Monday, June 25, 2018

Similar, but Legally Distinct

I’m a sucker for a good local or regional restaurant chain, even when it doesn’t quite fit the Broken Chains theme. Brands like Taco John’s, Grand Traverse Pie Company, Shari’s, Tudor’s Biscuit World, and Skyline all lack a national presence, but are places I seek out when I travel. All are far too prosperous to be considered broken chains, so I’ve held off on writing about them here. Until recently I thought another favorite of mine, Halo Burger, with 11 locations mostly in and around Flint, Michigan was just another thriving local chain, but a little research revealed multiple connections that made me realize that while Halo Burger is not a broken chain itself, it’s definitely broken chain adjacent, and I feel that makes it appropriate to cover here.

Samuel V. Blair began selling hamburgers in Flint, Michigan in 1923. At the time, for reasons I’d rather not ponder, figurines of naked toddlers, known as Kewpie Dolls were popular. In an attempt capitalize on this popularity without paying any licensing fees, Blair named his hamburger stand “Kewpee Hotel Hamburgs” Note the similar, but legally distinct spelling of Kewpie. Blair expanded his business rapidly over the next two decades, peaking at around 400 locations around the American side of the Great Lakes in the early 1940s. Signage and packages featured a figure that was similar to, but legally distinct from, the chain’s sort of namesake Kewpie Doll.

Samuel Blair retired in 1944, but the Kewpee chain continued with operators paying regular flat royalty fees to Blair and later his estate after his death. Blair’s Flint, Michigan Kewpee restaurants were purchased by Bill Thomas in 1958. Meanwhile, the rights to the Kewpee name and licensing were purchased by Ed Adams, who ran the Kewpee locations in Toledo, Ohio.

Adams sought to modernize the Kewpee business model and demanded Kewpee operators sign a full franchise agreement and pay him a portion of the profits from their restaurants. Predictably, Kewpee operators changed the name of their restaurants, drastically altered their menus, and/or closed, all in the name of avoiding being forced into a franchise agreement. Bill Thomas’ response to Ed Adams was to break ties with Kewpee, and change the name of his restaurants to Halo Burger. Thus, Flint, Michigan, the city where Kewpee was born, suddenly found itself without any Kewpee locations.

Thomas took the Kewpee burger off the menu at Halo burger, and replaced it with the similar but legally distinct Q P burger (Note the second similar, but legally distinct spelling of “Kewpie”) and the chain began to evolve further from Kewpee, establishing its own brand identity, including unique buildings, signage, and new menu items including a Michigan olive burger.

In addition to the Halo Burger locations operating in Michigan, there are still five Kewpees open for business, three of which are in Lima, Ohio, less than half a day’s drive from Flint. Upon piecing this information together, I exclaimed, “Road trip!” to no one in particular, and set off to experience both Kewpee and Halo burger back to back.

I opted to visit the restaurants in reverse chronological order, heading to the Halo Burger locations in Flint first, mainly because I wanted to visit what seems to be Halo Burger’s flagship location in Downtown Flint, and it closes at 2 PM on weekends. The Downtown Flint Halo burger is located at the corner of Fourth and Saginaw streets, in a historic building that was once a Vernor’s Ginger Ale branded sandwich shop. Vernor’s is a big deal in Michigan. There’s still a massive Vernor’s themed mural on the side of the building next door featuring gnomes toting barrels of ginger ale. I park in the little lot next to the mural and walk in the door.

The original Kewpee/Halo location in Flint is long gone, but this seems to be the oldest operating Halo Burger location, having been open since the late fifties in a building that I would estimate dates back to the twenties. Upon entering the lobby, I’m struck by how much of the original architecture is left intact. The ceilings are high and the light fixtures and floors are original. There are ornate arches high above the food prep area. It’s early, and there’s no one else here. I order and my food comes up quickly. I take my tray back to the seating area which is in a room behind the main lobby. It’s nothing special with its old blue naugahyde booths, drop ceiling, and plain walls. It feels like an aging Arby’s in need of renovation, quite a contrast in comparison to the ornate room with the order counter. I pick a booth and examine my food.

Ornate ordering area 

Plain dining area 

I ate at a total of five Halo and Kewpee locations on this trip. When I do a single-theme trip like this one, I like to break it down meal by meal.

Meal #1
Location: Halo Burger 800 Saginaw Street, Flint, Michigan
Order: Q P Burger, Fries, Iced tea

Halo burger offers a diverse array of sandwiches including a fried jalapeno burger, the local favorite olive burger, and even a vegetarian black bean burger. Since I’m studying the connection between Halo Burger and Kewpee, I opt to stick with a classic. The burger comes fully dressed on a split top bun with a circular quarter pound patty cooked on a flat top and covered in nondescript fast food grade cheese. The fries are thick cut and on the crispy side. Thick and crispy is a good combination that’s tough to come by. The burger is good, but not great. It’s thick, sparingly seasoned patty and abundance of sauces and toppings, make for a taste and texture profile that’s oddly familiar, but more on that later.

Whenever I’m covering a chain that sells an olive burger, I have to try one. I’m not especially fond of olives, but making myself order and eat them is something of an inside joke I have with myself. I’m weird. Plus I want to check out another Halo Burger while I’m in the area.

I don't like olive burgers, but I can't stop eating them.

Meal #2
Location: Halo Burger 2248 East Hill Road, Grand Blanc, Michigan
Order: Olive Burger, Michigan Cherry shake

The olive burger tastes like the Q P burger I ate in Flint, but with green olives on it. It’s not entirely unpleasant, but I have yet to fully appreciate the appeal of the olive burger. The cherry shake is a limited time menu item, and it’s awesome. It has just enough cherry flavor without being overwhelmingly sour or tasting artificial. With a little chocolate, I bet it would taste a lot like the chocolate shakes that Hot ‘n Now used to have that had a cherry chocolate flavor. I may try and get a half cherry half chocolate shake the next time I’m here.

Modern Halo Burger in Grand Blanc, Michigan

This location feels like a nondescript fairly modern fast food building and has a large indoor play area in the front, but has a relatively small dining area. Maybe it was the shoes I was wearing but the tile floors feel slippery, like dangerously slippery, but they’re dry. I suspect the cleanup crew used too much floor wax. I’m beginning to suspect no two Halo Burger buildings are alike. This building is of course drastically different than the downtown Flint building, and my usual Halo Burger, just off I-75 in Birch Run, is a brutalist monstrosity constructed out of ribbed concrete blocks. I’ll have to hit a few more locations soon and try and get a feel for their corporate architecture. The walls here are lined with old photographs of the early Flint Kewpee Hotel locations with signs carefully photoshopped to read, “Halo Hotel.” The Kewpee connection is acknowledged on a large poster that outlines a brief history of the brand, carefully filtered through a corporate marketing department to gloss over the disagreement over franchising that caused the split from Kewpee.

The original image hanging at the downtown Flint location.

And the altered one at the Grand Blanc location. (Pardon the glare.)

Brutalist Halo Burger in Birch Run, Michigan 

Overall, Halo Burger feels like a reasonably modern fast food chain. Inconsistent architecture aside, signage, branding, and menus all feel current. They’ve even started offering breakfast recently. Halo Burger seems to have most things that the national chains have. As mentioned before, it’s not a true broken chain, but the product of half a century of divergent evolution after Bill Thomas parted ways with the very broken Kewpee chain. Later in my trip I would note how little resemblance it bears to Kewpee. Even the Q P burger has only superficial resemblance to the burgers I would eat at Kewpee.

The downtown Lima Kewpee, a really neat building with an exceptionally unsettling mascot. 

The interior has the same retro look...

...but suffers from the same aesthetic flaw. 

I had a three hour drive from Flint to Lima, Ohio to let my Halo Burgers digest. Lima is home to three of the five remaining restaurants bearing the Kewpee name. The three Lima locations seem to be truest to the original concept that grew to a 400 location chain before World War Two. My first stop is the downtown location, which seems to be the oldest, a small prewar building, clad in porcelain steel panels, not unlike White Castle and White Tower buildings from the same era. The inside and outside are spotless and seem to be in great shape overall. Sadly, the immaculate condition of the building doesn’t begin to make up for the fact that there’s a larger than life naked toddler statue standing over the door, with two more in the two front corners of the dining area. The rubber mask burger king can step aside as the creepiest fast food mascot, because the Kewpee baby is much more disturbing, crucified on an invisible cross, staring at me with its dead eyes while I’m trying to enjoy a historically significant hamburger. I know it’s meant to resemble but be legally distinct from the Kewpie dolls that were popular in the early twentieth century, but it’s a cultural reference that’s lost of most living people and it strikes me as being in questionable taste at best when viewed through a modern lens. Speaking of lenses, I felt seriously weird taking pictures of all these nude infant statues.

Meal #3
Location: Kewpee Hamburgers 111 North Elizabeth Street
Order: Cheeseburger with mayo, ketchup, mustard, ketchup, lettuce, onion, tomato, and pickle, fries, Diet Dr. Pepper

In an interview shortly before his death, Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas stated that his favorite place to eat as a youth in Kalamazoo, Michigan was Kewpee, and to the casual observer, the restaurant empire he’d go on to create has more than a few striking similarities to the beloved restaurant of his early years. The burger I ordered had a quarter pound square patty, with no seasoning to speak of. While Kewpee has no default burger toppings and asks every customer exactly which toppings they’d like on their burgers, when you top a Kewpee burger with the default Wendy’s toppings, it tastes just like a Wendy’s burger. Specifically, it tastes like a burger from Wendy’s prior to when they changed their original burgers to the “Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy” line a few years ago. The similar, but legally distinct Q P Burger at Halo Burger also tastes similar to a fully dressed burger from Kewpee. The similarities don’t stop there, however.

The mascot is just as unsettling on a burger wrapper. 
This slogan must have been written before the connection between cholesterol and heart disease was discovered. 

Meal #4
Location: Kewpee Hamburgers 1350 Bellfontaine Avenue, Lima, Ohio
Order: Frosted Malt, Chili

The dining room here is massive, full of bright orange knockoff Eames seating. The walls are made of brick with an odd shiny green glaze. The building itself seems to be from the early seventies, if not a little older, and has a bright yellow roof that would fit right in between a Howard Johnson’s and a Stuckey’s. There’s another giant naked baby statue standing against one wall. The place feels like the setting of some forgotten Stanley Kubrick movie. All three of the Lima Kewpee locations feel like relics of various bygone eras. The buildings, while beautiful and squeaky clean are far from modern. No combo meals are offered, and employees wear paper hats and aprons, not to be fun and retro, but because that’s what they’ve always worn. Everything about Kewpee seemed to have stopped evolving around 1970, right around the time when the chain was falling apart. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, I love a good anachronistic fast food experience, but in comparison to the thoroughly modern Halo Burger operation that evolved from Kewpee, it seems the two brands with common ancestry no longer have much in common.

Kubruckian dining area 


The ordering system here seems to be organized chaos. A woman working the counter takes my order while I’m standing near the back of the order line, and I’m called to the front of the line, cutting at least ten people when my small, simple order is ready. The chili is thin and not terribly spicy. There are kidney beans and it’s served with crackers. Had they added diced green peppers and onions to the chili, it would be virtually indistinguishable from Wendy’s chili. Dave Thomas infamously put chili on the menu at Wendy’s as a way to use leftover hamburger patties. It’s pretty clear that he got that idea from Kewpee and attempted to imitate their chili recipe, with a few added ingredients to make it similar but legally distinct. If you’re detecting a pattern here, you can probably guess why I was curious about the frosted malt. Served in a small drink cup with a spoon, not a straw, and light tan in color, with a mild chocolate flavor the Kewpee frosted malt is everything the Wendy’s Frosty wishes it could be. Where the Frosty is full of air, and slightly grainy, the frosted malt is smooth and dense. Every Frosty I consume from this point forward will taste like a cheap imitation of the Kewpee frosted malt.

Thanks to decades of marketing, Dave Thomas has the image of a wholesome, working class father, who found his way to success with his own original restaurant concept. In my opinion that narrative doesn’t quite match reality. When Dave Thomas was putting together his Wendy’s concept in the late sixties, Kewpee was falling apart. The attempt to modernize the business model led to the loss of locations and franchisees. The product was fundamentally good, but the brand had failed to evolve to keep up with the fast food boom that was happening in the sixties. The Kewpee brand was doomed to obscurity in the absence of a viable business plan. Enter Dave Thomas, the original Hamburglar, who opens up in Columbus Ohio in 1969, selling food that is similar to, but legally distinct from core menu items from Kewpee. With his background with KFC and Arthur Treacher’s, Thomas is familiar with franchising and marketing, and is able to become very wealthy selling Wendy’s as a modern restaurant with old fashioned food. Early Wendy’s customers in what had been Kewpee’s core market knew exactly what “Old fashioned” meant the second they laid eyes on those square patties. Robble robble indeed.

One last dining area, note the infants nailed to the walls for... reasons. 

Meal #5
Location: Kewpee Hamburgers, 2111 Allentown Road, Lima, Ohio
Order: Cheeseburger with pickles, onions, and mustard, pecan pie, Diet Dr. Pepper

Dave Thomas famously liked his Wendy’s burgers with only pickles, onions, and mustard, and my theory is he first ordered them this way from Kewpee, so I wanted to get a taste of the burger that inspired his similar, but legally distinct offerings at Wendy’s. It’s a good combination of flavors. Maybe I’ll start ordering my Wendy’s burgers this way. Also, I got pecan pie, because I like pecan pie. Kewpee had a few different pies available. I wish Wendy’s had similar, but legally distinct pies.

This was my favorite building exterior of the trip. Note the separate smaller yellow roof for the drive thru window.

The movie, The Founder, made the story of Ray Kroc’s creeping takeover of McDonald’s from the eponymous McDonald brothers common knowledge. I suspect the point in history in which Halo Burger and Wendy’s evolved from the relic that was Kewpee could also make for a fascinating piece of cinema. Hopefully the set designers could find a way to make the Kewpee statues significantly less creepy. If they don’t, it would go over about as well as the Wendy’s Superbar, which by the way was similar to, but legally distinct from, the Rax Endless Salad Bar.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Woodward Beef Cruise

When you write about the final locations of failed chains, snoozing often leads to losing. I had been planning to visit and write about Sign of the Beefcarver for weeks when I received word that the Dearborn, Michigan location had abruptly closed. Until the beginning of this week, there were two Sign of the Beefcarver locations still open. Now there’s only one. Ironically, the last operating Sign of the Beefcarver at 27400 Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak, Michigan is also the original location of the chain.

The building that once was the Dearborn Sign of the Beefcarver, closed abruptly after nearly five decades in business. 

Partner Howard Johnson franchisees Bob LaJoie and Jack Joliat opened the first location of their new restaurant concept, then called Sign of the Beefeater in 1957. The name change occurred as the result of a lawsuit by Beefeater gin challenging their use of the Beefeater name. By 1972, there were eight locations around Detroit. That same year, the entire operation was bought out by Montgomery Ward who expanded into the Chicago market and possibly Florida as well, peaking at around 20 locations. When Montgomery Ward was acquired by Mobil Oil in 1979, a group led by chain co-founder Jack Joliat reacquired the company including all of the restaurant locations. It appears Sign of the Beefcarver did very little, if any franchising. Over the years, the number of locations shrank to two, and now one. Near as I can tell, members of the Joliat family are still involved in operation of the lone remaining restaurant.

I had dined at the Dearborn Sign of the Beefcarver several times, most recently early this year. Every meal there was memorable, and a step back in time. The early American decor and vintage fixtures made for an immersive bicentennial-era experience. Likewise, the cafeteria style service conjured faint memories of my early childhood eating at Morrison’s and Blue Boar cafeterias. The food at Sign of the Beefcarver was always fresh and plentiful. True to the name, employees would carve off slices of roast beef in front of you when you ordered it. As it was in the beginning, no fried food was offered, even the fish was baked, quite a departure from LaJoie and Joliat’s Howard Johnson franchise which is sure to have sold mountains of fried clams. Salads, desserts, entrees, and hot sides were abundant and diverse. Upon reaching the end of the serving line your tray would, more often than not, be uncomfortably heavy. Because of this, and likely, in part, due to the chain’s mostly elderly clientele, an employee would be waiting to carry your tray to a table of your choice. I’m going to miss having such a uniquely anachronistic place so close by.

Sign of the former beefcarver.

There’s one Sign of the Beefcarver open for business, but it’s tough to say for how long since the closure of the Dearborn location was announced on the same day it closed. I figured I should experience the Royal Oak location and share it with you, my loyal readers, while I still could. I stopped by early on a Friday afternoon, after the lunch rush, but before the seniors came in for an early dinner. The layout is slightly, but not drastically different than the old Dearborn location, but the overall feel of the place is exactly the same. There's very little wait, and after taking a couple surreptitious pictures, I work my way down the serving line, picking up what was my usual order in Dearborn. The staff is friendly and courteous, and just like in Dearborn, an employee is waiting to carry my food to the table. I stop by the condiment station to pick up complimentary bread and butter pickles, pickled beets, and horseradish and join my dinner at the table. Everything tastes exactly as I remember from my last visit a few months back. The beef is tender and the potatoes are made from scratch. The Waldorf salad tastes just like my grandma's, and the blueberry pie is the perfect finish. (As I'm writing this, I'm realizing that I'm a bowl of tomato soup shy of the chewing gum-based meal that caused Violet Beauregard to meet her ironic, antioxidant-tinged demise.) The meal was not only the perfect way to end what had been a difficult week, but also the exact experience I needed to cope with the loss of the other location.

Full Circle: The Royal Oak Sign of the Beefcarver was the chain's first location, and now it's the last as well. 
Dine the way your grandparents did (and still do).
Unlimited pickles? This party is gonna be off the hook!
Not your typical cafeteria food. 

The decor in the dining room feels like it hasn't changed in decades. Isn't it great?

Every time I go back to Sign of the Beefcarver, I'm reminded of why I love it. You just don't see much of anything being served in a cafeteria format anymore, at least not in this part of the country. So many details are just as they were when the place was new. It's clear that they've been doing things a certain way for a very long time, and I hope they continue to for a very long time. Losing my local location still stings, but it's nice to know I can still get the Sign of the Beefcarver experience half an hour away in Royal Oak. I'll come back often, as long as they remain open to enjoy a glimpse into an era when meat was red, horseradish was overpowering, and you never had to carry your own tray.

sign of Sign of the Beefcarver; look for it the next time you're cruising Woodward. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

A Nickel Saved is a Dime Earned

When I started this blog, I had the intention of covering not just restaurants, but multiple retail spaces I found to fit in with the broken chains theme. Longtime readers will no doubt remember my exploration of the remnants of Montgomery Ward and the night I spent in a slightly sketchy motel that started out as a Howard Johnson’s in the mid sixties. My very first post here even featured a picture of the last operating Sam Goody, which I encountered in San Diego several years ago. Unfortunately, due to increased inventory and often real estate cost, relative to the typical chain restaurant, it’s tougher for a holdout franchisee to keep a store open after the corporate infrastructure crumbles. Franchising is also a less common business model outside of the restaurant industry. Retail store brands tend to vanish quickly and completely. Because of all of this, my non-restaurant posts have been few and far between.

I suppose once great retail brands in various stages of decline like Sears/Kmart, Toys R Us, and JC Penney all meet my working definition of broken chains, but they all seem a bit too visible, and I prefer to seek out the forgotten. Forgotten retail brands still in operation can be tough to find, but there are some still out there.

The modern big box retailers, dollar stores, and pseudo dollar stores like Dollar General evolved from a common ancestor. American small town main streets often contained a store known colloquially as a five and dime or variety store. The former because early on, price points of items were set at five or ten cents, not unlike today’s dollar stores, or places like Five Below who limit the cost of their items to five dollars or less. Before big box retailers took over in the latter half of the previous century, variety store filled the gap between grocery stores and large department stores, offering inexpensive household items, limited selections of clothing and toys, and anything else the typical consumer might not encounter at the A&P or Sears. Variety stores could be independent or part of countless national or regional brands. Most of those brands are long gone. S&S Kresge evolved into Kmart. Woolworth’s adopted an entirely new business model and became Footlocker. Many others ceased operations and faded into obscurity, except for one.

Ben Franklin, named for the American founding father of the same name can trace its origins back in to 1877 when the Butler Brothers started their mail order catalog business. The first Ben Franklin store opened 40 years later as variety stores were gaining popularity. The chain expanded using a franchising system and peaked at around 2500 locations. Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, got his start as a Ben Franklin franchisee.

As the early big box stores began to dominate the market in the seventies, Ben Franklin experimented with larger retail spaces of their own, but the concepts didn’t last. Emphasis on art and craft items increased to help the chain find a niche. After an ill fated attempt to open corporate owned locations in the nineties led the company to bankruptcy, and most of the remaining Ben Franklin stores closed.

Today, Ben Franklin still exists as an online retailer, owned by a company called HMStores, which seems to be unrelated to the clothing retailer H&M. The Ben Franklin website makes no mention of physical stores, but they still exist and are owned by Promotions Unlimited, which acts as a supplier and promoter for Ben Franklin franchisees as well as other chain and independent retail stores.

While I was on the road a few weeks back, between Ponderosa meals, and I found myself in East Tawas, Michigan, a small tourist town on Lake Huron, and home to one of a handful of Ben Franklin stores still operating in small towns. The outside of the store looks like it hasn’t changed it’s appearance much in the past four decades. It’s located in an old fashioned downtown commercial district with only street parking available.
What's that Pontiac Torrent doing in a photo from 1978?

I park, walk across the street and into the store and do a few laps. The store is about the size of a Dollar General, maybe a bit larger, and I’m immediately struck by how little desire I feel to buy any of the merchandise. The shelves near the front of the store are full of the obligatory souvenir t shirts and shot glasses one encounters in touristy locations like this one. The remainder of the inventory wouldn’t look out of place in a Hobby Lobby. There’s aisles full of reproduction tin signs, and wooden signs with generally positive “Live, Laugh, Love” slogans on them. There's lots of vaguely nautical tchotchkes suitable for displaying in a Michigan lakeside cottage. There’s a couple aisles with art supplies, and a limited selection of toys and games featuring licensed Emoji Movie characters made by Ty, the Beanie Baby people. I try to spend money at every place I visit for this blog, but none of this merchandise has any appeal to me, and I’m beginning to worry I’ll leave the store empty handed. Then I saw it. 

The biggest fad of 1997 meets what I can only assume was the most successful movie of  2017
Take pictures in public like nobody's watching,
Eat at Rax like you've never heard of Arby's,
Blog like nobody's reading. 
Yarr matey! This here be the type of booty I'll display in me rumpus room!

About half of one aisle was devoted to tiki decor, an aesthetic I’ve always appreciated for its kitsch value. I found a reasonably priced tiki mask and brought it home with me in a purple Ben Franklin bag. The mask is now hanging in my bathroom and the logo from the bag is now framed in my living room.
All the birds sing words, and the flowers croon. 

There are still over 300 physical Ben Franklin stores in operation, some standalone, some sharing retail space with small town grocery or hardware retailers. From what I’ve read, inventory varies a bit between stores to suit local needs. They’re the last of the old variety store brands operating out of their old small footprint stores, and they’re still fairly easy to find once you’re outside of the major metro areas. If you’re in the Continental US, you’re probably not far from a Ben Franklin, tucked away in some small town where the real estate is cheap and it's an hour drive to the nearest Target. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Ghosts of Taco Tico Past

This very taco wrapper is now framed and hanging in my living room. 

If there's one broken chain that comes close to usurping G.D. Ritzy's status as my favorite, it's probably Taco Tico. Thanks in part to its dominance in Central Kentucky during my childhood there, Taco Tico remains my favorite fast food taco chain. I grew up in a time when there were just as many Taco Tico locations nearby as there were Taco Bells. As a kid, who knew little of what was outside of Central Kentucky I thought of them as equals in terms of market share. (I was a weird kid.) In the mid nineties, most of the Taco Ticos in Lexington closed. A few soldiered on for a few years under the name Tacos Too, which I suspect was one franchisee’s strategy for avoiding paying franchise fees while still operating a very Taco Tico like business. Some of the Tacos Too locations were later converted to Popeye's, presumably when the franchisee wanted to try something new, or perhaps when they received a cease and desist letter from Taco Tico corporate.

1483 Boardwalk, Lexington, KY
Lexington's last operating Taco Tico; the 1970s vintage pueblo style building has had a fresh coat of paint since I ate here last.

Interior of the Lexington Taco Tico, a nicely maintained time capsule
5925 Terry Rd, Louisville, KY
Kentucky's other Taco Tico, located in Louisville, opened in 2007, the only operating Taco Tico not in a freestanding structure. It's also the newest operating Taco Tico location anywhere if you don't count the older, previously closed restaurants in Kansas that have reopened in the past couple of years. 

Every time I’m back in Lexington, I make it a point to eat at the one remaining (and thriving!) Taco Tico in town. I did just that on my recent trip to Kentucky. I also ate at the Bluegrass State’s other Taco Tico, located in Louisville. While visiting a few of the other historical fast food sites in Lexington, I noticed that there were still a hell of a lot of old Taco Tico buildings still standing, some repurposed, some empty. With nothing better to do, I drove around the area and photographed every building I remember being a Taco Tico. I thought I’d use those photos to document what’s left of Taco Tico’s presence in and around Lexington, Kentucky. I doubt this is a complete or definitive list. If you know of any other old Taco Tico buildings in the area, or anywhere else for that matter, feel free to make me aware of them. Below, you'll find every building I photographed with a description of what I remember about them. 

771 E New Circle Rd, Lexington, KY
This was the penultimate Taco Tico location in Lexington. My friends and I would frequent this one as well as the Boardwalk location. My best guess is that it closed sometime around 2006. It's had some new paint and awnings, and some decorative flourishes have been removed from the roofline, but the basic shape of the building is the same as it was. I'd guess fewer than half of Taco Tico buildings were the distinctive trapezoidal pueblos. The other buildings were much more conventional by comparison. Wing Hut is a local business and has another location in Lexington in the building that served as the first ever Fazoli's, among other things. 

504 Lexington Road, Versailles, KY
An impressively intact pueblo-style Taco Tico building, much like the one still in operation now houses an authentic Mexican restaurant serving cuisine far removed from Taco Tico's menu, which was  conceived in the sixties by gringos in Kansas. This location is one that turned into Tacos Too and survived well into this century. It was spared the indignity of being converted to a Popeye's.
172 Imperial Way, Nicholasville, Kentucky
Now nearly unrecognizable, this building was originally a Taco Tico. It was an outparcel in a shopping center that contained the nearest Walmart to where my family lived, so we'd often have dinner here before a mid-week Walmart run. I used to beg my parents for quarters so I could play the tabletop Pac Man game here. Like most Taco Ticos in the area, this one closed in the mid 90s, and sat empty for a few years, before turning into a Popeye's.

101 E Tiverton Way, Lexington, KY
This was the first Taco Tico I remember seeing with a Tacos Too sign out front. As you can probably guess, it was eventually turned into an ill-fated Popeye's. I had to take this picture through my windshield while sitting at a red light, as the parking lot is completely fenced off, perhaps to deter trespassers. It's been empty for years. Edit: I've been informed that this building served as a Qdoba until last year when a former manager robbed the place and set it on fire. I completely missed that somehow. 

1445 Village Drive, Lexington, Kentucky
I had no idea there was a former Taco Tico here until I saw it in the background of a picture in an Atlas Obscura article about the piece of mimetic architecture next door, which was originally built as a mortar and pestle shaped pharmacy. Its neighbor is another nicely preserved pueblo style Taco Tico, now serving as an authentic Mexican restaurant. The two story margarita next door seems fitting and probably doesn't hurt business.
1001 Elizabeth St. Nicholasville, KY
This Shell station never housed a Taco Tico, but it's two restaurant slots that are now a liquor store and a barbecue joint were once a Popeye's and a Tacos Too. I therefore felt obliged to include it here given the connection to nearby Taco Tico locations. Not long after the Popeye's closed, its former slot did duty as a makeshift Daewoo showroom for the dealership next door during the brief window of time in which you could buy a new Daewoo car in the US.

3750 Palomar Centre Dr. Lexington, Kentucky
I saved my favorite conversion for last. That's right, this bank used to be a Taco Tico. We'd also visit this location frequently when I was a kid. I have distinct memories of mixing Coke and orange soda from the self-serve drink fountain here. This building never did time as a Tacos Too or Popeye's as I recall. I believe it's only been a Taco Tico and a bank, weirdly enough.  
So that's my attempt at documenting an extremely esoteric bit of history. I'm going to check my bank balance to see how much interest has accrued on those enchiladas I deposited.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Cops, Bees, and Banjos

  Ray Kroc’s success franchising the McDonald brothers’ quick service restaurant concept in the ‘50s and ‘60s spawned countless imitations of the McDonald’s model, resulting in a full-blown fast food boom in the early to mid '60s. This boom spawned many regional chains that thrived in that economically prosperous era when gas was cheap, cars were massive, and suburbs sprawled. But fuel crises, economic downturns, and an increasingly competitive fast food market forced many of the smaller fast food chains to close and/or be acquired by larger players in the industry in the 1970s. The small chains that survived the ‘70s were forced to employ novel strategies to ensure their revival. Often they’d open locations in smaller markets that the larger chains wouldn’t touch to ensure limited competition. Chains like Druther’s and Clancy’s would often be the only fast food in the towns where they had locations. I mention those chains specifically, because they each have a single location still open for business, and I visited both of them recently. 

Druther’s started life as Burger Queen, which opened its first restaurant in Middletown, Kentucky in 1963. Burger Queen evolved to have an extensive menu including burgers, fried chicken, a breakfast menu and a salad bar. The name change occurred sometime around 1980, to reflect the increased variety of menu items. Similar to Nickerson Farms and their Li’l Honey Bea character, Burger Queen used an anthropomorphic female bee named Queenie Bee as mascot. She was largely replaced by Andy Dandytale, a banjo-picking troubadour around the time of the name change to Druther’s. I can find no accounts of the name change having anything to do with pressure from Burger King. Druther’s peaked with somewhere around 200 locations mostly in the Southeast. There were Druther’s locations around when I was a kid, and I remember elderly relatives erroneously referring to both Druther’s and Burger King locations as Burger Queen. My father would often tell me stories of eating far too many meals at Burger Queen when he was single and just out of college.

In the early nineties, Druther’s locations near me began to close or to convert to Dairy Queen. Druther’s International Inc. had opted to retire the Druther’s brand and become a Dairy Queen franchisee, converting corporate-owned locaitons to Dairy Queens. Druther’s Franchisees were offered the opportunity to convert their restaurants to Dairy Queens and become Dairy Queen franchisees as well, with the exception of a dozen franchised Druther’s locations which were in towns that already had Dairy Queen locations. Druther’s International allowed these franchisees to retain use of the Druther’s name and continue as independent restaurants. As time went on, these restaurants changed their names or went out of business with the exception of one located in Campbellsville, Kentucky.

Druther's in Campbellsville, KY, the place to be on a Saturday mornng

I really should write an article on forgotten fast food mascots. For every Ronald McDonald and Wendy there's an Andy Dandytale or Uncle Alligator.
The Campbellsville Druther’s is the last one in operation, and has been for at least a decade. I first found it around 2005 using Mapquest and other tools of the time. (I believe the penultimate Druther’s was in Princeton, Kentucky, but it had closed by the time I drove there looking for it in 2006 or so.) They’ve been in business since the early seventies in the same location, and were initially a Burger Queen. Queenie Bee is still on their sign. I’ve been back to the Campbellsville Druther’s a few times since initially discovering it, ordering different menu items each time to get a feel for what it would have been like to eat there in the seventies and eighties. The menu has changed very little. They still seem to have the original menu board, and when I took my father there a couple years ago, he was impressed with how close it was to the Druther’s of his young adulthood. Like many places I’ve checked out, I follow Druther’s Facebook page. They often post pictures of their breakfast items. I hadn’t tried their breakfast until this trip. 

Breakfast at Druther's, not bad for six bucks including a drink. 

Original sign plaques were present here and there. 

Ancient paper instructions Scotch taped to the fry staton
A former Druther's in Lexington, Kentucky. Note the original window openings which have been filled in when smaller windows were installed. 

I pulled into the Campbellsville Druther’s late on a Saturday morning to find the parking lot packed. I had been on a broken chain bender, having eaten at Taco Tico, Ollie’s Trolley, and G.D. Ritzy’s the day before. The dining room is full of locals enjoying breakfast. I order up a breakfast plate, which comes with two eggs, a meat (I chose bacon) an in-store baked biscuit with gravy, plus hashbrowns. All that plus a large drink ran me six bucks and change. It’s all pretty good, and the eggs are cooked to order. The bacon is thick cut, impressive for a fast food joint. It’s not an especially distinctive breakfast, but it’s of good quality for a great price. I’m not able to get many pictures inside the crowded restaurant without looking like a weirdo, but I had forgotten how light and airy the tall arch-topped windows make the dining room feel. Old Druther’s buildings are tough to spot, but the tall windows are what gives them away. 

The Sidney, Ohio Clancy's. Note the remnants of the second drive thru, which is now blocked by newspaper dispensers. 

Clancy’s was a much smaller chain with around 31 locations in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee at their peak. They also employed the strategy in opening in smaller markets to limit competition. The first location opened in Noblesville, Indiana in 1965. Unlike Druther’s which essentially operates independently, Clancy’s parent company is still involved with the day to day operations of the single remaining location in Sidney Ohio, plus a couple other area restaurants according to their website, which also contains a lot of information on the history of the brand. It also says there are plans to open a new Clancy’s in Nobleville, Indiana “by 2015.”

Clancy the cop is on my receipt. Bake 'em away, toys!

Clancy’s takes its name from a character in the Keystone Kops movie character. I suspect Chief Clancy Wiggum from The Simpsons is named for the same character. Clancy's claims to be among the first to use a double drive thru They also embraced indoor seating early on. I stopped into Sidney Ohio Clancy’s for breakfast on my way down to Louisville and found an impeccably-maintained early 1970s vintage building, which reminded me a lot of Arctic Circle locations built around the same time. The dining room was spotless and seemed to have the original tile floors and light fixtures With Clancy’s logos and their Clancy the Cop mascot printed on them. A pair of curio cabinets in the corner were full of vintage Clancy’s artifacts, something I need to imitate with my collection of fast food artifacts. 

I didn’t have any personal experience with Clancy’s, but it was on the way to Louisville, and i was excited to explore a new broken chain. I stopped in early on a Friday morning to find the dining room about half full. I ordered a breakfast plate, and while the thin bacon pieces and toast didn’t quite measure up the to Druther's thick cut bacon and biscuits I’d eat the next day, the Clancy’s home fries blew the Druther’s deep fried hash brown patty out of the water. The price was about the same, around six dollars. I still have family in Kentucky, and find myself driving through Sidney often. I could definitely see myself stopping here again on my next trip down I-75. I’ve heard multiple people rave about the fries, so I’ll have to stop in during lunch hours next time to give them a try.

Both Clancy’s and Druther’s are nicely maintained pieces of history which should be preserved, experienced, and appreciated. The owners and employees of both establishments seem to do a great job of doing things the old way operating working, delicious museum exhibits that anyone can experience for the price of a cheap breakfast.