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. 

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