Monday, December 10, 2018

The Big Money




While most present-day broken chains tend to operate similarly, occupying some space of the broken chain spectrum ranging from decline under ownership of an inept corporate parent to a state of being completely defunct, the overarching story of how each chain got to its current state tends to be much the same, regardless of which chain I write about. It’s usually some combination of a series of changing market trends and poor business decisions that causes a chain to decline sufficiently to be worthy of my attention. Where the stories differ is in the founding of each chain.

For every business that is the result of long hours of labor by an individual, or a small group of partners, there’s another that’s the creation of a faceless corporate overlord, filtered through marketing departments and focus groups before opening its doors to the public. Despite efforts to the contrary, these brands created by committee can fail just as spectacularly as their grassroots counterparts. Some were so ill-conceived that they barely existed at all. That’s the case with Spageddie’s, a little chain created by a big company.

It was the early ‘90s, and Brinker International, parent company of Chili’s and a litany of other restaurant chains off and on over the years, was looking to expand its portfolio of Italian restaurant concepts to compete with General Mills’ Olive Garden. Brinker had recently acquired Romano’s Macaroni Grill and was interested in creating a downmarket companion Italian chain to compete in more segments of the market. Spageddie’s was their effort to fill this gap. A test location opened in Plano, Texas in 1992. From there, Spageddie’s grew to around 20 corporate and franchised locations stretching from Florida to Michigan, each boasting a menu developed, in part, by Brinker executive chef Johnny Carino, who would eventually go on to leave Brinker to start his own restaurant chain. Poor sales led Brinker to sell off Spageddie’s in 1997. Quality Dining Incorporated, a Chili’s franchisee, and perhaps the only Spageddie’s franchisee was the buyer.



Following the ownership change, Spageddie’s locations slowly closed over the next two decades eventually, leaving just one location open in Lafayette, Indiana. On my way out of town the day after eating two meals at nearby Dog ‘n Suds locations, I stopped by for lunch to see what the world’s last Spageddie’s had to offer. I was taken by surprise when I saw the building’s facade didn’t match what I had found on Google. It seems the quintessentially ‘90s structure had undergone a renovation since the photo was taken. The building had been toned down considerably compared to its initial appearance and foreshadowed an utterly generic experience.


It was just after opening, 11:00 on a Sunday, and I was quickly shown to a table. Every trope of Italian restaurant decor surrounded me. Plastic grapes spilled out of a wooden wine press, while giant wooden circles on the wall symbolized casks of Italian wine in the next room, though the only thing present on the other side of the wall is the parking lot of the Quality Dining-owned Chili’s next door. Italianate bottles of mystery liquid adorn nearly every flat surface in the place. The walls were painted to resemble Tuscan Marble, but whole setup felt about as Italian as the Super Mario Brothers, and as generic as Pong. 

What can this strange device be? When I touch it, the manager tells me to knock it off. 
The view from my table. 

My server arrived and presented me with a complimentary appetizer, a loaf of bread which came with a plate of toasted garlic and olive oil. She also presented me with a menu that had no writing on the front cover. Inside the names of the menu items made repeated references to “Papa.” As I suspected, the last operating Spageddie’s seems to have an identical menu to Papa Vino’s, Quality Dining’s other Italian concept, which has two locations of its own in operation nearby. After thoroughly inspecting the menu, I ordered chicken Parmesan, my go-to Italian restaurant order, and was a little surprised when the server failed to ask any follow up questions about my preferred salad and dressing. Unlike every Italian restaurant ever, a salad doesn’t come with your entree at Spageddie’s. This is one of the few attributes that made Spageddie’s feel unique. It’s a shame it wasn’t a positive one. 

No-name menu


Yes, I kept the paper wrapper. It'll get framed and hung on my wall eventually.

When my order arrived, I noted it’s generous portion with three large chicken cutlets on a bed of pasta. I would have rather had a smaller entree and a salad, but near as I could tell, that wasn’t an option. The execution of the food was competent, but unremarkable beyond its size. I managed to eat about half of it before I threw in the proverbial towel. 

So much dense food. 

 
An otherwise underwhelming experienced was brightened by the bathroom wall which was adorned with larger than life, photo-realistic pizza wallpaper. I found myself wishing that the distinctive toilet pizza aesthetic extended to the whole bland establishment. Sadly, I can’t see this uninspired iteration of Spageddie’s ever escaping small town Indiana obscurity. There’s still a glimmer of hope for the Spageddie’s brand, though. 

What was left after I ate all I could manage
How I wish the look of rest of the place matched the bathroom. 

Brinker sold only the domestic rights to the Spageddie’s name, meaning that outside of the United States, Brinker can open as many Spageddie’s locations as they like. I propose they relaunch the brand in Canada, reaching into their deep pockets to throw the requisite number of loonies and twonies at Rush frontman Geddy Lee for him to agree to be the spokesperson for the chain, which will, of course, be rebranded as SpaGeddy’s.

I'd buy Italian food from this man, and you should too. 
A Geddy Lee spokesmanship makes sense beyond the obvious name association. Lee has a distinctive look that lends itself well to marketing materials, and is well-liked by the public in his role as Canada’s preeminent rock and roll grandpa. He’s also a wine enthusiast, and could assist with the curation of a Geddy Lee-branded wine list that would be sure to increase SpaGeddy’s wine sales and bottom line. Restaurant decor could forego the standard Italian Restaurant trappings and adopt a sci-fi prog rock aesthetic to match their spokesman’s image. What could be more fun than chowing down on a plate of SpaGeddy and meatballs with Red Barchetta sauce in a dining room with its own laser light show projecting visuals to match 2112 or La Villa Strangiato being played simultaneously? Assuming proper execution, the restaurant would have massive appeal to Rush fans, which is to say, all Canadians. Perhaps the slight change in name would allow for expansion back into America without infringing on Quality Dining’s rights to Spageddie’s in the U.S, but SpaGeddy’s should follow Rush’s path to success, honing it’s act for a crowd of friendly Canadians before attempting to generate widespread appeal in America and the rest of the world.

With a little imagination, and infinite resources, Spageddie’s in SpaGeddy’s guise could offer a unique and memorable experience to its patrons. It’s a shame we live in a world of finite resources with a Geddy Lee who chooses free will, and therefore has the ability to turn down a generous offer to lend his name to a restaurant chain.



Special thanks to Mike from Houston Historic Retail for researching Spageddie’s and tipping me off to their existence.

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Also, I recently wrote an article for Tedium about my experiences visiting broken chains. You can check it out here.


Monday, December 3, 2018

Raxgiving



In America, fourth Friday in November is the unofficial beginning of the holiday shopping season. At big box stores and malls all over this land, folks line up outside the night before, sometimes setting up lawn chairs and tents, hoping to be early enough in the door in the morning to be one of the lucky few to get the pre-bait and switch “doorbuster” price on the season’s hottest new rooty-toot-toot or rummy-tum-tum. The event is an easy target for criticism by columnists, bloggers, and anyone seeking likes and shares on the socials, but the people that bemoan the frenzy of consumerism that marks the day after Thanksgiving seldom offer any alternatives to make the day pleasurable and memorable.

The consumer observances that follow the infamous Friday in late November all seem to have been created as a response to it. Small Business Saturday reminds us to support our local independent merchants. Cyber Monday is when online retailers seek to compete with brick and mortar stores by offering deep discounts on popular merchandise, and Giving Tuesday serves as a prompt to support our favorite charities. The broken chains, not technically small businesses, since they’re part of larger brands, and still decidedly for-profit, so not charity cases either, somehow get lost in the shuffle, and are not known for offering significant discounts following the Thanksgiving holiday. I aim to remedy that, by replacing Black Friday shopping with a new holiday that I like to call Raxgiving.

Rather than standing in bitter cold and enduring numerous aggressive shoppers in a crowded, chaotic store as fluorescent lighting, Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey assault your senses immediately after you’ve been roused from three hours of sleep on a too-small twin bed in your childhood bedroom, exhausted from having cooked and eaten a literal feast, all the while barely tolerating the various Cousin Eddie types that make up your extended family, I humbly suggest an alternative. Instead of abusing your body and mind by taking part in competitive shopping immediately following Thanksgiving, take a break. Get a full night’s sleep, and make an excuse to take a few hours to yourself. Use that time to visit a nearby (or not so nearby) outlet of a struggling, near defunct, or otherwise diminished chain, and buy yourself a nice meal, an ironic T shirt, or a few cans of marked down cranberry sauce, whatever they’re selling at the place where you end up. The business will appreciate your patronage more than the crowded big box store up the street, and in turn, you’ll have a  recharging experience in an atmosphere that is likely to be quiet, relaxed, and charmingly outdated.

To understand why the day is called Raxgiving, you should probably hear the story of how I celebrated the very first Raxgiving almost two weeks ago so you can share the story with your friends and well-wishers. It goes like this:
Even in the '80s when there were 500 Rax locations, this one would have been a contender for best view. 

I awoke in the spare bedroom of my parents’ house in Central Kentucky, having spent the past two days driving down from Michigan and preparing essentially the entire Thanksgiving meal, which incidentally, included pecan pie made with Stuckey’s pecans. After two solid days of family time and generally making Thanksgiving happen, I was ready for some alone time, so Friday morning, I pointed my car toward Harlan, Kentucky, home of the one operating Rax location I had not yet visited.



The Harlan Rax had been on my list to check out for months. Along with the Joliet, Illinois Rax, it’s one of only two Rax locations that has a functioning salad bar, and is the last operating Rax in the Bluegrass State. With its view of the Appalachian mountains out the solarium, it’s also a strong contender for the most scenic Rax location.



I arrived late in the morning, and after taking the time to appreciate the largely unmodified ‘80s vintage building and signs, walked in. Like the other Rax that retains its salad bar, the Harlan location has ‘90s vintage signage and menu boards. One panel of the latter advertises a hot food bar on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for $10 including a drink. Knowing I can get a BBC sandwich or barbecue cheddar potato at any of the four Rax locations in Ohio, that do not offer salad bars, I opted instead for the unique hot food bar, which also included access to the every day salad bar.



Just as in Joliet, a nicely stocked, tidy salad bar awaited me. Rather than the taco meat I encountered in Joliet, though, this Rax offered fried fish, on its hot food bar along with homemade soups, beans and cornbread, and fried potatoes, most of which I sampled. I suspect the hot food bar menu varies day to day. I’ll have to plan a trip here on a Saturday and/or Sunday to get the full hot food bar experience. The food was unimportant compared to my surroundings however. 

First course from the Endless Salad Bar; I went for variety

Second course; This soup was made from scratch

The third course tasted better than buffet fish had a right to. 

Replace that flatscreen with a fuzzy CRT, and this picture could be from 1985. 
Of the six surviving Rax locations, this one feels the most authentic. Like the Ironton and Lancaster, Ohio locations, it’s a purpose-built 1980’s era structure with the signature long, narrow windows running down the sides of the building and the classic Rax solarium in the front, but unlike its counterparts in Ohio, this location makes use of vintage signage and has a fully functional salad bar and buffet. The Joliet Rax has a salad bar and buffet as well, but is housed in an older building which was built in the era when Rax was known as Rix, and while it’s immensely interesting building, it’s had some interior upgrades and doesn’t feel as authentically Rax. The Harlan Rax on the other hand, retains most of its original fixtures and furniture, aside from some patina here and there, it’s largely as it was three decades ago. It’s a truly amazing working museum exhibit that exemplifies the Rax “Fast food with style” motto. 

I'd guess this sign has been on the wall for at least 20 years. 

Finding the Raxiest Rax, and completing my travels to every operating Rax location is cause for celebration, hence my suggestion of the yearly observance of Raxgiving. While Raxgiving can be spent at not just Rax, but a location of any broken chain, certain traditions should be observed. I’ve laid out a few suggestions of Raxgiving traditions below:

  • Whatever broken chain you visit on Raxgiving, be sure to spend money there. Your patronage keeps the broken chains in business for others to enjoy.
Support America's favorite sandwich place so all of America may enjoy it. 

  • Immerse yourself in your surroundings and revel in the uniquely anachronistic customer experience a broken chain provides.
    A drinking fountain in a fast food place? How crazy is that? 
  • Visiting a broken chain by yourself isn’t mandatory. If you have friends or family around for Thanksgiving that you’d like to spend some additional time with, invite them along to make a memory.

    For instance, I met up with my uncle at Rax. He happens to be an alligator.
  • Remember to take the time to honor the memory of any former locations you encounter along the way.
I spotted this Arby's in Corbin, Kentucky on my return trip. If you look closely, you can tell it began life as a Rax. I paid my respects by using their bathroom and buying a chocolate shake. 


So that’s my modest proposal for the next trendy new unofficial post-Thanksgiving holiday. If you plan on celebrating next year, start planning soon. As of the time I’m posting this, there are only 361 days left until next Raxgiving.