Saturday, June 16, 2018

A Nickel Saved is a Dime Earned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 8, 2018

Ghosts of Taco Tico Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Cops, Bees, and Banjos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original sign plaques were present here and there. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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