, a little fiddling with their difficult to use store locator yields a count of only 82 operating locations. My internet friend, Mike, who runs Houston Historic Retail, was nice enough to research some of those locations and found that there’s a high degree of variation between them. While some locations are traditional old-style Stuckey’s with teal blue roofs and inventories stocked with pecan candy and cheap novelties, while others are little more than modern convenience stores and travel centers that stock Stuckey’s merchandise. Many of those seem to have no visible outside signage to reflect their affiliation with the Stuckey’s brand. A truck stop with a shelf or two of pecan log rolls can hardly be considered a real Stuckey’s. I therefore suspect that the actual count of Stuckey’s locations recognizable to the average passerby is well below their supposed 1980s-era rock bottom of 75 stores.

These days, roadsides are littered with abandoned and repurposed Stuckey’s buildings. I pass two of them (plus an empty Nickerson Farms) along I-94 in Michigan when I drive to the last operating Hot ‘n Now. With the Stuckey's brand's best days decades behind it, I decided to seek out an operating Stuckey’s location that best exemplified the heyday of the brand. My search landed me in Johnston City, Illinois, home of a long defunct Stuckey's that was restored and reopened in 2017. It seems to be marketed as something of a flagship location for the brand. It had long been on my list to visit, but my recent Festiva trip across Indiana and Illinois finally afforded me the opportunity to visit.

Even without the sign or blue roof, it's clear that this is a Stuckey's.

My initial impression upon pulling my ridiculous car in under the gas canopy was positive. All the signage appeared modern, but sported the classic Stuckey’s logo, which was even present on the individual gas pumps. The building looked to have been nicely restored, and though it lacked the signature blue roof, its distinctive roofline with varying slopes was classic Stuckey’s architecture. The interior was spotless and well lit, and I was delighted to see not only a plethora of pecan products lining the shelves, but also the cheapest, cheesiest tourist trinkets imaginable. After a visit to the impeccably clean restroom, I went shopping. 

It's the most fun gas stop I've had in recent memory. 

I started with a couple of Stuckey’s logo T-shirts, then a blue, black, and white striped falsa blanket, another of Stuckey’s better known offerings. I also picked up a couple bags of whole pecans for the next time I feel like baking a pecan pie. I also bought a large Stuckey’s pecan log roll, because it’s tough not to buy one when you’re at a Stuckey’s. I ate it for lunch the next day, and found it to be tooth-meltingly sweet, but very filling. All told, including half a tank of gas, I spent a little over $60 at Stuckey’s, but I was and still am excited about everything I bought. The one item I was anticipating the most was a pecan milkshake, though. 

Tchotchkes as far as the eye can see. 

Stuckey’s has experimented with offering fast food off and on over the years, sometimes using their own branding, sometimes integrating an existing fast food concept, often Dairy Queen, into their stores. There’s not a clear legacy of memorable fast food menu items, other than the pecan shake. While the Johnston City Stuckey’s doesn’t offer much in the way of fast food, I was happy to see shakes advertised across the front of the building at this location, but when I asked what flavors they had, I was met with a reply of “Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.” I settled for a nondescript strawberry shake which came in a “Caribbean Creme Smoothie” cup. It was the one letdown of my visit to Stuckey’s. 

♬Caribbean Creme
Is not what's in this drink
Now my hopes are all but gone
Of milkshakes with pecan♬
Maybe it’s concerns over loose pecan dust in the air aggravating patrons’ nut allergies, or the limited appeal of a pecan flavored shake, but it’s something I’d love to see at the flagship Stuckey’s location, preferably in a Stuckey’s-branded cup rather than a mislabeled one advertising some manner of Billy Ocean-inspired smoothie. Is anyone with a severe nut allergy setting foot in a Stuckey’s anyway?

My Stuckey's purchases, minus the pecan log roll, which I ate, and one tshirt, which I gave to Esmeralda Fitzmonster.

Aside from the lack of a pecan shake, I have nothing but good things to say about the Johnson City Stuckey's. It's a step in the right direction for the chain. I'd love to see more locations like this one, operating out of refurbished original structures following the original Stuckey's business model. I could see them doing well with billboard advertising along routes to major tourist attractions. The only notes I'd offer would be to keep the roofs blue and keep pecan shakes on the menu.