Friday, March 29, 2019

Relief Pitch



The mid nineties were host to a sudden barrage of franchised sandwich shops. It was nigh impossible to visit a strip mall or food court that didn’t have a Subway or Blimpie location. Low franchise fees and minimal building, equipment, and staff requirements meant that it was relatively easy for a business-minded individual to open and successfully run a chain sandwich joint. Like most fast food fads, there were plenty of smaller players that also wanted in on the action. The year 1996 was an eventful year for the city of Atlanta, Georgia. The city was hosting the summer Olympics and dealing with the associated influx of people from around the world there to participate in, run, and bear witness to the event. That same year, a sandwich chain was founded in Atlanta that was brave enough to ask the question, “What’s so great about bread, anyway?” Linda Wolf and Julie Reid opened the first Roly Poly location in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, which I suspect is adjacent to the Beavis District. Both Wolf and Reid had previously operated their own independent sandwich shops that entirely eliminated traditional bread, and instead served wrapped sandwiches, with traditional sandwich ingredients rolled up in tortilla-like wraps. Their new concept, Roly Poly was designed from the ground up for franchising, following a similar model to Subway and Blimpie that allowed franchisees to operate out of existing structures, typically strip mall slots. The ‘90s sandwich boom was kind to Roly Poly, and the chain had grown to 170 locations by the early 2000s.

The chain shrunk considerably in the ensuing years, and I can find little information as to why, but I suspect the 2008 recession and competition from second wave low-overhead sandwich chains like Jimmy John’s had a lot to do with it. The Roly Poly website “About Us” section claims there are 125 locations open in 24 states, but a quick look at their list of locations indicates that claim is outdated. Their true count today is closer to 44 locations in 13 states, and more than half of those locations are in Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana. The remaining locations are spread thinly from Texas to Connecticut.



Like my memory of Izzy the Whatzit, the 1996 Olympic mascot, my memory of Roly Poly is fuzzy at best. I remember briefly encountering one growing up in Lexington, Kentucky. It was 2000 or so, and I was an angsty teen suffering the embarrassing fate of running errands with my mother, Judy Actionsdower. We stopped at a strip mall for lunch, and when my mom suggested we dine at the Roly Poly in said strip mall, I scoffed at the prospect of being seen sharing a meal with my mother, and instead asked her for money so I could eat at the A&W next door by myself while she ate alone at the Roly Poly. Clearly, I was a delight as a teenager. That was the closest I ever came to having a Roly Poly meal, and that location, along with all the others in Kentucky was gone not long after that.

The better part of two decades later, I’m a (relatively) content adult with a reasonably healthy and amicable relationship with my parents, and I got curious about the current state of Roly Poly, the way I often do about various diminished restaurant chains. I did a little research, and found two locations within relatively reasonable driving distance, and set off to see what the surviving locations of the chain had to offer so many years after their heyday. 



Meal #1
Location: Roly Poly 545 East Grand Blanc Road, Grand Blanc, Michigan
Order: #55 Pesto Chicken (whole), Salt and Vinegar Chips, Diet Coke,

Grand Blanc, Michigan is one of those towns that has consistently provided me with interesting places to visit and write about. I’ve previously visited both a Dawn Donuts, and a Kewpee-descended Halo Burger location in Grand Blanc. I was excited to be back again for my first-ever Roly Poly experience. It was lunchtime on a Saturday when I got to the strip mall housing the Roly Poly. I was surprised to find only one customer other than myself there. A woman I took to be the manager was finishing up taking a phone order when I walked in, but I needed time to browse the menu anyway. 




The Roly Poly menu board is massive; a literal wall of text describing each of the numerous rolled sandwiches on offer. Each sandwich has a number, but confusingly the numbers are non-sequential, and they range from 3 to 160 with wide gaps in between. Logic and cursory research reveals no apparent reason for this scattershot numbering system. I ended up ordering number 59, a chicken pesto wrap, and I opted for the whole rather than half, the equivalent of a Subway footlong as opposed to a six inch. I got my chips and drink and sat down. 

My one regret is that I didn't get Mello Yello.

I had half expected my wrap to be prepared in front of me like a Subway sandwich, Chipotle burrito, or like the burgers I get at Harvey’s on the rare occasions when I find myself in Canada. Instead, the kitchen at this Roly Poly was walled off, with only a small pickup window connecting it to the dining area. I peeked through the window, and found three or four employees working the surprisingly large kitchen. Despite the empty dining area, all seemed to be busy. I wondered what they were up to, and how the place could stay in business with minimal clientele and such a large staff. It was then that I noticed the numerous signs around me advertising catering services. This gave me the impression that the restaurant thing was just a side hustle, and that this Roly Poly’s main gig is catering events, showing up with big party trays full of wrapped sandwiches. 

Essentially an Italian burrito...

...not that there's anything wrong with that


My order was delivered to my table not long after that. The wrap was about the size of a Taco Bell Grilled Stuft Burrito if it were cut into two pieces. Like the GSB, it had been toasted on some George Foremanesque grill. I gave it a taste, and found it perfectly pleasant with the expected chicken, pesto, sun dried tomato, and cheesy goodness that was promised by the lengthy description on the menu board. 



Meal #2
Location: Roly Poly, 1616 West Third Street, Bloomington, Indiana
Order: #55 Roly Pounder (Half), Sun Chips, Diet Coke



This location was also in a strip mall slot, as I suspect most, if not all Roly Poly locations were/are. The dining room there was incredibly small, with no more than eight tables crammed into what was essentially a wide corridor between the kitchen, single restroom, and wall. It was a little before 11 AM on a weekday, but this place was a little more lively than the last. There was a customer in front of me in line, and another employee was leaving with a delivery order. 

Beard Guy totally noticed me taking this picture. Sorry, Beard Guy. 

I had some other blog-related food stops planned that day, so I only ordered a half wrap. This time, I went with a cold wrap, known as the Roly Pounder. An employee emerged from the clandestine kitchen and delivered it to my table a few minutes after I had ordered. The Rollie Pounder was not unpleasant in its blend of flavors, but the pickle spear running through the middle of it overwhelmed the rest of the ingredients a bit. In general, it seemed heavy on vegetables and light on meat and cheese. The menu promised turkey, ham, cheese, and bacon, but the bacon seemed to be missing. Bacon would have made it better, but not so much so that I saw fit to complain. I will complain a bit about the price though. Somehow I ended up paying eight bucks and change for a wrap with very little meat that I ate in four bites, plus chips and a drink. I didn’t see the appeal of this particular sandwich, but if I were at a catered event with a pile of them on a tray, I guess I wouldn’t complain. Maybe they’re cheaper in bulk.

The thematically appropriate swirl patterned paper liner is a nice touch... 

...as are the high quality leafy greens. 


Two or three more customers came in and ordered while I was eating, and a guy that seemed to be the manager mentioned their catering service to both of them, even saying that catering was their thing. From my unique perspective, it seems like the appeal of a restaurant that makes wrapped sandwiches is limited, but since the sandwiches travel well, can be eaten with one hand by party goers, and are easy to make quickly and in large quantities, the concept lends itself well to catering, and the Roly Poly franchisees that are still in business seem to have become caterers first and restaurateurs second. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but I’d like to see Roly Poly thrive as a restaurant chain. I think that perhaps, I have a plan to make it happen. 

This photo includes a solid 90% of the dining area. 
Call me a prude, but I like my salad dressed. 

Roly Poly came into existence at the peak of the sandwich shop fad, which has since faded considerably. Restaurants with menus based on chicken strips are a present-day fad, especially in the south, where the majority of Roly Poly locations are operating. Thanks in part to a generation raised on boneless chicken, chains like Zaxby’s, Slim Chickens, and Raising Caine’s are wildly popular these days and quickly growing. Roly Poly locations seem to have large kitchens that could easily accomodate a few deep fryers. They should, of course keep, the wrapped sandwiches on the menu to continue with the successful catering businesses that franchisees have established, but some fried chicken tenders, perhaps marketed as chicken fingers, would bring a new crowd into the restaurants.

 
I would buy chicken from Rollie Fingers, and you should too. 

The chain should change its marketing, and perhaps its name to indicate the revamped menu, but the new name shouldn’t alienate the current customer base. It therefore makes sense to keep the Roly to indicate they still sell rolled sandwiches, but they should drop the “Poly” and replace it with “Fingers” to tell the world that they now sell chicken fingers. They should then, naturally, hire retired Major League pitcher and active mustache enthusiast Rollie Fingers to be the celebrity spokesman for the newly-branded Roly Fingers. Not to toot my own horn, but it’s the cleverest bit of pun-based celebrity restaurant spokesmanship I’ve come up with since I suggested Geddy Lee from Rush should endorse Spageddie’s. Like Geddy Lee, Rollie Fingers has a distinctive look that would stand out on a corporate logo, and he’s retired, and therefore probably not busy. Plus, if Colonel Sanders has taught us anything, it’s that elderly men with unique facial hair are great at selling chicken. Roly Fingers locations could even hand out false mustaches with kids meals the way Uncle John’s Pancake House used to.

I’ll admit the idea started with a pun, but it sounds better the more I think about it. Boneless fried chicken lends itself well to being wrapped up in a tortilla with other toppings, so chicken fingers seem like an obvious addition to the Roly Poly menu. And with the ever-growing popularity of chicken fingers, and by maintaining the current low-overhead, small footprint philosophy of Roly Poly locations, Roly Fingers could grow quickly, perhaps returning to, or exceeding its initial maximum location count. This would give them a leg up on the established chicken finger chains as well, which usually operate out of larger, more expensive, freestanding structures.

Linda, Julie, if you’re reading this, you can have the Roly Fingers idea for free. I’d be delighted to see the sandwich chain you founded experience a second act as a sandwich and chicken chain. If you’re successful, you could even hire character actress CCH Pounder to do a commercial where she and Rollie Fingers get married and he changes his name to Rollie Pounder. Just don’t forget the bacon.
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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Feedlot

Older Sirloin Stockade locations have a larger than life fiberglass bull out front. This one just has a picture of one on the sign. 

The annals of chain restaurant history are festooned with formulas and fads. When White Castle achieved success selling hamburgers as something akin to health food in the 1920’s, countless imitators sprung up using the same template. Some, like Krystal, remain in business today. When Ray Kroc appropriated the McDonald brothers’ innovations in quick food service, chains like Sandy’s, Mr. Quick, and Henry’s copied the McDonald’s formula, and set up shop in the backyard of McDonald’s HQ.

Not long after that, beef prices tanked, consumer tastes evolved, and as a result, fast food moved upmarket, serving up cuts of cow more expensive than ground chuck. To borrow a term from celebrated burgerman Bob Belcher, the early to mid sixties were the years of the beef boom. Countless regional chains emerged selling roast beef sandwiches. Some like Arby’s, Rax, and Roy Rogers would go national. Others like Neba and Heap Big Beef would disappear leaving only distinctive, empty buildings behind. Even established chains like Burger Chef and McDonald’s began offering roast beef sandwiches. The upmarket fast food roast beef chains only represented a fraction of the beef boom, however.

Just a notch above the new roast beef sandwich joints were the discount steakhouses. Ponderosa, Bonanaza, York Steak House, and Western Sizzlin’ all came into existence in the early to mid sixties, offering steak, and later buffet dinners at prices that allowed middle class families to go out for steak on the regular, but as beef prices rose and tastes again changed, the beef boom went bust with few winners. Virtually every beef boom chain other than Arby’s is severely diminished or defunct today, which is why I’ve visited, and written about so many, finding further holdouts of the bygone beefy era the deeper I look.

I was recently alerted to the persisting existence of another relic of the beef boom, a regional chain known as Sirloin Stockade. The first one opened in Oklahoma City in 1966, serving steak and sides buffet-style, and rose to success during the beef boom years. Hard times came, as they did for so many broken chains, in the seventies, and by 1982, Golden Corral had purchased the 250ish unit chain. A handful of Sirloin Stockade franchisees were able to acquire the rights to the Sirloin Stockade name, and remained in business under a new corporate entity known as Stockade Companies.

Today, Stockade Companies supports 14 surviving Sirloin Stockade locations that are sparsely spread from Texas to Indiana. This number appears to be in rapid decline, as their website states they operate 80 restaurants, but even if you add all the locations of Stockade’s other alliteratively-named chains, Coyote Canyon and Montana Mike’s, the total only comes to 31. Sirloin Stockade, a near forgotten, quickly disappearing beef boom relic captured my curiosity, and I was able to stop by the Marion, Indiana location for dinner recently.

It's Saturday night in Marion, Indiana, and Sirloin Stockade is packed.

It was Saturday evening when I rolled into town, driving past both a shiny new Texas Roadhouse with a half-empty parking lot and a deserted, independent, nonspecific Asian buffet operating out of what was clearly a former Golden Corral. Both were within a couple of miles of the Sirloin Stockade, whose parking lot was nearly full. After taking the time to appreciate the white brick building with backlit signs that I suspect date back to the 1970s, I walked in the front door, and got in line to order. 

I doubt the signs have been updated since Stockade Companies became a corporate entity. 

 Pick your meat

Like most beef boom-era steakhouses, Sirloin Stockade has you order and pay at a counter before you are seated. This location, and I suspect many others, has abandoned serving all you can eat steak on the buffet, and instead offers it, and other premium proteins as an add-on to the buffet. For any halfway experienced restaurant cook, Steak is a difficult food to cook incorrectly, so with the assumption that the steak was at least passable, and therefore unremarkable, I told my cashier I’d only be having the buffet. Another employee showed me to one of the few empty tables where my waitress introduced herself and brought my Diet Dew. 

Menu boards seem generic. 

Following the exchange of pleasantries with my waitress, I navigated through the multitudes of my fellow budget-minded diners, and found my way to the salad bar, which due to the near-capacity Saturday night dinner crowd, resembled a calorie-conscious game of Hungry Hungry Hippos with an ever-changing array of disembodied arms reaching under the sneeze guard for the various salad fixins on offer. I somehow loaded up my plate, and found my way back to my table with what is essentially my go-to salad bar concoction, sliced beets and honey mustard dressing on a bed of out-of-the-bag salad mix, with small piles of coleslaw and broccoli salad alongside. It was pretty standard salad bar fare, generally acceptable and unremarkable. I ate most of it, pushing the last bits and pieces onto my fork with the little buttery Club crackers I snagged from the salad bar for that purpose. 

Y'all git yer fixins!

My typical salad bar plate. 

Next, I fought my way to the buffet which consisted of a few different self-serve food bars. One line has pot roast, while another had fried chicken and pulled pork, flanked by a plastic bag of grocery store buns. Another bar I didn’t manage to get a picture of seemed to have been designed with kids in mind, as it was stocked with mini corn dogs, chicken nuggets, pretzel nuggets, and soggy fries. Still, I saw a surprising number of adults filling up their plates from this area. With a plate full of pot roast, mashed potatoes topped with a chicken-flavored noodle goo, and some limp vegetables I weaved through the crowd back to my table, and was reminded of the food I’d find in my state university’s dining hall or perhaps in a church basement during a Sunday afternoon potluck. Nothing tasted fresh or especially good. The pot roast was lukewarm, but like at the dining hall or church I could have as much mediocre food as I wanted. 

A significant percentage of the town's population was here. 


 Behold the bounty of Sirloin Stockade. 
The dessert course was pretty standard for cheap buffets, with a bar full of cobblers, cakes, cookies, and a soft serve machine with a loud compressor and triple nozzles dripping melted ice cream onto the tray below. I sampled a few things that could have just as easily come from Ponderosa or Golden Corral, before taking my leave, noticing the place was more crowded than ever. 


Unlimited Soft Serve makes everything a little bit better. 

While the Sirloin Stockade brand has been struggling to various degrees over the past four decades, that certainly wasn’t the case in Marion, Indiana. I suspect the low price point (under $14 for the dinner buffet with a drink) keeps the crowds coming. They even seem to do some catering, if the Sirloin Stockade branded van I saw in the parking lot was any indication. Whoever owns the place seems to have found a winning strategy for ensuring their continued existence and popularity, despite not having a uniformly positive perception in Marion. 

If you have Sirloin Stockade cater your next event, they'll probably show up in this van. 

My Airbnb hosts that evening were nearby, and shared my interest in diminished restaurant and retail chains. We sat in the living room for a solid couple of hours discussing our mutual passion and they seemed to express equal parts surprise and concern that I had come to their town to eat at Sirloin Stockade. Later that night I found out why. While my meal wasn’t expensive, my stomach paid dearly for the meal I had eaten. Since the Vernal Equinox was this week, I’ll leave you with a Springtime-inspired song about my experience, sung to the tune of Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade”

♬I don’t want to flaunt it, but I spewed a lot of vomit.
It happened after I ate at the Sirloin Stockade.
I was completely sober, but in pain and doubled over.
From dining from the buffet at the Sirloin Stockade. ♬



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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Pie Day

For the first time ever, Broken Chains has a guest author. Today's post was written by Mike from Houston Historic Retail. Enjoy!




One of the very first computers I had the pleasure of using was a Compaq Presario. In the early ‘90s, Houston had quite the affinity for Compaq. The company was headquartered and operated out of Houston. Many local school districts and companies maintained exclusive contracts with Compaq up until their takeover by Hewlett Packard, and some even continue those contracts with HP. To this day, HP maintains a significant presence in the Houston area. Compaq’s history is not that different from many tech startups of the present-day. Some managers working for Texas Instruments (Yes, the TI-83 Calculator people.) decided to branch out on their own. Without an office to plan in, they met at House of Pies and drew their initial sketch of the Compaq Portable on the back of a place mat.

The “House” at the front of the restaurant was a common feature to most House of Pies Locations

The “House” at the front of the restaurant was a common feature to most House of Pies Locations. An interesting story in and of itself, the Compaq tale is just a side note in the history of House of Pies. When you first visit House of Pies, you get the feeling that you’ve seen a building design like this somewhere else before. The building is tall, long, and pretty thin. With these design requirements, it quite resembles the Original IHOP building design.

The signage featured on the exterior of the building is presumably newer. It drops “The Original” from the name.

The signage featured on the exterior of the building is presumably newer. It drops “The Original” from the name. Walking up to the restaurant, you can almost feel the age ooze from the building itself, channeling itself through the dank humid Houston air, transmuting anyone who enters the parking lot into an honorary senior citizen. With this show of age, the hallmarks of a broken chain begin to appear. Which brings us to the discussion of what exactly was The Original House of Pies. Al Lapin Jr. a restaurateur most famous for his earlier chain IHOP, founded House of Pies in the mid sixties. Both chains were owned by International Industries, a company held by Mr. Lapin, and were originally seen as sibling brands.

The original Compaq Portable computer was designed on the back of one of these place mats.

I came to House of Pies in the mid-afternoon on a Sunday. I had expected it to be quite busy especially with the after church-crowd. However, to my surprise, it was only moderately busy. I had no wait to be seated, and the entire time I was eating there was no wait for a table until well after I had ordered pie. Partly this was thanks to the staff for turning tables quickly, as well as a “Table Service Fee” of $3.50 per person per hour for any customers who fail to meet that minimum in food ordered.

The appetizers are a relatively new addition. They’ve been around for a few years but still aren’t printed in the menu.

I perused the relatively extensive menu complete before finally being greeted by my server. I considered what exactly I wanted to get. Back a few years ago when House of Pies was a regular haunt for me I generally ordered the Eggs, Potatoes, and Chopped Steak. It was a great amount of food for under $10, and there were never any issues with the taste. However, to help better represent what House of Pies has become since splintering I chose the decidedly Texan Eggs, Potatoes, and Chicken Fried Steak. When my waitress approached me I was able to put in both a drink and food order at the same time, saving an extra step.

As the dining room became busier, it was increasingly difficult to get good pictures.

While waiting on my food to arrive, I had some time to ponder the history of the chain. While I can’t find an exact number of restaurants opened, conservative estimates place it around 40. Like IHOP, they were originally a West Coast phenomenon, eventually branching out to places like Denver, Chicago, and obviously Houston. The chain experienced about ten years of growth before International Industries (The Company Al Lapin formed to run his restaurant brands) was sued by a group of franchisees who specified that they were being overcharged for supplies. In the mid-1970s, the chain was liquidated, and many franchisees became owners. From here the history gets extremely hard to track but the take-away is that without any corporate structure, the restaurants were left on their own. Today, four locations remain open, three in Houston, and one in Los Angeles. 

While resembling Burger King hash browns those round potatoes are called cottage fries.


Midway through reminiscing about a past I never experienced, my food showed up. Everything looked delicious and fried. I quickly disposed of the garnish. After all, Texas didn’t fight for its independence from Mexico for me to eat rabbit food on the Lord’s day! Using the table-supplied Tabasco to spice up my eggs, I dug in. Everything on the plate was delicious. I truly couldn’t remember the last time I had been to House Of Pies, but the quality had not declined. The only exception was the eggs, which were slightly overdone and definitely needed the help of some spice.

Although the dish doesn’t look huge here, for $9 this is a lot of food.

When I dine out, it’s a rarity for me to finish a meal. Usually, I box up around half of my food and finish it a few hours later. After skipping breakfast this Sunday morning, I was more than inclined to finish not just all my food but to order up some pie as well. My waitress took my order of strawberry rhubarb pie to the front counter where the restaurant’s bakery is. In the meantime, I got up to wash my hands and check out the bathroom. After finding it to be pretty standard, though tiny, I returned to the dining room.


The peculiar layout and small size of this restaurant pretty much make it impossible to take any stealthy pictures.

Although difficult to make out in this photo, House of Pies maintains a very small dining room. All in all, I would assume they could hold about 75 people. Most booths have four person seating. There are no chairs except for a few that are permanently connected to the limited bar seating.

Delicious and overflowing are two adjectives that are rarely used together. However, they’re the perfect fit here.

Getting back to my seat, I quickly finished my slice of pie. Not needing my usual to-go box, I was delivered my check. Which was an odd combination of handwritten slip, that had obviously been passed through a receipt printer. This technology was likely added later in life, as these locations opened in the late sixties.

That orange sign uses the original logo and script for House of Pies.

Making my way to the front, I snapped a couple of pictures of things I had missed on the way out. Unfortunately, the rising traffic meant I couldn’t get a picture of the front counter bakery.

The gold carved out lettering mixed with the brown wood makes this look like a state park sign.

I could only get a picture of the bottom half of this sign. The top half has a huge rotating piece to indicate if it is self-seating or not. The other Houston location has one, but I’m not sure that these signs were original to the building.

Overall I had a good experience, without getting to visit the Los Angeles location, I’m not exactly sure what has deviated over the years, but I’m sure things have. What sells in Houston doesn’t always sell in Los Angeles, and to add to that, House of Pies definitely sells in Houston. Within the past year they have opened two new locations, both former locations of newly-broken chain Black Eyed Pea, but that’s a story for another blog post.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Dawn's Dusk






I hate the spelling of the word "Doughnut." Writing comes easily to me most of the time. When I'm composing blog posts here, I seldom experience writers' block, but taking the time to include the entirely unnecessary G and H in the middle of the word is sure to break my concentration and result in substandard prose. Since the subject of this post is a chain specializing in the manufacture and sale of the aforementioned breakfast treat, I'm sure to be using the word repeatedly. Rather than try and dance around the use of that word, I'm going to do what many businesses have done before me, and use the colloquial spelling, "Donut." I apologize if this irks any spelling and grammar aficionados, but I don't think I'd be able to compose an entire blog post repeatedly using the correct spelling without it having a dramatic effect on my enjoyment of the Sunday afternoon during which I am writing this. Also, I've never heard of spell check. 

The donut shop is a genre of business that seems to be slowly going extinct. Places that specialize in fried dough coated in sugar feel out of step with a health-conscious world. The more successful donut places tend to downplay their fattier offerings and market themselves as purveyors of coffee drinks instead. Tim Horton's, a donut chain that exists all over Canada, and some select US markets including my own, has called themselves a "Cafe and bake shop" since 2011, de-emphasizing their donut shop image. Dunkin' recently followed suit and dropped the "Donuts" from their name to much media attention. With the modern unfashionable image of the donut, it's no surprise that there are a good many donut chains that long ago crossed the Cici's point to become broken chains.

Arthur Hurand opened the first Dawn Donuts in 1958 in Flint, Michigan, and the chain grew slowly to a size somewhere north of 60 locations in Michigan and surrounding states by the mid eighties. The name referred to the time of day when bakers would have to work to make sure donuts were ready in the morning. (Near as I can tell, Dawn Donuts never offered a donut filled with the eponymous dish detergent in place of jelly or Bavarian creme.) Many locations built in the sixties had distinctive zigzag pointy roofs. I lovingly refer to these buildings as pointybois. Dunkin' Donuts bought out Dawn Donuts in 1991, and converted a good many of the company-owned pointyboi buildings to Dunkin locations, just as many Zantigos became Taco Bells a decade or so earlier. The terms of Dunkin's buyout of Dawn Donuts allowed remaining Dawn Donuts franchisees to remain in business under the Dawn name. Of the eight independent Dawn Donuts locations that existed at the time of the Dunkin' buyout, two still exist today. Sadly, as of 2013, neither location operates out of a vintage pointyboi.

Edit: I've been informed that Dawn Foods, the corporate entity behind the Dawn Donut shops existed as a corporate entity as early as 1920, and still exists today. You can read more about them here. 

Located in Flint, the birthplace of both Dawn Donuts and Kewpee, the last pointyboi that operated under the Dawn Donuts name was bulldozed and replaced with a modern building that houses both Dawn Donuts and a Subway location. Google shows there's still a vintage sign out front, but the look of the building was too bland and modern for me. I opted instead to visit its sister location down the road in Grand Blanc. While not a funky midcentury pointyboi, the Dawn Donuts in Grand Blanc had a decidedly late 1980s appearance that I thought might provide an immersive experience. I wasn't disappointed when I visited. 


A donut shop straight out of 1989




Esmeralda Fitzmoster and I stopped by the Grand Blanc location yesterday morning for a quick unhealthy breakfast to kick off a weekend of unhealthy eating and were pleased to find a charmingly dated atmosphere. The menu boards looked like they had been brand new at the time of the Dunkin' buyout and were never changed. Seating in the dining room was in the form of built-in half booths with integrated chairs, similar to the units at the Taco Tico locations I grew up with. It was clear very little had changed here in a good 25 to 30 years. We ordered up half a dozen donuts from the glass case that composed the order counter, and took a seat. 

While not quite pointyboi caliber...

...the interior of Dawn Donuts was pleasingly retro. 

I was pleased to see they still use branded packaging. This baker character seems to be as old as the brand itself. 


I ordered my normal go-to donuts. I've listed my impressions of each below:

The powdered sugar donut has been my favorite variety since childhood. Early exposure to the powdered sugar donuts at Danville, Kentucky's Burke's Bakery made me a lifelong fan. This one was a bit crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with an odd mix of spices mixed into the dough making for hints of what I took to be clove and ginger that I didn't especially care for. It was a perfectly well-executed donut, but wasn't to my taste.
The cream filled longjohn is another of my childhood favorites, thanks to my maternal grandmother who would buy them for me at her local location of the now completely defunct Big Bear supermarket chain. This one didn't measure up to its counterparts from Big Bear, sadly. The icing application was sloppy, and the filling inside was almost flavorless. Still, fried dough plus sugar always tastes pretty good. 
Hey fellow '90s kids! Remember those Pogs that were shaped like the blades of a circular saw? Well the cruller is like the donut version of those pogs. They can have a light croissant-like texture, or simply be a uniquely shaped cake donut. This one, seen here with some excess sugar from its powdered sugar bag-mate was of the latter variety, a plain cake donut under a thick, crunchy glaze with a slight smoky flavor that weirdly reminded me of a campfire-toasted marshmallow. This was the most distinctive of the bunch, and therefore my favorite. I suspect it's an artifact of the heyday of Dawn Donuts, still available to the public decades later. 


To the average observer unfamiliar with the history of the brand, the surviving Dawn Donuts locations likely look like independent neighborhood donut joints, which they essentially are at this point. Without distinctive pointyboi architecture evoking a the spirit of a corporate image, my visit to Dawn Donuts felt like half of an experience, and while neither Dawn Donuts is in a pointyboi, there are still pointybois standing in the area, operating under different names. Thanks to demographic makeup that leads to this particular region having a strong donut culture, and an odd phenomenon of donut shops remaining donut shops after they change ownership and brands, quite a few of the surviving pointybois still house donut shops, including a single remaining Dunkin location in Jackson, Michigan. Rather than visiting a Dunkin' Donuts, though, I opted instead to visit the similar, but legally distinct, Don's Donuts, a pointyboi, former Dawn Donuts just outside of Toledo Ohio. 



Even in a slightly seedy neighborhood full of older buildings, the distinctive roof of Don's Donuts stands out. The angled entryway extends the theme of diagonal lines to the user's experience with the building. Once you're inside though, the layout is conventional, with a backward L shaped counter dictating the shape of the dinning room. The walls are plain painted cinder blocks with an institutional feel, like a cheaply-constructed roadside motel from the fifties. Everything about the place feels like a time warp, from the glass case of freshly prepared donuts at the order counter at the top of the L to the two U-shaped counters at the base of the L, flanked by low stools trimmed with bright orange imitation ostrich skin. Even the counter tops seem to be original, as they sport a well-worn floral pattern clearly from the early sixties. 

Hey there, pointyboi
Fryin' up some dough so fancy-free
Nobody that you serve could ever see the history you have inside you
The angular entryway continues the theme of pointiness. 


I stopped by and purchased a couple of the unremarkable donuts from the glass case so I could sit and loiter for a few minutes and appreciate the untouched atmosphere of the distinctive, remarkably intact, historical building. An older man behind the counter, who I took to be the owner of the place, was chatting with some regulars during my visit, and complaining about low property values in the area. Ironically, it's likely those very low property values that have kept the place running in its original form for so long. If the land it was sitting on was worth more, this endangered pointyboi would have long ago been leveled and replaced with some modern nondescript strip mall that wouldn't be worth a second look to the average commercial architecture geek.

I could stare at that countertop all day...

...and when I get bored, I can spin on these stools. 


Thanks to the Rust Belt's infamous urban decay and associated low property values, however, the the pointybois, countless broken chains, and a litany of other historic retail buildings live on as both anachronistic businesses and dilapidated husks. Because of this atmosphere, it's still possible to get both the architectural and culinary experience offered by Dawn Donuts, although the two halves of the experience are separated by a 120 mile drive. I probably would have driven much further than that for the complete Dawn Donuts experience. I've definitely driven further for reasons much more trivial.




Thanks to Keith, who writes for My Florida Retail Blog for tipping me off to both the past and present existence of Dawn Donuts. Come to think of it, he told me about Maryland Fried Chicken too. Thanks for that as well, Keith.

Thanks as well to Roadarch.com for their information regarding the locations of surviving pointybois. 

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