Friday, February 15, 2019

Three Meals at Country Kitchen



Late last year, I took a week long, ten state road trip that took me to virtually every place I ended up writing about in January of this year. I had carefully planned out an itinerary that would take me to as many broken chains as possible, but the morning after a 600 mile chain restaurant marathon in the upper Midwest followed by a restless night in a noisy Airbnb in Iowa that was essentially a glorified Motel 6, I slept a couple of hours later than I intended, ruining my plans for the day.

My blown itinerary had in included a stop at the last Mister Donut in the US, located in Godfrey, Illinois, but Mister Donut was five and a half hours away and closed at 2 PM. My late departure meant that I wouldn’t be in the area in time to stop there before they closed for the day. Thankfully, I was still on track for my quarterly pilgrimage to Evansville, Indiana, home of my favorite G.D. Ritzy’s locations, where I’d be having dinner that evening and lunch the following day, but the midday meal on my way to Evansville was suddenly in question. Rather than researching potential stops, I opted instead to roll the dice, and point my car toward Evansville, keeping an eye out for a lunch stop that might generate blog content.

I was in Hannibal, Missouri when I was beginning to feel hungry, and coincidentally spotted a Country Kitchen, a broken chain I had been meaning to check out for months. I took this as a sign from Uncle Alligator, Burger Chef and Jeff, Queenie Bee, and the rest of the pantheon of diminished chain restaurant mascots that it was time for me to research and write a Country Kitchen post.

Two guys named Bill opened the first Country Kitchen in Cincinnati in 1939 selling nickel hamburgers and ten cent steak sandwiches. The single location grew into a local chain through the ‘40s and ‘50s, and in 1958, the Bills, Johnson and Goodman, began franchising their restaurant concept, which eventually evolved into a full service restaurant with a full menu of diner food with extensive breakfast offerings. The chain was sold to Carlson in 1977, and the hospitality conglomerate expanded the chain across the US, peaking at around 340 locations. Economic downturns in the late ‘70s and increased competition from fast food chains forced Carlson to get creative with marketing Country Kitchen. They eventually conceived the Country Inn hotel chain, which was meant to include a Country Kitchen restaurant in the hotel or on the same property, Howard Johnson style. Few Country Inns would get this treatment, however. In 1997 Carlson sold the Country Kitchen brand to Kitchen Investment Group, the largest Country Kitchen franchisee, but retained the Country Inn brand.

As market demographics and tastes have changed over the years, Country Kitchen has been struggling to remain relevant and shedding locations ever since leaving Carlson’s brand portfolio. Of the 340 Country Kitchens that were in operation during the Carlson era, only 28 remain today, mostly in the Midwestern US with a few outposts on the coasts and a single surviving location in Canada.

Upon seeing the Country Kitchen open for business in Hannibal, I hatched a plan. I’d eat there, and later visit the Country Kitchen in Marshall, Michigan that I had driven past a thousand times when I was on the way to somewhere else on I-94. Maybe I could even find a third one open somewhere within a reasonable distance so I could get the full breakfast, lunch, dinner experience at three different locations. With visions of an elaborate blog post dancing in my head, I walked in the front door of the Hannibal Country Kitchen and was immediately transported back to 1992. 


Early '90s nondescript architecture at its finest



Meal #1
Location: Country Kitchen, 4803 McMasters Avenue Hannibal, Missouri
Order: Smoked Sausage Skillet, pancakes, Diet Coke
Summary: Ovum Falsa

Inside it's clear the place hasn't changed much in the past 25 or so years. 


The building housing the Hannibal Country Kitchen has an aesthetic rooted squarely in the early ‘90s. The building styled to resemble a farmhouse with its prominent gables and long front porch and the interior decor with its blond wood and brass accents are all straight out of the Better Homes and Gardens and Southern Living magazines my parents kept around the house when I was a kid in the ‘90s. The look would have been charming in its day, but has not aged well in my opinion. Even so, the dining area was clean, and high ceilings gave it a pleasant light airy feeling. I was pleased to find a surprising amount of reasonably modern seeming signage and marketing materials. Unlike a lot of fading restaurant chains, Country Kitchen is working hard to lure customers with regular promotions. 

Yet marketing materials are everywhere. 

I should have bought a gift card for my collection.


I was quickly shown to a booth near the kitchen. It was late morning on a Saturday, and the place was moderately busy. My waitress came and took my order in a reasonably quick timeframe. On the menu, the smoked sausage skillet I ordered was pictured with sunny side up eggs. I assumed she’d ask how I wanted my eggs prepared after I ordered, but instead, she disappeared without asking a single follow-up question. I assumed I’d be getting my eggs as pictured on the menu, which would have been fine, but the skillet showed up topped with unpleasantly dry scrambled eggs, denying me the simple pleasure of runny yolk in every bite of my skillet breakfast. Additionally, the slices of smoked sausage nestled among the boring, not even a little runny, scrambled eggs were just on the wrong side of the line between caramelized and burned. As I mentioned in my post about my visit to the last operating Horne’s, I have high breakfast standards as a result of the numerous Coney Island-style restaurants around me in my Metro Detroit home, but I think anyone would have been disappointed by the sausage and eggs. The pancakes, at least, were decently light and fluffy and came with three different syrup flavors. 

The pancakes didn't quite redeem the abomination on the right. 

To my surprise, my waitress brought a handheld electronic credit card reader to my table when it came time to pay my bill, which allowed me to pay at my convenience without leaving the table. I never thought I’d see such a modern appliance in a setting so dated, but it was welcome. One of my greatest annoyances is when a server drops off my bill and disappears for ten minutes, or worse, takes my credit card with the bill and runs to some obscure alcove in the bowels of the kitchen to run my card and steal my identity. Any restaurant that lets me pay my bill electronically at the table will get more business from me. I’d drive back to Hannibal just so I could pay this way again, though I’d be more specific when ordering eggs next time. 




Meal #2
Location: Country Kitchen 3150 Ohio Route 350 Lebanon Ohio
Order: Country Boy burger platter with fries and coleslaw, Wild Blueberry Flapjack Cake, Coke Zero
Summary: “The Old Home Fill ‘er Up and Keep on a-Truckin’ Cafe”



Thanks to a misspent youth watching movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Citizens Band, I’m a massive fan of 1970s trucker and CB radio culture. The undisputed king of trucker music in this era was Bill Fries, who used the stage name, C.W. McCall. (I, Zapediah Q. Actionsdower, don’t understand why anyone would want to use a pseudonym for their public persona.) You’ve probably heard, “Convoy,” McCall’s biggest hit which inspired a Sam Peckinpah film of the same name, but this particular Country Kitchen location reminds me of one of his deeper cuts, namely “The Old Home Fill ‘er Up and Keep on a-Truckin’ Cafe,” a song which details a trucker’s courtship with Mavis, a waitress at his favorite truckstop, known as the Old Home Fill ‘er Up and Keep on a-Truckin’ Cafe. The song’s chorus repeats the comically long and folksy name of the place repeatedly, and concludes with McCall proclaiming, “They’ve got a real nice place there.”

This place made the last Country Kitchen look brand new by comparison. 


“A real nice place” is also how I’d describe the Lebanon Country Kitchen. The diminutive brick building with its Waffle House-esque yellow mansard roof is situated just off I-71 northeast of Cincinnati. An ancient billboard by the interstate advertises its presence, and a busy, modern Flying J truck stop is right next door. The Country Kitchen has big rig parking too. The anachronistic Country Kitchen stands in stark contrast to its shiny new neighbor. Once you’re inside, the Country Kitchen, it’s clear the place dates back to a time when every car had a CB radio and half a dozen ash trays, and transporting Coors beer east of the Mississippi was considered bootlegging. From the paneling on the walls to the shingled awning over the kitchen area, the whole place felt straight out of a ‘70s road movie. I half expected Sheriff Buford T. Justice to come in and order a diablo sandwich and a Dr. Pepper.
The view from my seat; they're not ashamed of that microwave. 


The place had a retro, but not retro on purpose feel. 


At the direction of a sign telling me to seat myself, picked a vinyl swivel chair at the ancient counter. Despite the vintage greasy spoon vibe of the place, it didn’t feel dirty. I’d go so far as to call it spotless. The odd juxtaposition of dated and clean put me at ease as I perused the menu. It was my second Country Kitchen meal, so even though it was late afternoon, I ordered a typical lunch, which included a Country Boy burger, Country Kitchen’s answer to the Big Boy, which I ordered with fries and coleslaw in Big Boy fashion. 

Not a great photo, but I had to bob and weave through a very busy truck stop parking lot to get a shot of the old sign by the interstate. 


As I sat at the counter awaiting my order, I noticed the place beginning to fill up with mostly older people, who all seemed to know the staff. It was 5:00 on a Saturday and the regular crowd, as if prompted by some unseen and unheard Billy Joel cover band, was shuffling in. The previously quiet little dining room took on a warm family atmosphere as the crowd exchanged pleasantries and tired jokes among themselves and with the staff. I took them to be a mix of locals and truckers who stop by regularly when passing through. 

A little uninspired, but still better than Frisch's. 

Just as I was beginning to tire of people watching, my order arrived. The Country Boy is unusual among Big Boy imitators, as it’s toppings include a tomato slice, which, while unorthodox for this particular burger genre, was not unwelcome. The special sauce the menu promised seemed to be nothing more than mayonnaise. Still, it was on a genuine three piece bun, and according to my research, I was lucky to find a Country Boy at all. It’s not listed on the Country Kitchen website’s menu, and multiple online customer reviews of other Country Kitchen locations seem to note its absence. In ordering it, I stumbled onto an officially discontinued menu item still hanging on at a handful of locations. With so few Country Kitchens left, could this be the last one that serves a Country Boy? It certainly seems possible if not likely. 


More current marketing; This time I couldn't resist. 

I still have dreams about this cake. 
I found more current marketing when the dessert course came, in the form of a paper sign on the table advertising a “blueberry flapjack cake,” which couldn’t resist ordering. The layers of maple creme between wedges of subtly sweet cake freckled with baked-in blueberries that were set before me seemed overly sophisticated and out of place at an old truck stop, but this was the best thing I ate on my Country Kitchen excursion. Despite it intentionally being served cold, it perfectly encapsulated the essence of eating a blueberry pancake breakfast while being a perfectly satisfying dessert. I didn’t even mind that it added six bucks and change to my bill. Everything about this particular Country Kitchen led me to conclude that they’ve got a real nice place there. Ask for Mavis if you ever stop by.

Meal #3
Location: Cafe by Country Kitchen, 2487 M-139 Benton Harbor, Michigan
Order: Kitchen Sink Omelette, hash browns, pancakes, Diet Coke
Summary: “Breakfast for Dinner”



As I was googling the Marshall, Michigan Country kitchen to check its hours of operation, I was not terribly shocked to learn that it had gone out of business. With only enough time for a day trip, and with a self-imposed deadline for a Country Kitchen post looming, I drove an hour past the husk of the Marshall Country Kitchen to the next nearest location in Benton Harbor. Annoyingly, the Benton Harbor location was a “Cafe by Country Kitchen,” essentially a Country Kitchen that only serves breakfast and lunch. This blew my plan of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at three different Country Kitchens. Even though I was there at 11 AM, I’m counting my visit there as breakfast for dinner since it’s my third and final meal of my exploration of the Country Kitchen brand.

R.I.P. Marshall Country Kitchen. I hardly knew ye. 

In many ways, the Cafe by Country Kitchen in Benton Harbor, Michigan is similar to its counterpart in Hannibal, Missouri. The building is a similar, if not identical design. Much of the same dated decor is present on the inside. Additionally, it’s clear the restaurant’s surroundings were past their prime. After exiting the interstate, I passed two abandoned motels and a handful of seedy gas stations in the less than one mile stretch from I-94 to the restaurant. 

Long live the Cafe by Country Kitchen in Benton Harbor!

Once inside, however, I found a dining room as clean as the one I experienced in Lebanon, Ohio, and unlike its fraternal twin in Hannibal, Missouri, there appeared to have been a few updates made in this century. It was late morning on a Sunday, and the place was packed with the typical mix of the after church crowd and people with hangovers. I was seated at one of the few empty tables. Resigning myself to breakfast food, I ordered a kitchen sink omelette with pancakes. 

The view from my table. I believe the tile and stone in the kitchen area to be modern additions. 

This breakfast is the best dinner I ever had at 11 AM. 
 

My order took the better part of half an hour to arrive. I overheard my waitress say one of the cooks didn’t show up and the kitchen was backed up as a result, but what showed up at my table was the best omelette I’ve had since my trip to Omelette Shoppe. It even surpassed the omelettes I get from my favorite Coney Island on the regular. While it didn’t have quite the diversity of ingredients the Perkins Everything Omelette contains, the green peppers, onions, hash browns, bacon, and sausage provided a nice balance of flavors and textures. I didn’t even mind that the pancakes only came with one flavor of syrup. 

Award winning


A post-meal trip to the bathroom revealed several awards on the wall in the corridor, the most recent being 2017. Despite the chain’s ever-shrinking footprint, Kitchen Investment Group appears to be actively involved in attempts to keep the brand alive, whether it be new menu items, awards bestowed to franchisees, or up to date marketing materials. I couldn’t help but think that if Country Kitchen has a chance at a future, it’s future would resemble the Benton Harbor location. 

Limited menu with an eye toward optimizing profitability. 

Demographic changes have led to hard times for many family restaurant chains with menus full of classic diner food. Bob Evans and Denny’s have both shuttered quite a few locations recently. For a smaller chain with shallower pockets like Country Kitchen, these struggles must look especially ominous, but the Benton Harbor Cafe by Country Kitchen as employed a savvy strategy to weather the storm.

A wise woman once posed the question, “Why does anybody in the world ever eat anything but breakfast food?” Whoever devised the Cafe by Country Kitchen concept took this prompt and ran with it. The breakfast menu is Country Kitchen’s strength. Brunch chains like First Watch and Wild Eggs are thriving right now while evening diners prefer more upmarket restaurants that serve alcohol. By ditching the lackluster dinner menu and money-losing evening operating hours from Country Kitchen, Cafe by Country Kitchen, plays to its strengths, and becomes a perfectly viable breakfast joint with a few token sandwiches and burgers on the menu for the lunch crowd. While the building is dated, and its neighbors are decaying, a few updates, like tile against the back wall and an impeccably clean dining room make the interior of the restaurant feel almost modern and perfectly pleasant. It’s a place I could see myself returning to if I happened to be in Western Michigan at breakfast time. Realistically though, I can’t help but think that he revamp of a few locations is insufficient and came at too late a time to save a struggling, fragmented, restaurant chain whose 28 surviving locations are spread coast to coast across 16 states and one Canadian province.

In the early 1980s, Howard Johnson restaurant franchisees found themselves orphaned. Their corporate parent had been divided and sold off in pieces to owners that had little interest in maintaining the restaurant brand. The franchisees joined forces to form Franchise Associated Incorporated (FAI) and worked together to keep the franchised locations in operation while maintaining brand identity. A few efforts were made to modernize aging buildings and menus, but FAI didn’t have the resources to keep the Howard Johnson restaurant brand current, and ceased operation in 2005. Today, the Howard Johnson restaurant brand is essentially defunct.

I can’t help but think that Country Kitchen’s current status is analogous to Howard Johnson’s during the FAI era. Both are dated, shrinking restaurant chains that were separated from their respective companion hotel brands and put in the control of franchisees. Despite valiant efforts by FAI, Howard Johnson restaurants faded into obscurity, and as dining trends continue to change, and the value of the Country Kitchen brand continues to diminish, I foresee a similar future for Country Kitchen in the coming years. For now though, two thirds of the surviving locations seem to be more than decent, based on my informal survey with a sample size of three restaurants. If you like those odds, and happen to be near a Country Kitchen, give them a try while you still can. Two thirds of you will be glad you did. 


3 comments:

  1. Unrelated chain, but have you been back to the Columbus Ritzy's since your less than stellar experience? I tried it a few weeks after they opened, and again last night. It's being run well, and it's still busy on Saturday night, but the fries are bad (different from what I remember at the Evansville & Huntington locations). Nothing wrong with the burger at all; I could eat one of those weekly. I didn't get a shake this time, because $6 is too much to pay for something that might get thrown away again.

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    1. I did go back to the Columbus Ritzy's about a month ago, and found things to be operating a bit more smoothly. I think they've found their groove, and seem as popular as ever.

      I agree with you about their fries. They are indeed different from the other surviving locations. While the West Virginia, Indiana, and Kentucky Ritzy's fry frozen shoestring fries, the Columbus location cuts them from fresh potatoes. Apparently this is the way the original locations did it back in the early '80s when the chain was just getting started. The frozen fries came later with widespread franchising. I find the fresh cut fries unpleasantly limp and soggy, but the frozen ones are perfection. I wish they'd make the switch to frozen in Columbus.

      I must confess to having never tried a Ritzy's shake. I usually opt for a couple different scoops of ice cream instead, as their ice cream ranks with the best I've ever had. The ice cream in Columbus is just as good, if not better than what I've had in Owensboro and Evansville. (Last I heard, Huntington is the only Ritzy's location that doesn't make its own ice cream.)

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  2. Didn't expect to see Hannibal on here. I probably only went to that Country Kitchen a few times the entire time I lived there, but it always seemed popular. Hannibal also had a Ponderosa that I went to much more frequently and can still remember vividly. They still had a whole smoking section. It was still open when I moved away in 2007, not sure how much longer it lasted.

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