Friday, October 11, 2019

You've Gotta Know the Territory

"What the heck, you're welcome, join us at the diner...

The first stop on my recent trip across the Midwest was at the Joliet, Illinois Rax which I initially visited and wrote about last summer, for a quick, just for fun, pre-Raxgiving Rax lunch. While enjoying a dessert of salad bar Oreo fluff and strawberry shortcake, I got my phone out to view my route to my next stop, a bootleg Zantigo all the way in Minnesota. I had expected to take I-90 across Wisconsin, but my navigation app instead routed me across Iowa via I-80. Since this unexpected turn of events had occurred under the solarium of the Joliet Rax, I could only conclude that my new route was the result of the divine intervention of Uncle Alligator. I had recently learned from a reader (Thanks Alex!) that the uniquely Iowan restaurant chain, Maid-Rite, had shrunk well past the Cici’s Point and into broken chain territory. This unexpected route change gave me the perfect opportunity to have a Maid-Rite experience. I hastily plotted a route to a Maid-Rite location near the interstate in Davenport, and left Rax, offering up a salad bar crouton to Uncle Alligator as tribute on my way out.

Two hours and one Mississippi River crossing later, I had entered The Hawkeye State, like a modern-day Professor Harold Hill, handsome smooth-talking charlatan that I am, and no sooner had exited the interstate in search of the Maid-Rite that would provide my second lunch of the day. This would be the second Maid-Rite experience of my life. The first was a disappointing stop at the only official Maid-Rite in Ohio, which is attached to a dirty Sunoco station in Piqua. (A formerly-affiliated, presently unofficial Maid-Rite is a beloved institution in Greenville, Ohio.) I was looking forward to a definitively Iowan Maid-Rite experience at what I hoped was a long-standing location. Maid-Rite is, after all, among the oldest surviving American restaurant chains.

Maid-Rite began with Fred Angell, a butcher from Muscatine, Iowa who developed a unique blend of beef cuts and spices, ground to a proprietary texture. In 1926, he opened his first restaurant, selling sandwiches containing his beefy creation, not pressed into patties, but loose, like a sauceless sloppy joe, also known as a tavern sandwich. The single, carry-out only restaurant grew to a chain of franchised sit-down units across Iowa and surrounding states, peaking somewhere around 130 to 150 locations. Angell’s family lost control of the chain in 1984 when Maid-Rite was sold to a pair of business partners, one of whom abruptly backed out of the deal shortly before the other died. A years-long legal battle then ensued as the families of each of the partners fought in court over ownership of the Maid-Rite brand. During that time, a court order prevented new locations from opening, and a lack of corporate organization oversight resulted in a decline in quality and widespread closures. The brand never seemed to fully recover from that era, and today, Maid-Rite is down to 31 operating locations, 20 of which are in Iowa.

The Maid-Rite story as told by vinyl letter decals.
It's hardly Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac, or any of them other highfalutin' Greeks.
The format of surviving Maid-Rite locations seems to vary wildly, with some Maid-Rites operating out of decades-old family-owned restaurants, while others are modern free standing units. Others still, like the one I visited years ago in Ohio, operate out of gas station, strip mall, or food court slots. Had I planned a trip to Maid-Rite more than a couple of hours in advance, I would have attempted to carefully select the Maid-Rite I’d be visiting, ensuring that it best exemplified both the history and the current state of the brand. Instead, I chose the closest location to I-80 in Davenport.

Back in Davenport, I was proceeding up the street in a suburban commercial area. As I approached the location where my GPS said the Maid-Rite would be, I eagerly scanned the horizon for the telltale stop sign of the Maid-Rite logo, which confusingly, never seemed to appear. As I arrived at the promised Maid-Rite location, I found only a Family Video. Something wasn’t right. I pulled into the Family Video lot to study the GPS screen more closely, and suddenly I saw it.

The Glenview, Illinois-based Family Video operates over 500 video rental stores in the U.S. and Canada. Thanks to low corporate overhead, and some savvy business moves, they outlived Blockbuster to become the largest video rental chain in North America. One of Family Video’s many strategies that has allowed them to remain in business nearly a decade into the streaming era is leasing out subdivided retail space in their stores to other businesses. It’s not uncommon to see a hair salon, gym, or a pizza joint occupying space under the green metal roof of a Family Video store. Just off I-80 in Davenport Iowa, one corner of an operating Family Video building houses a Maid-Rite location. Upon discovering this, my first impulse was to look for other Maid Rite locations in the area that might be a bit more Maid-Riteish, but I ultimately decided to eat at the Family Video Maid-Rite. It was simply too weird to pass up. 

Cash for the movie rental, cash for the loosemeat, cash for the crinkle fries, cash for the CBD

Family Video with a capital V, and that doesn't rhyme with M, and that stands for Maid-Rite
Giant food! don't you understand?
Friend, either you're closing your eyes
To a situation you do now wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
By the presence of giant food in your community.

They'll be trying out Grapette, trying out Mil-Kay, trying out IBC and Hires like root beer fiends! Well, I should say!

Once I was inside the restaurant, I quickly forgot that I was in a Family Video building In fact, it barely even seemed like I was in a chain restaurant. The dining room was completely separate from the video store and lacked the generic corporate feel of a place affiliated with a chain that still has an active corporate structure. Instead, the atmosphere of the place felt like an independent sit-down diner, what my neighbors in Metro Detroit would call a “Coney Island” for reasons I’ve never fully understood. There were servers waiting on tables, vintage advertising signs on the walls, and faux vintage red vinyl chairs at each table with matching stools at the counter, the black and white checkerboard tile floor completed the trifecta of generic, independent faux-retro diner decor, though a massive three-dimensional rendering of Maid Rite sandwich on the wall provided a unique counterpoint to the cliched decor. A little research after the fact revealed that this particular Maid-Rite was owned by a franchisee who operates five locations billed as Maid-Rite Diners, offering the classic Maid-Rite sandwiches plus an expanded menu of breakfast and lunch diner food. There were even several conventional patty-based burgers on the menu. can eat your fill of all the food that you buy yourself."

I had little interest in the expanded diner menu, and when my server asked for my order, I ordered up an original Maid-Rite with the default mustard, pickle, and onion along with fries. It was mid-afternoon on a weekday, and the place wasn’t terribly busy, so my order arrived quickly. The Maid-Rite sandwich tasted different from the one I remember eating in Ohio a few years previous. The Ohio Maid-Rite had a mild, almost sweet flavor, while the one I was eating in Iowa tasted more bold and beefy. It’s entirely possible that I am remembering the flavor of the Ohio Maid-Rite incorrectly, but it seems at least equally likely that two locations of a diminished, not terribly well-organized chain that are hundreds of miles apart may be using different recipes and preparation methods for a signature product. (That certainly seems to be the case with Taco Tico.) At any rate, the Maid-Rite not quite burger, not quite sloppy joe tasted great. The soft, steamed bun was topped with the perfect amount of meat to compensate for the bit that that inevitably spilled out the bottom, and the toppings complemented the aptly named loose meat without overpowering it. Future trips I make across Iowa will from now on, include at least one Maid-Rite stop. The fries were generic crinkle cuts, but had a slightly olive-ish aftertasted, as if they had been fried in olive oil, but that may have been a hallucination on my part, as I was still recovering from the initial surprise at the prospect of having lunch at Family Video. 

76 French Fries were in my lunch today... 

...with (at least) 110 beefy pebbles close at hand... 

...and with a spoon, in place to help me stuff my face, and save me from using my bare hands!

Seeing that branded to-go cups were available, I asked for a to-go refill of my Diet Dew as well as a chocolate shake for the road, thus ensuring that I, and my cup-collecting pal, Carl Poncherello of Roney’s fame, would each have a Maid-Rite cup to add to our respective collections. The shake was blended to order, but appeared to be based on soft serve ice cream from a machine to which milk and syrup were added. Regardless, it was a perfectly acceptable shake, tasting smooth, yet homemade, without the telltale icy chunks that are often part of shakes blended from scooped ice cream.
The cup on the left gave me a bit of a fright when I got it home...
 I almost shipoopi'd myself!
I continued westward with those, and other cups I had collected along the way on a trip that took me all the way to North Dakota, only washing them out when I returned home a few days later. When I went to wash the Maid-Rite cup that had contained my chocolate shake, I was greeted by a very angry spider inside the cup, the diameter of whose body was a good deal larger than the X-shaped straw opening on the lid that had been in place since Davenport. I can come up with two, roughly equally distasteful explanations for how the spider got there. Either, it was the sole survivor of a milkshake full of Iowa spiders that I had ingested but failed to notice while careening down I-80, or that my car is infested with magical spiders capable of teleportation in and out of sealed vessels. Just to be safe, I’ll plan on avoiding Maid-Rite shakes in the future and enlisting the services of an automotive exterminator/exorcist to ensure my vehicle remains free of enchanted arachnids. I’m not sure what I am meant to learn by encountering a live spider in my milkshake cup, but I suppose Uncle Alligator works in mysterious ways. 

Goodnight my sandwich, goodnight my love. 

If you’re free the day after American Thanksgiving this year and you’ll be within a reasonable distance from the wilds of southeastern Kentucky, consider joining me for Raxgiving at the Harlan, Kentucky Rax where we will dine together under the benevolent gaze of Uncle Alligator.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Zapata Zigs to Zantigo, Zags to Zanz

Late last year, I took a tour of a few different locations in Minnesota that fit the Broken Chains theme. The trip resulted in a tiny narrative about the Bonanza in St. Cloud and a full post about the last operating Happy Chef restaurant in Mankato, but the stop I made at a recently re-opened Zantigo in St. Paul was my favorite of the trip, thanks chiefly to Zantigo's connection to a family anecdote I grew up hearing. My meal at the St. Paul Zantigo resulted in a blog post that erroneously assumed that anything remotely resembling Zantigo did not exist after Pepsico's acquisition and phase-out of the brand in the mid-80s, and before the brand's revival in the '90s by former Zantigo Manager Don Kaelble. I even went so far as to lament the "dark Zantigo-less years"of the late '80s and early '90s. I should have known better.

If there's one thing that I've learned in tracking down experiences to write about here, it's that in the chain restaurant world, it's not at all unusual for a franchisee or two of an ostensibly defunct chain to remain in business decades after their corporate parent fades away. Often, those holdout franchisees acquire the rights to the brand, as is the case with chains like Rax and Dog 'n Suds. In other cases, holdout franchisees change the names of their restaurants and menu items, but carry on as they always have. I've visited two different former Burger Chefs that have done just that, and I have a lead on a third. It was therefore not surprising when I learned that Zantigo had never fully disappeared.

After uploading that initial Zantigo post, I continued having my silly adventures and writing sillier narratives about them until I was stopped in my tracks, as if contained by some manner of Roddenberrian forcefield grid. An entity known only as “Z” commented on my Zantigo post and informed me of Zanz, a former Zantigo that had been in continuous operation in Mankato, Minnesota since the early 1970’s, back when Zantigo was called Zapata. Starting in the late '80s the Mankato Zantigo became Zanz after PepsiCo phased out the Zantigo brand, and Zanz had functioned as a Zantigo in all but name ever since. Upon learning this, time seemed to freeze all around me, and could only be unfrozen by a visit to Zanz. At least that's what the Z-Entity told me as it shape-shifted and taunted me. I had little choice but to drive the 700 miles back to Minnesota for the second time in less than a year so I could appease both the Z-Entity and my curiosity about Zanz.

Not your typical Zantigo building
It was after sundown when I arrived, road-weary and hungry. The sun-faded taco on the backlit plastic sign below glowing red letters spelling out ZANZ marked the end of my journey. The name, "Zanz" was different enough from Zantigo to keep the lawyers placated, but similar enough to let the general public know what they could find inside. I walked across the parking lot, under the building's long canopy that hinted to its past life as a drive-in, and into the building's small dining room.

Interior dining area, note the unique light fixture. 

I had my doubts about how authentic of a Zantigo experience I could expect at Zanz, since the building was not a standard example of Zantigo's corporate architecture. It had clearly been converted to a Zapata from something else before it became Zantigo, and finally Zanz. From the outside, the building lacked the stucco walls, arched windows, and tall wedge that made its estranged cousin in St. Paul look the part of an authentic vintage Zantigo building, but once I was inside, those doubts melted away like shredded cheddar in a Chilito. Every flat surface was covered in terra cotta, Spanish tile, woodgrain, or gold formica. Tall, amber-tinted light fixtures hung over every booth, and while the panels in the menu board were modern, they had what I took to be its original frame. It was the vintage Zantigo interior I had hoped for, in vain, in St. Paul. In fact, Zanz seemed to occupy the opposite end of the Zantigo spectrum from its Twin Cities counterpart.

This chain restaurant blog is quickly becoming a tile blog. 

The St. Paul Zantigo, was clearly a purpose-built Zantigo building, but it had been updated extensively, inside and outside to suit a modern aesthetic. The color and decor in St. Paul were decidedly modern, and the old backlit menu board had given way to modern flatscreen monitors. (These updates were likely a necessity, as the St. Paul Zantigo was a Taco Bell for many years before it reverted back to a Zantigo location, and it was likely extensively remodeled during the Taco Bell era.) The interior at Zanz, on the other hand, was a perfectly preserved 1970s time capsule, quite possibly the most complete Zapta/Zantigo interior left in existence. If the St. Paul Zantigo, and the other locations around the Twin Cities are representative of the modern Zantigo brand, Zanz serves as an unofficial reminder of the brand's heritage.

Hey, remember when this tile blog was about chain restaurants?

My plan was to compare and contrast the Zantigo and Zanz experiences further by ordering the exact same thing at Zanz as I had at Zantigo. When the cashier nodded me over, I started with the same mild Chilito and chips and cheese I'd had in St. Paul, but panicked slightly when I could not find a Taco Deluxe on the menu. Thinking on my feet, I ordered a taco burrito instead, and took a seat to await my order, and ponder the difference in menu, and the nature of Americanized Mexican food in general.

Despite them being modern, the panels of the menu board have a vintage feel. 

Multiple sources state that during the modern Zantigo revival era, Don Kaelble and company made a few additions to the Zantigo menu. I suspect the Taco Deluxe, a hard shell taco inside a softshell tortilla with a layer of refried bean adhesive was one of these additions, likely made to compete with the similar Taco Bravo from Taco John's and the recently discontinued Double Decker Taco at Taco Bell. I suspect no such menu item existed in the first wave Zapata/Zantigo era during the 1970s and '80s, and that the addition to the menu was never made at the independently operated Zanz. While I was slightly disappointed not to find a Taco Deluxe on the menu, I was excited to try a Taco Burrito.

The wrapper is twisted at the end of the Chilito, just as it is at Zantigo.

Longtime readers know I'm a massive fan of a Mexican fast food chain known as Taco Tico, which, like Zantigo, has Midwestern origins and also like Zantigo, was founded by someone who was not even remotely Mexican. Taco Tico has their own version of a Taco Burrito, that is, a burrito shell stuffed with fast food taco ingredients, known as a Sancho. The abscence of a Taco Deluxe at Zanz afforded me the opportunity to try what I took to be Zantigo's equivalent of the Taco Tico Sancho, apparently a staple of Midwest-Mex cuisine.

Zanz Chlito cross section. Ignore my ugly hand. 

I started with the most easily replicable menu item, the chips and cheese, and found like at Zantigo, they consisted of white corn tortilla chips under a layer of shredded cheddar jack, microwaved to form a melty blanket atop the simple, yet delicious appetizer. I then moved onto the Chilito, which had failed to thrill me in St. Paul. It's unofficial counterpart in Mankato, however was more to my taste. Perhaps it was a different tortilla, was a bit more generously filled with the chili-like Chilito sauce, or maybe my previous experience helped me manage my expectations, but at any rate, I enjoyed Zanz bootleg Chilito a bit more than the official Chilito I'd eaten in St. Paul, even if the flavor of the filling was nearly identical.

Taco Burrito cross section

I then moved onto the Taco Burrito, which I unwrapped to find was little teapot-like, short and stout, compared to the long and slender Sancho at Taco Tico. A couple bites revealed the meat inside to be identical in flavor to the taco meat I'd had in the Deluxe Taco at Zantigo the previous winter, and a generous layer of shredded cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion, provided a nice contrast to the warm beef. It's clearly a menu item best eaten fresh before homeostasis renders the fillings uniformly lukewarm, but it was delightful, if ephemeral.

I stopped by on my way out of town the next morning for more exterior photos. I think that's a Signtronix sign? Can any sign aficionados confirm? 

Having experienced the extremes of the Zantigo brand, it's tough to say which I enjoyed more. While inarguably similar, the modern Zantigo and the vintage and unofficial Zanz occupy two distinct places in my mind. Zantigo, a brand saved from the brink of obscurity and given new life has all the trappings of a modern fast food chain, yet is distinctively different from both the Taco Bells and Chipotles of the world, clearly a viable competitor in the quick serve Mexican segment, with what I hope is a bright future in the Twin Cities and beyond. Zanz, on the other hand feels like the combination of a beloved local mom and pop, which it essentially is, with a connection to both an endangered brand and a bygone era of fast food. It lacks modernity in every aspect where Zantigo has heaps of it. If Zantigo is a modern fast food chain, then Zanz is the working fast food museum that I love to stumble upon. I'm immensely grateful to the Z-Entity for alerting me to its existence, as I am to everyone who sends me tips about places I should check out. If you're reading this, and have a broken chain location in mind that I've not yet visited. Don't be shy. Comment below, email me, message my Facebook page, or slide into my Instagram DMs. I'd love to hear about your favorite surviving location of an endangered or defunct brand, and maybe even visit it and compare you to a recurring Star Trek character.

Or if you're in the mood to travel to a remote town in Eastern Kentucky on a busy holiday weekend, you can tell me all about your favorite place on November 29th at the Harlan Kentucky Rax, where I'll be hosting Raxgiving 2019. I'll be around to hand out free Broken Chains stickers, along with another surprise or two while we enjoy a meal at my favorite Rax.