Wednesday, November 3, 2021
Tuesday, August 31, 2021
A Chicken in Every Fryer
|Photo courtesy of Al Coleman|
In my previous post, I once again violated my oft-broken, self-imposed rule against embedding political commentary in posts on my silly fast food blog. My excuse for breaching my personal code of conduct is that where I come from, the fried chicken industry is inseparable from politics. After all, it was by successfully leading the investment group in the purchase of Kentucky Fried Chicken from Col. Harland Sanders, and turning the operation into a modern, successful fast food concept, that Lexington-area lawyer turned businessman John Y. Brown Jr. was able to parlay his success and name recognition within the Bluegrass State into a successful run for governor in 1979. Furthermore, it is my belief that the fast food fried chicken industry once played a not insignificant part in determining the outcome of a presidential election.
|An artist rendering of a Minnie Pearls location (Photo courtesy of Al Coleman)|
|A Minnie Pearl's in glorious living gray scale|
Around the same time that John Y. Brown Jr. was active in the fried chicken and political spheres, Tennessee had its own chicken-hawking Democratic candidate for governor. He was even named John, but if John Y. Brown of Kentucky was the Mozart of fried chicken and Democratic state politics, his Tennessee counterpart, Nashville lawyer and businessman John Jay Hooker, was surely Salieri. Fresh from failing to win his party’s nomination for governor in 1966, Hooker noted Brown’s success and set out to become his competitor, sourcing a fried chicken recipe and a similarly folksy and rural spokesperson, namely Grand Ole Opry and Hee-Haw fixture Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, better known by her decidedly more Opry-friendly stage name, Minnie Pearl. Questionable accounting practices and general mismanagement brought about the venture’s demise when it had around 50 locations open, and while he was never convicted of any wrongdoing associated with the Minnie Pearl’s Chicken brand, Hooker was the subject of an SEC investigation into the practices of the failed business. Hooker believed that the investigation was launched by the Nixon administration in an attempt to damage his reputation as a politician. However, in the wake of the Minnie Pearl’s Chicken debacle, Hooker did manage to win the 1970 gubernatorial primary, but would ultimately fail to win in the general election. Back in Kentucky, John Y. Brown, presumably, was inspired by this loss and felt the need to show up his Tennessee rival in a second field when he successfully ran for governor of Kentucky a few years later.
|This is a former Minnie Pearl's. It's since been demolished, but it stood for decades in Lexington, KY, John Y. Brown's hometown.|
|The Milford, Ohio Minnie Pearl's was a veterinarian's office when I stumbled upon it a couple of years ago.|
Fast forward a couple of decades, and you’ll find Al Gore running for president against George W. Bush in 2000. Prior to serving as Bill Clinton’s vice president for eight years, you may recall that Gore represented Tennessee in both houses of Congress, as did his father before him. Those of us who are old enough and American enough remember that the outcome of that election came down to a handful of ballots in South Florida and a controversial Supreme Court decision that ultimately led to the election of President George W. Bush, but the vote count in Florida wouldn’t have mattered had Al Gore managed to win his home state of Tennessee. A victory in the Volunteer State would have secured Gore enough electoral votes to put him in the White House, but despite the fact that Bill Clinton won the state in both 1992 and 1996 with Gore as a running mate, Gore himself managed to lose there by less than 4% in 2000, the last time to date that a presidential vote count in Tennessee has had a vote margin in the single digits. The year 2000 was in the middle of the beginning of the Republican chokehold in the American South that has only recently begun to show signs of loosening. Tennessee and its neighbors were swinging away from Democrats like Al Gore, but I suspect that swing might have been hastened had the image of the Democratic Party in Tennessee not been tarnished by John Jay Hooker’s failed chicken business. Had Hooker been a more scrupulous and competent purveyor of greasy poultry pieces, he may have had a successful run for governor in 1970, and if his hypothetical competence in running a chicken business translated to running a state government, he may have preserved his party’s image in Tennessee just long enough for his fellow Democrat, Al Gore, to pull out a win there in 2000 and ultimately become the 43rd president.
Now, you might think I’m building up to a narrative about a visit to an operating Minnie Pearl’s Chicken, but the last holdout locations of that chain closed for good around the same time Al Gore was running for senate. Instead, I visited the last Yogi Bear’s Honey Fried Chicken, which is in no way related to anything I discussed above, other than the fact that it’s a product of the same era, when the fast food industry in general and the fried chicken business in particular were booming, an era when celebrity-endorsed restaurants were popular and gave us not only Minnie Pearl’s Chicken, but Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips, Roy Rogers restaurants, and Geoge Lindsey’s Family Steakhouse. (George Lindsey, of course, played Goober Pyle on the Andy Griffith Show. Goober, you might recall, took over the gas station in Mayberry from his cousin, Gomer when Gomer joined the Marines and a spinoff series documented the hilarity that ensued.)
|Yogi Bear himself, paired with a Jackie Gleason catchphrase|
While John Jay Hooker was attempting to emulate John Y. Brown Jr’s success in Tennessee, entrepreneur Eugene Broome was attempting to do the same in South Carolina, building a restaurant concept around his own proprietary honey-flavored chicken tenderizer. He initially reached out to Jackie Gleason to lend his name to the fledgling business, but settled for the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Yogi Bear when Gleason declined. Broome however managed to retain Gleason’s catchphrase, “How sweet it is!” as a slogan, and Yogi Bear’s distinctive style of dress and mannerisms were partially based on Art Carney, Gleason’s co-star on The Honeymooners. (The Hanna-Barbera character, Fred Flintstone was based on Gleason, but Fred was presumably too busy shilling chewable vitamins and breakfast cereals to pick up a fried chicken gig as well.) Broome quickly accepted an offer from Hardee’s to buy the Yogi Bear’s Honey Fried Chicken brand, but slowing economy and mismanagement thwarted Hardee’s success with the Yogi Bear venture like a Jellystone Park ranger catching Yogi and his little buddy, Boo Boo in flagrante delicto with a load of stolen pic-a-nic baskets, and every Yogi Bear’s location but one had closed by 1980.
That single location, in Hartsville, SC remains open today, and I finally managed to cross it off my to-do list when I stopped by for lunch last month. It was well past the lunch rush when I stopped in, but there was still a decent sized crowd at the counter and in the dining room. After taking a minute to study the generic menu board prominently adorned with a modern Pepsi logo, I ordered a three-piece “Cindy Bear’s Dinner.” Cindy, you might recall, was the southern belle bear who served as an occasional love interest for Yogi in the cartoon series that fails the Bechdel Test miserably. My order number was called before I could fill my cup with Diet Pepsi. Apparently Yogi Bear doesn’t fry to order unlike the last couple of chicken places I’ve visited. I took my nicely printed box of food with no tray under it, and walked the curious floor made up of randomly shaped bits of tile, past various Yogi Bear posters and other bits of Yogi memorabilia to a booth in the narrow dining room off to one side of the counter.
|A non-chicken related Yogi Bear poster|
I found the box stuffed with two mass-produced bread rolls, two disposable bowls containing my chosen sides, mac and cheese and coleslaw, and not quite three pieces of chicken. For the ten bucks and change I paid for the meal with sides and a drink, I also received a leg, thigh, and half a chicken breast, though in general, I suppose that’s preferable to a three piece meal made up of a leg, whole breast and wing, at least if you, like me, are a person of good taste who prefers dark meat. Despite coming from a warming tray or from under a heat lamp, the leg and thigh tasted fresh. The breading had a nice crispy snap when you bit into it, but surprisingly, I failed to notice any discernible honey flavor. Maybe Eugene Broome’s original recipe has been lost to time, or it never had an overwhelming honey flavor to begin with. In any event, the first two pieces of chicken were pleasantly juicy and flavorful without being greasy. The mac and cheese was functionally identical to the generally acceptable mac and cheese you can find at any KFC, and coleslaw was representative of what I later learned is a regional anomaly. Carolina coleslaw is chopped fine to the point that it looks pre-chewed. It somehow manages to be dryer than plain cabbage, and it has an overwhelming flavor of sage. It’s probably an acquired taste, but it’s a taste I wasn’t in town long enough to acquire. Any objection I had to the coleslaw, however, was quickly drowned out by the chicken breast half, which, while it had the same pleasantly crispy breading, was the single driest piece of poultry I had ever tasted. I realize I’ve previously outed myself as having a bias against white meat, but even among chicken breasts, hell, even among microwaved leftover Thanksgiving turkey this chicken breast half seemed especially dry as it absorbed all the moisture in the mouth as I struggled to chew and swallow it.
|These custom printed boxes must cost them a ton. The effort is appreciated.|
|It's hardly a 1960s cartoon wonderland.|
|They use every bit of available space.|
|My go-to fried chicken side dishes. Carolina slaw is weird.|
|Pie and soft serve; I'm not sure if this was a standard Yogi Bear's menu item or a later addition.|
I returned to the counter to order a fried apple pie topped with soft serve to take my mind off of the driest chicken in the south. It was a little short on filling, but even plain fried dough topped with soft serve is a perfectly acceptable dessert. I must admit feeling vague disappointment when I left, not because of any major deficiency in the food or service, but I had high hopes of an immersive 1960s Hanna-Barbera themed experience, but aside from a neat vintage sign outside and a retro box full of chicken, there wasn’t much retro cartoon fun to be had. In a time before nuggets and tendies were widely available, it must have been tough to be a restaurant with a popular cartoon character for a mascot that only served bone-in chicken. Before the kids meal was invented by Burger Chef and perfected by McDonald’s, Yogi Bear’s Honey Fried Chicken only managed to have half the formula. Yogi was probably great at appealing to kids, who in turn, appealed to their parents and guardians to take them to Yogi Bear’s to eat, but the lack of kid-friendly food likely ensured there wouldn’t be much repeat business from families. Had Eugene Broome and/or the Hardee’s executives who wound up running the Yogi Bear’s brand had the foresight to beat McDonald’s to the nugget market, their story might have been different, but instead, like an entirely theoretical Johnny Cash, Yogi Bear tried to walk the nonexistent line between being a chicken restaurant for adults and a cartoon restaurant for kids, and fell into the a ring of fire and mixed metaphors where a waiting John Jay Hooker and Minnie Pearl bade them an enthusiastic “How-deee!” along with countless other failed fast food and political footnotes. In that way, I suspect the last Yogi Bear’s Honey Fried Chicken is what the brand always was, underwhelming, but the fact that it’s authentically underwhelming makes it a must stop for any fast food history buff willing to take a brief detour off I-95, whether they’re travelling from Grinder’s Switch to Jellystone Park or taking a tour of Southern governor’s mansions. Despite historic and current imperfections, it’s safe to say that Yogi is at least better at running a fried chicken joint than the average bear.
Thursday, August 19, 2021
Get in Loser, We're Going Chain Breaking
While writing about a trip to several different Ponderosas over three years ago, when there were still well over 100 Ponderosas and Bonanzas still in operation, I defined a broken chain as:
A business which, at some point in its history, had multiple, similarly-functioning, physical locations where a customer could purchase goods and/or services which presently has a significantly diminished presence and/or value as a brand compared to the same brand in its heyday.
Today, there are closer to 22 Ponderosa/Bonanza locations left, but my working definition of a broken chain remains unchanged. I have, however, started throwing around a related term with friends and family that I have not yet used here until now:
chain breaking - the act of seeking out and visiting surviving location(s) of broken chains
Contrary to what the name implies, chain breaking has nothing to do with contributing to the downfall of a chain, rather it’s about celebrating what’s left of a broken chain. Motives for chain breaking can include, but are not limited to, a desire to experience or document an endangered brand or a location that is relatively untouched by time, to try unique and often difficult to find (fast) food items, or simply to have a flimsy excuse to take a road trip. For me, all of the above motivate my chain breaking expeditions, which are generally pretty straightforward. The steps usually look something like:
-Learn of a near defunct or endangered restaurant or retail brand from a friend, reader, or forum post.
-Research the history of that brand and track down anything resembling a holdout location.
-Plan a trip to that holdout location or locations, usually including stops at other unrelated broken chain locations along the way, for efficiency’s sake.
-Visit, experience, and document that location.
In carrying out these steps, I usually encounter few complications. Sure, I’ve gotten food poisoning on more than one occasion, and sometimes I'll visit a place expecting it to be open for business only to find it closed, the result of theoretical operating hours that were posted online not matching the actual operating hours in practice, but these obstacles standing in the way of a chain breaking mission are generally pretty easy to overcome when I encounter them. One chain breaking mission in particular, however, stands out as being especially fraught with obstacles, which leads me to another slang term for which, I thankfully cannot take credit:
The devil is beating his wife. - when it rains while the sun is out
I’ve only ever heard the term used by people who, like me, grew up in Kentucky, which makes it a little ironic that the most memorable instance of this tenuous metaphor that needlessly invokes unsettling images of both the occult and domestic violence occurred in Tennessee. The brilliantly shining sun was just beginning to set as I was westbound on interstate 40 near Crossville at the tail end of a chain breaking trip across the south, when the rain suddenly began. The combination of the fresh rain and sunlight turned the road surface into a mirror, reflecting sunlight directly into the windshields of westbound traffic. Just as I realized that this was a potential recipe for disaster, a car directly in front of me swerved from the fast lane and plowed into the guard rail on the right shoulder, bouncing back across two lanes and into the median. It was all I could do to slow down and pull safely onto the shoulder in time to avoid contact with the out of control vehicle. The two 18 wheelers behind me weren’t as fortunate and collided with one another as I was dialing 911 to report the first incident. Thankfully, no one involved appeared to be injured, but it was quite a string of events to witness unfolding in real time. Shaken, but unharmed and as resolute as ever to complete my chain breaking mission, I continued onward after confirming with the 911 operator that I didn’t need to hang around. I took the next exit, and followed a series of two lane blacktops to McMinnville, Tennessee, home of the last operating Chicken Chef.
Chicken Chef is a chain whose corporate parent seemingly faced myriad obstacles of its own, existing as a corporate entity only from 1968 to 1971. Near as I can tell, they were not related to Burger Chef. Locations were primarily in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas, but there may have been Chicken Chefs in other nearby states as well. It seems at least as likely as not that some franchised Chicken Chefs held on and operated independently past their parent company’s 1971 expiration date, but half a century on, the McMinnville Chicken Chef appears to be the sole survivor.
An hour or so after witnessing a pileup on I-40, I arrived at the McMinnville Chicken Chef only to encounter a second obstacle, its parking lot. The little A-frame building sits a few feet below street level, and very close to the curb, allowing only for a few oddly-angled, downward-sloping, parking spaces out front, all of which were occupied, relegating me to the one remaining parking spot at the rear of the building. Once parked, I was almost immediately blocked in by a vehicle that pulled into the similarly idiosyncratic drive thru lane. It was a Sunday evening, and I hadn’t expected the place to be so busy at the dinner hour of the evening that I assumed the locals would be relaxing at home to enjoy the last of the weekend before the workweek began anew the following morning. I judged the place’s popularity at an off hour as being related to its unlikely long term survival, and carefully navigated my way around the car in the narrow drive thru lane to the front of the building where a third obstacle awaited me.
The building’s front facade had two doors marked ENTER and EXIT. I pulled on the ENTER door and it wouldn’t budge. Pushing yielded a similar result. I checked the posted hours on the door and found I had arrived at a comfortable interval before the purported closing time, and I could see through the glass doors that the tiny dining area was full of happy patrons. I tried the ENTER door a second time and only gained entry to the building when a sympathetic diner witnessed my plight and opened the fully unlocked and functional EXIT door for me to enter as if I were wearing the type of raspberry beret one might find in a secondhand store. I got the impression that the ENTER door hadn’t been unlocked in years, and that in attempting to use it, I had immediately failed to pass as a local and had outed myself as a chain breaker. I felt as if the record needle of some unseen jukebox had been scratched across whatever disk was playing as I walked in, and all eyes on the place were upon me as I was shaking off the cold.
|Original menu board with late '60s ad copy; notice the chicken who is also a chef.|
Flustered by the myriad slings and arrows I had encountered up to that point, I failed to read the room, which was full of diners eating from ceramic plates brought to their tables by servers. I clumsily walked up to what looked like an order counter where an employee, slightly puzzled by my less than graceful entrance, asked if I wanted to place a to go order. Feeling no small amount of implicit social pressure to not be difficult and making note of the complete lack of unoccupied tables in the dining room, I agreed, and ordered a three piece, two side, “Chef Dinner” from the ancient plastic menu board behind the counter, along with a 7Up, noticing too late that their house cola was not Coke or Pepsi, but Royal Crown. I was clearly off my chain breaking game, and it had cost me the opportunity to taste RC Cola not from a can or bottle, but from a fountain, something I had not seen in person in at least 15 years.
|The tiny table where I awaited my cooked to order chicken|
Once I had ordered, I did my best to stay out of everyone’s way in the absurdly small and bustling dining room, finally finding a seat at a recently vacated two-top table near the door, but not before making note of and photographically documenting the aforementioned menu board as well as a framed black and white photo that hung on the wall behind the counter showing what appeared the location’s opening day. It depicted several suited men and a Family Guy-esque giant chicken costume presumably with a person inside it standing outside those same glass doors whose riddle I had failed so miserably in deciphering. The date below the photo, January 20, 1968 indicated that this was likely one of the first Chicken Chefs to open.
|"People have got to know whether or not their chicken mascot is a cook. Well, I am not a cook. I'm a chef."|
Coincidentally, the date was also one year to the day before Richard Nixon assumed the presidency, and while the Nixon administration would infamously be cut short, Chicken Chef corporate would meet its undoing long before Nixon would do the same. When most Chicken Chefs called it quits in 1971, the Watergate hotel and office complex that would forever be tied to Nixon’s downfall was still under construction. Fifty years on, the concept of a president's own party holding him to account for his misdeeds and forcing his resignation in the face of a likely impeachment seems as unlikely and quaint as one surviving Chicken Chef location remaining a popular dining spot, yet the latter is reality in a little town in Central Tennessee. The place must have been brilliantly managed over the past fifty years for it to maintain modern popularity despite operating out of a tiny and antiquated building with an inhospitable parking lot and restrooms that looked no more inviting, accessible only through narrow doors on the outside of the building on its rear wall.
|The rear of the building, note the restroom doors below the A/C unit of Damocles.|
I mention those restroom doors specifically, because they were my view as I ate my to-go meal at the tail end of a dicey chain break, seated on the rear bumper of my car, an open tailgate providing shelter from the elements as I cursed my own missteps and misfortunes in a jowly Nixonian grumble. I wondered what horrors lurked behind those restroom doors and if they were left unlocked for customers, employees, and wandering vagrants to pass through to haphazardly perform their various bodily functions, or if accessing the vintage crappers required the use of a key chained to the exhaust manifold of a ‘64 Rambler. I decided it was best to leave all those questions unanswered and to focus on my dinner. The chicken, which had been fried to order, was my final obstacle, as it remained blisteringly hot from the fryer. I therefore opted to try the sides first. I found the mashed potatoes likely to have been cooked from instant flakes, but superior to the watery, allegedly potato-based product KFC foists upon its clientele these days. They were topped with an opaque, light yellow, chickeny gravy, which I suspect came from a can or jar, but nonetheless contributed positively to the experience. The coleslaw was chunky, but otherwise unremarkable, and the bread was a store bought roll. With the sides thoroughly examined and mostly devoured, and the chicken at a manageable temperature, I finally gave it the evaluation it deserved.
|Taters and gravy|
In the dimming light of a summer’s evening in a parking lot illuminated by the flickering halogen bulbs at the rear of the little A-frame restaurant and the headlights of the occasional vehicle in the makeshift drive thru lane, the already orangish hue of the chicken’s breading appeared a little oranger. The seasoning blend was a simple one, and the primary flavor was that of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt or a facsimile thereof. It was, however, applied perfectly to enhance the flavor of the chicken without overpowering it, and the breast, leg, and thigh were all perfectly cooked, an ample reward for enduring the myriad obstacles, setbacks, and indignities involved in chain breaking at the world’s last Chicken Chef.
|The main event, made by, or perhaps from the Chicken Chef himself|
Should you read this post and feel inspired to venture upon your own chain breaking expedition to Chicken Chef, I implore you to learn from my mistakes, drive safely, and relieve yourself elsewhere. Come to think of it, that’s good advice for visiting most of the places I’ve experienced and written about here, though the Rax in Joliet, Illinois does have a weirdly pleasant bathroom. That seems like as good a place as any for me to leave you. Go forth and chain break.
Thursday, August 12, 2021
Since Sanders was a Corporal
In the 1990s, every fourth grade student in the Commonwealth of Kentucky was expected to write and assemble a collection of essays about the history and culture of Kentucky into what my fourth grade teacher, and likely also the Kentucky Department of Education called a “Kentucky Scrapbook.” The essays could be about anything, assuming they were Kentucky-related. I remember writing about the official state flower (goldenrod), the two official state trees (the tulip poplar and Kentucky coffee tree), and the state critter (the gray squirrel). Were I assembling a Kentucky scrapbook as an adult, I’d probably write an essay or two about Kentucky’s contributions to the fast food industry including the lesser known origins of Long John Silver’s and Fazoli’s, and of course the eponymous fried chicken that was Harland “The Colonel” Sanders’ gift to the world.
Anyone with a casual interest in fast food history is aware of the humble origins of KFC and how at the age of 65, Harland Sanders, motivated by the planned bypass of his business by what would become Interstate 75, set out to create a franchising empire based on the fried chicken recipe he served at his humble restaurant/gas station/motel in Corbin, Kentucky. Sanders, incidentally served in the First World War, but never attained a military rank higher than corporal. He called himself "Colonel" because like many semi-prominent Kentuckians, he had been given the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel. Pete Harman, owner of the Harman Cafe in South Salt Lake City, Utah would become Sanders’ first franchisee. His restaurant would add Sanders’ chicken to its existing menu, and would become the first location to use the Kentucky Fried Chicken name. KFC wouldn't become a standalone restaurant concept in its own right until the brand changed ownership over a decade later, but at the time it wasn’t terribly unusual for a company to market a franchised menu and name to existing restaurants. That’s more or less how Big Boy briefly became a nationwide chain of loosely affiliated regional chains, and how brands like Broaster Foods continue to operate today. Indeed, Harland Sanders' business model was nothing new when Utahns got their first taste of Kentucky Fried Chicken. At the time, independently owned restaurants and bars had been selling Chicken in the Rough since the Colonel was a corporal.
Chicken in the Rough is one of the earliest franchised restaurant brands in the US, dating back to 1936 by Oklahoma restaurateurs Beverly and Rubye Osborne, whose relationship and respective gender identities are unclear from their given names, and based on my limited research, have been lost to time. (Beverly has historically been used as both a masculine and feminine name, and I learned in fourth grade that Kentucky once had a male governor named Ruby Laffoon, whose name is second in hilarity only to fellow Kentucky governor Flem Sampson.) The exact origins of the Chicken in the Rough name are similarly unclear, originating either from an unintentional omission of utensils from a chicken dinner or an unfortunate picnic basket spill during an ill-fated Steinbeckian exodus from Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma. What we do know is that Chicken in the Rough was once served at close to 300 franchised locations, most of which were existing restaurants who paid to use the Chicken in the Rough brand and recipe. Despite being first to market and having a similar origin story, Chicken in the Rough floundered while KFC became a worldwide sensation. The Colonel’s chicken was cooked quickly in a special pressure fryer that lent itself well to standalone fast food locations at a time when fast food customers were beginning to crave more than just the burgers that launched the industry, while Chicken in the Rough was cooked in an unpressurized deep fryer that kept it tied to full service restaurants during the fast food chicken boom of the 1960s.
|Port Huron's home of Chicken in the Rough|
Today, Chicken in the Rough is sold at only three locations, Beverly’s Pancake House in Oklahoma City, which seems to have some connection to Beverly and Rubye Osborne, and two bars that are separated by less than 3 miles that are situated on opposite sides of an international border. The Palms Krystal Bar and Grill in Port Huron Michigan and McCarthy Grill across the St. Clair river in Sarnia, Ontario are the other two holdout Chicken in the Rough franchisees.
Sadly, I learned of the existence of Beverly’s Pancake House after my first and only visit to Oklahoma to eat at the last Ku-Ku, and with nonessential travel over the Canadian border restricted at the time, The Palms Krystal was the easiest place for me to experience Chicken in the Rough. It was a relatively quick two hour drive to Port Huron from my adopted home in the Detroit suburbs, and I was greeted by a vintage neon sign of the Chicken in the Rough logo, a rooster reminiscent of Roger Miller’s character in the Disney Robin Hood movie clad in cartoonish golf attire with one (large) talon improbably wrapped around a golf club whose shaft has presumably just broken attempting to hit a nearby golf ball out of some tall grass, or “the rough” in golf parlance. Whoever designed the character the better part of a century ago made the choice to depict him smoking what I assume was meant to be a hand rolled cigarette, but to modern eyes appears to be a joint. The same character appeared on a hand painted A-frame sign on the sidewalk in front of the building’s entrance, and again on a rug near the bar. Many broken chains are short on branding, but that does not appear to be the case with Chicken in the Rough.
|I strongly suspect chicken is tomorrow's special too.|
I was seated at a booth near the back of the barroom, and ordered from an attentive server what I knew to be Chicken in the Rough’s signature dish, half a fried chicken on a bed of shoestring fries with a biscuit and honey. I was informed by my server that the chicken was cooked to order and would take 20 minutes or so to prepare, and my response conveyed that I was okay with that. I’d gladly wait that long and longer for freshly cooked fried chicken. I took my 20 minute wait as an opportunity to appreciate my surroundings. The Palms Krystal Bar looks like it hasn’t had a remodel since around the time Pete Harman started selling Kentucky Fried Chicken in Utah. Every fixture and molding had the aesthetic of the late 1940s or early 1950s, but appeared pristine. Adding to the immersiveness of the experience was a paper Chicken in the Rough placemat on my table, featuring not only the aforementioned stoned golfing rooster but also his “caddie,” a tiny yellow chick carrying a similarly diminutive bag of golf clubs whilst morbidly proclaiming, “I’d gladly be fried for Chicken in the Rough!” and in turn, triggering in me the vague sense of guilt that all meat eaters feel to some extent or another in modern times. Were it not for the wall of flatscreen TVs above the bar, the retro decor and charmingly dated marketing materials might make one briefly wonder if they had traveled back in time 70 years or so.
|A pleasantly anachronistic dining area and bar|
True to my server’s word, my meal arrived almost exactly 20 minutes after I had ordered. It was situated in a plastic basket atop a branded paper liner. Four pieces of chicken were nestled among freshly cooked shoestring fries. The whole exquisite heap was topped by two nonstandard items, a cup of coleslaw, and not a biscuit but a mass produced bread roll. I was unsurprised by the roll. Decent biscuits are tough enough to find in the upper south, let alone across the river from the Great White North. The coleslaw, similarly unsurprisingly, had a tzatziki-like flavor, likely a product of Southeast Michigan’s Greek-American culinary traditions. I can’t imagine there were many Okies from Muskogee by way of Alexandroupolis who might have contributed a coleslaw recipe to Beverly and their relative, Rubye in 1930s Oklahoma.
|And The Chicken's Caddie (sic)|
The chicken, fresh out of the fryer, was too hot to eat, so I took the opportunity to try the fries that had begun to cool thanks to a lower thermal mass. In my previous post, I complained about the fresh cut shoestring fries recently removed from the menu at the Columbus Ritzy’s, but the fresh cut shoestrings from Chicken in the Rough were pleasantly crispy unlike their discontinued counterparts from one state south. They had clearly been fried twice, once to cultivate a crust and again to cook through. This is the key to a good freedom fry. Pre-frozen fries are usually par-fried before being frozen, so when they’re fried again just before being served they develop a pleasantly crispy exterior. It’s why freshly cooked from frozen McDonald’s fries are objectively better than the mushy mass of greasy potato girders at the bottom of your Five Guys bag, despite the fact that Five Guys slices their own spuds. I suspect it’s also why the Columbus Ritzy’s switched to frozen fries to match its counterparts in Kentucky, Indiana, and West Virginia. Give me a twice-fried frozen fry over a once-fried fresh cut any day. My point being that if you’re going to serve fresh cut fries, cook them right, or don’t bother, and to my delight, Chicken in the Rough Fries were both fresh cut and cooked right.
|A basket of chicken and fries with nonstandard bread and coleslaw|
Before I filled up on fries, I began a few cursory nibbles on the chicken, starting with the smallest and quickest to cool wing before working my way up to the leg, thigh, and breast, giggling with adolescent delight about how I would later write the suggestive-sounding sentence you’re reading right now. Aside from being fresh, the chicken was unremarkable. Unlike the old man in the white suit, Beverly and Rubye seemed to specify only salt and pepper in their seasoning blend, but the fact that the chicken was fresh from the fryer made it much more pleasant to eat than the overbreaded lukewarm chicken I received on my most recent trip to the KFC drive thru. Chicken in the Rough didn’t need 11, or for that matter, 21 herbs and spices to be tasty. It simply had to be cooked to order.
I finished by topping a few remaining chicken scraps and my roll with honey from the plastic squeeze bottle on the table. It was another local contribution, purporting to be from nearby Harsens Island, and I wondered how many depression-era Chicken in the Rough patrons did the same to maximize their caloric intake as a survival strategy. My meal at Chicken in the Rough was the only thing of substance I ate that day, and I wasn’t especially hungry until late in the lunching hour the next day, which in my mind made its roots in tough times evident.
It was approaching midday on a Sunday when I concluded my meal, and found the dining room much more full and lively than when I had entered less than an hour before. Upon exiting the building, I found a chicken takeout window out back that appeared to predate the recent takeout boom necessitated by our era’s tough times. It was perhaps there to compete with the more common fast food fried chicken places. I suspect most customers call in their orders given the prep time involved, but Chicken in the Rough would be a welcome alternative to takeout from KFC or Popeye’s if I lived in or around Port Huron.
Imagine an alternate timeline in which fast food never became popular. Many franchised restaurants experiences in this reality would likely look a lot like Chicken in the Rough at the Palms Krystal, a beloved neighborhood establishment serving up a few franchised and branded recipes, embracing a business model blending the concepts of independent and chain restaurants under a single roof. It’s something not seen often in our reality encompassing a more homogeneous restaurant industry less dependent on dine-in customers than ever, but it’s a charmingly antiquated spectacle worth experiencing if you find yourself below the sign of a pot smoking rooster holding a broken golf club.
Friday, July 30, 2021
For over three years now, I’ve been able to boast that I’ve been to every operating G.D. Ritzy’s location. It’s an esoteric flex, but as a lifelong Ritzy’s fan it’s something I’m proud of. It was the disappearance of my beloved G.D. Ritzy’s from the Lexington, Kentucky market in the early ‘90s that I imprinted on as a kindergartner that sparked a lifelong interest in tracking down surviving locations of not quite defunct restaurant chains, so it’s safe to say that without G.D. Ritzy’s, this blog may well not exist. It felt like an exciting kickoff to my then-new blog in the spring of 2018 when a road trip led me to all six surviving G.D. Ritzy’s locations. When the chain’s founder, Graydon D. Webb and his family opened a seventh location in their native Columbus, Ohio, I was there within a week of their opening so I could continue to brag about having visited all operating locations of my favorite restaurant chain. A little while later, I had the G.D. Ritzy’s logo tattooed on my right arm in commemoration of my trip and in tribute to my favorite restaurant. While I’m not certain I’m G.D. Ritzy’s number one fan, I think it’s safe to say I’m at least in the top five.
|Yes, I am wearing a Hills tshirt, and yes, that is my real face.|
As with all the places I visit, I take pride in my expertise regarding how each surviving G.D. Ritzy’s is both unique and similar to its brethren, and how much it may or may not have changed in the three decades since most locations of the 120 unit chain called it quits. If one were to ask me, or at least not explicitly tell me to not talk about G.D. Ritzy’s, I’d tell them that the three locations in Evansville, Indiana, all of which have the same owners, are my favorite. Their art deco decor and classic diner food are remarkably close to what I remember at the locations in Lexington during my early childhood. They may have pared down a few slow selling menu items and added a couple new flavors of made in-house ice cream, but the Evansville locations are impeccably maintained 1980s time capsules complete with elevated dining rooms that sit a couple feet higher than the floor by the order counter, marble tabletops, hexagonal tile, and big band music played through reproduction teardrop-shaped Seeburg jukebox speakers. Every time I’m fortunate enough to eat in an Evansville G.D. Ritzy’s, I’m immediately transported back to early childhood, and that experience keeps me coming back.
|One of three Evansville, Indiana G.D. Ritzy's locations|
An hour away in Owensboro, Kentucky, there are two additional Ritzy’s locations. I say Ritzy’s because by the time they had opened, the chain had dropped the vaguely profane sounding initials from its signage and branding. I’ve heard from a reliable source that the owner of these locations was the last new franchisee to open a Ritzy’s before the chain declared bankruptcy in 1991. The Frederica Street location is clearly a purpose built Ritzy’s building, identical in dimensions and shape to its counterparts in Evansville, but with a newer color scheme and a re-imagined interior designed to evoke the bright and optimistic aesthetic of the 1950s more than the art deco 1940s theme of the older locations in Evansville. A second Owensboro location on Highway 54 is in a newer building with none of the Ritzy’s architectural cues, but similar interior decor. The food at both Owensboro locations is excellent as it is in Evansville. A few additional unique ice cream flavors are offered, as are baked potatoes. Evansville evidently dropped, or never saw fit to pick up the hot potatoes. Both locations are perfectly fine, but fail to be as immersive and magical as their Evansville counterparts in my deeply subjective and biased opinion.
|Ritzy's of Owensboro, a later iteration of the early building design; notice the lack of initials unintentionally implying blasphemy.|
The Huntington, West Virginia G.D. Ritzy’s is the oldest in continuous operation, having opened in 1983, the same year the chain won an award for its chocolate ice cream. Ironically, the Huntington G.D. Ritzy’s is the one surviving location that never made its own ice cream. I was lucky enough to talk to the location’s original owner, who told me that making ice cream from scratch never made business sense for his one location the way it might have for a franchisee operating multiple units who could make ice cream at one restaurant and distribute it to their other nearby locations. On my most recent visit there, the Huntington G.D. Ritzy’s was selling Hershey’s ice cream. Their menu has seen some additions and subtractions over the years, but the Big Bopper fried bologna sandwich is still present on the menu. It’s a glaring omission in Evansville, Owensboro, and Columbus. The Huntington Ritzy’s recently changed ownership, and the new owners have been trying new menu items like premium soups and salads that seem out of place to me, but I take G.D. Ritzy’s more seriously than the average person. They also offer brunch on weekends unlike any other Ritzy’s I’m aware of past or present. The decor, like in Evansville, is what I remember from childhood, though it feels rough around the edges. The patina of decades of continuous operation is more obvious, perhaps the result of the limited resources of a single owner, versus the consortium of owners of the Evansville locations who keep their locations feeling bright and new despite them being closer to their 40th year in operation than their 30th.
|The weathered and worse for wear G.D. Ritzy's of wild, wonderful, West Virginia|
The newest Ritzy’s location in Columbus operated by chain founder Graydon Webb and family offers a limited menu of burgers, fries, hot dogs, chili, the famous Ritzy’s PB&J, ice cream, and little else. Sandwiches are topped to order behind a glass counter in front of you, similar to Subway, or if you like, the Canadian burger chain, Harvey’s. The building is a heavily renovated 1950s vintage A&W which bares little resemblance to the Ritzy’s buildings of the ‘80s, but does have nods to the design of the earlier locations here and there. It’s located in a trendy, dare I say ritzy, neighborhood, so efforts were made to make the place feel upscale. Early on, they used fresh cut fries rather than frozen, but have since switched back to frozen, presumably because my opinion that the fresh cut fries were mushy and gross was widely held. Buns are fresh-baked, while other Ritzy’s seem to get mass-produced buns delivered. My one lingering complaint about the Columbus location is that the prices are a good 50% higher than at other Ritzy’s. It’s seriously tough to get out of there for under $20 for a sandwich, fries and ice cream, but I suspect it’s in line with food prices of other restaurants in the (very hip) area. They offer the classic ice cream flavors, but also try out new ones on occasion. I had two scoops of a very nice carrot cake flavor on my last visit to the tune of $7 before tip.
|The Columbus Ritzy's is a modern take on a classic. (I think that big fiberglass burger is from a Max and Erma's.)|
Along with the above knowledge gathered from my travels to every surviving (G.D.) Ritzy’s, I’ve carried a shameful secret. There was an eighth location in operation that I had yet to visit. Distance, adult responsibilities, and a pesky little global pandemic kept me away until this past weekend when I finally made it to South Carolina to eat at Burky’s Grill, the bootleg G.D. Ritzy’s of Myrtle Beach.
Before developing G.D. Ritzy’s, you might recall, Graydon Webb was a Wendy’s executive, and restaurant industry veteran Wayne “Burky” Burkart was one of his esteemed colleagues, also in the employ of Dave Thomas. When Webb opened his own restaurant chain, Burkart became a franchisee, operating six G.D. Ritzy’s locations in South Carolina starting in 1983, keeping them going longer than 95% of other Ritzy’s locations. Burkart sold his restaurants, and attempted to retire in 2000, but had repurchased and renamed the Myrtle Beach G.D. Ritzy’s by 2003. It’s operated as Burky’s Grill ever since. I had seen photos of the place for years, and the interior and food bore a striking resemblance to what I knew to be Ritzy’s signature look and fare. I was eager to visit, but circumstances never worked out until they did.
It was a Saturday afternoon in late July when I found myself in Myrtle Beach along with what seemed to be the majority of the population of South Carolina and surrounding states. I had picked the exact wrong time to visit a beach town whose local economy is based primarily on tourism. After an hour and a half of dodging overloaded minivans and SUVs packed with caterwauling children, incessant and senseless grandparents, and long-suffering parents, not to mention the hordes of bright and cacophonous full size pick-em-up trucks lifted sky-high in the front and lowered to the ground in the rear in what’s known as a “Carolina squat” stance. I spied a friendly and vaguely familiar looking green sign on the horizon.
|A nonstandard Ritzy's design, or perhaps an early iteration of the more common curved corner, befinned building.|
|Remnant of the original flat railing and the new tubular railing against the backdrop of Ritzy's iconic hexagonal tiles.|
I had arrived at Burky’s Grill. I found a spot at the edge of the crowded parking lot and took a minute to admire the building. It lacked G.D. Ritzy’s distinctive curved corner and decorative fin, but it was clad in the chain’s familiar white stucco, and its entrance was in roughly the right spot. Once through that entrance I felt as if I had walked into my own home, and not only because the original G.D. Ritzy’s “TIME TO EAT” wall clock above the order counter was identical to the one I have hanging in my living room. It had the familiar, inviting look and feel of a 1980s vintage Ritzy’s interior complete with the original tile, furniture, and lighting. There were minor changes here and there. There were spots where the original flat railings had been cut flush with the floor and replaced with tubular ones that allowed the order line a wider berth. The patterned green carpeting in the elevated dining area had been replaced with solid green carpet, and the booths which would have originally been green had been reupholstered with red vinyl. Despite the minor changes, it was still clearly a Ritzy’s interior, and that’s a theme that continued after I worked my way through the order line and received my food.
In an effort to experience as much of the menu as possible for the sake of comparison, I ordered three entrees as well as fries and a drink to see how much resemblance each item bore to what I might find at other G.D. Ritzy’s locations.
If one were to order fries at any of the seven locations using the (G.D.) Ritzy’s name, one would receive the thinnest imaginable objects that could still be considered fries without edging into potato stick territory. They’re roughly ⅛ inch wide, and similar to what one might see at a Steak ‘n Shake or Freddy’s Steakburgers. Burky’s fries, while still in shoestring territory, are closer to ¼ inch, nearly identical in size and shape to McDonald’s fries, and equally similar in texture and flavor.
|Original tables, chairs, light fixtures, and stainless wall trim.|
|More original wall trim and lighting, plus the aforementioned original Seeburg speaker|
The topping on my chili dog was close, if not identical, to the mild and tangy chili offered at every Ritzy’s. (In Evansville, they give you the option of adding an additional kick to your chili by placing on every table bottles of hot sauce, and what I call Cincinnati Juice, which is a mysterious brownish liquid that imparts the flavor of Cincinnati chili to anything it touches.) It was the dog itself that was off. It lacked the snappy natural casing and strong garlic flavor of what I know to be a Ritzy’s hot dog. Burky’s dog was skinless, and comparatively bland, clearly from a different manufacturer.
|There was no Cincinnati Juice to be had at Burky's but here's some next to the hot sauce on a tabletop condiment caddy in Evansville.|
|No strawberry slices here.|
My luxury PB&J was similarly not quite authentically Ritzy’s. It had the requisite untoasted Texas toast (Texas bread?) smooth peanut butter, strawberry jam, and crushed peanuts, but lacked the fresh strawberry slices that make G.D. Ritzy’s PB&J extra luxurious, but in Burky’s defense, I imagine it’s a pain to keep fresh, sliced strawberries on hand for use on only a single menu item.
|Burky's take on G.D. Ritzy's Double Ritz cheeseburger. It's hard to see here, but the patties were upside down.|
Of the items I ordered, my burger was the closest to what I know to be authentically G.D. Ritzy’s, and while like the fries, a G.D. Ritzy’s burger is quite similar to what you’d find at Steak ‘n Shake or Freddy’s, it’s distinct from more mainstream fast food burgers, and feels premium by comparison. During preparation, the burger patties are formed into balls of raw meat and smashed under a spatula on a ripping hot flat top grill, giving them crispy edges and a juicy center. The burgers cook almost completely before being flipped to their respective B-sides to linger on the grill for less than a minute to finish. This cooking process gives the patties a distinctive crispy convex top and a soft concave bottom. I mention this, because the patties on my burger were placed on it upside down from what I’ve experienced not only at Ritzy’s, but at every other place that serves this style of hamburger. I laughed audibly upon noticing, drawing more attention than I had taking pictures of the counter and dining area, because like everything else at Burky’s, the burger was just shy of being identical to Ritzy’s.
|Marble, tile, green, iconic textures all.|
Whether it was the solid green carpet, round chrome railings, the too-soft hot dog, the berryless PB&J, the too-fat fries or the upside down burger, the place was a knockoff Ritzy’s to a comedic degree, which isn’t to say that any of the food was bad. I ate more of it than I should have considering it was my second lunch of the day. It still tasted 85% authentic Ritzy’s and 95% objectively good. The locals, or at least, the tourists in town for more than just lunch, agreed with me because the place remained packed for the duration of my visit well past the typical lunch rush. The table of Mormon missionaries behind me and the table of motorcyclists and their helmets to my right served as an almost too on the nose illustration of Burky’s, which is to say G.D. Ritzy’s mass appeal.
|The view from the top of the elevated dining room.|
The crowd was all the more remarkable because of the omission of hand scooped ice cream from the menu. The G.D. Ritzy’s ice cream counter with its 16 flavors in 5 gallon drums in a glass-topped freezer were nowhere to be found. In their place stood a soft serve machine and a menu of soft-serve based desserts. I didn’t bother ordering ice cream due in equal parts to the dearth of authenticity and the fact that I’d eaten two large meals that day and had plans for a third before I would be able to chug some Alka Seltzer and rest my weary head. They seemed to be making the most of the soft serve though, as there was an extensive menu of soft serve based shakes, sundaes, and Blizzard-like concoctions. The lack of ice cream is easy to forgive in Burky’s case. As I learned in Huntington, making ice cream from scratch for a single restaurant location doesn’t make economic sense, and while Ritzy’s ice cream was not present on the menu, Burky’s had every menu item that at least one Ritzy’s or another lacked. They offer the baked potatoes only available at the Owensboro Ritzy’s, the Big Bopper fried bologna sandwich only available at the Huntington Ritzy’s, and the steamed vegetable plate that they only offer in Evansville. If Ritzy’s is your favorite band and Burky’s is a cover band, they can be forgiven for not playing one of Ritzy’s hits in their set and striking a sour note once in a while if they play literally every deep cut.
And Zapediah wept, seeing as he had no more G.D. Ritzy’s to conquer.
Finally making it to the eighth surviving G.D. Ritzy’s has rewarded me with a sense of fulfillment, but also a sense of sorrow. My most recent trip has me nearing the bottom of the barrel of broken chain locations that I have yet to visit, at least in the eastern half of the U.S. Without new fodder for new blog posts, this silly little project of mine quickly devolves into an ouroboros gobbling down its own tail as if it's dripping with delicious Cincinnati Juice. The out of place, self-referential rhyming posts I wrote last year are the type of drivel I put out when I can’t visit broken chains, and nobody wants more of that. So I implore you, dear reader. Get in contact with me in the comments below, my email, Facebook, or Instagram, (Nothing good ever happens on Twitter.) and let me know what broken chains you’d like to see me visit next.