|Cups from Carl|
|Hey, remember the old header?|
Our first meeting was early this year, when I met Carl and his wife Lorelai and brought with me a shoe box full of paper, plastic, and Styrofoam cups branded with the logos of the restaurants I had encountered on the previous month’s trip from Michigan to Tennessee via Minnesota. Carl reciprocated my offering of no more than ten cups with two sizable boxes of all his duplicate cups, totaling around 120, some of which appeared to be more than 50 years old.
Carl collects ephemera from all chains, new and old, broken or thriving and approaches collecting with a “Gotta catch ‘em all!” mentality. Having been blown away by his generosity in providing me such a massive collection of rare and interesting specimens, I’ve tried to reciprocate by collecting treasure garbage when I visit places he’s likely to find interesting. For instance, I’m writing this on a plane on a return trip from New Orleans with a carry-on bag full of branded disposable cups from gulf coast chains to bring to my next meetup with Carl and Lorelai. You’ll be hearing more about my New Orleans trip in the near future, but today, I’d like to discuss the setting of our most recent meeting.
The main reason restaurant ephemera is so appealing to me is its anachronistic nature. As restaurant chains evolve, and grow, their aesthetic also must change to adapt to changing consumer demographics and market trends. As such, logos, color palettes, and materials of the ephemeral cups, food wrappers, and napkins changes every few years, as do more concrete aspects of a chain’s corporate image, like menu boards and even the buildings themselves. More often than not, efforts are made to scrub the old corporate image from marketing, and indeed the collective consciousness, but bits and pieces of the previous incarnations of various brands can shine through the decades when one encounters a half century old paper cup. It’s a feeling akin what I feel when I encounter a Red Barn or Burger Chef holdout still doing business as usual in an old building with a new name. It’s a feeling I imagine time travelers having, if they have ever existed, or will ever exist.
If you live near a McDonald’s in North America, chances are it has lost its bright red mansard roof and yellow fluorescent light bars in the past few years and has transformed into a structure that has a neutral-colored, boxy, understated look. With a few notable exceptions, this toning down of fast food buildings is an industry-wide trend aimed at giving fast food a more upmarket appearance and better complying with various local zoning laws where new locations are being built.
Roy Rogers is a chain that has been slowly mounting a comeback over the past 20 years, and makes efforts to remain modern and relevant while also providing meaningful nods to their brand's legacy. It can be tough for a chain named for a long-dead actor known for cheesy cowboy films to feel modern, but my visit to the Cumberland, Maryland Roy Rogers last summer showed that they had been successful in modernizing their corporate image while still acknowledging their roots.
|The Cumberland, Maryland Roy Rogers as it looked last summer|
|And the old Cumberland Roy Rogers before its 2016 demolition|
The original building’s trapezoidal roofline and stone corners were typical of Roy Rogers locations built in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The building also spotted a prominent solarium, a touch that many fast food buildings had in the ‘80s, likely inspired by Rax. Sadly, the building’s lack of a drive thru sealed its fate, and it was demolished and replaced with a shiny new building next door in 2016. The current building with its faux-retro signage and bright colors is quite distinctive by modern standards, but still lacks the character of the old location. I realize buildings don’t last forever, but I still hate to see Plamondon Company, Roy Rogers’ corporate parent, turning their back on their classic buildings.
For years, the world’s westernmost Roy Rogers location was at 474 Roney Lane in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 2012, the restaurant’s owner, son of the original franchisee, left the Roy Rogers chain in 2012 when he was unwilling to make changes to the menu and building that Plamondon Company had mandated. What followed was a strategic de-branding of the location. The restaurant's name was changed to Roney’s, which was both the name of the street they were located on and happened to be an easy word to use when modifying 1969-vintage covered wagon Roy Rogers neon sign. Trademarked menu items, such as the Double R Bar Burger, changed names as well, but the food itself, and business in general was very much as it was in the Roy Rogers days. Sadly, a lease dispute forced Roney’s closure in 2014. A used car lot occupies the old Roy Rogers/Roney’s building today, but that’s not where the story ends.
A year after the old Roney’s in Cincinnati closed, the owners packed up their yellow covered wagon sign and moved it four miles north to an all new building in the Cincinnati suburb of Milford, Ohio. Unlike the new Roy Rogers in Cumberland, Maryland, the new Roney’s in Milford bears a strong resemblance to Roy Rogers’ original architecture, with the same trapezoidal roofline and stone corners. The classically-styled structure also contains an operating drive thru, accomplishing what Plamondon failed to in Cumberland. Impressively, this single-restaurant operator appears to have paid an architect to design a modern fast food building that nearly perfectly captures the classic Roy Rogers aesthetic that Plamondon Companies has all but abandoned. A lesser small business owner would have tried to relocate on the cheap to a strip mall slot or empty Long John Silver’s rather than erecting a working monument to fast food history. I applaud the effort.
|Roney's as it appears today, more Roy Rogersy than Roy Rogers (Photo courtesy of Al Coleman)|
After Carl casually mentioned Roney’s in his weekly email to me, I was obsessed. A newly-constructed architectural and culinary tribute to Roy Rogers was too enticing to keep me away for long, I routed my recent trip to Evansville, Indiana home via Cincinnati, and arranged to meet Carl and Lorelai for a cup exchange and lunch at Roney’s. We arrived within five minutes of each other on a Sunday morning, shortly before the restaurant’s 11 AM open time. The building was just as impressive in person as it was in the pictures I had seen. I would have sworn it was a 1970’s or earlier vintage Roy Rogers had I not known it was new construction. The modified covered wagon sign out front had clearly been altered as part of the name change, but it was in great shape. As we concluded our cup exchange and general geeking out about where we were, we noticed the first patrons of the day were walking into the building, and quickly followed suit.
|Classic fast food architecture, re-imagined for the 21st century|
|Roney's menu and order counter|
|Roy Rogers and pals; I'd be remiss in not pointing out Gabby Hayes on the lower left.|
As we got in line to order, I studied the menu, and found it relatively simple compared to Roy Rogers’ current menu. The burgers, roast beef, and fried chicken were all still present, but the later Roy Rogers menu additions like hand-scooped ice cream and specialty sandwiches like the Gold Rush chicken were missing. Additionally, sides were limited to fries and coleslaw, while Roy Rogers offers those plus mashed potatoes, beans, macaroni and cheese, and baked apples. Maybe these were the menu modifications that caused the initial schism between Roney’s owner and Plamondon.
|Vintage Roy Rogers stained glass sunset|
Just as they would have under the Roy Rogers banner, Roney’s prepares all sandwiches plain and allows patrons to dress them themselves from a topping bar (known as a Fixin’s Bar in Roy Rogers parlance) in the dining room. We proceeded to top our sandwiches and returned to our table to enjoy our meal.
|Lucky R Burger, undressed...|
|Cup 'o slaw|
While I didn’t sample the roast beef, the sandwiches Carl and Lorelai had looked very similar to the sandwich I had eaten at Roy Rogers last summer. The meat looked to be authentic slices of a real cut of beef rather than the processed mystery meat you’ll find on an Arby’s or Rax roast beef. My Lucky R Burger was a little undercooked by modern fast food standards. The thin quarter pound patty was still pink in the middle, but I didn’t mind as I prefer a burger on the rare side. Just as it would be at Roy Rogers, the ham on top had been warmed up on the grill. The sandwich didn’t taste quite as beefy as its Roy Rogers counterpart, but it was still pretty tasty. Everything else I had ordered was a new experience for me.
|The burger was definitely not overcooked. Ignore my ugly thumb.|
|Slightly soggy, but still fresh fried chicken leg|
|Fries and apple cheese crisp|
I’ve never tasted Roy Rogers, fries, coleslaw, or fried chicken, so I have no idea how the remainder of my order compares to the real thing. Likewise, the apple cheese crisp appears to only exist at Roney’s, though it may have existed at Roy Rogers at some point in the past. What I do know is that the sides were perfectly decent. The fries were fresh and had a size and shape similar to McDonald’s fries. The coleslaw was finely chopped and creamy, with a flavor profile similar to KFC coleslaw. The chicken leg, curiously came wrapped in foil, which trapped steam and made the breading a little soggy, but it was still a perfectly decent piece of chicken. The breading was similar in flavor and texture to what you’d find on an Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion. I occasionally enjoy a little cheese with my apple pie, and the apple cheese crisp was well-balanced, with just enough of the orange shreds mixed in with the crumb topping to provide a salty undertone. I’d rate all of it as above average for a fast food meal, as I would the food at Roy Rogers. After the massive meal, I resolved not to eat anything else that day, and was mostly successful in adhering to that plan.
Now that I’ve tried Roney’s chicken, coleslaw and fries, I’m going to have to take a trip back out to Roy Rogers' operating region in the Midatlantic and see how they compare. Unsurprisingly, I’m looking forward to it, but not as much as I’m looking forward to my next stop at Roney’s the next time I’m rolling down I-75. It’s throwback architecture and signage plus its underdog narrative have made this bootleg Roy Rogers my favorite Roy Rogers.