Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Lake Michigan Fast Food Trail Part 1: My buns have no seeds.

I’m constantly looking for obscure chain establishments to visit, experience, and write about. When I learn about a business I’d like to visit, I add it’s name and location to a spreadsheet. Once my spreadsheet contains a cluster of places in a reasonably close proximity to one another, I plan a trip. That methodology landed me in western Michigan last weekend.

The Lake Michigan coast between Muskegon and the Indiana border proved to contain a tantalizing combination of holdout locations of otherwise defunct chain restaurants, as well being home to locations of thriving regional chains that are at the very edge of their operating territory. My goal was to visit as many as possible in the two days I was in the area.

In the late 1950s, McDonald’s was expanding rapidly in the Midwest and enjoyed overnight success. The self-serve, quick-service system designed by the McDonald brothers and propagated by their frienemy, Ray Kroc, was revolutionary, and influences the fast food industry to this day.

Just as White Castle’s success in the 1920s spawned blatant imitators like Krystal and White Tower, McDonald’s had a trio of imitators in that would make Cleo McDowell proud. In the early sixties, Illinois-based Chains like Sandy’s, Mr. Quick, and Henry’s Hamburgers, all sprung into existence to compete with, and imitate McDonald’s, which was expanding outward from Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s location in Des Plaines, Illinois. The three imitators copied McDonald’s menu, building design, and self-serve system. Each expanded beyond The Land of Lincoln and enjoyed moderate success through the 1960s. But like many retail ventures that thrived in the fifties and sixties, the three McDonald’s imitators from Illinois struggled to remain relevant, and profitable in the 1970s.

All three chains began their descent into near extinction in the 1970s, but two of the three McDonald’s imitators still exist and thrive in Western Michigan, less than half a day’s drive from my current home in metro Detroit. There are five Mr. Quick locations in Muskegon, three of which operate out of nicely-maintained 1970s era locations with inside seating. One other location is in a more modern building, and the fifth is in a gas station. The original Mr. Quick opened in Moline, Illinois in 1962. The chain peaked at around 300 locations, and declined in the 1970s. There’s not a lot of information about Mr. Quick’s history online beyond that, so it’s tough to say how much their menu has evolved since the chain’s heyday, but I will say it has definitely expanded dramatically past McDonald’s original menu.

Very non-McDonald’s offerings like onion rings and chili dogs appear on Mr. Quick’s menu. There’s also a decent breakfast menu featuring made from scratch pancakes that put McDonald’s pre-fab microwaved hotcakes to shame. The infamous Michigan-specific green olive burger is also available for those who like their beef with a briny aftertaste. I visited two locations on three occasions and found both to be impeccably clean with a courteous staff, fair prices, and well-prepared food. Cups, wrappers, and tray liners still sport Mr. Quick logos. The East Laketon Avenue location in particular, with its stained glass accents and orange and white color scheme, made for a very pleasant and immersive vintage fast food dining experience. I’m already planning my next trip to Muskegon so i can eat at Mr. Quick again. (I also need to go back so I can eat at the two area Dog n Suds drive ins, which I learned too late are only open during the summer.)

The building is a total architectural time warp and impeccably clean. 

I'll take this mascot over Ronald any day. 

The signage was modern backlit plastic, but they nailed the aesthetic. 


Like sign, the cups were a nice blend of old and new. 

Benton Harbor, Michigan, 90 miles south of Muskegon is home to the last operating Henry’s Hamburgers. Henry’s was a subsidiary of the Bressler’s Ice Cream company, which operated a chain of ice cream parlors. The Henry’s Hamburgers venture was started with the explicit goal of competing with McDonald’s. They chain enjoyed similar success in the Midwest, peaking in the early sixties with around 200 locations, which the Henry’s Hamburgers website points out was “more stores than MacDonald’s (sic) at the time!” Like the other McDonald’s imitators, Henry’s struggled in the seventies, and Bresslers was eventually acquired by a series of different owners who appear to have abandoned the Henry’s brand. (The last few Bressler’s ice cream parlors were rebranded by their parent company in 2007.) Locations gradually closed, leaving just the Benton Harbor location left.

I stopped by the lone Henry’s for a burger and fries. After taking a moment to appreciate the vintage neon sign out front, I walked in the building and was immediately struck by its blandness. Henry’s Hamburgers operates out of a nondescript modern building, constructed in the past twenty years. The walls inside and outside are painted white and are completely bare. I visited the store during a mid afternoon lull in business, and found the seating area to be not especially clean, but not dirty enough to scare me away. The menu was smaller than that of Mr. Quick, and closer to McDonald’s original offerings. The food itself was nothing special. The double cheeseburger looked and tasted like a McDonald’s double cheeseburger with some extra mustard. The fries were the same cut as McDonald’s fries, and were generally acceptable. My strawberry shake was a mixture of soft serve and artificial strawberry flavoring that could have come from any shake machine in North America, but lacked the strawberry pulp you’ll find in McDonald’s shakes. Menu prices seemed slightly higher than comparable items from McDonald’s. Cups, wrappers, and tray liners were plain and free of any branding. The whole experience felt generic and institutional, like that episode of The Simpsons where the IRS takes over Krusty Burger. It’s tough for me to be too excited about Henry’s, especially in comparison to the well-run and distinctive Mr. Quick locations further up the Michigan’s west coast. Henry’s wasn’t terrible, and it wasn’t great. I can sum it up with another Simpsons reference by giving it a resounding “meh.” Don't get me wrong, I’m glad that Henry’s exists as a living price of history, and I’m glad I got to experience it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat there again. 

The vintage sign is fully functional and in great shape.
"Fill out Schedule B. You should receive your burgers in six to eight weeks."
Sandy’s, the third in the trio of Illinois-based McDonald’s imitators, doesn’t currently exist in Michigan. Sandy’s was acquired by Hardee’s in the early seventies, and most locations were converted to Hardee’s. However, there are were a handful of holdout franchisees who opted to not convert their restaurants to Hardee’s locations. Most of the holdouts, which were forced to change their names, are gone with the exception of Sandee’s in Billings, Montana. Sandee’s was gone for a few years, but relaunched as a food truck venture in 2016 and opened a brick and mortar location late last year. Ironically, I used to live in Billings, but I moved just as the Sandee’s food truck opened for business, so I’ve missed out on the Sandee’s experience so far. Sandee’s in Billings is on my spreadsheet, though.

For more information on Sandy's, Henry's, and other classic fast food chains, check out the Restaurant Rewind channel on Youtube. It's great entertainment if you're a fast food geek like me. 

5 comments:

  1. We used to save our money as kids and ride bikes to the one in cloverville to get the burger bundle all the time. I still go up their once in awhile a crush the whole thing. :-)

    I will be trying the Henry burger on my way home from Milwaukee this week he mentioned in the article. Love the old fashion burger and dog places.

    I also recommend rays in grand haven for an old fashion stop.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ray's fries are the best I've ever had. Their shakes are good, and that's really about it. If you could get Quick's burgers and Ray's fries at the same place?! I would weigh about 5 tons. lol

      Delete
    2. Hi Charlie. I hope you enjoyed Henry's. Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  2. Mr. Quick's burgers are bites of flame grilled deliciousness. Since you like little regional restaurant chains, I've got one for you. If you ever make it out to the Sacramento area, you HAVE to try JimBoy's Tacos! They are like no other taco place I've ever had. And, don't buy the hype about In N Out burgers, they're not much better than McDonald's.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll add JimBoy's to my spreadsheet. Thanks for the tip!

      Delete