Sunday, September 15, 2019

Individual Seeking Authentic Lactose Yearns Steadfastly

In my various silly adventures to surviving locations of broken chains, I try my best to find the essence, or at least what remains of the essence of the brand represented by each location. My curiosity and desire to document forgotten history motivate me to seek out the food and experiences that are represented by prickly, subjective, adjectives like “authentic” and “quintessential.” My success in finding the quintessentially authentic in the places I visit is varied. When circumstances allow, I try to visit multiple extant locations of the same chain to gain a well-rounded appreciation for the current state of a brand. However, in many instances, the lack of multiple surviving locations, and indeed my own limited time and resources prevents me from gaining the increased frame of reference that comes with stops at several outlets of the same brand.

I had been meaning to visit a couple places in Western Pennsylvania for months when I was afforded a narrow window of time to visit Pittsburgh on my way home from Johnstown, Pennsylvania where I ate at the last Pappy’s Family Pub. I had just enough time to stop just north of the city in West View at Isaly’s, one of around five survivors of a chain that once had over 300 units. Isaly’s, whose name rhymes with “fries, please” began with William Isaly whose chain of dairies spawned a chain of dairy stores which featured small restaurants. A loose corporate structure allowed the chain to expand rapidly, and by the early 1960s, Isaly’s locations were spread from Pennsylvania to Iowa. Isaly’s was known for its “chipped-chopped” ham sandwiches, "skyscraper" ice cream cones, which featured a tall, conical scoop of ice cream perched atop an ice cream cone, mirroring its shape. Advertising often used the mnemonic “I Shall Always Love You, Sweetie” to help customers remember the correct spelling of Isaly’s name. Most notably, however, Isaly’s developed an ice cream novelty that consisted of a square of vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate and wrapped in foil, the Klondike Bar, which has a fascinating history all of its own. Eventually, Isaly’s fell victim to the same loose corporate structure that had allowed it to grow so quickly. A lack of consistency and corporate oversight, coupled with widespread changes in the dairy industry caused the chain to shrink rapidly in the 1970s. The city of Pittsburgh had long embraced the Isaly’s brand to a greater extent than other markets, and the Pittsburgh area today is where three of the five remaining Isaly’s locations remain open. All remaining locations using the Isaly’s name seem to operate largely independently. While there wasn’t an abundance of consistency between Isaly’s locations in their heyday, there seems to be even less today.

Isaly's is among the most photogenic businesses I've visited for Broken Chains. 

My schedule was tight, and I could only visit a single Isaly’s location. I pored over Google Maps photos of each Pittsburgh-area Isaly’s, eventually deciding to visit the West View location based on the photos I found of its nicely-preserved interior. Surely, I could get a authentically quintessential Isaly’s experience in West View. I found my way into town on a Saturday morning. Isaly’s is situated on a quiet street lined with small storefronts on the ground floors of two and three style buildings in an old, but still vibrant neighborhood. I parked on the street at the end of the block and walked half a block uphill to Isaly’s. Following an ownership change a few years ago, the official name of this location was changed to the “I Shall Always Love You, Sweetie” mnemonic, but the sign of the building remained unchanged except for a period after each letter to reflect that it was an abbreviation for the full name. What awaited me past the minimally modified sign made good on Google’s promise of a time warp interior. 

Inside, it's a museum of old Isaly's decor and signage.

Original light fixtures hung from an ornate tin ceiling. Vintage Isaly’s signs and advertisements lined the walls. The tile floor was nearly identical to the tile floor in the bathroom I had when I lived in an apartment building that was built in 1937. While there were reminders of modernity here and there, it was clear that the owners of the West View Isaly’s had a deep appreciation for the brand’s history and wanted to share that appreciation with clientele. I could at least rest assured that I had found the most  authessentially quinthentic Isaly's dining room. I eschewed the modern tables and chairs and settled into an old built-in booth with an ancient Formica tabletop.

I really want to know what I could have won at Isaly's 60 years ago. Or are they raffling off that vent hood? 

A server appeared with a printed menu whose cover contained more allusions to the legacy of the Isaly’s brand. I decided then and there to order breakfast, and follow it up with ice cream to make the most out of my only planned Isaly's meal. Isaly’s specialty chipped ham was available as a breakfast side, so when I my server returned I ordered the pecan pancakes I always seem to end up ordering when I can, along with a side order of ham. 

I too am ashamed of the things I've done for a Klondike bar. 

Why yes, I do have a fixation with tile floors. Thank you for noticing. 

While waiting for my order to arrive, I played a word game with myself, trying to come up with other backronyms that could be represented by the constituent letters of Isaly’s. My fondness for raw denim nearly immediately led me to “Indigo Should Always Line Your Shins.” My cursory knowledge of former Cincinnati Bengals fullback Elbert “Ickey” Woods’ signature celebratory end zone dance resulted in “Ickey Shuffle Always Leaves You Sore.” Finally, I broke out the thesaurus app on my phone to string together a mnemonic to help me remember either Kentucky’s first governor, or the state where country musician Dwight Yoakam was born, but not both facts. “Isaac Shelby Antecedently Led Yoakam’s State.” I was pondering a fourth acrostic that involved iodine salve when my food showed up.

Pretty great pancakes. 

The pancakes came with individual cups of imitation maple syrup like you'd find at a continental breakfast at a mid-priced hotel, but the cakes themselves were fresh off the griddle and delicious. The ham was exactly what I expected, deli ham warmed up on the grill, but it was good quality ham that provided a salty counterpart to the sweet pancakes. I'd get it again, even if it wasn't the arithmetically quasquicentennial breakfast side of Isaly's. I was so busy pondering the flavors and significance of the briny, porky, historic, breakfast protein, that I didn't notice my server drop off my bill. Since my arrival the place had started to fill up, and the staff were busy tending to other customers. Not wanting to inconvenience the busy staff or stand out as a tourist in the busy neighborhood restaurant, I decided, in the moment to skip the ice cream and continue on my journey home. It's a decision I regret. 

I like my Waffle House hashbrowns scattered, smothered, and covered and my Isaly's ham chipped, chopped, and grilled. 

Since my visit to Isaly's, I haven't had an opportunity to go back to try the ice cream at that or any other locations. I haven't even had a chance to visit one of the handful of Pittsburgh-area grocery stores that I learned too late carry Isaly's branded ice cream. Indeed, all my recent travels and upcoming posts have led me to travel west from my Metro Detroit home, not east. I've had to settle for the occasional Klondike bar from my local Meijer for my Isaly's ice cream experience, but Unilever has been the sole producer of Klondikes since 1993, and my Eastern Ohio born and raised mother tells me that the modern Klondikes don't taste anything like Isaly's Klondikes did in the sixties. My Isaly's experience, while uniquely retro and historically hammy, falls short of feeling quintessential or authentic without ice cream, but that's something I'll have to live with for at least a few months until I get back to Pittsburgh. 

One of the many reasons I can't get back to Pittsburgh for Isaly's ice cream any sooner is that I'll be at Raxgiving at the Harlan, Kentucky Rax in November. If you're a fan of Broken Chains, the blog, or broken chains, the surviving locations of mostly defunct restaurant and retail chains, consider joining me for a meal and informal conversation. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

Rippin' Off the Ritz?

American Dennis
British Dennis

If the analytics tool I use to monitor page views for this blog is correct, approximately 82% of the recent readers of Broken Chains access it from a device with an American IP address. Another 2% access Broken Chains using a device with a British IP address. One could make any number of educated assumptions based on this data, but the assumption relative to today’s topic is that approximately 84% of the recent readers of this blog are familiar with a character known as Dennis the Menace. What might surprise the average American or British Broken Chains reader is that Dennis the Menace is a name used by two similar, yet distinctly different characters on either side of the Atlantic. 

Two separate cartoonists created each character, who share a name, a tendency to cause mischief, and a penchant for horizontal stripes. While American Dennis and British Dennis have a few differences, British Dennis is a few years older and is more of a troublemaker than his American counterpart who is younger and usually well-meaning, but inadvertently menacing. The similarities are striking. Surely, one must be an imitation of the other, right?

The last G.D. Ritzy's mascot sign in use, Huntington, West Virginia

I make no secret for my love of the down, but not out G.D. Ritzy’s restaurant chain that once boasted 120 locations. My enthusiasm for Ritzy’s and their surviving locations was a major catalyst that drove me to start this blog in the first place, along with some strong encouragement from my friend, Cosmo Roadpacer. Last spring, I visited all six of the loosely affiliated surviving locations, plus a seventh that would open the following fall. Not long after that, I had a G.D. Ritzy’s logo tattooed on my right arm. I was predictably interested when I learned of a nearly extinct restaurant chain that used a similar name and seemed to predate my beloved G.D. Ritzy’s by several decades.

Ritzee Hamburgs, Battle Creek, Michigan

Ritzee Hamburgs in Battle Creek, Michigan is the last surviving location of a local chain that once had multiple locations in Battle Creek, plus a few others in nearby, Jackson, Grand Rapids, and perhaps also Kalamazoo during its 1950s heyday. Given that imitation runs rampant in the fast food industry, whether it be Kewpee’s influence on Wendy’s or Big Boy’s influence on the Big Mac and Big Shef, I was curious to see if Ritzee Hamburgs had any direct influence on the similarly-named G.D. Ritzy’s, which began in Columbus, Ohio in 1980, well after the heyday of Ritzee Hamburgs. 

I suspect the sign predates the building. 

I found my way to Battle Creek early on a Friday evening en route southwest to Indiana. I parked in the shadow of the tall, angular neon sign advertising 79 cent burgers, and walked toward the imposing brown facade of the building adorned with hand painted signage. When I entered the building, it was clear it had received few updates since the 1970s. The booths were covered in harvest gold Naugahyde, and potted plants hung from the ceiling in macrame holders. That same ceiling was adorned with curious faux stained glass, faux skylights, while the floor was covered in the same faux woodgrain tile that I recall seeing in 1970s-built McDonald’s locations. The spartan menu board appeared era-appropriate to the rest of the dining room, and the drinks section included “imitation lemonade,” a drink just as authentic as the skylights. While the interior of Ritzee Hamburgs was equally dated as the practice of calling burgers “Hamburgs,” nothing looked to be alarmingly dirty or in disrepair. As with many of the places I visit, Ritzee was stuck in time.

The menu is anything but ritzy...

...but the dining room exudes all the 1970s luxury of a Chrysler Cordoba.

To anyone over the age of 30, these are McDonald's floor tiles. 

I ordered up a Ritz cheeseburger with everything as well as an olive burger, plus fries. (I don’t especially enjoy olive burgers, but I encounter them frequently when traveling in western Michigan. I order and force myself to eat one every so often in hopes that they’re an acquired taste.) After ordering, I took a seat, and took a few minutes to bask in the anachronistic majesty of my surroundings. It was a brief bask, though as my food was delivered quickly to my table on actual ceramic plates. 

That's an olive burger all right. 

Here's a conventional Ritzee burger.

I was curious if the burgers would bear any resemblance to those at G.D. Ritzy’s, and while both chains refer to their quarter pound burgers as a “Ritz” that’s where the similarities ended. The Ritz cheeseburger before me had a relatively thick, circular patty on a sesame seed bun. “Everything” at Ritzee means mustard, ketchup, pickle and onion. The fries were standard crinkle cuts, and the olive burger was… covered in green olives. While the food was decent enough, it was clear that G.D. Ritzy’s thin, irregularly-shaped, lacy-edged burger patties smashed flat on a ripping hot grill, on unseeded buns topped with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise in addition to ketchup, mustard, pickle, and onion had no direct relation to the burgers at Ritzee Hamburgs. Likewise, the crinkle cut fries at Ritzee had no resemblance to G.D. Ritzy’s shoestring fries. Ritzee also lacked the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, made from scratch ice cream, and Art Deco theme that make G.D. Ritzy’s feel fun and unique. Satisfied with the lack of similarity, I finished my meal, bused my table and walked out the door through the parking lot to my car, thinking there couldn’t possibly be a direct connection between Ritzee Hamburgs and G.D. Ritzy’s, when I saw it, another hand painted sign by the door featuring a fancy man with a mustache monocle, top hat and tuxedo who bore a striking resemblance to G.D. Ritzy’s mascot who wore a bowler hat, and in his earliest incarnations also had a monocle and mustache. Could the Ritzee Hamburgs fancy man have been the inspiration for the G.D. Ritzy’s fancy man? It at least seemed possible. 

Ritzee fancy boy
Early G.D. Ritzy's fancy boy,
note the mustache and monocle

In the US, Dennis the Menace comic strips first appeared in newspapers on March 12, 1951. Across the Atlantic on the very same day, issue 452 of the comic book, The Beano were on sale at newsstands all over the UK, a few days ahead of their March 17th issue date. Those comics were the first to feature the British Dennis the Menace. That’s right, both Dennises the Menaces first appeared on the very same day on different continents, created by different cartoonists for different publications, none of whom knew about the other Dennis. By all accounts, it was a complete coincidence. These kinds of coincidences happen occasionally in the chain restaurant world, notably to Waffle House and Burger King. Based on my experience at Ritzee Hamburgs, it seems likely that the similarities in name and mascot were at least mostly coincidental.

According to Wiktionary, the word "Ritzy" describing something elegant or luxurious is an eponym derived from the name of Swiss hotelier César Ritz, founder of the high-end hotels known today as Ritz-Carltons. The name of both restaurant chains is therefore likely to have a common etymological ancestor in César Ritz. Additionally, the disappearance of the monocle and mustache from the G.D. Ritzy's mascot implies that the operators of that chain at least gained an awareness of Ritzee Hamburgs. I tend to assume the original G.D. Ritzy's was created with no awareness of the similar Ritzee mascot, after all, what makes a fellow look ritzier than a monocle and mustache? Adding them seems like a decision that was reached organically in the case of both chains. I do however, suspect that at some point G.D. Ritzy's management became aware of the pre-existing Ritzee Hamburgs mascot and removed the mustache and monocle from their own mascot to prevent the possibility of finger pointing or worse, litigation.

A hamburger for under a dollar is as hard to find as a sit-down Pizza Hut.
I was on my return trip from points west of Battle Creek with this post fully written in my head, when it occurred to me that I hadn't tried the 79 cent burgers advertised on the ancient sign out front of Ritzee. I stopped by as an afterthought to see how much burger 79 cents would buy in 2019, this time ordering via the drive thru. While the burger I received was a little light on meat and heavier than bread than is ideal, it has way more of both than what you'd find on a White Castle slider, which costs a few cents more. It's the ritziest sub-one dollar burger I've encountered in this decade, and like every other menu item at Ritzee Hamburgs, it's also completely unlike anything at G.D. Ritzy's, mascots aside. 

If you'd care to join me in an in person discussion over food that is strikingly similar to what you'd find at Arby's, consider coming to Raxgiving at the Harlan, Kentucky Rax this November. I'll be there to hang out with readers of Broken Chains in a thematically appropriate setting.

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