Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Lake Michigan Fast Food Trail Part 2: Double Nostalgia

Ever notice that the prevailing nostalgia in pop-culture seems to be for an era about 20 to 30 years before present day? Today’s pop-cultural nostalgia is for the 1990s, with shows like Full House and Roseanne making comebacks. Nineties-era food products like Crystal Pepsi, and McDonald’s Szechuan sauce have also made limited time returns in the past couple of years. In the 1990s, disco music enjoyed a revival, and "That 70s Show" was a hit for Fox. And of course in the 70s and early 80s, shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley were popular, rockabilly culture became popular, and 1950s themed diners opened up everywhere.

Mom and pop 50s themed diners sprang up all over the US, as did several local chains like Gunther Toody's in Colorado and Hwy 55 in and around the Carolinas. Many of the 50s themed restaurants are still slinging burgers and shakes today, and I suspect their younger clientele would be surprised to learn that many of them opened between 1975 and 1995.

Schoop’s Hamburgers had been open in Hammond Indiana since 1948, but began to offer franchises in the mid 80s, riding the wave of the nostalgic restaurant fad. Today, they have 19 locations in Northern Indiana and Illinois. I suspect the chain was once much larger. I recall seeing locations in central Florida in the early 2000s as well, but today, Warsaw Indiana is the easternmost Schoop’s you’ll find.

In 1980, former Wendy’s executive Graydon Webb opened the first GD Ritzy’s in Columbus, Ohio. Interestingly, the Art Deco aesthetic of Ritzy’s buildings screamed 1940’s rather than 1950s, as did some of their marketing. Ritzy’s exploded in the mid 80s and expanded to 120 locations, but most locations had closed by the early 90s. Webb, who sold the rights to GD Ritzy’s before the massive expansion has stated in interviews that he attributes the closures to the chain growing too quickly. Today, there are six GD Ritzy’s left in operation in three states, though Graydon Webb, having reacquired the rights, is set to open a seventh location this year.

Schoop’s and Ritzy’s territories were adjacent and I believe I’ve found at least one market where they overlapped, but probably not concurrently. While planning my recent trip, I found a Schoop’s location in Michigan City, Indiana, RIGHT NEXT TO AN OLD GD RITZY’s! A little sleuthing revealed that the Schoop’s opened in 1991, right around the time the Ritzy’s would have closed. This timeline means that the Schoop’s opened either as a competitor to the GD Ritzy’s the way CVS pharmacies open near Walgreens, or they opened after the Ritzy’s closed to fill the nostalgic burger joint niche. (If anyone was in the area in the early 90s and knows more information about when the Ritzy’s may have closed, I’d love to hear from you.)

The Michigan City Schoop's with the former Ritzy's in the background. 

I stopped by the Schoop’s for an olive burger (the first I’ve encountered outside of Michigan) and a Green River soda, and found little to complain about. The theme is fairly standard as ‘50s themed restaurants go with laminated menus and memorabilia on the walls. The burger patty was the type that is placed on the grill as a raw meatball, then smashed into a patty with a spatula as it cooks, similar not only to Ritzy’s, but also Culver’s, Steak n Shake, and of course smashburger. I thought this patty style was especially notable since the place next door once smashed their patties in a similar manner.

The Ritziest Starbucks in Northern Indiana

The all-important rounded corner that made it easy to spot from Google Earth when planning my trip. 

The main purpose of lunch at Schoop’s was walking next door to the old Ritzy’s, which had been converted to a Starbucks, for an after lunch hot drink. The hard to remove architectural touches were still present on the building. Ice block glass adorning windows wrapping around the corner of the building, the rounded adjacent corner, and the rounded buttress on the front of the building all tipped me off to its original purpose. I hoped to find hexagonal tile, stainless railings, and an elevated seating area inside, but sadly the whole building appeared to have been gutted in the Starbucks conversion. They had even rotated the counter 90 degrees to make the place feel like any other Starbucks on the inside. Still, there were clues of the building’s past. Outlines of the Ritzy’s Art Deco lettering were still visible on the windows, and the storeroom and restrooms were still in their original locations. 

Like Taco Tico, GD Ritzy's was one of my favorite places to eat as a kid, and as an adult, I feel strong nostalgia for the nostalgic restaurants of my youth. It's double nostalgia, nostalgia-ception if you will. I haven't eaten at a Ritzy's since I was in Huntington, West Virginia last December. I'm going to have to take another trip soon to get more GD Ritzy's in my life. 

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