Monday, August 19, 2019

Pizza for One

♬Cheese by the ton on a Margherita
Just pizza for one, 
And one for pizza
Just me for pie
And pie for me alone. 

Strangers a-souring 
At my wanton devouring,
Extreme gurgitation 
On my Keystone vacation 
Pictures of my Pappy, dear,
On my iPhone, crappy, dear

Yum! Brands announced last week that they’d be closing 500 sit-down Pizza Hut locations and increasing the focus on pizza delivery. It’s a move that is hard to watch for anyone who grew up eating pizza under a distinctively-shaped red roof and behind trapezoidal windows, but it's hardly a surprising move. From the rise of the American sit-down pizza parlor started by Shakey’s in the fifties to the present-day, dine-in pizza experiences have slowly become a rarity. Over the years, people discovered that pizza traveled well in a flat cardboard box, and was the perfect food for a delivery business model. Reducing the overhead and complexity of operating a sit-down restaurant in favor of a carry out/delivery setup made business sense for both parent companies and franchisees, and pizza became the default delivery food in North America. People, in general, seem to prefer to eat pizza at home, and with the rise of delivery services, the idea of enjoying a meal out at an inexpensive restaurant is becoming increasingly antiquated. Is it any wonder then, in a time when Postmates and DoorDash will deliver food to your door from nearly any restaurant, that the largest pizza chain in the world, who has been slowly, but steadily, closing sit-down locations for years to the point that entire blogs are devoted to the phenomenon, is set to close 500 of its remaining dine-in locations en masse? 

My local Hut's days are probably numbered.

With market trends being what they are, it’s tough to make a long-term business case for any sit-down pizza chain, but for anyone who grew up having meals out at Pizza Hut, Shakey's, Godfather's, and innumerable other regional chains and mom and pops, it’s a little sad. However, as with most chain restaurants, there are always holdouts that cling to a bygone era and anachronistic business model in the face of a changing marketplace.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” 

That's the standout line of the younger Edith Bouvier Beale in the 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens. The film showed the everyday lives and interactions of an eccentric, reclusive, mother and adult daughter both named Edith Bouvier Beale, living in a derelict mansion in the Hamptons. They had been wealthy socialites decades before, but their failure to adapt to a changing world and their own changing fortunes left them living in squalor and obscurity, clinging to their memories of happier and more prosperous times. I saw the film for the first time recently, around the same time I was studying Pappy’s Family Pub, a suspiciously Shakey’s-like chain of pizza joints that operated In Pennsylvania, Maryland, and perhaps other nearby states in the seventies, and perhaps other nearby decades.  

Ignore the modern vehicles, and this picture would look like it could easily be from the late '70s

Like countless other pizza chains before it, Pappy’s locations gradually closed their doors as Domino's and Little Caesar’s made it increasingly clear that delivery and carryout were the future of the pizza business, but somehow, a single Pappy’s location remains open to this day, standing STAUNCH in the face of a changing pizza business. Based on a tip from a reader (Thanks, Aiden!) I visited the world’s last operating Pappy’s located in Johnstown, Pennsylvania a few weeks ago, and I was delighted to find the line dividing the past from the present was nearly nonexistent there. 

Pappy's Dixieland style of dress seems to be borrowed from the general vibe of the Shakey's Pizza locations of the same era. 

I arrived late on a Friday afternoon, having been run out of East Hampton, New York the previous day because I happened to be wearing red shoes. My costume for the day consisted of my second best Taco Tico T-shirt and a pair of raw denim jeans that I’ve been trying to break in. (The best thing is to wear shorts under the jeans, so if it gets too hot you can take the jeans off and use them as a cape.) I parked at the corner of the expansive parking lot in the shadow of a tall vintage sign featuring the mustachioed cartoon countenance of Pappy himself, who in my made-up mythos of chain restaurant mascots, is likely a blood relative of Uncle John of pancake fame. I pondered whether Pappy and Uncle John were brothers, cousins or perhaps father and son, as I made my way to the fanciful red and white doors of Pappy’s entryway. 

These doors could just as easily lead to Santa's workshop
The hostess sat me in one of many well-worn wooden booths, covered in the carved initials of decades of past patrons. My booth was next to a window which was adorned stained glass panels and outlined with round, incandescent light bulbs giving off a faint yellow glow. The dining room was dimly lit by Narnia-esque faux gas lampposts standing at every booth. They appeared to have been modified to include ceramic shades at some point. A fireplace with a brick hearth stood at the center of the room, serving as a cozy focal point, though no fire was burning during my mid-July visit. The dingy red and white paneled walls were adorned every few yards with vintage signage featuring the Pappy, who also bears a striking resemblance to Reddy Kilowatt, if he were to join a barbershop quartet. Aside from a modern internet jukebox on one wall, just about the entire interior of the place looked original, or at least without a significant update in my lifetime. My surroundings made it clear that very little had changed at Pappy's in the past 40 years or so. While I doubt anyone was feeding bags of Wonder Bread to feral cats and raccoons in the attic, the place had clearly seen better days. 

The view to the right of my table...

...and to the left

My booth was not the only one covered in Nixon-era graffiti. In fact, all the booths and tables along with several spots on the walls were similarly defaced. Tiles of the drop ceiling were stained and mismatched. I was seated near the restrooms, and every few minutes, a waitress would check the ladies’ to make sure it was clear before ushering a marble faun of a male plumber through the door, presumably to deal with some horrific plumbing issue I’d rather not be thinking about while ordering dinner. 

"Up your nose with a rubber hose!"

Pizza and so much more!

I examined the menu, and found that it had much more than pizza. I found that I could order ribs, fried chicken, or a steak in addition to the expected pizza and pasta. Could the diverse menu offerings have helped this Pappy’s survive the decline of sit-down pizza joints? I had set out to order pizza for myself, but I was travelling alone as I often do, and no personal-sized pizzas were offered. I settled on a meatball Stromboli (it was pizza-esque, at least) along with a side salad. 

So-so salad; This picture was hastily taken after the first couple of bites. 
The salad was the epitome of nothing special, salad mix from a bag with a couple grape tomatoes and cucumber slices tossed on with a handful of croutons as an afterthought, though it came in a wooden salad bowl, something I haven’t seen at any restaurant in at least two decades. It made me wonder how and if they kept it clean. 

Stromboli, note the meatballs peaking out the vent holes. 
My Stromboli arrived a few minutes later, and as promised by the menu, the baked half moon shaped pizza dough pocket was overstuffed with tiny meatballs, that appeared to be the type that come pre-cooked and frozen. Pizza cheese and a sweet tomato sauce were also present. It wasn’t bad, but a little monotonous to eat. Its flavor and texture could have benefited from some onions and peppers. I’d ask for them to be added if I ordered it again. Still, I had my Stromboli, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted.

There were several other signs that started with, "Hey kids!"

I was a bit surprised when I got the bill, as my Stromboli, salad, and diet brown soda set me back nearly $20 before a tip for my server, but the economics of pizza tend to favor large groups sharing several large pies over a lone diner eating a single pizza pouch. On my next trip to Pappy’s having a few friends along to help me sample different pizzas and entrees would no doubt result in a better experience, though finding a handful of well-wishers willing to ride along with me to Western Pennsylvania for a meal might be too tall an order for most, if not all of my friend group. 

I need to figure out if I can still join Pappy's Birthday club. 

After paying my bill, I took a quick lap of the dining room to ensure I was fully appreciating the Pappy’s experience. I walked past the window into the kitchen that allowed me to look at employees shaping and topping circles of pizza dough, through the Rax-like solarium that housed an odd grand piano that I regret not taking a picture of, and finally into Pappy’s Fun Zone, a small arcade on the far side of the dining room. I had intended to play a game or two of pinball, but I couldn’t get the old woodgrain-covered change machine to accept my dollar bills. I did at least manage to appreciate the Tiffany-style Pappy’s lamp that hung from the ceiling. It was the only one in the place, but I suspect there were more at one time. It’s the kind of unique branded decor that collectors drool over and dream about hanging over their kitchen tables. (I’m talking about me. I’m “collectors!”)

I'm Pappy. Welcome to my fun zone!

This lamp is the kind of thing that would fetch a few hundred bucks on eBay. 

After the death of the elder Edith Bouvier Beale in 1977, her daughter would eventually sell the dilapidated Grey Gardens estate with the stipulation that the house not be demolished. The buyer, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, spent what was sure to be an obscene amount of money refurbishing the property to habitable condition, erasing what had been the backdrop to an iconic film in the process. Grey Gardens’ fate served to show that nothing lasts forever in a patinated state, even cultural icons. For all it’s foibles, The Johnstown Pappy’s Family Pub feels special in the way so many broken chain locations do. Each graffitied table, painted Pappy sign, and overflowing terlet, is a little piece of endangered history, and while Pappy’s is an operational restaurant in original condition today, its overall rough condition and the climate of the Pizza Economy at large may mean its days are numbered. I advise anyone nearby with even a passing interest in broken chains to visit Pappy’s while they still can. As Edith the Elder would say, Pappy’s stands on concentrated (sic) ground. 

The only official account of the history of Pappy's Family Pub that I could find. 

If you’re reading this and feel yourself drawn to surviving outlets of broken chains, consider joining me at the Harlan, Kentucky Rax this November in observance of Raxgiving. Those who attend will learn firsthand that I do terrific dances.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Damon's Wanes

I was raised with a strong sense of familial obligation. My parents attempted to instill in me a belief that I should spend time with my various relatives whether I liked it or not. This caused quite a bit of conflict over the first couple decades of my life, because most of the time, I preferred to be alone.

When my maternal grandparents retired in the early 1990s, they moved to Central Kentucky from Eastern Ohio for the expressed purpose of being near my brother and myself, their only grandchildren. As a result they expected my parents to drop everything, and show up at their house with me and my brother every Sunday for a large midday meal followed by endless hours of requisite socializing. It was not unlike the Friday night dinners that Rory and Lorelai had to endure on Gilmore Girls, except there was no alcohol and the menu was always the same pot roast and mashed potatoes.

Naturally, as I grew into my tween and teen years I began to dread this weekly ritual, as it took up a sizable chunk of the weekend in which I’d rather be playing video games or being alone with my thoughts. (I was a weird kid.) Regardless of my protests, however, I was always dragged along, week after week, by my parents who themselves were harassed and guilted into the same Sunday visit by my overbearing grandparents. This went on nearly every Sunday for a solid 12 years.

I thought I had escaped my ancestral obligation when I moved to Illinois for college, but by then, my grandparents had aged to the point that they were becoming incapable of doing the things that they had come to enjoy in their retirement. It was around that time that, out of a strong sense of familial obligation, my mother assumed the role of their assistant and wrangler for the various road trips they’d take regularly throughout the year, shepherding them to and from Florida in the winter and to the annual car show in Hershey, Pennsylvania in the fall.

Coincidentally, I was roped into assisting on a few of these trips when I was home for the summer, and rather than going anywhere fun, I always wound up being my grandparents' chauffeur and de facto butler on trips to Steubenville, Ohio. Situated in Ohio’s eastern edge where it meets the vertical skinny part of West Virginia, Steubenville and the surrounding communities had been where my grandparents spent their entire lives up until their retirement. It had been a steel town in its heyday with mills running day and night and polluting the air and nearby Ohio River, but as the steel industry declined, so did Steubenville, whose air and watershed became cleaner, but whose skyline was permanently scarred by the rusted and crumbling hulks of derelict mills.

It was against this backdrop of the decline of both my grandparents’ abilities and American industry that I first discovered Damon’s Grill. Whether I was dragged along to Steubenville for a family reunion or funeral, we’d always end up having a meal at the Damon’s attached to the Holdiay Inn on University Boulevard. While I was indifferent at best to the sports bar atmosphere, the food was good and the service was quick. A meal At Damon’s always provided a welcome respite from a weekend of driving my grandparents around in their Cadillac while arguing with them over directions and speed limits while gently reminding my increasing combative grandfather that he could not have two large McDonald’s milkshakes not only because it was a generally bad idea to consume half a gallon of milkshake, but also because he was diabetic.

Damon’s was founded in Columbus, Ohio in 1979 and, thanks to franchising, grew to a nearly 140 unit chain across the American Midwest and Southeast as well as the UK. In 2009, amid recession and increased competition, the company declared bankruptcy and all company owned, and most franchised, locations closed as a result. Today, there seem to be a total of five Damon’s locations still open. In the US, there's one in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, another in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and a third in Wilmington, Ohio. There are an additional two still operating in the UK in Lincoln and Sheffield. All five are formerly franchised locations that operate essentially independently.

More than ten years after my last Damon’s meal, I found myself on the way from my home in Michigan back to Central Kentucky for another family gathering. (Despite my tumultuous adolescence, I suppose that I too, have a strong sense of familial obligation as an adult.) Bored of my usual route down I-75, I opted to follow US 68 from its northwestern terminus in Findlay, Ohio to Lexington, Kentucky, a route which took me through Wilmington, home to Ohio’s last Damon’s, and my lunch stop that day. 

It was midday on a weekday when I navigated past the seedy looking motel that shares a parking lot with the Wilmington Damon’s. It was around noon on a weekday, and the place seemed about half full of mostly elderly clientele, including one of those groups of old ladies who wear funny red hats. I was shown to a well-worn U-shaped booth facing a quartet of projection screens showing sports and news. A pair of dials on an odd apparatus that also held a speaker allowed me to switch between the audio of each broadcast and control the volume. It’s a shame that I’m bored by sports and depressed by news, because I thought the setup was pretty neat. 

I found myself wishing that they showed Gilmore Girls or Dukes of Hazzard reruns on any of the screens, as either of those shows would have enhanced my dining experience more than college baseball or the 24 hour news cycle. (Incidentally, outdoor shots for both shows were filmed on the same set, which is why downtown Hazzard County and downtown Stars Hollow look so much alike.)

I ordered a Diet Coke when my waitress arrived, and browsed the menu, whose back cover showed multiple 7.99 lunch specials. I don't remember even bothering to open the menu after seeing the bratwurst sliders, which is what I ended up ordering. I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a good bratwurst. While I waited for my food, I looked around at the interior of the place. While the outside of the building was visually striking with its gray siding with red and white accents and prominent cupola, the inside felt pretty standard with medium tone wood paneling adorned with prominent Ohio State memorabilia. I realize that many people from both Ohio and Michigan have strong opinions about Ohio State University athletics, but I am not among them. I was busy trying to get my mind's transmission to engage any gear other than neutral regarding Ohio State when my food showed up. 

The miniature bratwursts on my plate sat on similarly diminutive hot dog buns, and were served without garnishes or condiments. The menu showed grilled onions on top of them, and I was slightly let down by their absence. Regardless, the sausages were perfectly edible, and a nice change of pace from my normal burger and taco-based lunchtime proteins. The fries were the lightly battered variety, about which I have mixed feelings. (Battered fries seems like a combination of too many starches, and feel akin to cheating one's way to making fries crispy on the outside.) There was a creamy, stringy coleslaw as well. It was a perfectly decent lunch for 10 bucks with a tip. I have no idea if anything I ate was authentic to pre-bankruptcy Damon's, but it's almost not worth thinking about. 

Aside from the novel controls for the audio matching the larger than life video projections on the wall, not much about Damon's felt distinctive or exciting, which seems to be part of the reason for Damon's bankruptcy in the first place. Their food, atmosphere, and overall experience simply didn't stand out in a crowded field. However, we've established that a place like Damon's isn't really my scene anyway. I have similar feelings about both Bennigan's and Fricker's. They're places designed to cater to people who enjoy sports and socializing, two of my least favorite things, so I'm anything but objective when it comes to evaluating such a place. The fact that this Damon's and four others are still in business ten years after their corporate parent gave up on them tells a different story. The towns that still have a Damon's location obviously hold them in high enough regard that they've been able to keep their doors open despite all odds, and I'm glad they have. It's love and support from the local community, coupled, perhaps with a distinct lack of nearby competition that keeps the surviving locations of broken chains going. Even if I don't always have a memorably positive or negative experience, my own passion for documenting broken chains, coupled perhaps with a smattering of personality quirks, will keep me on the road seeking them out and telling you fine folks all about them here.