Ever notice that the mainstream fast food outlets occasionally introduce their own versions of menu items from their less successful competitors as limited time offerings? A couple years ago, Taco Bell introduced a “Taco Burrito,” basically a burrito-sized tortilla stuffed with taco fixins and no beans. It was suspiciously similar to the Sancho at Taco Tico. Hardee’s, whose parent company owns the rights to the long-defunct Burger Chef name periodically offers its own version of the Big Shef in certain markets, presumably to prevent anyone else from snatching up the Burger Chef name claiming it’s been abandoned. Recently, Arby’s has begun offering the Bacon Beef and Cheddar. While it is basically their normal Beef and Cheddar with their pepper bacon strips added, it’s also strikingly similar to the BBC (Beef Bacon Cheese), a longtime menu offering at Arby’s imitator and onetime national competitor, Rax.
I’ve been working on a piece on Rax off and on for months. Since April, I’ve been tweaking, but never publishing a post about them that playfully avoids mentioning Arby’s by name, but couldn’t help feeling like something was missing. I simply couldn’t see the appeal of Rax in its current state.
The first paragraph of the History section on the Wikipedia page for Rax Roast Beef is a baffling labyrinth of name changes and corporate acquisitions. Originating as Jax, Jack Roschman opened the first location opened in Springfield, Ohio in 1967, (three years after Arby’s opened their first location in Boardman, in the opposite corner of the Buckeye State.) Various corporate parents would change the name of the restaurant from Jax to Rix before landing on Rax in the early 1980s. Rax peaked in the 80s with over 500 locations in the US and Canada. It was during this period that Rax attempted to move upmarket and expand their offerings to include a salad bar and hot buffet items. The concept failed to catch on with Rax customers and started the slow decline of the chain.
|Ironton, Ohio, a purpose-built Rax|
|Circleville, Ohio, a converted Wendy's|
|Fans of the Pittsburgh Dad YouTube series will recognize the Lancaster, Ohio Rax. Go Stillers!|
The Rax website shows eight locations on their map, however two of those appear based on Google Maps information to be Long John Silver’s that also serve Rax items. (Long John Silver’s is quickly approaching broken chain status itself.) Another Rax has been “coming soon” for at least several months. By my count, that means there are five freestanding Rax locations open for business today, just 1% of the restaurants that were open in the chain’s heyday. In the past two days I’ve been to two of those locations. I’ve been to four of them total in the past 12 months. Most of the remaining Rax locations are in Ohio, and the three Ohio Rax I’ve visited all seem to operate similarly. There’s a limited menu of sandwiches, fries, baked potatoes and not much else at the Ohio Rax locations. Menu boards are modern, but cheaply made. They appear to be printed on foam poster boards that are simply placed over the old backlit menu boards. Though the Ironton location still has a buffet table in the dining area, it was empty when I was there, and looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time. The Circleville and Lancaster locations have no remaining signs of the salad bar ever existing.
|Meh on an old Wendy's table|
I’ve never had what I would characterize as a good meal at an Ohio Rax. The stripped down menu is full of food that screams “Bootleg Arby’s” and it always came out tasting not terribly fresh and lukewarm. The buildings, (purpose-built Rax structures in Ironton and Lancaster, and a converted Wendy’s in Circleville) while generally clean had definitely seen better days, though the vintage architecture is charming. Each Ohio location was virtually empty on each of my visits, though I was usually there during mealtimes, leading me to believe the locals didn’t see any more appeal there than I did. The Rax experience, in general, felt generic and fell short of justifying the brand's continued, limited existence. My utter indifference to the Ohio Rax locations caused me to have a three month case of writers’ block, at least when it came to the subject of Rax.
Though the salad bar played a part in their ultimate downfall, I couldn’t help feeling like without visiting a location with a functional salad bar, a writeup on Rax would be incomplete. In the chain’s heyday, the Endless Salad Bar is what set Rax apart from its competitors. Wendy’s even borrowed the concept for their Superbar. A little research revealed that the only Rax locations with operational salad bars were also the only two operating restaurants outside of Ohio (Joliet, IL and Harlan, KY). I discovered this as I was planning a trip to a couple of places in southeast Wisconsin, so Joliet, being sort of on the way, won out over Harlan.
|You had me at Endless Salad Bar|
|The Joliet locaiton is the oldest operating Rax. The building dates back to the Rix era. |
Having eaten at the mediocre Lancaster, Ohio Rax the day previous, I pulled into the Joliet, Illinois Rax for an early lunch. I was pleased to see a beautifully stocked salad bar at the front of the dining area, near the signature solarium. I ordered up a barbecue and cheese potato, a beverage, salad bar access, and a free roast beef sandwich because I had joined the astoundingly, still functional Rax text club the day previous. It turned out to be a lot of food, but not more than I could handle. I had previously discovered the Rax barbecue beef sandwich was a reasonable stand in for the hard to find Arby’s Arby-Q, and the same sauce-laden meat worked well as a potato topping. The salad bar was the main event here however. The typical salad ingredients were present as were a selection of fruits and desserts including strawberry shortcake and three kinds of pudding. The cup of cream of broccoli soup that came with my order tastes homemade. The broccoli is still slightly crisp. It clearly isn’t from a can. To my delight, everything needed to make fast food tacos was also present. The Rax taco meat had a taste and texture profile that was very similar to Taco Tico’s, and it’s a full two hours nearer to my front door than the nearest Taco Tico. On top of everything else, my roast beef sandwich was easily the best I’d ever had at a Rax. It was the perfect temperature and had more meat than any sandwich I’d had at an Ohio Rax.
|There's a potato under there somewhere. |
|You can join too!|
|My (second) favorite mystery meat.|
|Rax sky at night, I mean, it's alright...|
|...Rax sky in the morning, Arby's fans take warning.|
|...is better than this, though it's nice to see Uncle Alligator is still around. |
This location is easily the oldest Rax in operation. With its faux green slate Pizza Hut-like roof, I suspect the building dates back to Jax/Rix days. It seems to boast a nice blend of new and old. The menu board here is the original backlit unit, and though it shows its age a bit, I drastically prefer it to the cheap new menu boards in Ohio. The tables and chairs are reproduction midcentury pieces with a glitter finish on the vinyl chairs and a boomerang pattern on the tabletops, clearly not original, but thematically appropriate. Unilke newer Rax buildings, the solarium here has no shades covering the ceiling, so I’m able to eat my meal with a sky view. The employees are even wearing what seem to be vintage uniforms with the Rax logo on their shirts and visors. This is Rax the way it used to be. This is the working fast food museum I was looking for, but couldn’t find in Ohio. If you’re looking for a Broken Chains experience in the state that’s high in the middle and round on both ends, stop by Arthur Treacher’s, Clancy's, Kewpee, York Steak House, or the soon to open Columbus G.D. Ritzy’s. Wait until you’re west of Chicago (Or maybe in Eastern Kentucky, I still need to check out the Harlan Rax.) to try Rax. That’s where they truly do fast food with style.
Thank you for this...I've been missing Rax since it left Dayton back in the 90's. Good to know there are still a few (and even fewer good ones) around still. Next time I go to IL, I'll be sure to go and reminisce. :)ReplyDelete
It’s definitely worth a stop if you’re in the area.Delete
I thank you as well! I was going to try to fold one of the Ohio ones into a road trip but never made it happen...good to see I am not missing much.ReplyDelete
Yep. I’d hold out for the Joliet or possibly Harlan location if I were you. Still, an Ohio Rax is better than no Rax at all.Delete
Fantastic. Never been to a Rax but I will make a detour the next time I'm in the Joliet area.ReplyDelete
"Ever notice that the mainstream fast food outlets occasionally introduce their own versions of menu items from their less successful competitors..."
My favorite incidence of this is when Hardees rolls out the Frisco Bacon Cheeseburger, which was originally a stalwart of Roy Rogers, a Mid-Atlantic burger, chicken, AND roast beef chain that nearly died in the 90s and is apparently experiencing something of a resurgence. Now they look completely generic, but they had a wonderful brown-and-orange aesthetic and distinctive slope-roof buildings.
Hardee’s and their various parent companies have a long history of absorbing other brands. They also swallowed up Sandy’s and Burger Chef. The seldom seen Hardee’s roast beef sandwich and fried chicken were both Roy Rogers recipes.Delete
There was a Rax with the salad bar here in Morgantown, WV when I was in college in the mid-80s. We liked to go there on Sundays for the salad bar, since that was the day we only got one meal in the dorm cafeteria. It was always delicious and it seemed like people in this area really liked the bar. My fave sandwich on their menu was the turkey bacon club-yum!ReplyDelete
I’ll have to give the turkey bacon club a try the next time I’m there, though the salad bar is easily a full meal in itself.Delete
I'm from Philly, and the only Rax I've ever been to was in... Harlan, KY! 1988, family reunion.ReplyDelete
Like I said on Reddit, it’s mind blowing that the online Rax you visited is one of the very few still open.Delete
As a former employee of RAX, your article brings back lots of memories, however, in my opinion, the downfall of RAX was not the salad bar but in the late 80's when hamburgers were introduced and RAX had to start competing with all of the other hamburger chains. Also from 1987 to 1993 RAX had 5 different presidents and each took the chain in a different direction and eventually totally confused the customer as to what RAX was all about.ReplyDelete
I could see how the constant changes in direction could alienate customers.Delete
I suspect the Ohio locations, some of which are company owned, are trying to stick to core menu items based on lessons learned from past mistakes, but bringing back the old Endless Salad Bars would certainly set them apart from the competition.
I think the LJS/Rax Combo is worthy of a visit!ReplyDelete
I agree. It looks like one of the LJS/Rax combos closed and turned into a Little Caesar's but there seems to be one left open in West Union, Ohio. It's on my list to visit along with the Harlan, Kentucky one.Delete
My wife and I met while working at a Rax in Gilbertsville, PA (about 50 miles northwest of Philly) in 1981 (I still have one of the original Rax Roast Beef ashtrays that were on every table at the time). Our franchise owners had 3 stores in the area , the others being in Pottstown and Allentown. A few years back, the Mrs. and I started road tripping to the Rax Restaurants still open around our anniversary every September. We've been to all the Ohio stores, ( even the Long John Silver hybrids) and the one in West Virginia (now closed). This year's trip will take us to Harlan, KY. I love the look on the employees faces when we tell them we drove 400 miles for a BBC (my all time fave). Alas, this will be our last trip as we are retiring to Phoenix this fall, and we probably won't get to Joliet.ReplyDelete
Rax will always be a part of our lives. They were way ahead of their time.
What a cool story! Thanks for sharing. I have one of the ashtrays too. Mine is square, made of clear glass with the old longhorn Rax logo in the middle.Delete
Try to stop by Harlan on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Those are they days they have hot food on the salad bar. My favorite Rax varies depending on my mood, but it's always either Harlan or Joliet. Enjoy your trip there.
I would Love to have the recipe for Rax broccoli soup! It was a white cream sauce with fresh broccoli! Please help me find it!ReplyDelete
It is just about the best broccoli soup I've ever had. A cursory search doesn't bring up any copycat recipes, but I bet it would be fairly easy to duplicate. The crispness of the broccoli definitely indicates its made fresh in-store.Delete
I worked their in the 1990s. The soup base was a liquid from a bag that the salad bar worker added a pitcher of boiling water to and 2 packages of frozen brocolli. The hot water thawed the broccoli which is why it stayed crisp unless it sat on the buffet all day. By the end of service it was soggy.Delete
I worked at a Rax in southern IL during the summer of 1990. The soup base was cream of potato soup and was transformed into cream of broccoli as described above.Delete
I briefly worked at RAX while I was in college, in Tallahassee and Sarasota. We loved their salad bar and milkshakes and still reminisce about them.ReplyDelete
My husband and I used to love the Bedford, IN location as kids, and fondly remember the Uncle Alligator meals, complete with alligator-shaped sippy cup. We have a flight out of Chicago this weekend so we're detouring to hit the Joliet location. Was very pleased to stumble onto your blog and see that it's the best remaining Rax time capsule out there. Endless salad bar even!ReplyDelete
Well written,thank you! In 1990 I got 2Rax roast beef sandwiches to eat but my 9month old fussed for a taste and then another until he ate all the meat out of both. I had to get 2 more so I could eat. The taste is far superior to Arbys. After it closed I have been looking for Rax. I'm back in Florida and thought I would look on line. Delicious food!ReplyDelete
Sounds like Ohio needs to copy their sister places! All the fast growing chains like the CookOut inSouth Carolina have BUDGET MENUS: 1-3 dollar items. My suggestion it they keep their good products, but offer budget a mini-menu:get smaller portions at a cheaper price. I would like them to have a name that says the truth: RAX SUPERIOR ROADTED BEEF. It really is!ReplyDelete
DELICIOUS ROAST BEEF!!! I USED TO EAT IT ALL THE TIME. IT WAS HOT AND GOOD! ARBYS WAS DOWN THE STREET BUT THE DELICIOUS RAX SANDWICH WAS ALL I WOULD BUY! ARBYS IS DRY AND NOT AS TASTY AS RAX. MAYBE PEOPLE SAY OH, ITS JUST ANOTHER ARBY'S PLACE. THAT IS WHY THE NAME RAX SUPERIOR ROASTED BEEF MAY CATCH AN EYE. ONCE YOU TASTE IT YOU WILL SEE WHY!ReplyDelete
RAX COULD MAKE UP ITS OWN SPECIAL SAUCES. PACKAGE THEM IN SMALL CUPS LIKE THE PUZZA PLACES DO. I WOULD LOVE TO PUT A AN ONION BUTTERY GARLIC SAUCE, OR AN ASAIN SOY KOREAN FLAVOR, OR A FLAVOR FROM INDIA ON MY ROADT BEEF. TWEEKED ROADTED BEEF YOUR WAY:) THEY COULD DO SO MUCH MORE BUT KEEP THAT GREAT RAX SUPERIOR ROASTED BEEF. ABOVE ALL KEEP IT FRESH. MOIST, AND HOTReplyDelete
South Carolina would love RAX. Florida has a lot of northern people. The people in the south would love their beef! The fourth largest growing city in the USA is Greenville SC. Rax should try there. The southern people would gobble it up. Budget menu and sauces as mentioned above w a salad bar. Yum.I would eat there every day!ReplyDelete
Anyone like the name Rax Superior Roasted Beef?.....people would still say, I'm getting a Rax, but their sign would at least tell others how good their beef is and then to try it.ReplyDelete
It's been over a decade since the last Rax left Southwestern Pennsylvania. When I was a small child, I loved that place. Watching Pittsburgh Dad take a trip elicited feelings of jealousy that it's just not feasible for me to take a trip to Ohio to go to one. I miss 'em though. Would give anything to have it back.ReplyDelete
Used to go to RAX all the time when they were in Kansas City. There's still a building that looks like it did back in the 80s, but it's now a 24 Mexican place called Pancho's. Can't believe I find this blog!ReplyDelete
I just ate at a Rax for the first time in probably 25 years or more that I happened across in Joliet, IL. It is everything good that I remember. The mushroom and Swiss roast beef sandwich is everything that I could want for a meal. It was as if I had made my own prime rib roast and thin sliced it myself. I paired it with a peanut butter cup shake. I will dare to do it again tomorrow. :)ReplyDelete
Anyone know where the one in massillon ohio was originally located ?ReplyDelete
We just rewatched the Tosh.o with the Rax segment and I was telling my husband about it. We are only 3.5 hours away from Harlan, so we are going to go the next time we visit his family.ReplyDelete