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, barnbuster.net, 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.


Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Other Red Meat






Ever notice that the mainstream fast food outlets occasionally introduce their own versions of menu items from their less successful competitors as limited time offerings? A couple years ago, Taco Bell introduced a “Taco Burrito,” basically a burrito-sized tortilla stuffed with taco fixins and no beans. It was suspiciously similar to the Sancho at Taco Tico. Hardee’s, whose parent company owns the rights to the long-defunct Burger Chef name periodically offers its own version of the Big Shef in certain markets, presumably to prevent anyone else from snatching up the Burger Chef name claiming it’s been abandoned. Recently, Arby’s has begun offering the Bacon Beef and Cheddar. While it is basically their normal Beef and Cheddar with their pepper bacon strips added, it’s also strikingly similar to the BBC (Beef Bacon Cheese), a longtime menu offering at Arby’s imitator and onetime national competitor, Rax.

I’ve been working on a piece on Rax off and on for months. Since April, I’ve been tweaking, but never publishing a post about them that playfully avoids mentioning Arby’s by name, but couldn’t help feeling like something was missing. I simply couldn’t see the appeal of Rax in its current state.

The first paragraph of the History section on the Wikipedia page for Rax Roast Beef is a baffling labyrinth of name changes and corporate acquisitions. Originating as Jax, Jack Roschman opened the first location opened in Springfield, Ohio in 1967, (three years after Arby’s opened their first location in Boardman, in the opposite corner of the Buckeye State.) Various corporate parents would change the name of the restaurant from Jax to Rix before landing on Rax in the early 1980s. Rax peaked in the 80s with over 500 locations in the US and Canada. It was during this period that Rax attempted to move upmarket and expand their offerings to include a salad bar and hot buffet items. The concept failed to catch on with Rax customers and started the slow decline of the chain.


Ironton, Ohio, a purpose-built Rax

Circleville, Ohio, a converted Wendy's
Fans of the Pittsburgh Dad YouTube series will recognize the Lancaster, Ohio Rax. Go Stillers!

The Rax website shows eight locations on their map, however two of those appear based on Google Maps information to be Long John Silver’s that also serve Rax items. (Long John Silver’s is quickly approaching broken chain status itself.) Another Rax has been “coming soon” for at least several months. By my count, that means there are five freestanding Rax locations open for business today, just 1% of the restaurants that were open in the chain’s heyday. In the past two days I’ve been to two of those locations. I’ve been to four of them total in the past 12 months. Most of the remaining Rax locations are in Ohio, and the three Ohio Rax I’ve visited all seem to operate similarly. There’s a limited menu of sandwiches, fries, baked potatoes and not much else at the Ohio Rax locations. Menu boards are modern, but cheaply made. They appear to be printed on foam poster boards that are simply placed over the old backlit menu boards. Though the Ironton location still has a buffet table in the dining area, it was empty when I was there, and looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time. The Circleville and Lancaster locations have no remaining signs of the salad bar ever existing.

Meh.

Meh on an old Wendy's table

I’ve never had what I would characterize as a good meal at an Ohio Rax. The stripped down menu is full of food that screams “Bootleg Arby’s” and it always came out tasting not terribly fresh and lukewarm. The buildings, (purpose-built Rax structures in Ironton and Lancaster, and a converted Wendy’s in Circleville) while generally clean had definitely seen better days, though the vintage architecture is charming. Each Ohio location was virtually empty on each of my visits, though I was usually there during mealtimes, leading me to believe the locals didn’t see any more appeal there than I did. The Rax experience, in general, felt generic and fell short of justifying the brand's continued, limited existence. My utter indifference to the Ohio Rax locations caused me to have a three month case of writers’ block, at least when it came to the subject of Rax.

Though the salad bar played a part in their ultimate downfall, I couldn’t help feeling like without visiting a location with a functional salad bar, a writeup on Rax would be incomplete. In the chain’s heyday, the Endless Salad Bar is what set Rax apart from its competitors. Wendy’s even borrowed the concept for their Superbar. A little research revealed that the only Rax locations with operational salad bars were also the only two operating restaurants outside of Ohio (Joliet, IL and Harlan, KY). I discovered this as I was planning a trip to a couple of places in southeast Wisconsin, so Joliet, being sort of on the way, won out over Harlan.

You had me at Endless Salad Bar

The Joliet locaiton is the oldest operating Rax. The building dates back to the Rix era. 

Having eaten at the mediocre Lancaster, Ohio Rax the day previous, I pulled into the Joliet, Illinois Rax for an early lunch. I was pleased to see a beautifully stocked salad bar at the front of the dining area, near the signature solarium. I ordered up a barbecue and cheese potato, a beverage, salad bar access, and a free roast beef sandwich because I had joined the astoundingly, still functional Rax text club the day previous. It turned out to be a lot of food, but not more than I could handle. I had previously discovered the Rax barbecue beef sandwich was a reasonable stand in for the hard to find Arby’s Arby-Q, and the same sauce-laden meat worked well as a potato topping. The salad bar was the main event here however. The typical salad ingredients were present as were a selection of fruits and desserts including strawberry shortcake and three kinds of pudding. The cup of cream of broccoli soup that came with my order tastes homemade. The broccoli is still slightly crisp. It clearly isn’t from a can. To my delight, everything needed to make fast food tacos was also present. The Rax taco meat had a taste and texture profile that was very similar to Taco Tico’s, and it’s a full two hours nearer to my front door than the nearest Taco Tico. On top of everything else, my roast beef sandwich was easily the best I’d ever had at a Rax. It was the perfect temperature and had more meat than any sandwich I’d had at an Ohio Rax. 

There's a potato under there somewhere. 
You can join too!

Endless.

Salad.

Bar.

My (second) favorite mystery meat.

Rax sky at night, I mean, it's alright...


...Rax sky in the morning, Arby's fans take warning.




This...
...is better than this, though it's nice to see Uncle Alligator is still around. 

This location is easily the oldest Rax in operation. With its faux green slate Pizza Hut-like roof, I suspect the building dates back to Jax/Rix days. It seems to boast a nice blend of new and old. The menu board here is the original backlit unit, and though it shows its age a bit, I drastically prefer it to the cheap new menu boards in Ohio. The tables and chairs are reproduction midcentury pieces with a glitter finish on the vinyl chairs and a boomerang pattern on the tabletops, clearly not original, but thematically appropriate. Unilke newer Rax buildings, the solarium here has no shades covering the ceiling, so I’m able to eat my meal with a sky view. The employees are even wearing what seem to be vintage uniforms with the Rax logo on their shirts and visors. This is Rax the way it used to be. This is the working fast food museum I was looking for, but couldn’t find in Ohio. If you’re looking for a Broken Chains experience in the state that’s high in the middle and round on both ends, stop by Arthur Treacher’s, Clancy's, Kewpee, York Steak House, or the soon to open Columbus G.D. Ritzy’s. Wait until you’re west of Chicago (Or maybe in Eastern Kentucky, I still need to check out the Harlan Rax.) to try Rax. That’s where they truly do fast food with style.