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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9 comments:

  1. There's one in Murray KY with a bull out front. After bad weather, it makes the news if the bull tips over. Never over it was a chain though!

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    1. My Airbnb hosts said the same thing. The remaining locations are far enough apart that people who live near one go years without seeing another.

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  2. I've been fascinated with Sirloin Stockade since I spotted one in my roaming (might've been the Marion one, I know there's another in Indiana) and I'm bummed you had a bad experience. We don't have any Golden Corral- like places left except, well, GC, and I was hoping this was a hidden gem that I could take the fam to. Won't be doing that!

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    1. Sadly, I was let down by it too. I'd eat at another one if I had the chance though. Just as there are good and bad Ponderosas, I suspect there are also better Sirloin Stockades than the one in Marion.

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  3. I got hit by a giant wave of deja vú upon seeing that sign with the water tower in the background... I made the mistake of going to college near Marion, Indiana and drove past that place many times, though like the other commenters I never realized it was a chain. During my senior year (2016), my major's department head took my small group of co-graduates to Sirloin Stockade for our department "banquet." Apparently that was his idea of fine dining.
    I avoided food poisoning by instinctively avoiding eating anything except a brownie. However, the department head later turned out to have been molesting students for the last 12 years, with my school's full knowledge, so Indiana got the last laugh at me there.
    Anyway, Sirloin Stockade kinda sucks, is what I'm saying.

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  4. I think it incredible that there are now probably more Sirloin Stockade restaurants in Mexico (I've been to like 7 different ones across the country). US chains are also usually better when they cross the border, so I don't have any particular bad memory from there. I think Golden Corral was overall better than all of them, though.

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  5. I didn't realize they had a presence outside the US, but sure enough, www.sirloin.mx shows 11 locations open in Mexico. Cool! I kind of want to go check them out.

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