Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Googleproof

There are multiple motivating factors that keep me on the road in pursuit of broken chains, but one of the big ones is chasing down my vague childhood memories. Whether I’m going to Jerry’s, Omelet Shoppe, G.D. Ritzy’s, or Darryl’s, I’m attempting to experience something that interested me decades ago that I didn’t get a chance to fully explore at the time. Up until now, the earliest and vaguest of those early vague memories has eluded me.

The fast food row of my early childhood in late 1980s Central Kentucky consisted of an Imasco-era Hardee’s, an Arby’s in a former Burger Queen/Druther’s, and a Fazoli’s in a heavily modified former KFC. All of these structures still stand today, (though the Fazoli’s is now a Dairy Queen) but another fast food joint in the area was leveled and forgotten decades ago.

I didn’t even remember the name of the place, but I remembered the building. It seemed impossibly tall and impossibly narrow to my preschool-aged eyes, with its bright mansard roof topped with a four-sided sign whose letters meant little to me at a time in my development that I was just beginning ponder the concept of written language. I was probably attracted to the bright colors and ornate trim. It was also the first fast food place with no inside dining area that I remember being aware of. My family and I never ate there when it was open, and it had been closed and demolished for a solid decade by the time I was old enough to drive.

With no restaurant name to Google, and with friends and family from the area unable to recall what the place was called, I had all but given up on researching the place more to see if there were any of them left open anywhere. That is, at least until I was browsing roadarch.com and found their entry for a chain called Central Park. Upon seeing the pictures of the double drive thru buildings with a tiny footprint, standing a good three and a half stories tall including the four sided sign on the roofs, I was 90% sure I had found more examples of that near forgotten building of my late toddlerhood. (I chalk up the 10% uncertainty to the fact that this is one of my earliest fast food memories.) Furthermore, I was ecstatic to learn of a handful of locations still open, mostly in East Tennessee.

Double drive thru in action. 
In fact, the first Central Park opened in Chattanooga in 1982, an early entrant in the then-crowded field of second-wave, no-frills fast food chains that sought to forego the salad bar and playground-laden excess that fast food had become, and take it back to its stripped-down roots, with limited menus, no inside seating, and dirt cheap prices. Checkers/Rally’s is a still thriving chain born of this boom. The all but defunct Hot ‘n Now is a relic of the same era, as are other defunct or near defunct chains like Snapp’s and Zipp’s. Even my beloved G.D. Ritzy’s tried to get in on the action with their short-lived Daddy-O’s concept. Most of these chains employed a double drive thru ordering system with two separate ordering lanes and windows as a way to maximize efficiency.

At their peak, Central Park had around 60 locations, mostly in the south, plus a few in Utah thanks to a lone franchisee in Salt Lake City. Like many other regional double drive thru chains, Central Park declined in the ‘90s, and locations, including the one I grew up near, gradually closed. Their name makes them difficult to Google, but constantly adjusting search terms and dragging the map away from Manhattan shows five Central Park locations open today, three of which are in their original 1980s-era buildings, another in an larger, presumably newer building, and a fifth operating out of a former Hardee's complete with inside seating. On a recent run to Tennessee, I stopped by a couple of the locations operating in their original structures.

My first stop was at Knoxville’s only surviving Central Park location, tucked on a tiny lot just off I-640. It was lunchtime, and the place was doing a brisk business. Upon my arrival, I noted there was no customer parking in the lot. As with many double drive thru chains of this era, you're expected to get your food and leave. The setup made taking pictures tricky, as I couldn't exit my car, but the drive thru lane that went all the way around the back of the building was helpful. When it was my turn at the order speaker, I asked for what seems to be the chain's signature burger, the Big Bubba, along with fries, and a sweet tea, as is my preference when checking out southern chains. I made the unusually short drive from the speaker to the window, paid, and received my order which I drove down the street to a gas station parking lot to examine and enjoy. 

I would totally hang a giant burger and fries in a conspicuous spot in my house.
 I can't help but think that the Big Bubba was inspired by the Rally's, and later Checkers Big Buford, or perhaps it was the other way around since Central Park predates both Rally's and Checkers. Like the Big Buford, the Big Bubba had two quarter pound patties, a couple slices of cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and the regular condiments. As with the Big Buford, the Big Bubba is also completely forgettable. It's not an especially good burger, but it's also not especially bad. It's free of any unusual or unique toppings or flavors. It reminds me of a burger I could make at home, especially since I'm fairly sure that the beef patties were the type that you can buy in boxes of 50 at Sam's Club or Costco. Again, like Checkers/Rally's the fries were straight, but seasoned, though the seasoning wasn't as strong. They were closer to Arby's fries than Checkers/Rally's in flavor. Regardless of its shortcomings, the food was fresh and hot, and met the basic requirements I expected of a fast food meal. I was disappointed that it all came in generic packaging, as signage on the building showed branded drink and fry containers. I had hoped to take a branded cup or fry box home to add to my collection. Likewise, the price was a bit of a shocker, north of $10 for a large combo. For that much, I'd expect a place to sit and eat on site with a roof over my head, but they have to do what's necessary to survive, and the pricing hasn't scared off the locals.


The Big Bubba comes wrapped in plain foil. 


A generic Styrofoam cup of what I suspect are straightened curly fries
 Later that day, I stopped by a second Central Park in Cleveland, Tennesee, and found it to be less busy, though it was mid-afternoon by the time I got there. This location, while housed in the signature tall structure, had some differences. There were no intercoms. Instead you ordered, paid, and received your food all from the same window. This location also offered shakes, which weren't present in Knoxville. Having grazed all day, I wasn't terribly hungry, so I ordered only a chili dog and a Diet Coke. This time around, there was parking nearby, so I headed that way to enjoy my order. As before, the chili dog was well prepared, tasting hot and fresh, topped with mustard and onions. Maybe I've become too used to the Detroit style Coney dogs of my adopted home, but I found Central Park's chili to have an odd aftertaste that lingered an hour after eating, as if a bit too much of some seasoning had been added to the chili. Still, I take that as an indication the chili sauce was at least made from scratch, though it's tough for me to have strong feelings about it one way or another.


Cleveland rocks. 

Acceptable, but unremarkable chili dog


I spent that night in Chattanooga, Central Park's birthplace and home to two of the surviving locations. I attempted to have a third Central Park meal while in town, but found the location nearest my Airbnb closed at 7 PM despite Google indicating they were open until 9, forcing me to conclude that the Central Park brand is Googleproof, or at least Google-resistant.


 While I can't confirm it's the case, I don't see any evidence of corporate support for the remaining Central Park franchisees. Signage is weathered and dated, branded packaging is nonexistent, and there's no official website for the brand that I can find, though searching for Central Park invariably lands me in the famous greenspace in New York City far from the odd tall-small burger joints in Tennessee and Georgia. On the one hand, the lack of brand evolution is charming given that some of the surviving locations are dead ringers for the long gone Central Park that I vaguely recall from 30 years ago, but in an age where even the major fast food players are offering five and six dollar deals, a no frills chain like Central Park could thrive by undercutting them the way Checkers/Rally's does. While I didn't find the food at Central Park to be anything special in terms of uniqueness or price, it was at least decently prepared. The main attraction was always finally finding operating locations of what is perhaps my earliest memory of a broken chain a solid three decades after my first Central Park encounter, scratching an itch that I'd had for far too long. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Zantigo Returns



A year or so ago, I was back home visiting my parents in Kentucky. My father and I were in the car after having lunch at Lexingon's only surviving Taco Tico, as we often do when I come to town. He was reminiscing about how he came to love Mexican-inspired fast food, and recounted an early date he went on with my mother in the late '70s to dine at Lexington’s sole Zantigo, location, which was still open in the early days of the very Taco Tico where we had just eaten. As we passed the former site of the Lexington Zantigo, just a couple miles east of the Taco Tico we were returning from, he pointed out the building to me.

This was once the Lexington, Kentucky Zantigo


It was a distinctive looking building with floor to ceiling arched windows adorning the front facade along with a prominent buttress. The roof was also odd, with a flat-topped center portion extending skyward atop a more conventional hip roof. The building was sitting disused when I managed to stop by to take a picture of it a while later, most recently functioning as a Chinese, or perhaps barbecue restaurant, (There were remnants of signage for both.) but it had begun life as a Zantigo, and in its heyday, it served as a venue to my parents’ budding romance.

At some point after my father struck out with my mother’s cousin Agnes following their first and only date at Darryl’s, he began seeing my mother. They opted to give the nearby Taco Tico a pass to have dinner at Zantigo instead, and my mother, having eaten her fill, stuffed a couple leftover tacos in her purse to enjoy later, only to forget about them, and find them still in her purse a few days later. The narrative serves to illustrate not only my mother’s forgetfulness and lax attitude toward food safety, both of which persist to this day, but also my father’s cheapness, bringing a date to a fast food taco joint, perhaps learning his lesson after an expensive first date at Darryl’s.

Given my pre-existing interest in near-forgotten restaurant chains, and perhaps a feeling that I might not exist had my parents not eaten at that exact Zantigo, I became obsessed with the Zantigo brand after hearing this story. Predictably, I found myself spotting other former Zantigo locations in my travels. With their unique architecture, they’re certainly easy to spot, not unlike former G.D. Ritzy’s buildings. Naturally, I read up on their convoluted history as well.

This payday loan place in Columbus, Ohio isn't fooling anybody. 


Neither is this Wendy's in Belleville, Michigan.


Marno McDermott, not to be confused with Dermott Mulroney or Dylan McDermott opened the first Zapata restaurant in Minneapolis in 1969. His operation was purchased by Hueublein, then parent company of KFC, in 1974. Hublein changed the name of Zapata’s restaurants to Zantigo, and changed the name of Zapata’s grocery products to Ortega, a brand which still exists today. Heublein was acquired by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in 1982, which merged with Nabisco in 1985, after which the restaurant division, including KFC and Zantigo were sold off to PepsiCo, who already owned Taco Bell. As a result, the 80 or so remaining Zantigos were either closed or converted to Taco Bells by 1988. Meanwhile, Marno McDermott had moved on to his next venture, again selling a Midwestern version of Mexican food, co-founding Chi Chi's in 1975, after which, he co-starred in My Best Friend's Wedding with Julia Roberts. Or maybe that was Dylan McDermott? Regardless, the Zantigo brand was effectively defunct for the next decade, until a former Zantigo manager bought the rights to the name, and revived the chain with the original menu, plus some additions. 


Classic Zantigo building, modernized for the modern Zantigo customer

The dining room is on the small side, but the large windows and high ceilings make it feel spacious. 

Modern electronic menu board


Ever since learning this, I had been trying to find an excuse to drive out to Minnesota, as all four locations are in and around the Twin Cities. Two are in nondescript strip mall locations, another is in a former Pizza hut, but the fourth is in an original 1970s-era Zantigo building, that housed a Taco Bell in the dark Zantigo-less years of the '80s and '90s. Not unlike the restored Stuckey's I visited last summer, I couldn't resist the allure of a resurrected Zantigo building, so I hopped in the car, and drove the 700 miles to St. Paul at the first opportunity I got. I arrived to find a vintage building that someone has obviously poured a lot of money into. The interior and exterior appointments felt modern, but with a decidedly vintage feel, as if the building had always been a Zantigo that slowly evolved into having modern decor, as if it's from an alternate reality where the Zantigo brand had never disappeared. Menu boards were on flatscreen monitors, and everything felt shiny and new. The building was even in the process of getting a new roof during my visit. 



I was making the most of my time in the Gopher State, and I had a full day of eating planned. I had to pace myself, and this was my first meal of the day. My plan was to order judiciously, purchasing just a few items that best exemplified the Zantigo experience. I went with the classic Mild Chilito, a Taco Deluxe, and Cheese and Chips, the latter being at the recommendation of my father. A couple weeks prior, I'd also ordered and eaten a Chili Cheese Burrito at a Toledo, Ohio Taco Bell so I could compare and contrast it with the Zantigo Chilito, as the Chili Cheese Burrito at Taco Bell is based on the Chilito, and seems to be the only Zantigo-related item you can sometimes still find on the menu at certain Taco Bells operating in former Zantigo territory. This phenomenon, and the website that helps fans locate Taco Bell locations that sell the Chili Cheese Burrito have been discussed in-depth over at Tedium

The Taco Deluxe is a decent enough menu item. I'd order two or three of them on my next Zantigo run. 

The chips and cheese lived up to my father's hype, though they were simple and easily replicable, consisting only of grated cheddar jack cheese melted in the microwave over a bed of tortilla chips with a side of pickled jalapeƱos. I enjoyed them much more than any fast food nachos I've had in recent memory. Real cheese instead of fake liquid nacho cheese made all the difference. Likewise, the Taco Deluxe, a taco in a crispy corn tortilla wrapped in a soft flour tortilla adhered with a layer of refried beans was also a pleasurable experience. The meat had a mild flavor that blended nicely with the other flavors at play. With its refried beans and guacamole, it reminded me a bit of a hand-held seven layer dip. The only let-down was the much anticipated Mild Chilito, which wasn't as good as the Taco Bell burrito. The Chili Cheese Burrito I'd had in Toledo was the same size as a Taco Bell bean burrito, but filled with chili and melted cheddar instead of beans. All that chili made for a hearty and delicious, if slightly messy, meal. The Chilito from Zantigo on the other hand was a tortilla with a light sprinkling of cheese and a token smear of chili folded flat, and rolled up, more of an untoasted quesadilla than a burrito. As a result, I tasted the tortilla as much as, or more than I tasted the filling. I wasn't a fan. While much easier to eat, the Chilito comes off as bland, and skimpily topped compared to the Chili Cheese Burrito. You heard it here first. Not unlike Lance Ito, or Samuel Alito, I judge the Toledo burrito to be superior to the Zantigo Chilito.

Pleasantly plump Chili Cheese Burrito at Taco Bell

Sad, deflated Chilito at Zantigo. 

Regardless of the slight disappointment I felt when experiencing my first Chilito, I'm always excited when an extinct chain makes a comeback, and Zantigo is no exception. I'd love to see them expand into more of their old buildings, and I'll probably always plan on stopping by Zantigo any time I happen to be in their territory, since they have special significance to me. After all, if a butterfly flapping its wings can change the course of history, then it's entirely possible that I wouldn't have been born if my parents had eaten at Taco Tico instead of Zantigo.




Friday, January 4, 2019

Texas de Illinois


This empty parking lot ain't big enough for the both of us. 


If there’s a list of the most popular steakhouse themes floating around somewhere, “Texas” is probably quite near the top. Whether you’re enjoying a meal at a Longhorn or a Texas Roadhouse, your surroundings were designed to evoke the beefy aura of the Lonestar State. The ubiquity of allegedly Texan steakhouses served as an unintentional camouflage for the near disappearance of one of their own, Lone Star Steakhouse.

It has only just occurred to me that the odd roofline of the building is meant to resemble the Alamo. 
The first Lone Star opened in 1989 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The chain peaked with around 265 locations in the late 1990s, and was bought out in 2006 by Lone Star Funds, a coincidentally-named, Dallas-based private equity firm. The twin specters of private equity ownership and the 2008 recession were predictably not kind to Lone Star Steakhouse, as the chain has been hemorrhaging locations for the past decade. Today, there are three surviving Lone Star locations in the continental US, plus one in Guam.

I was aware of none of this until recently, and generally regarded Lone Star as relatively healthy chain that was of little interest to me, not unlike the similarly branded Texas Roadhouse. I knew they were separate chains, but the two were very much in the same bucket in my mind. It took a tip from a reader (Thanks Matt!) to alert me to Lone Star’s endangered status. Coincidentally I was days away from a trip that would route me through the Chicago suburbs when I learned of Lone Star’s decline. I had planned to stop at the Joliet Rax for lunch, but cancelled those plans when I learned one of the four operating Lone Star locations was half an hour east of Joliet in Crestwood, Illinois.

I had to kill a few minutes when I arrived at the Crestwood Lone Star, an outparcel at the edge of a large shopping center. I had failed to account for the time zone change I encountered while driving in from Michigan, and I arrived a good 15 minutes before the restaurant’s 11 AM opening time. As I sat in the parking lot, deserted save for a few employee vehicles, I noticed the lot of Portillo’s next door was nearly half full. Soon, it was 11:00, and I entered the Line Star as their first customer of the day.

It's pretty Texasy in here.

The hostess quickly seated me in a booth, and said she was about to turn on the many televisions around the dining room. I told her she didn’t need to on my account, but the many flatscreens were soon showing daytime talk shows, regardless, albeit with the sound mercifully muted. Every bit of theming on the walls was somehow connected to Texas. The vibe of the place felt like it was a couple propane tanks shy of a fever dream you'd have while passed out on NyQuil in front of a TV playing a King of the Hill marathon. I reviewed the menu, and concluded that I did not want a steak. For one thing, it was lunchtime, and I would have felt weird eating a steak for lunch. Also, there was a $3 per side dish upcharge if you wanted side dishes with your steak other than mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables which enraged my inner baked-potato-and-Caesar-salad-loving cheapskate. I also reasoned that steak is difficult to screw up, and I’d get a better idea of the quality of the food if I ordered something a bit more complex. 

When the hostess returned, now acting as a waitress, I ordered a steak sandwich, topped with peppers, onions, and cheese. While admittedly very steaky, the sandwich at least afforded me the opportunity to evaluate the kitchen staff's ability to prepare and assemble the constituent ingredients of a steak sandwich, rather than a steak alone. It came with fries, and I added a side salad. Somehow, this order also came with a basket of hot yeasty rolls, which tasted great, but decidedly Ponderosa-ish, with honey butter. Overall, the food was acceptable, but unremarkable. As I was finishing up, more than half an hour after I walked in, the second customers of the day were seated. Around the same time, I received my bill, and was astounded to see that my sandwich, fries, salad, and iced tea were going to cost me $21 before tipping my attentive, but not terribly busy waitress. 

Does the word, "Yeasty" Make you uncomfortable? Yeasty yeasty yeasty yeasty yeasty!
A perfectly decent, but overpriced lunch


I imagine that this place, like most steakhouses is much busier during dinner hours, and that the menu is more geared to a dinner crowd at a dinner price point. Still, without a viable, cost-effective lunch menu, I can’t imagine they’re turning a profit between 11 AM and 5 PM. The Gordon Ramsay in me wants to scream at their corporate overlords to either come up with a decent sub - $15 lunch menu, or remain closed prior to dinner time, all the while peppering in some delightfully British insults and obscenities.

Or do. I'm a neon sign, not a neon cop. 


If anyone has given the folks in charge of Lone Star such a recommendation in the past, it’s clearly not been heeded, as they’re down to four locations, one of which seems to be open and losing money for half the day. While the staff and food were generally pleasant, the menu and pricing reflects management is out of touch, and perhaps indifferent at a corporate level to this rapidly fading chain. Since my visit to the now-closed Norwood, Ohio Don Pablo’s over the summer, the chain, has shrunk from seven locations to one, down from a peak of 120. The general vibe at this Lone Star felt very similar to that Don Pablo’s. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the four operating Lone Stars shrink to a count of one or even zero a year from now.

These thoughts all occurred to me as I was sitting in that nearly empty steakhouse finishing my midday meal. It was almost too much to bear. After i paid my bill and left, I had to stop by the Portillo’s next door for a chocolate cake shake just to cheer myself up.



For a more authentically Texan retail history experience, be sure to check out my friend Mike's blog, Houston Historic Retail. He recently sought out a broken chain experience of his own at a Frostop drive-in.

Also, if you're a person who enjoys liking Facebook pages, be sure to like the Broken Chains Facebook Page, were I occasionally post bits of extra Broken Chains content.