Thursday, May 10, 2018

Riding Fences at the Ponderosa Part 1: Prologue




Whenever I plan to write about a certain brand, I ask myself, “Is this really a broken chain?” I then research the brand’s past and present location counts as well as changes in corporate structures and business models in order to determine if it’s a brand I should seek out and write about. Up until now, I’ve mostly covered chains with between zero and 25 operating locations. This is more due to happenstance than any conscious decision on my part. I don’t consider a location count under 25 as a requirement. There are plenty of thriving regional chains with fewer than 25 locations. Likewise, there are plenty of National and even international, restaurant, hotel, and retail chains with more than 25 locations that have declined to the point where I’d consider them broken chains. If I were to formulate a working definition for what I would consider a broken chain it would be something like:

A business which, at some point in its history, had multiple, similarly-functioning, physical locations where a customer could purchase goods and/or services which presently has a significantly diminished presence and/or value as a brand compared to the same brand in its heyday.

It was with this definition in mind that I chose to cover the Ponderosa-Bonanza Steakhouse chain, which according to their website, operates 64 Ponderosas and 11 Bonanzas in the Continental US, plus an additional 26 Ponderosa and Bonanza locations in Puerto Rico and 11 additional Ponderosas in the UAE, Egypt, and Taiwan. The two longtime competitors boasted around 600 locations each at their respective peaks before finding themselves under the same corporate umbrella in the late 90s. With 112 locations down from over 1200 total, Ponderosa-Bonanza is clearly a broken chain, unless you live in Puerto Rico, where there's apparently one on every corner.

Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright on the popular western TV series, Bonanza, opened the first Bonanza steakhouse in the western-in-name-only city of Westport, Connecticut in 1963. Two years later, Dan Lasater and Norm Wiese opened a western themed steakhouse of their own in Kokomo, Indiana. Perhaps attempting to cash in on the popularity of Bonanza, they named their restaurant Ponderosa, which was the name of the Cartwrights' ranch on the Bonanza TV show. By that time, Sam and Charles Wyly had bought Bonanza from Dan Blocker, and when the Wyly brothers heard of the planned Ponderosa steakhouse, they quickly trademarked the Ponderosa name. They however failed to trademark their own name, which was then in turn trademarked by Laseter and Weise. The two chains then ended up exchanging trademarks to gain the rights to their own respective names.

Ponderosa and Bonanza were strikingly similar, with names and theming inspired by the same TV show, similar menus of bargain priced, lower grade steaks, and the same cafeteria style ordering system designed to reduce overhead and keep prices low. Both brands experienced the normal ups and downs over the years due to fluctuating economies and beef prices. In 1988 Bonanza was acquired by Metromedia Group, who also owned Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale at the time. Metromedia would go on to acquire Ponderosa in 1997 and effectively merge it with Bonanza, rendering the already similar chains basically identical in all but name. Metromedia went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2008, and emerged as Homestyle Dining LLC with both the Ponderosa and Bonanza brands, in tact if diminished. Ponderosa-Bonanza was recently sold off to a new corporate parent, FAT Brands. 

Remind me to buy that '80s cactus when this place goes out of business. 

Vintage arcade machines, note the Pac Man table in the background.



Believe it or not, this is a NEW menu board.

I don’t have many memories of Ponderosa/Bonanza growing up. (We were a Western Sizzlin’ family.) It had been at least a decade since I had eaten at one when I learned that the Dearborn Heights, Michigan Ponderosa, itself a former Bonanza, was the last operating location in Metro Detroit. Upon learning that, I began eating lunch there occasionally. The building itself has seen better days. Decor is dated and sparse. Exposed wiring powers hastily-installed accent lighting and menu board lights. Most of the tiles in the drop ceiling are water stained. Entree prices have crept up to Outback/Longhorn level pricing, yet patrons still order at the counter upon walking in as they did 50+ years ago. Still, the place is clean and the staff is friendly, so I keep coming back.

When I eat at the Dearborn Heights Ponderosa, I get the lunch buffet. It’s ten bucks and change for all you can eat, a couple bucks more if you’re drinking something other than water. There’s a passable salad bar, a medium sized selection of hot foods, plus a dessert bar. The food is on par with most other buffets you’re likely to encounter, but there isn’t much variety. I think if a Golden Corral were to open across the street this Ponderosa would be out of business within a week. Still, the buffet and appeal of the retro brand is decent enough to keep me coming back. The old arcade machines don't hurt either. This location, and the fact that Ponderosa/Bonanza was recently acquired by FAT Brands (owners of the international Fatburger chain) got me curious as to the state of the whole Ponderosa-Bonanza chain. This curiosity and a lack of anything better to do prompted me to road trip to eat at a few different Ponderosas to get a feel for the state of the entire chain and see just how much work FAT Brands has ahead of them. My next entry or two will be all about Ponderosa.

Sorry Bonanza fans. I won’t make it to any Bonanza locations this trip, but Bonanza is on my list of places to visit in the future.

4 comments:

  1. Your dad loved the Ponderosa (or was it Bonanza) on Southland Drive when we were dating married in the early 80s. Chopped steak dinner and salad bar for under $5, but he would sometimes splurge on the strip steak.

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    1. With his affinity for Ponderosa, Western Sizzlin, York, and Texas Roadhouse, my father is definitely a bona fide connoisseur of bargain beef.

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  2. Found your blog from a link on Lifehacker, very interesting. My first job was as a busboy at the Cranston, RI Ponderosa. At the time, it was a great job and the place was always packed. I drive by the location occasionaly, its a tire storw now.

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  3. I remember there was a Ponderosa in my town when growing up and I believe it was my choice for birthday meals. It has all the foods a kid would like. Thinking back, I also remember when half of the restaurant allowed smoking but you'd still smell it from the non-smoking side. Now I can't imagine a restaurant that allows smoking; now even a lot of the bars that used to allow it are restricting it.

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