Thursday, February 6, 2020

Tacos Before Swine

During the spring and summer of 1995, two live action movies starring talking pigs were released to American theaters. There’s the one you probably remember, Babe, which is rated at 97% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and is generally regarded as a modern classic, and the one I saw as a nine year old, Gordy.

Gordy was initially written in the early 1970s to be a spinoff of the show, Green Acres, focusing on Arnold Ziffel, a character from the live action sitcom who also happened to be a pig. Gordy was written and eventually redeveloped into a standalone film by former Green Acres writers Jay Sommers and Dick Chevillat, but by the time the film had been produced and made it to theaters nearly a quarter century later, both Sommers and Chevillat were long dead. Thanks perhaps to its script’s ancient origins, the film was panned by critics and was a box office flop. In contrast to the beloved talking pig film, Babe, Gordy has a 26% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and few who did not see it in the spring of ‘95 remember it today. 

This Taco Tico is a dead ringer for the one in Nicholasville, Kentucky that was renovated beyond recognition and became a Popeye's

While this one is more reminiscent of the one that was on New Circle Road on the east side of Lexington. 

My fuzzy childhood memories of seeing Gordy in the sticky-floored auditorium of my local hot pink and neon green-accented Cinemark theater were on my mind as on the long drive home from Wichita as I was nursing a wicked case of indigestion from eating too many tacos. I had spent the previous two days sampling Wichita-style tacos, which the late, great Evil Sam Graham dubbed Wichitacos. The best known Wichitacos, of course, come from my beloved Taco Tico, which was founded by Dan Foley in Wichita in 1962, and I made sure to stop by a couple Taco Ticos while I was in the area, in part, to appreciate their architectural resemblance to the Taco Tico locations I grew up with in Kentucky, but also to ensure Taco Tico in its birthplace tasted like it did in Kentucky and Louisiana, and not like the strangely bland Taco Tico food I encountered in Iowa. Thankfully in Wichita, Taco Tico’s meat blend tasted identical to the taco meat I had already declared definitive last spring. With that out of the way, I was free to sample a few other Wichitacos. 

Taco Pronto, a perfectly decent place for Wichitacos

And ice that puts even Sonic's ice to shame. 
I also visited one of Wichita’s two Taco Pronto locations and found that just as at Taco Tico, both tacos, and Sanchos, that’s a burrito shell stuffed with taco fixins, were on the menu. I took this, and the similar name to as indications that Taco Pronto was both a purveyor of Wichitacos and a Taco Tico imitator. I found the food similar to Taco Tico, but not remarkably so. The main attraction at Taco Pronto is the ice, which is of the shaved variety and produced by some ancient machine behind the order counter. After I ordered, I asked the cashier to fill my cup full of ice so I could take it to the drink fountain and use it to craft a Dr. Pepper snow cone. While the food was anything but unique, the beverage made for a memorable encounter. 

All Wichitacos descended from Taco Grande.

I found a more memorable experience up the road at Taco Grande, another local chain known for Wichitacos that shares its name with a "Weird Al" Yankovic song from 1992 that hasn’t held up any better than “Rico Suave,” the song on which it was based. I found my way to one of two Wichita locations, which was housed in a small strip mall. (The other Wichita Taco Grande is in a freestanding building.) I walked in to find a menu board that looked much older than the building and decor around it and an overwhelming smell that reminded me of the imitation butter topping that movie theater concession stands dump on popcorn. Only slightly put off by the odd smell, I ordered a sancho and a crunchy taco, my third sancho and taco of the day for anyone at home keeping count. They were ready not long after I had paid, so after filling my cup with unremarkable ice and Coke Zero, I took them to my table. 

Taco Grande's taco and sancho are perfectly innocuous when wrapped. 

Alternating bites of the taco and sancho were equally surreal. The meat filling had a taste that was not dissimilar from what I’ve become accustomed to after decades of eating at Taco Tico, but it was much sweeter, almost to the point of ridiculousness. It was as if someone had attempted to take typical fast food taco ingredients and turn them into a curious meat-based dessert by dumping sugar into the meat mixture. I’m being slightly generous referring to the brown filling at Taco Grande as meat, because its mouthfeel was as unnerving as its taste. Taco Tico famously, or infamously, uses fillers to stretch its taco meat, and those fillers give the meat a smooth, moldable consistency. Taco Tico copycat recipes call for small amounts of both textured vegetable protein and instant oats to round out the beefy base. Taco Grande’s meat seems to have a dramatically higher amount of fillers compared to its more successful crosstown rival. A mouthful of a Taco Grande taco or sancho yields curious bits of non-meat in your mouth that almost feel… fuzzy, like cracker crumbs that stay dry no matter how thoroughly they are masticated. A combination of the odd taste, texture, and general fullness prevented me from finishing my Taco Grande meal, but I wasn’t so full that I didn’t stop by the Braum’s down the street for some ice cream to clean the taste of Taco Grande out of my mouth. 

But they're chockablock with a weird meat.

I thought that this was the end of the story until I arrived home and began researching Taco Grande. What I had assumed was a local imitator of the more successful Taco Tico was actually the original Wichitaco chain and a broken chain in its own right. In fact, Taco Grande was founded by Mike Foley, cousin to Taco Tico founder Dan Foley. Mike Foley had spent time in Southern California, and had become fascinated by tacos and the vendors that sold them. When he returned to his native Wichita, he opened the first Taco Grande, which became Wichita's first taco place. That was 1960. His cousin, Dan Foley, opened the first Taco Tico in 1962, likely inspired by his cousin Mike’s success with Taco Grande, making Taco Tico the imitator of Taco Grande, not the other way around. 

Not that Taco Tico's meat looks any more appealing, but it tastes way better. 

There are about five Taco Grandes open today, spread between Wichita, Abeline, Concordia and Hays, Kansas, and near as I can tell they all seem to be operating independently. I’ve found references to as many as 13 Wichita-area locations, and indications the brand once had a presence that spread far wider than the state of Kansas before shrinking down to a broken chain composed of a handful of independently owned and operated restaurants, a chain that is even more broken than the broken but recovering Taco Tico. 

An experienced menu board presides over a fairly modern dining room at Taco Grande. 

My impressions are of course, subjective. In context, Taco Grande might have more appeal to locals than it did to me, an interloper exploring the Wichita fast food taco trail. If it were 1960, and if I were a native Wichitan who had never eaten, or even heard of a taco before, I might find Taco Grande’s unique texture and taste to be exotic and appealing in its distinctiveness. Likewise, had I grown up in Wichita, eating at Taco Grande regularly, I might prefer it to other fast food tacos. After all, that’s probably why I enjoy Taco Tico so much. Compared to Taco Bell, Del Taco, and Taco John’s, Taco Tico’s product stands out nearly as much as Taco Grande’s does, and my own childhood nostalgia probably does more than a little bit to improve the flavor of my Taco Tico sancho. 

Back in the world of talking pig movies, Gordy beat Babe to market, debuting in mid-May, just as schools full of kids hungry for wholesome summer entertainment were letting out. Babe wouldn’t hit screens until three months later, during back to school season, but being first to market wasn’t enough to for Gordy to be more successful critically or financially. Whether it was better marketing, or just because it was a superior movie, Babe emerged the victor of the talking pig movie wars of 1995, and I can’t help but feel like in the Wichita fast food taco wars of the early 1960s, a conflict that literally pitted cousin against cousin, Taco Tico, the latecomer, was Babe to Taco Grande's Gordy. Like Babe, Taco Tico offered and continues to offer greater appeal to a wider swath of a modern audience, and is well regarded by those even vaguely familiar with it. Gordy, and Taco Grande no doubt have their fans, but not to the extent of Taco Tico. Though similar to their respective competitors, both Gordy and Taco Grande miss the mark and seem doomed to languish in obscurity, Gordy in bargain DVD bins at Walmart, and Taco Grande serving a smattering of die-hard fans scattered around Kansas. Taco Pronto will probably do the same as long as they can keep that ice machine running.

While there would probably still be a Babe without Gordy, there would be no Taco Tico without Taco Grande, so I'm immensely thankful that Taco Grande existed, and I'm glad I had a chance to eat there purely to appreciate the brand's historical significance. Thanks to a hefty investment by the Lexington, Kentucky franchisee, The Greer Companies, Taco Tico seems poised to make a comeback, at least regionally. A new Taco Tico recently opened in Lexington Kentucky, and I'm counting the days until I have the opportunity to visit. When I do, I'll probably write yet another Taco Tico-related post. You guys like those, right? 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Wichita Bovineman

♬ I have fast food blogging hobby,
And I drive the back roads,
Searching for old restaurants, and an occasional commode.
I’ve been to every Rax and Ritzy’s. 
At Zantigo, I have dined, 
And the Wichita Bovineman, 
Is still doing fine. ♬

In the 1960s, beef prices fell dramatically, and the fast food-loving public had grown tired of patronizing increasingly ubiquitous burger chains that had burst onto the scene a decade earlier. It was these conditions that brought about the beef boom that, in addition to a litany of discount steakhouses, led to the creation of the fast food roast beef sandwich. Arby’s was born in this era. So were Jax, which would become Rix, and Roney’s, which would become Roy Rogers. Smaller chains like NEBA and Heap Big Beef came into existence in the same era, but didn’t last long. Roast beef offerings from McDonald’s, Burger Chef, and KFC were similarly short-lived. Changing tastes and increasing beef prices caused the beef boom to go bust in the seventies, and few fast food roast beef sandwiches remained.

Arby's beef doesn't look like it did in the swingin' sixties. 

Arby’s, of course was then, as it is now, the most successful survivor of the first beef bust, but their survival came at the expense of quality. Early Arby’s ads show sandwiches stuffed with slices of beef carved from a whole roast, all of which came from the same bovine creature. Contrast that with the roast beef at Arby’s today, that is a much more processed product. A slice of modern Arby’s roast beef lacks the visible muscle fibers to indicate it was sliced from a naturally-occurring cut of beef. Instead, modern Arby’s “roasts” while cooked in-store and sliced to order, are constructed of multiple cuts of beef, likely hailing from multiple cattle, pressed together into a smooth, homogeneous, and most importantly, cost-effective meat product. The change helped Arby’s weather the lean times, until the next beef boom.

At the close of the seventies, tastes were swinging around back toward fast food roast beef, and Arby’s again had serious competition. Rix Roast Beef, down to ten surviving locations after years of mismanagement by General Foods, was acquired by Restaurant Administration Corporation, the sole remaining Rix Roast Beef franchisee, who added small buffets and salad bars to their restaurants, changed the name to Rax, and began to expand, selling their own proprietary processed roast beef and eventually becoming a nationwide chain, before again fading into obscurity in the nineties. But this post isn’t about Rax. I’ve written enough Rax posts to last until the next beef boom. This is also not a post about Arby’s. This is a post about a roast beef chain started by a former Arby’s franchisee who rode the same wave that brought about the Rax Renaissance during the second beef boom.

Enter through the silo. 

Put off by the change to processed beef, Arby’s Franchisee Sam Marvin thought he could build a better sandwich. He and business partner Ken Hertel developed the Barn’rds concept that sold real, unprocessed roast beef sandwiches as well as freshly prepared soups and salads out of barn-shaped buildings complete with faux silos. The first location opened in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1981, and spread slowly across the Midwest, mostly opening in small medium sized markets through the early 1980s. Norfolk, Nebraska, Des Moines, Iowa, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Oklahoma City and probably many other Midwestern towns all had Barnrd’s locations. Ken Hertel would eventually sell his share of the company to Marvin, opting to become a Barn’rds franchisee, opening a Barn’rds of his own in Wichita, Kansas.

The second beef boom quickly became the second beef bust, and just as Rax locations closed en masse, leaving just the five locations that are open today, Barn’rds shrank to a single location. Ken Hertel’s Wichita Barn’rds is all that remains of the chain, and his family still owns the business. I recently spent a couple days in Wichita, and made sure to stop by the last operating Barn’rds while I was in town.

Barn'rds, as it appeared when I first laid eyes on it.

I arrived in Wichita on a Sunday evening as just enough snow to make the roads feel vaguely precarious had begun to fall. Sunday night is my favorite time to visit restaurants, as they are typically deserted. People tend to have a large meal out at midday on Sundays before heading home to hunker down in anticipation of the coming workweek. The atmosphere at Barn’rds that evening was unsurprisingly desolate with only a single table of the dining room occupied when I walked in after taking time to admire the neon Barn’rds sign atop the silo-like structure that formed the barn-like restaurant’s entryway. I worked my way past a small island counter displaying freshly made salads packed in ice under a curious plastic dome, through a labyrinth of railings meant to corral the crowds of eager diners that weren’t there on a frigid Sunday evening. A wall to the left of me was decorated with pictures of sandwiches, lit from above, and modern menu display monitors hung behind the counter. All the food imagery overloaded my sandwich sense before I decided to keep it simple, eventually settling on a plain roast beef sandwich, a barbecue beef sandwich, pasta salad, and an M&M cookie.
Wall of sandwiches

Dome of salads
Order line and counter, photography-proof menu boards

My order came up as I was pumping horseradish sauce into a little paper cup at the condiment station, and once I had finished, I took my tray, across the dated, yet squeaky clean dining room to a genuine simulated burled walnut table that reminded me of the dash on an '82 AMC Concord. My sandwiches were wrapped in red and white Barn’rds branded wrappers that looked like they were designed no later than the early nineties, while my pasta salad and beverage were in unbranded containers. I unwrapped the plain sandwich first, and found it stuffed with real, unprocessed roast beef, cooked medium well. My first bite elicited memories of Happy Chef where I tasted the world’s blandest chili. Like the last operating Happy Chef, the last operating Barn’rds doesn’t do much in the way of seasoning, at least not when it comes to their roast beef. Despite a generous portion of meat on my sandwich, I tasted more bun than beef. I decided at that point that the precautionary horseradish I had procured was a necessity, and the majority of it went on the sandwich, and vastly improved the remaining bites. The barbecue beef sandwich, unsurprisingly, tasted more barbecuey than beefy, but it was a nice barbecue flavor smoky and sweet with just a touch of heat. As I looked over the wall of sandwiches while enjoying a very pleasant, and freshly prepared pasta salad, and a baked-in house M&M cookie, I concluded that the blandness of the meat was fully intentional.

Either a printer somewhere is still making those labels, or the owners of the Wichita Barn'rds ordered half a million of them back in '88.
Actual meat on a bun

Half of the sandwiches on the menu contained the signature Barn’rds beef, and each was dressed and sauced differently. The majority of flavor, and seasoning, was designed to come from the sandwiches’ toppings rather than the seasoning of the meat itself. A more prominent flavor profile from the meat might work well with barbecue sauce, but may not play as nice with horseradish, au jus, or jalapeño ranch sauce. And what the Barn’rds beef lacks in flavor, it makes up for in texture. While modern Arby’s roast beef has the texture of boiled bandaids, with rubbery layers that uniformly snap when you bite into a Beef and Cheddar, Barn’rds beef is has the slightly chewy yet tender texture of a quality prime rib. You know you’re eating a slice off a real cow when you eat at Barn’rds, which depending on what kind of person you are, may or may not be a pleasant thought.

Saucy meat on a bun

I headed to my hotel after that meal, but a day and a half later, as I was packing up to leave Wichita, I had the nagging feeling that I hadn’t gotten the full Barn’rds experience. I needed to try a sandwich with something other than their roast beef to get a feel for the rest of the menu, so I wasted a couple hours in my hotel room watching YouTube, so I could check out of my room and arrive at Barn’rds right around their 10:30 AM open time on my way out of town. I walked in through the silo while they were still in the process of putting the day’s display salads under the dome. This time, I ordered up a Supreme sandwich, which has pastrami, swiss cheese, lettuce, and “dressing." A cup of potato soup was my chosen side dish. Thanks to a similarly quiet dining room, this time the result of my early arrival, my order came up quickly again, and I took a seat at the counter by the window, where I would ponder the nature of lunchmeat while I ate.

The Barn'rds Supreme, part sandwich, part time machine

Let’s be honest here. Pastrami, salami, and bologna, form a trifecta of meats that have very similar flavors, but drastically different textures. Whether you’re enjoying a lean pastrami, a dense and fatty salami, or a mushy slice of Oscar Mayer’s best, they’re all going to have a flavor profile that’s in the same ballpark. (Speaking of ballparks, hot dogs are basically shrunken bologna, right?) Barn’rds interpretation of pastrami seemed to begin with the same cut of beef as their roast beef, but this time, much more seasoned, with the classic pastrami/salami/bologna/hot dog flavor profile. The “dressing” turned out to be Miracle Whip, and the combination of flavors took me back to the summer of ‘91, where, I, a precocious and adorable five year old, was on vacation with my grandparents, holed up in a mothball-smelling rented cottage on the shores of Lake Erie in Northern Ohio. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, my grandmother made me the only thing I felt like eating the entire week, bologna sandwiches with American cheese, lettuce, and Miracle Whip. Barn’rds Supreme sandwich with its pastrami, Miracle Whip, lettuce, and Swiss cheese took me right back to that summer in Ohio nearly 30 years prior. Though the textures were a little different, the flavor profile is exactly what I remember from that childhood family vacation. Even in a broken chain I’ve never experienced before, I managed to find some nostalgia.

Generations of Wichitans, few of whom have vacationed in Northern Ohio, but many of whom grew up with Barn'rds have genuine nostalgia for it, and hold the restaurant in high regard. The weekday lunch crowd had already filled out the order line corral as I was headed out, well before 11 AM. The Wichita Barn’rds, run by the chains co-founder and his descendants, was likely among the best run examples of the brand in the chain’s heyday, and thanks to decades of dedication by its management and crew, has transcended the all but forgotten Barn’rds chain and become a beloved local independent institution. The beef boom seemingly never went bust in Wichita, and the last Barn'rds, like the surviving locations of its one-time competitor, Rax, stand steadfast, perhaps awaiting the next inevitable beef boom that will lead to renaissance and new expansion. If new locations are any indication, the next beef boom may be coming sooner than you think. Construction began on a new Barn’rds across town on the west side of Wichita late last year. Sometime in 2020, there will be two operating Barn’rds locations in the world, both conveniently located in Wichita. If the long-promised Chillicothe, Ohio Rax manages to open this year as well, it will surely be a sign that the next beef boom is upon us. I, for one, look forward to the five to seven beefy years it will bring with it.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Ku-Ku Point

Imagine you own a successful franchised restaurant that’s part of an otherwise struggling chain. You receive news that the future of your thriving business is in jeopardy because the corporate entity that controls your brand is ceasing operations. Suddenly, your supply chain of reasonably priced ingredients and supplies dries up. Proprietary ingredients like special sauces and seasoning blends are in danger of being completely unavailable, and the brand recognition that brings people in the door will quickly evaporate. On the upside, you’re no longer having to pay franchise fees back to corporate, so whatever profits you manage to eke out in this new bleak reality are yours to keep, but in order for your business to survive, your entire operation must evolve. 

In 1971, the fast food burger chain Sandy’s was absorbed by Hardee’s. (Hardee’s would go on to assimilate Burger Chef and Roy Rogers before being absorbed by CKE and becoming a sister brand to Carl’s Jr.) Eventually, most Sandy’s locations became Hardee’s locations, but a few Sandy’s franchisees opted to have their restaurants remain Sandy’s locations in all but name and operate independently. Hardee’s lawyers forced them to adopt similar, but legally distinct names like Zandy’s and Andy’s. These newly independent Sandy’s locations were forced to evolve to remain relevant and financially viable. Several lasted well into this century, but near as I can tell, all that’s left of the Sandy’s empire today is a vestigial footnote in Montana.

Sandee’s in Billings, Montana evolved from the local franchised Sandy’s, but as local tastes and the economy of operating a restaurant changed over the ensuing decades, so did Sandee’s. These days, they operate out of a modern building. The original Billings Sandy’s location at 511 Grand Avenue was long ago renovated beyond recognition and repurposed into offices. Their food bears little resemblance to what was served at Sandy’s. The sub-two ounce burger that sold for 15 cents at Sandy’s in the late ‘50s and the Big Boy-inspired Big Scot are nowhere to be seen at Sandee’s in Billings. By all accounts, the chain has evolved beyond any meaningful resemblance to the original Sandy’s. It’s probably a perfectly nice place to eat, but it’s not the kind of relic of fast food history untouched by time that I seek out. I considered adding a couple days to my trip to North Dakota last fall so I could venture into Montana and eat at Sandee’s, but concluded that it had evolved past the point of being of sufficient interest to justify a visit and a blog post. I’m only discussing it here, because I recently visited Waylan's Ku-Ku in Miami, Oklahoma, a restaurant that exists precisely at the point of still having a meaningful connection to its original, historic brand while having evolved significantly to keep up with modern tastes and economic necessities. I call that point The Ku-Ku Point. (See also, The Cici's Point.)

I'd be willing to bet this sign has the only surviving neon depiction of clock counterweights. 
The particulars of the time and place of Ku-Ku’s founding are nowhere to be found on the internet, but most sources state there were around 200 of the cuckoo clock-themed burger stands in the Midwest by the mid sixties. My best guess, based on the original 15 cent price point of their basic hamburgers, would place their genesis somewhere in the mid to late fifties when McDonald’s sudden growth prompted a wave of imitators selling 15 cent hamburgers. Ku-Ku’s corporate parent ceased operations sometime before 1970, but a handful of Ku-Ku’s locations continued to operate independently. Over the years, those independent Ku-Kus slowly closed one by one, leaving only a single survivor, located along Route 66 in Miami, Oklahoma. 

The Miami, Oklahoma Ku-Ku, as seen from old Route 66. 
Eugene Waylan bought the Miami Ku-Ku in 1973 and has been working the grill ever since. The business operates out of its original cuckoo clock-themed building with gables adorning every facade, and the original fiberglass Ku-Ku mascot still stands guard by the sadly nonfunctional clock on the front of the building, and the original neon sign still stands out front, modified to include Waylan’s name. Yet, while the edifice is clearly a relic of a bygone era of fast food architecture, concessions to modernity have been made to keep the business relevant and viable. 

The original building is the pointy part. The flat roof portion is the 1977 expansion, and the solarium was added in 1990, when such things were fashionable. 
The building sprouted an expanded dining room well as a drive thru lane in 1977, followed by a Rax/Wendy’s style solarium in 1990, but the additions did little to alter the kitsch appearance of the building. The restraint shown in modifying the historic building, and its position along old Route 66 has made it an attraction for nostalgic tourists retracing the historic route, and is likely a major contributing factor to the restaurant's longevity. I figured it would be worth stopping by for lunch while I was in the area for no reason other than to check out the building. 

Large menu, busy kitchen.
It was lunchtime on a Sunday when I found my way to Waylan’s Ku-Ku as it’s been known for the past 47 years. The restaurant was busy, but not overwhelmed, and I caught a glimpse of Eugene Waylan, the septuagenarian dynamo himself hard at work behind the grill wearing his signature bolo tie as I stood in line. I studied the menu board, that had clearly grown over the years, and opted to try a cross section of old and new, ordering a double cheeseburger and strawberry shake, which I surmised had been on the menu in some form since the days when Ku-Ku was still a franchise. I also ordered a chili dog, which may or may not have been a modern addition, plus a cherry limeade and and order of Ku-Ku fries, which were both almost certainly added sometime after Mr. Waylan's 1973 acquisition of the business.

A souvenir from The Restaurant at the (east) End of Oklahoma

After I had ordered, the cashier handed me an order ticket printed with both the Ku-Ku logo and the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, and I took a seat in a booth on the periphery of the 1977 dining room, which like the rest of the interior had walls adorned with cuckoo clocks, route 66 memorabilia, and homemade Ku-Ku tchotchkes. After a few minutes, my number was called, and I returned to my seat with an overloaded tray from which I examined each of my selections. 

One of the better basic, fast food double cheeseburgers I've encountered.

Chili on the bottom; coincidentally, Chili-Bottom was my nickname in seventh grade. Long story. 

The double cheeseburger was similar in size and composition to its counterpart from a modern McDonald's, though this one tasted much beefier than a similar burger from McDonald's would have. It also used real diced onions, on top of the patties with pickles, ketchup and mustard nestled below them. It was obviously, a McDonald's-inspired burger that dated back to the early McDonald's-imitating days of Ku-Ku, but thanks to better quality ingredients, it tasted like a much better version of a McDonald's double cheeseburger. Like the double cheeseburger, the chili dog had condiments hiding under the meat. Chili and cheese sauce lurked under a somewhat pallid frankfurter. The strawberry shake was unremarkable among strawberry shakes. It was perfectly tasty, and had been blended from soft serve from a modern machine. It had little bits of real strawberry in it. I imagine the shakes would have been blended from hand dipped ice cream back in the '50s and '60s, but I'll take a freshly blended shake over one from a shake machine any day, soft serve or not.
Cherry limeade, strawberry shake

Ku-Ku fries
The limeade, on the other hand, was unlike any I had encountered before. While my local Sonic throws a squirt of red-flavored syrup and some token fruit chunks into a cup of Sprite and calls it a limeade, Ku-Ku's limeade is made from freshly squozen lime juice and seltzer water, sweetened with a flavorful cherry syrup. It has ruined Sonic limeade for me. I'll never drink another, though I may try and recreate Ku-Ku limeade at home. Ku-Ku fries turned out to be some perfectly tasty loaded waffle fries topped with real bacon bits, yellow cheese and fresh scallions and served with a tube of sour cream. They were the most obvious modern addition, as I don't recall encountering waffle fries before the mid '90s, nor do I recall seeing loaded fries, dressed like a baked potato until the early '00s. This, and countless other menu items, like the buffalo burger and fried green tomatoes, had, no doubt, been added over the years to keep people interested in the historic burger joint. It's a strategy that's tough to argue with; Ku-Ku seemed to be doing a much more brisk business than the modern Taco Bell next door, but part of me pines for an immersive, anachronistic fast food experience. 

Auxiliary drive-thru-Ku-Ku

That's why I spend so much time talking about, and revisiting, my favorite working fast food museums; Places like Rax, G.D. Ritzy's, Druther's, Taco Tico, Kewpee, and York Steak House exist as they have for decades, and their decor and cuisine transport diners back to another era when today's near-forgotten restaurant chains were thriving. Their rare status as relatively untouched, unevolved outlets of nearly defunct restaurant brands makes them feel all the more special in a world of constantly changing chain restaurants and stores. 

While Waylan's Ku-Ku is far from a working fast food museum, its continued existence is no less remarkable, and it is no less worthy of my time. Mr. Waylan did what was needed to survive and preserve his piece of the Ku-Ku brand while the rest of the empire faded into obscurity. If modernizing the last remaining Ku-Ku location is what it took to preserve the brand, I'm glad it happened. I'd rather have a Ku-Ku with a tacked-on drive thru and waffle fries than a Ku-Ku with a modern building and no original menu items, or worse yet, no Ku-Ku at all. In the case of a modernized-beyond-recognition Ku-Ku, I wouldn't be writing about it here, and I probably wouldn't have bothered to visit. If the Miami Ku-Ku had to evolve to survive, I'm immensely thankful that it was evolved judiciously to preserve not only a historic Route 66 landmark, but also a burger that elevates the genre of basic fast food burgers. 

Saturday, January 25, 2020

A Dinner of Olives

Regular Broken Chains readers may recall that I maintain a constantly evolving spreadsheet of places I’d like to visit and write about. Presently, the list contains 57 separate eateries, spread all over the US, plus a couple places in Canada. I’m often asked how I find out about the places I visit, and I find that there’s not really one good answer. About a third of the list comes from memories of brands I vaguely recall seeing years or decades ago, that still have operating locations somewhere. Another third comes from friends and well-wishers who I know in real life or through social media groups focused on retail history or sites like Roadarch. The final third comes from people who read my blog, and tip me off to places they know about that they’re keen for me to visit. My portfolio of existing blog posts and spreadsheet of potential places to visit for new blog posts is chronically light on pizza chains, so I was excited when a reader reached out to me with information regarding a near-extinct pizza chain in one of the cradles of fast food civilization.

While Southern California saw the dawn of McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, and Taco Bell, and the US 25 corridor in Kentucky was the fertile crescent from which Long John Silver’s, Fazoli’s, and KFC sprouted, there’s another historic fast food birthplace not quite halfway between Lexington and L.A. Wichita, Kansas is the birthplace of what many consider to be the original hamburger chain, White Castle, as well as my beloved Taco Tico, plus Pizza Hut. Dan and Frank Carney opened the first Pizza Hut in Wichita in 1958. Nearly two decades later, on the cusp of the second-wave pizza craze of the 1980s, another pizza chain set up its first location in Wichita. That chain was Big Cheese Pizza.

Wichita area businessman Jim Stevens, who would go on to own multiple Pie Five and Applebee’s locations opened the first Big Cheese Pizza in Wichita in 1977, and within its first decade in business, the chain had 86 franchised locations in eight states plus Puerto Rico. Big Cheese began to shrink in the late 1980s, which led to its sale to AIFM, a Godfather’s Pizza franchisee in 1989, which apparently converted most locations to the Godfather's brand. Presumably, a few locations opted to remain in business using the Big Cheese name, as there are five Big Cheeses still open today in Kansas and New Mexico. (The chain is unrelated to Big Cheese Pizza and Wings, which operates in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Arkansas.)

Big Cheese Pizza in the heart of Wellington, Kansas

All this information was graciously provided to me by a reader, (Thanks Shaun!) and a trip to a Big Cheese location fit nicely into my itinerary on a recent trip through the Midwest. That’s how I found myself in Wellington, Kansas a couple days before New Year’s, during that week in late December when it’s hard to remember what day it is, and for that matter, your own name and how to function as a human being living in a society. Wellington is a small town about 40 minutes south of Wichita, but closer to an hour if you set your GPS to avoid tolls as I did. Wichita’s densely populated landscape evaporates quickly as you travel south on US 81, and by the time you reach Wellington, a town of 7800, you feel a bit cut off from the outside world as you park your car in front of the empty tire store and walk across 9th Street to the old brick building that houses the Big Cheese Pizza, at least that’s how I felt as I noted a sign on the door informing me they only accepted cash. 

Bring cash, preferably small bills

Upon entering the building, I was taken with the austerity of the decor in the dining room. Imitation wood paneled walls were adorned sparsely with images of local sports teams. The tabletops had more imitation woodgrain and simple green vinyl seating surfaces. The plain tile floor and drop ceiling with fluorescent lights as well as the lack of windows gave the place the feel of a multipurpose room in a church basement or a community center. Given the gathering of retirees in the private party room near the front of the building and the locals chatting near the order counter while they waited for their pizzas, this Big Cheese could probably be considered an ad hoc community center, if not an official one. There was little branded decor that hinted to the locations status as a holdout of a mostly defunct chain. The menu board along one wall looked as if it had been printed on large format paper at a copy shop, and the only place I could find the pleasantly smiling face of the Big Cheese logo was on a sun-faded framed poster near the order counter,that appeared to be a genuine relic of the chain’s 1980s heyday. 

The decor hardly screams pizza. In fact, it doesn't really scream anything. 

After studying the menu board and watching the locals to understand the ordering process, I stepped up to the counter, and ordered a small Deluxe pizza, a trip to the salad bar and a Diet Coke. When I attempted to pay with a hundred dollar bill, the cashier expressed concern that she wouldn’t be able to give me change for it, and opened the cash register drawer to assess its contents. Thankfully, there were enough twenties in the drawer to break my hundred, and I proceeded, armed with a plate handed to me by the cashier, to the little salad bar that made its counterpart at the Daly Drive-In look positively bountiful by comparison. The salad bar at Big Cheese had finely shredded iceberg lettuce as its only leafy green, and lacked any kind of tomato, though bizarrely, pickled okra was available. I’ve not spent much time in Southern Kansas, and maybe the preference for pickled okra over fresh tomatoes is a quirk of the local culture, but it struck me as odd regardless. 

The only Big Cheese branding in the whole place, aside from the sign out front.

The entirety of the salad bar. 

I found a table near the center of the dining room, and picked at my melancholy salad of iceberg lettuce and baby carrots for a few minutes, and contemplated, in a completely healthy and normal thought process that is in no way paranoid or obsessive, what some imagined person observing my every movement since arriving in town must think of me. I rolled into town from the Big City in my fancy German car, to visit and make fun of a beloved local pizza joint where I caused a fuss waving my cash around when it came time to pay. To top it all off, I thought I was too good to eat the whole pods of delicious okra on the salad bar. Clearly, I wasn’t from around here, but in my defense, the Big City I came from is Detroit, a blue-collar city hardly known for wealth or pretense. My fancy German car is a base trim level Volkswagen Golf. The hundred dollar bill was a Christmas gift from my grandma and was the only cash I had on me, and my upbringing in Kentucky has caused me to be highly suspicious of any okra that isn’t breaded and deep fried. I had just finished convincing myself I wasn’t a real life version of a Hallmark movie villain, when a Big Cheese employee brought my freshly cooked and sliced pizza to my table. 

The salad I enjoyed during my obsessive thought process

The menu had promised the Deluxe pizza was topped with onions, olives, mushrooms, and sausage. Sure enough, they were all there under a thick layer of cheese. I picked up my first slice to discover my pizza had been served not in the metal pan in which it had been baked, but on a round plastic tray, perfectly sized so it was completely concealed by pizza until I removed a slice to transform the pizza's circular shape to that of a cheese-covered Pac-Man. 

Deluxe pizza, freshly baked and delivered on a Melmac tray

I’d like to deviate a bit at this point to inject a bit of fast food historical fiction into this narrative. To my knowledge, Hot ‘n Now, the Michigan-based drive thru chain that had hundreds of locations in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and a single holdout location today, never offered breakfast. However, if they did, the chain known for its burger topped with green olives would have probably sold something that tasted a lot like a Deluxe pizza from the Wellington, Kansas Big Cheese. The sausage on the pizza did not have the sweet fennel-tinged flavor of Italian sausage. Instead, it had the decidedly savory taste of breakfast sausage. The flavor or the black olives drowned out every other flavor note on the pie, making for a very olive and breakfast sausage-forward experience, not unlike the olive-topped sausage biscuit that Hot ‘n Now served in the early ‘90s in my imagination. The theme of tomato aversion carried over from the salad bar to the pizza, as there was little sauce below the cheese and toppings, certainly not enough to make its presence known among strong olive and Jimmy Dean flavors. 

The view from my table 

Maybe my olive-oriented Stockholm Syndrome has finally kicked in, or maybe the unusual pairing of breakfast sausage and black olives is objectively good, but for some reason or another, I simply couldn’t stop eating the pizza, even if it did lack the basic tomato and cheese pizza flavors. I asked for a to-go box, and even took what I couldn’t finish back to my hotel in Wichita, where I ate the leftovers for breakfast the next morning. I’ve always enjoyed cold, leftover pizza at least as much as hot, freshly baked pizza, and I’m happy to report the Big Cheese Deluxe pizza is just as unconventionally good cold as it is hot. A few hours in a hotel mini fridge made the crispy crust a bit more chewy but the olive and sausage flavors were as strong as they were the night before in Wellington. 

Leftovers the next morning in Wichita 

I’m glad to have enjoyed the experience at Big Cheese, a chain whose existence I had no idea of before Shaun reached out to me. I’m immensely grateful to him for alerting me to the brand’s continued (limited) existence. I’m always game to check out a surviving location of a broken chain, and rack up a couple thousand more miles on the old VW. If there’s a surviving location of a mostly defunct restaurant, retail, or hotel chain near you, I want to know about it. Comment here, message the Broken Chains Facebook page, slide into my Instagram DMs, or email me. The next broken chain I visit, indelicately photograph, and poke gentle fun at could be in your town.