Saturday, May 4, 2019

Tray Chic



If there’s a genre of restaurant that’s barely hanging on, it’s got to be the cafeteria. Seemingly for my entire life, cafeteria dining outside of the context of a public school or hospital basement has been popular with an overwhelmingly elderly crowd, and as the clientele has slowly started dying off, the cafeteria chains have faded away with them, slowly going the way of the automat as their patrons gradually shuffle off this mortal coil.

I grew up in an extended family where people over 60 outnumbered those under 18 more than two to one, and boy, did my living ancestors ever love going to cafeterias. I remember one particular extended family outing where I was dragged to the Lexington, Kentucky location of the now defunct Blue Boar Cafeteria chain in the also now defunct Turfland Mall. I was no older than seven, and had a particularly bad case of the flu, but that wasn’t enough for my geriatric relatives to resist the siren song of standing in line for food served from steam trays. On the way into the building, I ended up barfing what I recall to have been a superhuman amount onto the floor of the main mall entryway in not so silent protest of the excursion, but rather than taking their obviously sick child home, my parents opted instead to continue into the cafeteria, likely cajoled onwards by whatever overbearing elders were with us, locked into the tractor beam Blue Boar seemingly employed to attract old people and their long-suffering families. In retrospect, I’m not even sure that my parents got a chance let a mall employee know about my puke puddle.

Not long after that, perhaps partially due to my vomit incident, the Blue Boar closed, and the Morrison’s Cafeteria a few miles away at the distinctively green-roofed Lexington Green* shopping center became my family’s cafeteria of choice. By that time, I was nine or ten, a couple years closer to my own (presumably) eventual old age, and could at least appreciate the unique experience of standing in line in the long wood-paneled corridor, picking up a tray, selecting a salad and dessert, and requesting hot sides and entrees from ladle wielding employees who were posted along the serving line.
An actual photo of J.A. Morrison, probably

Morrison’s Cafeteria’s first location was opened by J.A. Morrison in Mobile Alabama in 1920. The single location became popular and grew into a regional chain thanks to its wide variety of made from scratch foods. The chain peaked with 151 locations in 13 mostly southeastern U.S. states. The company went through several side ventures over the years, the most successful of which was the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain, which they acquired in 1982. Ruby Tuesday would soon become the company’s main focus in the face of declining popularity of cafeterias, and the Morrison’s brand would be sold to the competing Piccadilly Cafeterias chain in 1998.

It was around that time that our local Morrison’s Cafeteria at Lexington Green became a Piccadilly, as nearly all surviving Morrison’s locations did. I recall having precisely one family meal after the Piccadilly conversion, during which, we noticed a significant decline in quality, and never returned. This must have happened a lot, because that Piccadilly location didn’t last more than a couple of years before closing completely.

These days, Piccadilly still exists, operating 42 locations, mostly in the Deep South, including 41 Piccadillys and a single Morrison’s located in Mobile, Alabama, the birthplace of the brand. Presumably, they operate the single Morrison's location to prevent the loss of the rights to use the Morrison’s name. When Esmeralda Fitzmonster, my romantic and domestic partner, suggested we vacation in New Orleans, I quickly agreed, mainly because it was a short two hour drive from New Orleans to Morrison’s in Mobile, a fact which I was reminded her of early and often in the weeks and months leading up to our trip.

The last Morrison's Cafeteria in the world


This is the closest thing you'll find to a menu at Morrison's...
We rolled into Mobile a few minutes before 11 AM, planning on an early lunch when we reached Morrison’s. I was concerned when we arrived that there would be little to remind me of my childhood Morrison’s experiences. The only two Morrison’s I recall visiting were the aforementioned location in Lexington Green, and another on the ground floor of a multistory building in Savannah, Georgia. The Mobile location, unlike these two, was a freestanding building, an outparcel of a nearby shopping mall. The architectural disparities continued inside as well. Instead of a long corridor leading to the serving line, the line itself was in the corridor, which was wide enough to accommodate a line of diners that makes a U turn, doubling onto itself, like the queue at a bank or airport security line. The ordering instructions on the wall were basic, telling patrons to pick an entree, two sides, and bread with the option to add a drink or dessert. I remember Morrison’s having a few different meal package options, including one known as “The Works” that I recall every member of my family ordering while I was forced to get a kids’ meal. I was beginning to become concerned that this lone Morrison’s was a Piccadilly in all but name. My fears escalated when I noted a distinct absence of the tall goblets of Jell-O cubes I remember always picking up from the dessert bar during my childhood meals at Morrison’s.

...but why print menus...

...when your customers...

...can see all the food...

...buddy? 

Still, Esmeralda and I worked our way down the line. I accumulated a plate of roast beef with some Waldorf salad and macaroni and cheese, while Esmeralda selected chicken tenders. We each chose a dessert and a drink, were handed a bill to pay as we exited, not unlike at Western Sizzlin. We then were free to select a table, which we did. Once we were seated and situated, our waitress was quick to introduce herself and ask if we needed any condiments. She was equally speedy in return with the requested horseradish and honey. My fears that this Morrison’s was merely a Piccadilly in drag were mostly assuaged when I had a closer look at, and taste of my macaroni and cheese, and found that the large elbow noodles were in a flavorful pale yellow cheese sauce and topped with a layer of melted, shredded cheddar. It was the same Morrison’s macaroni that was one of my go-to selections back in the Lexington Green days. The roast beef was equally tasty, as was the Waldorf and jalapeno cornbread I had selected. I was further comforted by a surprising amount of Morrison’s branded signage including an advertisement for online ordering at our table that sported the Morrison’s logo below the URL to the Piccadilly website. I was impressed that they had gone to the extra expense to have these printed for every table at their only Morrison’s location. 

Piccadilly marketing, complete with a Morrison's logo

Our meal selections

Macaroni of my childhood

Esmeralda is something of a picky eater, and chicken tenders or an analog thereof tend to be her default order whenever she visits a broken chain with me. I occasionally direct some good-natured teasing her way over her decision to eschew the illusive and wonderful Endless Salad Bar in favor of ordering chicken tenders on our visit to the Joliet, Illinois Rax, where they were merely frozen and breaded bits of fowl dumped from right from a Tyson bag into the fryer. Morrison’s chicken tenders were different, however. Each of the three tenders on her plate was seemingly made from scratch, and consisted of easily half a chicken breast each, clearly chicken tenders done right. 

Surprise sweet potato pecan pie 

The dessert course was similarly impressive, not so much because of the chocolate cake I had selected, which while more than adequate, paled in comparison to the slice of pie Esmeralda lucked into. What she thought to be pecan pie turned out to be a pecan-topped pie with a filling made of an orange-colored, nutmeg tinged filling of either pumpkin or sweet potato. My guess is the latter given the fact that it was springtime in the south. Either way, the few bites she shared with me made me wish I had a slice of my own. 

This branded rug was in the bathroom for some reason. 

Admittedly, this isn't the nicest catering van, but it's still decidedly less sketchy than the one I saw at Grandy's. 

Thanks to lovingly-prepared food and a courteous staff, including a manager who seemed genuinely pleasantly surprised to learn that we had driven there from New Orleans just to have lunch, we had a great meal at Morrison’s in Mobile, but I had a nagging feeling that we had really just eaten at a Piccadilly with a different sign. For better or worse, I had to find out how different a Piccadilly meal was from the one we had enjoyed at the last Morrison’s. Besides, since a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012 had forced Piccadilly to close many locations, they were probably in broken chain territory themselves. A few nights later, we made the short drive from our New Orleans Airbnb to the Piccadilly Cafeteria in Gretna, Louisiana, and I had never been so glad to have a mediocre meal. 

One of 41 surviving Piccadilly Cafeterias

The building housing the Gretna Piccadilly was similar in appearance and layout to that of the Mobile Morrison’s, and made me wonder if it was a former Morrison’s itself. There were plenty of little differences in the ordering process, though. At Piccadilly, cold side dishes were already in individual containers, and you were expected to serve yourself, unlike at Morrison’s where a staff member would portion out your cold side dish in a bowl and hand it to you. Additionally, while Morrison’s had a separate counter for takeout orders, all orders at Piccadilly were fulfilled in the main serving line, a fact which we became aware of when a woman in line in front of us was placing a to-go order for her entire extended family, and oversharing to the employees information about the eating habits, shoe sizes, and sex lives of each family member for whom she was ordering. The infuriating ordeal of being stuck in line behind this woman became all the more annoying when I noticed the third difference. At Piccadilly, you pay at the end of the serving line, meaning that this incredibly chatty woman had to pay her bill, make a big production of getting cash back on her credit card transaction so she could tip the cashier, whom, it turns out, wasn’t allowed to accept tips. Once we finally reached our table we found our food was lukewarm at best, thanks to the inferior ordering and payment process of Piccadilly compared to Morrison’s. To add insult to injury, our waitress was just as chatty as the woman in front of us in line, and was weirdly quick to volunteer extensive information about how and when she went about dying her hair when we asked for no more than a refill. 

Piccadilly macaroni is similar to Morrison's, but worse, just like Piccadilly in general.

I was simultaneously pleased and disappointed to find that the macaroni and cheese at Piccadilly was also different than its counterpart at Morrison’s. The Piccadilly version while similar in appearance and constituent ingredients, was topped with paprika, which gave the whole thing an unpleasant, almost woody taste, but its inferiority to its counterpart at Morrison's meant that Morrison's identity had been preserved in Mobile. In fact, the differences in the macaroni and cheese really sum up the difference between the one surviving Morrison’s and the locations of its sister brand, Piccadilly. While there are indisputable similarities between the two brands, Mephistopheles resides in the minutiae, and the little things Morrison's gets right, Piccadilly gets very wrong. Piccadilly is today, as it was in Lexington in the late ‘90s, noticeably worse than Morrisons. To their credit, however, the Piccadilly overlords have preserved a single Morrison’s location, allowing it to retain just enough of that Morrison’s magic that it shines brighter than it’s Piccadilly relatives. If every Piccadilly were run as well as the Morrison’s in Mobile, it could mark the beginning of a renaissance for the cafeteria.

Despite the fact that I’m still the better part of two decades too young to qualify for an AARP membership, I loved every minute of my meal at the last Morrison’s, and in an age where even the low-end fast food chains are emphasizing quality ingredients and made from scratch food, a brand like Morrison’s that has marketed itself that way from the beginning has the potential to attract a new generation of customers. Since they long occupied the space between fast food and full service restaurants, cafeterias, perhaps were the first fast casual restaurants, and in the near-absence of cafeteria chains today the cafeteria format could be marketed as a unique and memorable dining experience. It certainly always was for me growing up, even when I didn’t barf on the floor.



*Some unrelated fun facts about Lexington Green: 
-Lexington Green was home to a Cinemark theater that had the classic 1980s dayglow interior decor until well into this century. 
-In a surreal coincidence, a fatal shooting once occurred in Lexington Green’s parking lot while William Shatner happened to be shopping there.



6 comments:

  1. I do not recall the 1st 4 paragraphs. I could not have been present? A+ headline. I totally agree with your Mac and cheese assessment. Judy

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  2. In the late 80s through part of the 90s, we had a Bishop's Buffet here. It was oddly named because it was definitely a cafeteria. I remember the food being pretty good and I really liked the chocolate pie topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. I think you can make a good case that the all-you-can-eat buffet helped drive the decline of the cafeteria model. A cafeteria gives you buffet-like selection, but you only get to make one pass through the line and select what amounts to a standard restaurant meal. A true buffet lets you eat as much of everything as you want, although the food is lower-quality than most cafeterias. Given our modern demand for the value proposition, the buffet seems to hold much greater appeal, even if the food is marginal at best.

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  3. This writeup almost makes me want to seek out a cafeteria for the first time in decades. Almost.

    Too late now, but should Esmeralda ever find herself in Mobile again jonesing for chicken tenders, may I suggest:

    https://foosacklys.net/

    The entirety of the small but not broken chain is within a few dozen miles of Mobile. Think hipster Cane's/Zaxby's.

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  4. I had totally forgotten about Morrison's!! When we'd visit my grandmother and her gentleman friend in Florida they always insisted on taking us to Morrison's. As an eight/nine year old it was a fascinating place. Thanks for conjuring up wonderful memories!

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  5. If we ever had a Morrison's here I didn't get to experience it (and Piccadilly's was an infamous night club, no cafeteria line to be found), but we have MCL, a great choice for the old lady in training that I am. They have multiple locations but as far as I know, aren't so much a broken chain but just a small one. I like the fried chicken and yeast rolls!

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  6. This doesn't have anything to do with Morrisons/Piccadilly, but cafeterias in general. Are you old enough to remember when Kmart, of all places, had cafeterias in their stores? I remember fondly the one we visited because you could pick more than one dessert! To a little kid, this seemed the height of decadence. I could have cake AND jello? I don't remember it being especially good (or bad, tbh) but it always seemed like kind of a treat or reward for being patient while shopping with grandma.

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