Thursday, January 16, 2020

Behind Every Great (Minute) Man...

When I’m out adventuring, and come to think of it, when I’m living my life in general, quirks of my personality motivate me toward a goal of having complete anonymity. It’s a strategy that has lead me, in my capacity as a documentarian of endangered restaurant chains, to write mainly about the food, building, and overall experience associated with a restaurant, and not about the people behind it. Getting to know the owners and employees of a place I write about adds a level of socializing that, when repeated during every restaurant visit, would quickly diminish the level of fun I have in my travels. This blog is my hobby after all, it should be fun. An exchange with the people who run the places I write about would also add a layer of logistics and complexity when planning trips. I’d either have to call places in advance to set up interviews, or try to visit during off-peak times when owners and staff might have time to chat, and that’s assuming they’d even be interested in talking to me in the first place. This desire for anonymity and ease of experiencing surviving locations of mostly defunct restaurant chains has led me to simply showing up, eating, semi-discreetly taking a few pictures, and moving on to write about my experience later. It’s a process I’ve settled into over the past couple of years, and is a contributing factor to my oft-repeated self-criticism that I’m too much of a restaurant critic, and not enough of a historian.

I occasionally find myself with a desire to open a dialog with the people behind the places I write about, in the pursuit of becoming more of a historian than I am. That’s what George Motz, the world-renowned hamburger scholar seems to do when he’s on the road experiencing historic burger joints, but I lack Mr. Motz’s level of fame and I wager that he’s more outgoing than I am In most cases, I’m eager to tell people about my hobby or what I’m doing eating at a near forgotten restaurant in some far-away town, but I’m unsure how to bring it up, so the cycle of anonymity continues. I was mulling all of this over a few weeks ago on the long drive to Arkansas from my Metro Detroit home, but little did I know that my visit to the last operating Minute Man restaurant would break that cycle.

If Frank Lloyd Wright designed a fast food place, it would probably look a lot like Minute Man. 

The first Minuteman opened in Little Rock in 1948 as a 24 hour coffee shop, but the fast food craze of the 1950s, motivated Wes Hall, one of the owners of the Minute Man coffee shop to buy out his partners and convert the restaurant to a fast food concept in 1956. The single location grew to a chain of franchised and company owned locations, peaking around 57 locations in Arkansas and surrounding states sometime in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Hall left the company in 1981, and it slowly shrank to the single location that remains open today in El Dorado, Arkansas. (Locals pronounce “El Dorado” so that it rhymes with “Well, Alfredo,” which rumor has it, is how Ronald Reagan would address his favorite pasta dish. For the non-Americans reading this, “Arkansas” is pronounced like Noah’s big boat and the cutting implement he presumably would have used while building it, “Ark-an’-saw.”)

The view from my table
I found my way to El Dorado on a quiet Friday afternoon, and headed straight to the world’s last surviving Minute Man, which is housed in a low brick building with a midcentury modern flair, sitting diagonally on a lot on Main Street. I parked near the door, and found my way inside where I was greeted by a woman working the only cash register, situated in front of an imposing indoor charcoal grill, a unique feature in the fast food world. She gestured toward the posterior of my car, which sported a Michigan license plate and asked where I was from. When I told her I was visiting from Detroit, she followed up wanting to know what brought me to El Dorado. It was in that instance that my desire to talk about my hobby and silly blog outweighed my desire for anonymity, and I replied that I had driven all the way from The Motor City to eat at Minute Man. I explained my hobby and blog, which seemed to delight the cashier, who I quickly learned was Linda McGoogan, longtime owner of the El Dorado Minute Man. Miss Linda became increasingly inquisitive about my blog and the places I had been, and we chatted about my adventures as she took my order, which included a seemingly Big Boy-inspired Big M burger, a taco, chips and cheese dip, and a drink known as Mexican Punch. Unfortunately, I learned that the El Dorado Minute Man no longer serves the apple and cherry pies associated with the chain, which had the dubious distinction of being among the first restaurant foods to be prepared using a microwave. 

Vintage menu board and an indoor charcoal grill

After ordering, I ran out to my car to retrieve the vintage Minute Man cup gifted to me by Carl Poncherello and some Broken Chains stickers to give to Miss Linda and her lone employee who was preparing my meal. I didn’t catch his name, but he had dark hair and a mustache, and because of that, and the fact that he works in a restaurant with an outgoing woman named Linda, I’ll call him Bob. I headed back in to hand out stickers, and show Miss Linda my cup, which she said predated her 40 year tenure with Minute Man, and before too long, Bob brought my order up to the counter. I was delighted to see my food was placed on a plastic tray that didn’t look much newer than my Minute Man cup. A Minute Man logo had been printed on the tray, likely sometime before my birth. A stack of trays just like it sat on the counter, meaning that the rare fast food artifacts still got regular use. 

Antique tray.
Contemporary food, with my old Minute Man cup

I thanked Bob for preparing and delivering my meal, and dug in, beginning with the taco, which I’m proud to report is my new second favorite fast food taco, second only to Taco Tico. The meat was seasoned with a unique blend that has a complex and slightly spicy flavor profile that’s not unlike pastrami. It was perfectly complemented by the tiny plastic cup of hot sauce served with the taco. The cheese dip, which I later learned is a regional specialty strongly associated with the state of Arkansas, was unlike any other nacho cheese I’ve ever experienced. It was thinner and more orange than the bright yellow stuff that you see at convenience stores and sporting events. Likewise, it was thinner than I expected, just thick enough to coat one of the round tortilla chips it was served with. Also unlike the ubiquitous fluorescent cheese product I’ve encountered in the past, Minute Man’s cheese dip actually tasted like cheese, punctuated by just enough heat to let you know that it’s more than just a generic cheese sauce. The Mexican punch was regular red-flavor fruit punch, which was a welcome, if not distinctive, addition to the meal. I was two bites into the Big M burger when Miss Linda called me over to the counter. She’d called up her business partner, Perry Smith so he could say hello to me. The two of them are in the process of opening three new Minute Man locations spread between Little Rock and Conway, Arkansas. I love a good broken chain comeback story, so I told Perry I’d have to return to Arkansas once the new locations were up and running. The Minute Man Memories Facebook page seems to be a good source for news about the upcoming locations as well as general Minute Man content. 

Almost a month later, and I can't get this taco out of my head.
The Big M, broiled over real charcoal
After speaking to Perry, I returned to my table. As I finished my Big M burger, I found myself craving more of the uniquely seasoned tacos, so I ordered two more from Miss Linda, and made small talk with a couple other patrons, who by that time had overheard my explanation of my silly hobby visiting surviving locations of defunct and diminished restaurant chains. I was simultaneously in my element, experiencing the lone survivor of an otherwise defunct chain, and out of my element as the center of attention for the restaurants staff and other customers, yet I found myself to be oddly comfortable sharing stories of my adventures to interested strangers. The experience afforded me thanks to Miss Linda's warm welcome and keen interest taught me that, at least under near-ideal circumstances, giving up some anonymity and being the center of attention isn’t such a bad thing. It also made me wish I had been a little more open about myself when I met the owners of the last Wiener King and the Lima, Ohio Western Sizzlin. Moving forward, I’ll try and introduce myself to restaurant owners and staff, at least when the situation seems to warrant it.

Miss Linda told me from the window that "Minute Man... Hold!" is how she answers the phone when the restaurant gets busy.

Broken Chains on Facebook

Broken Chains Store

Monday, January 6, 2020

Last Exit to Springfield

So long, dental plan!
Due to an ambitiously planned travel schedule and a few unforeseen circumstances, I drove a total of 5300 miles between December 18th and New Year‘s Day. That’s a lot of windshield time, even for a haggard old road warrior like me, and as a result, I’ve only just recovered after a weekend spent sleeping heavily in between extended naps. The point of all this travel was to visit a handful of far flung restaurants that fit broken chain theme, and I’m happy to report that I’ve dined at enough broken chains to satisfy my blog post and caloric requirements well into February.
Lisa needs braces.
The first stop on my trip was an obligatory lunch at the Joliet, Illinois Rax after a quick jaunt across Michigan and the northwest corner of Indiana on I-94, but somewhere on I-55, which, in Illinois, runs more or less concurrently with what was the famed Route 66, the reality that I was on a bona fide road trip set in. It was therefore fitting that my second stop of the day was at a place designed with road trippers in mind.
Dental plan!

Exit 90 on I-55 on the south side of Springfield, Illinois has the feel of an area that has long been an oasis for travelers. To the west of the interstate stand both a shiny new Road Ranger truck stop and the Route 66 Motorhead’s Bar, Grill, and Museum which operates out of a former Stuckey’s building. Across the interstate stands a collection of chain motels of varying ages, a Cracker Barrel, and a weather beaten barn-shaped sign topped with a blue and white chicken that advertises the similarly barn-shaped Hen House Restaurant that’s tucked between an abandoned Hardee’s and a tired looking Motel 6.
Lisa needs braces.
Hen House restaurants sprung up along the major highways of the American Midwest in the late 1960s back when a rural image was a requirement for selling hot meals to travelers (see also Bob Evans, the aforementioned Cracker Barrel, and Dutch Pantry) and for selling fried chicken (see also Kentucky Fried Chicken, Minnie Pearl’s Chicken, Red Barn, and Country School). The chain peaked at around 42 locations in the early 1980s, but bankruptcy in 1991 forced the company to liquidate. Most locations closed except the handful of franchised Hen House locations in Illinois which remain open today, operating independently. The Springfield Hen House is one of these, and it has outlived the vacant Hardee’s and converted Stuckey’s that occupy the same exit.
Dental plan!
It's just a little guy! (Toyota Avalon for scale.)

I had been meaning to visit a Hen House for a blog post for months and was excited to arrive there late on a Wednesday afternoon. I had only seen pictures of Hen House buildings, and was surprised to find the restaurant that had looked imposing and barn-like in pictures was instead diminutive and decidedly shed-like in person, standing a story and a half tall with a roughly Waffle House-sized footprint.
Lisa needs braces.
Hard wooden seats to keep your mind on your meal. 
I took a seat in the dining room, noting rustic, well-worn wooden tables and booths, and various nonspecific farming tools lining the wall. It immediately reminded me of a scaled-down version of the surviving Dutch Pantry location I visited in West Virginia.
Dental plan!
I studied the menu, and found there was more than fried chicken offered, but in an effort to both pace myself on what would become a grueling fortnight of eating and travel and to order the quintessential Hen House meal, ordered a two piece chicken dinner with coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, and the vegetable of the day, which my server determined was peas after running to the kitchen to confer with the cook. She told me they were out of rolls and offered me hot biscuits instead. I gladly accepted this offer, which sounded like a definitive upgrade. 

A decent plate of food after a long day on the road.

Lisa needs braces

The near antithesis of Horne's biscuits

The coleslaw arrived first, followed by the hot food ten minutes later. I suspected that my chicken had been fried to order and a quick feel for temperature confirmed my suspicion. The leg and thigh that I ordered didn’t quite rise to the level of Maryland Fried Chicken, which still holds the title of best broken chain fried chicken, but with its freshly fried light and crispy breading Hen House is a close second. The coleslaw was creamy and sweet, with a seasoning blend that gave it a curious, but not unpleasant, subtle root beer flavor. The macaroni and cheese was simple in its composition, but had been made from scratch. The peas, on the other hand had the gray-green pallor of canned peas and the uniformly scalding temperature of peas that had been microwaved for slightly too long. Not even a generous dollop of butter could make them palatable. The biscuits which, if not freshly baked, had at least been carefully warmed up in an oven more than made up for the peas, though. Their warm fluffy innards were the perfect vehicle for delivering the contents of the little tubs of apple butter from my table’s jam and jelly caddy to my face.
Dental plan!
The little attic area is probably for storage, but part of me wants to buy a Hen House and live up there while I operate a restaurant downstairs. 

After finishing my meal, I walked past the little display of candy, cheap toys, and T shirts by the door to pay my bill. I must have raised my eyebrows all the way to my receding 30-something-year-old hairline when the cashier told me I owed $18 and change before she realized she had misread the handwritten bill and quickly dropped the amount to something below $10. I thanked her, and adjourned to the parking lot to take more pictures.
Lisa needs braces. 
I was midway across the Motel 6 parking lot next door, attempting to get a picture of the massively tall sign meant to be seen by motorists on I-55 when it occurred to me that the little roadside restaurant that was a destination for me exists as a liminal space for most of its visitors, at least historically.

Signage at the rear of the building, strategically pointed at Motel 6.

Dental plan!

Liminal space is a place or time of transition, what exists between what was and what is next. Roadside restaurants and convenience stores, highway rest areas, waiting rooms, and airports are all examples of physical liminal spaces. They exist not as destinations themselves, but as corridors between destinations as and as such they all tend to provoke a slightly creepy, unsettling feeling in human beings that occupy them.
Lisa needs braces. 

The four surviving Hen House restaurants situated along major interstates have survived decades after the demise of their parent company as liminal spaces, a place for a quick hot lunch while on the road or a decent dinner within walking distance of the motel that’s your creepy, liminal, temporary home between two or more long days of driving. Over the ensuing decades, the businesses that line interstate exits have become increasingly homogeneous and bland, which if anything, increases their unsettling liminality. Places like Hen House on the other hand, have become increasingly rare and novel, and in my opinion are long overdue to become not liminal spaces, but destinations in their own right, whether you’re making a special trip to visit one or, stopping in for a meal on the way to somewhere else, Hen House is a more memorable, and decidedly less liminal than a stop at a national restaurant chain. Just be sure to get biscuits, skip the peas, and make sure your bill is written clearly.
Dental plan!

Lisa needs braces. 

Monday, December 30, 2019

Tiny Narratives '19

Throughout the year, I travel far and wide in search of places I can write about that fit the Broken Chains theme. Occasionally, however, I have experiences that don't quite warrant an entire blog post, so at the end of the year, I stick them together to create a single Katamari-like post about these minor experiences. It's an idea I lifted directly from the podcast, 99% Invisible, whose contributors put out an annual Mini Stories episode in late December every year. Just as Rax calls their Arby's-inspired curly fries twisty fries, I call my 99% Invisible-inspired mini stories post Tiny Narratives.

Trivial Journey: Cinnamon's

When coming up with topics to write about here, a well I return to frequently is chain restaurants of my youth that I haven't seen operating anywhere in a long time. More often than not, at least one location is operating somewhere. I pulled the name T.J. Cinnamons out of the recesses of my memory during a brainstorming session one day. The Cinnabon-like chain founded in 1985, the same year as Cinnabon, operated primarily out of shopping mall food court slots. Following a buyout by Arby's in 1996, T.J. Cinnamon's items began showing up on Arby's menus, and the mall-based locations began to disappear. Arby's bounced around to different parent companies during the past decade, and T.J. Cinnamon's got lost in the shuffle. The Wendy's Company owns the T.J. Cinnamon's brand now, but Arby's is owned by Roark Capital Group, who also owns Cinnabon. Wendy's seems to be doing nothing with the brand, and Cinnabon menu items haven't made it into Arby's yet. Meanwhile, T.J. Cinnamon's seems to be all but a dead brand. It has no website or social media pages, and a list of locations is nowhere to be found online.

Still, I suspected there was at least one Arby's still selling T.J. Cinnamons cinnamon rolls, and I was determined to find it. Some Googling revealed that a few Arby's locations in the Morgantown, West Virginia area were still listed as T.J. Cinnamon's locations, and while in the area, I stopped by one of them to investigate.

A '90s built Arby's, with a complete lack of T.J. Cinnamons signage. 

Upon arrival, in Morgantown, I found a fairly standard Arby's with no T.J. Cinnamons signage, and no cinnamon rolls on the menu. I ordered a chocolate shake in defeat, but not before noticing photos by the counter of kids' baseball teams that the local Arby's franchisee had sponsored. Some photos listed Arby's as a sponsor, while others listed T.J. Cinnamon's. Based on these photos, this Arby's had been selling T.J. Cinnamons items at least as recently as 2008, and perhaps later.

 What's more American than baseball, roast beef sandwiches, and cinnamon rolls?
I can't help but think that T.J. Cinnamons is extinct however. I doubt any Arby's franchisee is able to procure whatever proprietary prefab dough product the T.J. Cinnamons brand used, nor is any Arby's franchisee willing to have their employees make a facsimile of a T.J. Cinnamon's cinnamon roll from scratch. Still, there's an Arby's in Albuquerque that's listed as still being a T.J. Cinnamons location. My Broken Chains-related travel hasn't taken me west of Tornado Alley yet, but if I do ever find myself exploring the broken chains of the Land of Enchantment, I'll plan a stop at that Albuquerque Arby's on the off chance it's also the world's last T.J. Cinnamon's.


While we're on the subject of Arby's, let's talk about this one in Corbin, Kentucky. You may recall that I encountered it last year on the way home from the very first Raxgiving at the Harlan, Kentucky Rax. I mentioned in that post that this Arby's is a former Rax. That turned out to be incorrect. The Raxgiving event I put together this year caught the attention of the owner of the Harlan Rax, who kindly informed me that this Arby's had always been an Arby's, and he knew that to be the case, as his original Rax franchise agreement included exclusive rights to operate in Corbin. No one else could open a Rax there, and neither did he. He did mention, however, that Rax architecture may have influenced the design of this particular Arby's location. Sadly, this Arby's has since been closed, and I believe demolished following the construction of a new Arby's just up the road. 

I'd Rather Sonic, Wouldn't You? 

Admittedly, this year's Tiny Narratives is Arby's/Rax-heavy. I swear I didn't plan it that way. At one point during the year, I had plans to write a post documenting former Rax buildings I had encountered. That post didn't come to fruition for a variety of reasons, but in researching it, I did encounter a fast food architectural oddity too weird to not mention.

Athens, Ohio is home to a bizarre carhop-less Sonic location that's housed in a former Rax building. Furthermore, it's a relatively uncommon variation on the Rax design that features a solarium on one side of the dining room rather than protruding out the front. In Sonic guise, the old Rax originally featured phones at each table from which customers could place orders, but during my visit over the summer, the phones had been removed, forcing patrons to awkwardly order from a tiny menu board next to a similarly diminutive order counter. 

Weirdest. Sonic. Ever. 

And an unusual Rax design to boot. 

That's the menu board on the right under the Sonic To Go signage. The order counter is on the left. 

There's not much more to say about Rax-Sonic other than, "Weird, right?" so this oddball Sonic ended up in the Tiny Narratives file.

There Once Was a Mascot From Nantucket...

If you're reading this blog, you're probably more familiar with legacy fast food mascots than the average person. You're also likely to recognize Speedee, the original McDonald's mascot who predates Ronald by a solid 15 years. Following my post commenting on the similarities between the Ritzee Hamburgs and G.D. Ritzy's mascots, Sef "Burger Beast" Gonzalez reached out to me regarding a near forgotten mascot that appears to have inspired Speedee. 

Meet Downyflake Dan, mascot for Downyflake Donuts, who according to Sef's research appeared in newspapers as early as 1947 while Richard and Maurice McDonald didn't begin using Speedee as the mascot for their revamped burger stand using the Speedee System until 1948. As you can see, the only significant difference between Downyflake Dan and Speedee is that their large round craniums are made of a donut and a hamburger, respectively. Is this a case of plagiarism, or both companies using an ad agency with a lazy art director? The answer to that question seems to be lost to history.

There's still a Downyflake in operation in (on?) Nantucket, Massachusetts, but they haven't returned my emails regarding their mascot. Maybe they don't know anything about it. My Broken Chains travels haven't taken me too far up the east coast, but if I'm ever in Nantucket, I'll stop in at the Downyflake and ask about Dan.  

Blue Lights Fade Ever Dimmer

Go toward the light, Kmart!

To my complete surprise, Kmart still exists. Sure, after the latest round of store closures set to wrap up in February, there will only be 59 US locations left, scattered haphazardly across multiple non-contiguous American states and territories. And sure, those locations are by and large as dated and dilapidated as the stores that have closed before them. And sure, Kmarts corporate sibling Sears isn't fairing much better, and will soon be down to 111 total US locations according to the handy map of surviving locations put together by Dead and Dying Retail, but any other retailer in Sears/Kmart's position would have called it quits years ago.

According to at least one commentator, there's no real business case for keeping Sears and Kmart in business, and the only reason they still exist is to nurse the bruised ego of their one-time CEO and current majority shareholder Eddie Lampert, whose pattern of mismanagement and apparent strategy of slowly stripping both brands for parts has forced both Sears and Kmart into a hyperbolic function of constantly approaching, but never reaching the point of complete liquidation. I can't help but suspect I'll be writing about some smaller, yet still extant remnant of the Kmart chain next year as well as Sears and Kmart continue to shamble irrelevantly through the increasingly bleak brick and mortar landscape.

As with last year's Tiny Narratives post, I'll wrap this post up with pictures of Kmart locations I've visited this year. Unless otherwise noted, all locations shown have closed or are in the process of closing.
Somerset, Kentucky
This was the last surviving Kmart that I remember visiting as a child. It was one of only two still open in Kentucky when I came back as a childish adult this past spring.

The other of the final two Kentucky Kmarts was in Erlanger, just south of Cincinatti. There are now no Sears or Kmart stores left in Kentucky. 
The other surviving Cincinnati-area Kmart was in Harrison, Ohio, housed in a former Rink's discount store. 
It was on a trip to the Grove City, Ohio Kmart that I discovered the Rally's across the street that used to be a Ritzy's. Ohio will soon have no Kmart locations left, and only a single Sears.

In North Dakota, the Fargo Kmart has met its demise like so many characters in the film and TV show of the same

Its counterpart in Bismarck, North Dakota will soon do the same, leaving the Minot location as the last Kmart between Minneapolis and Western Montana.

The Warsaw Kmart was among the last in Indiana.
As was the Valparaiso Kmart. Indiana now has no surviving Sears or Kmart locations.

And yet, the Marshall, Michigan Kmart remains open with no immediate plans to close. It will soon be the last Kmart in Michigan, the state where the Kmart Corporation was once based. It's a little rough around the edges, but not in bad shape for a Kmart. It even has an operating Little Caesar's inside it.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

So Long, Evil Sam

There's an adage that says you should never meet your heroes. Maybe its existence is for fear that those who seem heroic in the abstract are evil in person. That hasn't been the case in my experience. My hero called himself evil, but I'm glad to have met him. 

Astute Broken Chains readers may notice that this is my hundredth blog post. The most astute among them, however, will note that it’s technically my hundred and first, including the post I uploaded during my summer 2019 hiatus and took down when normal posts resumed. (That would technically make last week’s rhyming post about former G.D. Ritzy’s buildings my hundredth, and I’m mostly fine with that.) In either case, a hundred or more blog posts feels like a big deal in a society built around a base 10 system. To mark the arbitrarily significant occasion, I had planned on detailing some of the earliest broken chain adventures I had shortly before I started blogging. 

Social media posts that I made about those early excursions would lead to my friend Cosmo Roadpacer suggesting that I start a blog about my travels to oddball chain restaurants. Yep, writing about the trip I took after Christmas 2017 to the Huntington, West Virginia G.D. Ritzy’s, the nearby Ironton, Ohio Rax, and the Pomeroy, Ohio McDonald’s, six months late to get an elusive McPizza was the plan for my centenary post, until I got some sad news.

When Cosmo suggested early in 2018 that I start a blog centered around chain restaurants, my chief argument against it was that it had already been done. For well over a decade, I had been an avid consumer of the impressively comprehensive fast food restaurant reviews and regular blog posts made by The Evil Sam Graham. In fact, it was late in 2017 when I was inspired to start visiting the endangered chain restaurants near me after rereading all of Sam’s blog posts dating all the way back to 2005. It's therefore safe to say that without the inspiration provided by The Evil Sam Graham, there would be no Broken Chains. I’m sad to report that we now live in a world without The Evil Sam Graham in it. I’ve learned that he died earlier this month. This post is as much my way of coping with the loss as it is my tribute to him, as Sam’s online presence has been a part of my life for the past 15 years.

I discovered his old site when I was a teenager, searching for information on some regional chain restaurant or another that I was curious about. I found his page of reviews of nearly every fast food chain I had ever heard of and several I never had. Not long after that, he began blogging, detailing his day to day life and the adventures on the road he’d have in his spare time. He posted regularly, and I read everything he wrote voraciously. In a time when social media was in its infancy, it was a boon to my angsty teenage psyche to find someone living in the world who was the same kind of weird as me. I wrote him an email after I visited the last operating Druther’s restaurant in 2006, and was ecstatic to find that he had written me back.

I’d continue to read Sam’s blog regularly over the next decade as I went through college and established myself in a stable career. I’d have little adventures to interesting and/or historic chain restaurants once or twice a year during that time, but a lack of time and/or money prevented me from doing so regularly. That all changed late in 2017 when I found myself with a stable 9-5 job for the first time in my life. Simultaneously, I was in a new relationship with my beloved Esmeralda Fitzmonster, whose work schedule did not line up with mine. Our coupling left me with approximately half my weekends free. It was then that I decided to use my newfound abundance of free time and resources to have some Evil Sam Graham-style fun, which led to regular broken chain adventures, and eventually my earliest blog posts.

When setting up my blog, I shamelessly used the layout of Sam’s as my template. To this day, the basic layout of my header, footer, and blog archive are essentially identical to his. My earliest posts are poor imitations of his writing style, and like Cleo McDowell hoping that the lack of sesame seeds on the bun of his Big Mick was enough to keep the McLawyers at bay, I hoped that my focus on the surviving locations of defunct chains was enough to keep The Evil Sam Graham from seeing my work as a cheap imitation of his.

Over the next few months, I felt myself becoming increasingly obsessed with the diminished restaurant and retail brands that I had dubbed broken chains. I found myself joining restaurant and retail-themed Facebook groups full of hundreds of people who were the same kind of weird as me, and I was pleased to find Evil Sam himself among them. I was overjoyed when he told me that he loved my blog, and I was excited to tell him that his work was the chief inspiration for my own. He accepted my friend request, and we’d chat every now and then. Usually I’d seek his wise counsel regarding things like the history of the Hardee’s roast beef sandwich or which of the two Taco Ticos in Iowa was the best to visit if I only had time to visit one.

In fact, I routed my pre-Christmas road trip through Iowa last year because I knew Sam lived near Des Moines, and I wanted to have an excuse to meet him in person. I shared my entire itinerary with him and told him I’d love to meet up with him somewhere along the way if he had the time and desire. It made my entire year when he said he’d meet me at my favorite G.D. Ritzy’s, the University Drive location in Evansville, Indiana.

True to his word, Evil Sam himself showed up at the agreed-upon time, a few days before Christmas 2018. He said that he’d had business not too far away and had always wanted to try Ritzy’s, and I was awestruck to have the privilege to play the role of guide as my favorite blogger experienced my favorite restaurant for the first time. As we made small talk in the order line, I was excited when he asked me what the default burger toppings were and I was able to tell him that every sandwich was topped to order and there were no default toppings. When we received our orders and sat down together at a faux marble topped table in the center of the elevated dining room, I took great pleasure in showing him the bottle of magic sauce on the table that when sprinkled on G.D. Ritzy’s conventional chili, would give it the cinnamony zing of Cincinnati chili. It felt great to see the look of amazement on the face of Sam Graham, the fast food connoisseur, when he took a freshly-sauced second bite of his chili dog to be greeted by the signature flavor of The Queen City. As the meal progressed, we discussed the history of G.D. Ritzy’s, our mutual love of Taco Tico, and I hung on his every word like the fanboy I was as he told me stories of failed Des Moines area restaurants I had only previously read about in his blog. Having the source of the writing that inspired my own writing hobby munching shoestring fries across the table from me was a wonderful kind of surreal.

I probably embarrassed him a little when I told him what a big fan of his writing I was and how long I’d been reading his stuff. Whenever a new Evil Sam blog post would appear, it would make my whole week, from his very first post detailing his visit to the grand opening of a Chick-fil-A in October 2005 to his last, about trying the much-hyped Popeye’s chicken sandwich just a couple of weeks before his death. Every post in the 14 years between those breaded and deep fried chicken bookends not only influenced me as a writer, and gave me the most rewarding hobby of my life, but also showed me it was okay to have unusual and specific interests.

The Evil Sam Graham gave me the confidence to be a weirdo, and in my life that’s been the key to my happiness. I’m proud to call Sam Graham my hero and my friend. I’m going to miss his blog posts, his tweets, his cleverly captioned photos posted in our mutual Facebook groups, but I think most of all, I’m going to miss the knowledge that Sam is out there on the road somewhere, driving too many hours and too many miles in search of a fleeting experience at an endangered or regional restaurant chain to which the average person wouldn't give a second thought. I am grateful to have had the experience of meeting him at one of my favorite places on the planet. I owe him so much more than a tip on how to sauce a chili dog. Without his influence, there wouldn’t be a single Broken Chains post, let alone 100, or 101, but who’s counting?

In memory of Sam Graham 1966-2019

Friday, December 13, 2019

Gyros and Heroes

A break in format is due. I hope you think it no crime, 
That I’ve written a blog post completely in rhyme. 
I hope no estate sues me or tells me to back off, 
Because I've blatantly ripped off the late, great David Rackoff.

You may think it obsessive or slightly pathetic, 
My passion for fast food with Art Deco aesthetic. 
G.D. Ritzy’s, the chain whose demise sparked curiosity, 
And caused me to travel and write with extreme furiosity. 

I dined at all that were left of the six-score strong chain, 
Half a dozen of them were all that remained. 
I had an awkward encounter with Graydon D. Webb,
The man who founded the chain, a local celeb. 

Later on, I had lunch at Webb’s brand new Ritzy’s, 
It was perfectly fine, but felt vaguely chintzy. 
It lacked the magic of its cousins in Southwest Indiana, 
That are ‘80s originals and sell ice cream with banana. 

But Ritzy’s was born in Central Ohio, 
In a town named for a man with a troubling bio. 
Columbus, explorer, who committed atrocities, 
Has a town and a day named for him, paradoxically. 

Columbus, the town, is the place with the most, 
Converted Ritzy’s buildings, old stucco ghosts. 
I took a trip there to visit these modern-day ruins, 
In the town of Blue Jackets, not Red Wings nor Bruins. 

I went to four old Ritzy’s that didn’t fool anybody, 
Origins clear, as conversions were shoddy. 
I’ll post pictures here now, if you'll scroll down below, 
Each comes with two couplets so I don’t interrupt flow. 

First some photos for reference from the Hoosier State,
In Evansville town, where G.D. Ritzy's does great.
Note the curved fin up front and diminutive foyer,
On a building so small, you'll think of Verne Troyer. 

Inside you'll note mirrors on the back wall's curved bevel,
And find dining tables on a whole other level.
I fear I'd be guilty of a personal failing,
If I didn't point out the aluminum railings. 
These are the traits that I looked for, and found,
All over Columbus where old Ritzy's abound.
Now that you're familiar with the corporate architecture,
I can get on with my dumb little lecture.

Gyro Express was the first stop of the tour,
The building, a Ritzy's, that's to be sure.
With a fresh coat of paint like the Greek flag, white and blue,
From the exterior, it looked nearly new. 
Once in the door, I found an updated interior,
But the convex corner had its original mirri-ors.
Though the tiles and railings had all been replaced,
The dining room was still an elevated space. 
The next spot I went on this silly excursion,
Was a Mr. Hero, whose sign provided diversion.
A rare surviving G.D. Ritzy's sign post,
Had been converted by the restaurant's new host. 
The building, as well, was a sight to behold,
With original lighting on gooseneck-type poles.
The stripe on the left, too, was a Ritzy's hallmark.
Retail architecture like this far exceeds Walmart's. 
The inside was updated, but like at Gyro Express,
The mirrors remained, and I must confess,
That I sat and I thought as I caught myself staring.
Could these mirrors persist because they're load-bearing? 
Gyro City Grill was my next port of call,
And I'm ashamed to admit I took no inside pictures at all.
But the outside, of course, looked as Ritzy as ever.
And like Mr. Hero, its lights were not severed. 
Just outside of Columbus is the town of Grove City,
Where you'll find the fourth and final old Ritzy's.
These days the building serves as a Rally's
It looks good for its age, just like Sally O'Malley. 
Once you're inside, though, the decor is sparse.
I guess the decorator couldn't be arsed.
But at long last, I had found my white whale!
The Grove City Rally's had an original rail. 
With my journey concluding and my energy fading,
I ate at the new one, at which I've thrown too much shading.
I hope my long poem gave you a laugh or a grin.
All that's left to say is...