Monday, February 25, 2019

Not Fricking Anybody


I was preschool-aged when our local McDonald’s moved from its 1970s-built dark brick mansard on Main Street to a new building on the north side of town, near the Walmart where land was quickly being developed. The old McDonald’s building was purchased by the city and is still in use today as offices for the public utilities department, still looking very much like it did when it was a McDonald’s. Ever since that McDonald’s became a municipal building, I’ve been fascinated by buildings with distinctive, recognizable corporate image architecture being reused for entirely new purposes. I’m not the only person with this fascination, as the Not Fooling Anybody website and subreddit, which are devoted to pictures of hastily-converted fast food and other retail buildings, came into existence to cater to people with the same interest.

I’ve explored this interest here on Broken Chains in the past, by both documenting the former Taco Tico buildings in and around Lexington, Kentucky and by going hunting on Google Earth for former G.D. Ritzy’s buildings. I was recently inspired to explore my interest further following one of my many trips down I-75 in Ohio.

I happened to make a pit stop in Bowling Green, at an exit I had never previously explored. On my way back to the highway, I drove past a Fricker’s, and had to stop to take pictures of it.

The Fricker's in Bowling Green, Ohio...
Fricker’s is a regional chain of sports bars mainly in Western Ohio. They seem to be doing reasonably well, and do not meet my definition of a broken chain. Likewise, I’m not a massive fan of sports, bars, or sports bars, so their food and atmosphere are of little interest to me. My interest in Fricker’s is due to their expansion strategy, which seems to consist mainly of converting existing structures with few exterior changes beyond a coat of red paint and the addition of some stripey awnings. 

...would have originally looked a lot like the still-operational Dutch Pantry in Williamstown, West Virginia.
The Fricker’s I passed in Bowling Green was housed in a Dutch Pantry building which seemed to have had minimal modifications. It even still sported the trapezoidal Dutch Pantry sign frame. A little Google Street View research revealed two additional Fricker’s housed in former Dutch Pantry buildings. Unsurprisingly, the other two Dutch Pantry Fricker’s are located along I-75 as well, specifically in Perrysburg and Findlay. Dutch Pantry’s strategy was (and still is!) to cater to travelers, so most, if not all Dutch Pantry locations were built along major highways. 

Another Dutch Pantry Fricker's in Findlay, Ohio...

...and a third in Perrysburg, Ohio

Having found multiple Fricker’s locations in old Dutch Pantry buildings, I was intrigued. I had to see if any other husks of failed chain restaurants had been assimilated by Fricker’s. Naturally, I sat down and looked at all 25 Fricker’s on Google Street View, because that kind of thing is my idea of a fun Saturday night. I found a good many nondescript Fricker’s locations set up in strip malls, but roughly as many operating out of the buildings that once housed outlets of broken chains.

Located in Adrian, Michigan's only Fricker's is a former Ponderosa. 
Huber Heights, Ohio is also home to a Frickerosa.
While the facade of the Miamisburg Fricker's makes you remember not only The Alamo, but Lone Star Steakhouse as well. 
I see a quite a few empty and reused Ponderosas in my travels. At this point, they outnumber the operational ones, so it’s not terribly surprising to see a pair of Fricker’s locations housed in former Ponderosa buildings. Likewise, all but four of the 265 Lone Star Steak House locations have closed, so it’s not terribly surprising to see one painted red and serving as a Fricker’s. 

Look close at the tall trapezoid on the left of the Middletown, Ohio Fricker's. It once held a Chi-Chi's sign... did this Fricker's in Springfield, Ohio. 

Of all the Fricker’s locations I found, though, I was most delighted by the locations in Middletown and Springfield, Ohio. Both are obvious former Chi-Chi’s, still sporting the prominent vestiges of Chi-Chi’s signature adobe architecture under a fresh coat of Fricker’s red paint. (Sadly, there are no Chi-Chi’s locations left in North America, though Hormel still sells a line of Chi-Chi’s-branded grocery items here. There are still Chi-Chi’s locations open in Europe, and you better believe I’ll eat at Chi-Chi’s if I’m ever in Luxembourg.) Well-preserved Chi-Chi’s buildings are becoming increasingly rare. Most have been demolished or renovated beyond recognition, and I think their light touch is with their buildings is what has drawn me to Fricker’s.

When the larger chains take over an existing location, they’ll often erect new facades and erase any hint of the building’s original purpose. While in Fricker’s case it’s more likely due to a limited construction budget than an attempt at historical preservation, they walk a delicate line, adding their own corporate image to a building without significantly altering its original shape, thereby preserving its connection to a struggling, defunct, or otherwise diminished brand.

I’ve never set foot in a Fricker’s, and I probably never will, but I hold them in higher regard than I do other sports bar chains, which I also avoid, simply because they give historic chain restaurant buildings a second chance at life when most other chains would heavily modify or raze them. In a time when such buildings are becoming endangered, it’s nice to see them getting regular use with a moderately high degree of preservation.

Below are a few Fricker’s locations I could not definitively identify. I’ve captioned them with their location, and my best guess as to what I think they might have originally been. Please comment below or email me if you can tell me if any of my guesses are right or wrong. 

2599 W Michigan St, Sidney, Ohio
I think this may be a former Ryan's Steakhouse. What say you, dear reader?

An anonymous contributor tells me this was previously a location of CJ's Highmarks, a local chain in Western Ohio. 

1580 Goodman Ave, Cincinnati, Ohio
This looks like a former Steak and Ale to me. Who can confirm or tell me different?

Edit: Mike from Houston Historic Retail tells me this is a former Cambridge Inn Cafeteria

8850 Governors Hill Dr, Cincinnati, OH
This one has me feeling pretty stumped, but I get a vague Joe's Crab Shack vibe from it. I'm probably wrong, but who knows what it actually is?

Edit: Multiple sources tell me this building was originally a Cooker restaurant.

Also, don’t forget to like the Broken Chains Facebook page to see when the blog has been updated. I also post a bonus picture every now and then.

Edit: My head Lucky Steer Correspondent, Map Cat, shared a link to this grain-tastic 2007 vintage Street View image of the Richmond, Idiana Fricker's that shows the Fricker's sign in an old Lucky Steer sign frame, meaning that the Richmond, Indiana Fricker's is likely a former Lucky Steer. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Cici's Point

I noticed too late that my previous blog post was published on the one year anniversary of my very first Broken Chains post. That’s right, Broken Chains is officially a year old. In that year, I’ve had a long list of unique experiences, learned a lot about endangered restaurant and retail brands, and traveled untold miles. I like to think I’ve become a better writer as well.

I also take comfort in the thought that this blog is held together by a series of rules and guidelines I’ve imposed on myself that includes my working definition of what a broken chain is:

“A business which, at some point in its history, had multiple, similarly-functioning, physical locations where a customer could purchase goods and/or services which presently has a significantly diminished presence and/or value as a brand compared to the same brand in its heyday.”

When I wrote that definition, I was about to explore Ponderosa, larger than any chain I had previously covered with around 60 locations. Since then, I’ve written posts about diminished chains like Blimpie and Shoney’s that still boast three figure location counts. I’ve also written about chains like Burger Chef and Red Barn that officially have zero remaining locations, but still have unofficial locations open, operating under different names by holdout franchisees.

I consider these defunct on paper but not in practice chains the lower limit of what could be considered a broken chain. The upper limit is trickier to define. I don’t think I’ve covered a chain yet that approaches it. Every restaurant and retail chain goes through ups and downs coinciding with economic and demographic shifts, but at what point does a chain’s presence and brand value decline to the point that it begins to meet my definition of a broken chain? I submit that henceforth the upper limit of what could be considered a broken chain be named the Cici’s Point.

Joe Croce and Mike Cole opened their first pizza joint in Plano, Texas in 1985, using the name Cici’s because both their names started with the letter C. (Contrary to popular belief, they never left the pizza business to open a music factory.) Their takeout pizza business eventually evolved into a buffet restaurant after they began offering a lunch buffet to generate midday foot traffic. The buffet proved more popular than takeout, and franchised Cici’s locations with all day buffets and takeout service began popping up. The chain grew steadily through the ‘90s with Croce as CEO. By the time Joe Croce retired in 2003 and sold his stake in the business to the management team, there were 420 (Nice!) locations in operation.

It was around this time that I discovered Cici’s. I was in high school in Central Kentucky, and was perpetually in search of places where I could stuff my teenage face for very little money. I was working at McDonald’s after school and on weekends, and handed significant portions of my paycheck back to the company on my days off by buying dollar menu double cheeseburgers and McChickens. Likewise, I could often be found at Taco Tico on Sunday afternoons when they sold 49 cent tacos and burritos. When Lexington’s first Cici’s opened at the then-struggling, and now defunct Turfland Mall, it became one of my favorite hangouts.

Access to the buffet cost an astoundingly cheap $3.99, which grew only slightly to five bucks and change once you added a drink and sales tax. For that price, you got unlimited salad, dessert, pasta, and pizza. The pizza crust had an unmistakably cardboardy quality, but you could eat as much as you wanted, and even bad pizza is still pretty good food. I used to devour heaping plates of the flimsy slices. The low price made Cici’s popular with everyone. There’d usually be a pretty diverse crowd eating there, at least more diverse than you’d expect for a pizza buffet with an arcade in the back.

Several more Cici’s locations opened around Lexington, mostly in similarly diminished, and presumably cheap to rent retail spaces, but not long after the 2008 recession, they all closed abruptly. In 2010 Cici’s had 650 locations, and plans were announced to open another 500 by 2020. With less than a year left for them to accomplish this goal, Cici’s Pizza has instead shrunk back down to 423 locations spread across 30 states. However, more than half of those locations are in just two states, Texas and Florida, while ten states are home to three or fewer Cici’s locations. In the past nine years, Cici’s has gone from being the fastest growing pizza chain in the US with a near-national footprint to a regional chain with a few vestigial outposts scattered around the country, ruins of their fleeting empire. Maybe the recession was a factor limiting their growth. Maybe they failed to anticipate the spike in popularity of home food delivery and the decline in the popularity of buffets, or maybe the rate of growth they experienced in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s was simply unsustainable.

Aside from a single meal I had at an Ohio Cici’s a few months before writing my first Broken Chains post, I hadn’t been to Cici’s Pizza in over a decade. While I’m sure there are shining examples of locations that exhibit Cici’s current approach to operation, image, and branding in their core markets, I was more interested in checking out, and geographically closer to, the vestigial locations, long ago isolated by the brand’s retreat. That’s how I ended up at the Goshen, Indiana Cici’s. 

I arrived a few minutes after the restaurant’s 11 AM opening time on a Saturday, and parked out front. The building housing the Cici’s is a two-slot strip mall, and the other slot is occupied by a liquor store. The front facade of the building was visibly dirty, in need of a good pressure washing, and as I was walking from my van to the front door, a large group of other patrons, that seemed to consist mainly of unruly children and an indifferent adult or two, materialized in front of me. 

This was the nicest booth in the place. 

I hope the sneeze guard will keep the falling bits of plaster out of my salad. 

I guarantee these graphics have been up there for at least 15 years. 

As I waited for the group in front of me to conduct their transaction and cacophonously disperse, I examined my surroundings. The dining room had several rows of booths, literally all of which had torn cushions. (I checked!) The L-shaped buffet was nicely stocked, but exposed plaster and a gaping hole were present on the ceiling over the salad bar, as if some fixture had been hastily removed or simply fallen off. Most of the logos and signage on display were just as they were when I first discovered Cici’s at Turfland Mall more than 15 years ago. The newer exploding pizza logos from their website were nowhere to be found. I did not intentionally seek out a dilapidated Cici's location. This is the one that happened to be closest to the route I was planning, but if one Cici's, picked at random is in noticeably rough shape, then there are sure to be others in this condition or worse.

I didn't try the wings. I may have to next time.

When it was my turn to order, I asked for a buffet and drink, and ended up paying over $8. Factoring for inflation, this isn’t a terrible price for a lunch buffet. Unlimited lunchtime pizza is over $10 at my local sit-down Pizza Hut, and there's not nearly as much variety as there is here. At some point since my teenage years, Cici’s had ditched reusable cups and implemented disposable paper ones, presumably to keep costs down. I was a little sad to see visual evidence of them cutting costs, but happy to have a souvenir. The cup was the only time I saw the exploding pizza logo on this visit. 

The elusive exploding pizza logo adorned my cup. 

Small, but reasonably comprehensive salad bar

My strategy at buffets is to start with a salad, mainly to fool myself into thinking I’m eating healthily before loading up my next plate with a pile of carbs. Cici’s current salad bar is on the small side, but seemed generally clean and well-organized. The dressings were in novel containers that reminded me of IHOP syrup dispensers and fit into interlocking slots. Weirdly, there was no grated cheese on the salad bar, but there was a decent selection of vegetables. I loaded my plate with an unintentionally vegan first course and topped it with an acidic Italian dressing. It was perfectly acceptable, but lagged far behind the salads I’ve been able to craft at Rax or Bonanza Steak and BBQ. 

Pizza pile

Having mostly finished my salad, I was ready for pizza. I stacked several slices on my second plate and returned to my table. The deep pan crust slices tasted about the same as they always had, but the thin crust offerings were more airy and chewy than previous experiences with Cici's had trained me to expect. The Cici’s cardboard crust pizza that I had come to know and tolerate was gone and replaced with a more premium tasting product. The toppings and sauce were basically as I remembered them, including the delightful barbecue chicken pizza, but vastly improved by a crust made of honest to goodness flour instead of what I could only assume was sawdust back in the old days. 

I can't think of a brownie I've ever enjoyed more than a Cici's brownie. 

Pleasantly surprised, I worked my way through my second plate, and returned to the buffet for the dessert course. I picked up the brownies and cinnamon rolls with which I would always conclude my adolescent Cici’s meals. I also picked up a slice of the macaroni and cheese pizza, because a wedge of carbohydrates topped with more carbohydrates is decadent to the point that I consider it a dessert, regardless of its sugar content. The soft buttery cinnamon rolls were as they were in my memories, as were the perfectly undercooked brownies. Something was lost in translation with the macaroni and cheese pizza slice though. The fluffier crust overpowered the subtle flavors and textures of the toppings. Macaroni and cheese seems to be the one pizza at Cici’s that works better on the old crust.

In 2016, following Cici’s failure to meet their projected growth goals, and in the midst of an ever-falling location count, the languishing Cici’s brand was acquired by The Arlon Group, an investment group with a subsidiary that owns several Taco Bell, KFC, and Golden Corral franchises. The new parent company’s familiarity with the restaurant industry seems to be benefiting the Cici’s brand. The food’s previous shortcomings have been addressed while the classic Cici’s flavors have, for the most part, been nicely maintained, all without a major inflation of the price. 

While Arlon is doing their part to keep Cici’s running, the indifference of owner of the franchised location I visited was palpable. While the food was great, and the place was reasonably clean, it had clearly fallen into disrepair. As a result, it didn’t seem terribly popular with the locals. Aside from myself and the large group in front of me, maybe two to three other tables were occupied at lunchtime on a Saturday. It seemed as though the owner was caught in a feedback loop of reduced popularity and profits leading to deferral of maintenance and repairs leading to further reductions in popularity leading to further neglect.

Still, the Arlon Group seems willing and able to revitalize the Cici’s brand. By my own definition it's barely a broken chain. With the right strategy, it's a chain that can be mended and revitalized, and that may one day thrive again. Arlon would do well to cut some of the weak links loose from the chain, and recruit and vet some new franchisees to help grow the brand into new markets. My own personal market of Metro Detroit is a vacuum when it comes to all-day pizza buffets, and I'd love to have a Cici's in my neighborhood.

If you're a fan of Broken Chains, be sure to like our Facebook page to receive updates about new posts and occasional bonus pictures from my travels. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Three Meals at Country Kitchen

Late last year, I took a week long, ten state road trip that took me to virtually every place I ended up writing about in January of this year. I had carefully planned out an itinerary that would take me to as many broken chains as possible, but the morning after a 600 mile chain restaurant marathon in the upper Midwest followed by a restless night in a noisy Airbnb in Iowa that was essentially a glorified Motel 6, I slept a couple of hours later than I intended, ruining my plans for the day.

My blown itinerary had in included a stop at the last Mister Donut in the US, located in Godfrey, Illinois, but Mister Donut was five and a half hours away and closed at 2 PM. My late departure meant that I wouldn’t be in the area in time to stop there before they closed for the day. Thankfully, I was still on track for my quarterly pilgrimage to Evansville, Indiana, home of my favorite G.D. Ritzy’s locations, where I’d be having dinner that evening and lunch the following day, but the midday meal on my way to Evansville was suddenly in question. Rather than researching potential stops, I opted instead to roll the dice, and point my car toward Evansville, keeping an eye out for a lunch stop that might generate blog content.

I was in Hannibal, Missouri when I was beginning to feel hungry, and coincidentally spotted a Country Kitchen, a broken chain I had been meaning to check out for months. I took this as a sign from Uncle Alligator, Burger Chef and Jeff, Queenie Bee, and the rest of the pantheon of diminished chain restaurant mascots that it was time for me to research and write a Country Kitchen post.

Two guys named Bill opened the first Country Kitchen in Cincinnati in 1939 selling nickel hamburgers and ten cent steak sandwiches. The single location grew into a local chain through the ‘40s and ‘50s, and in 1958, the Bills, Johnson and Goodman, began franchising their restaurant concept, which eventually evolved into a full service restaurant with a full menu of diner food with extensive breakfast offerings. The chain was sold to Carlson in 1977, and the hospitality conglomerate expanded the chain across the US, peaking at around 340 locations. Economic downturns in the late ‘70s and increased competition from fast food chains forced Carlson to get creative with marketing Country Kitchen. They eventually conceived the Country Inn hotel chain, which was meant to include a Country Kitchen restaurant in the hotel or on the same property, Howard Johnson style. Few Country Inns would get this treatment, however. In 1997 Carlson sold the Country Kitchen brand to Kitchen Investment Group, the largest Country Kitchen franchisee, but retained the Country Inn brand.

As market demographics and tastes have changed over the years, Country Kitchen has been struggling to remain relevant and shedding locations ever since leaving Carlson’s brand portfolio. Of the 340 Country Kitchens that were in operation during the Carlson era, only 28 remain today, mostly in the Midwestern US with a few outposts on the coasts and a single surviving location in Canada.

Upon seeing the Country Kitchen open for business in Hannibal, I hatched a plan. I’d eat there, and later visit the Country Kitchen in Marshall, Michigan that I had driven past a thousand times when I was on the way to somewhere else on I-94. Maybe I could even find a third one open somewhere within a reasonable distance so I could get the full breakfast, lunch, dinner experience at three different locations. With visions of an elaborate blog post dancing in my head, I walked in the front door of the Hannibal Country Kitchen and was immediately transported back to 1992. 

Early '90s nondescript architecture at its finest

Meal #1
Location: Country Kitchen, 4803 McMasters Avenue Hannibal, Missouri
Order: Smoked Sausage Skillet, pancakes, Diet Coke
Summary: Ovum Falsa

Inside it's clear the place hasn't changed much in the past 25 or so years. 

The building housing the Hannibal Country Kitchen has an aesthetic rooted squarely in the early ‘90s. The building styled to resemble a farmhouse with its prominent gables and long front porch and the interior decor with its blond wood and brass accents are all straight out of the Better Homes and Gardens and Southern Living magazines my parents kept around the house when I was a kid in the ‘90s. The look would have been charming in its day, but has not aged well in my opinion. Even so, the dining area was clean, and high ceilings gave it a pleasant light airy feeling. I was pleased to find a surprising amount of reasonably modern seeming signage and marketing materials. Unlike a lot of fading restaurant chains, Country Kitchen is working hard to lure customers with regular promotions. 

Yet marketing materials are everywhere. 

I should have bought a gift card for my collection.

I was quickly shown to a booth near the kitchen. It was late morning on a Saturday, and the place was moderately busy. My waitress came and took my order in a reasonably quick timeframe. On the menu, the smoked sausage skillet I ordered was pictured with sunny side up eggs. I assumed she’d ask how I wanted my eggs prepared after I ordered, but instead, she disappeared without asking a single follow-up question. I assumed I’d be getting my eggs as pictured on the menu, which would have been fine, but the skillet showed up topped with unpleasantly dry scrambled eggs, denying me the simple pleasure of runny yolk in every bite of my skillet breakfast. Additionally, the slices of smoked sausage nestled among the boring, not even a little runny, scrambled eggs were just on the wrong side of the line between caramelized and burned. As I mentioned in my post about my visit to the last operating Horne’s, I have high breakfast standards as a result of the numerous Coney Island-style restaurants around me in my Metro Detroit home, but I think anyone would have been disappointed by the sausage and eggs. The pancakes, at least, were decently light and fluffy and came with three different syrup flavors. 

The pancakes didn't quite redeem the abomination on the right. 

To my surprise, my waitress brought a handheld electronic credit card reader to my table when it came time to pay my bill, which allowed me to pay at my convenience without leaving the table. I never thought I’d see such a modern appliance in a setting so dated, but it was welcome. One of my greatest annoyances is when a server drops off my bill and disappears for ten minutes, or worse, takes my credit card with the bill and runs to some obscure alcove in the bowels of the kitchen to run my card and steal my identity. Any restaurant that lets me pay my bill electronically at the table will get more business from me. I’d drive back to Hannibal just so I could pay this way again, though I’d be more specific when ordering eggs next time. 

Meal #2
Location: Country Kitchen 3150 Ohio Route 350 Lebanon Ohio
Order: Country Boy burger platter with fries and coleslaw, Wild Blueberry Flapjack Cake, Coke Zero
Summary: “The Old Home Fill ‘er Up and Keep on a-Truckin’ Cafe”

Thanks to a misspent youth watching movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Citizens Band, I’m a massive fan of 1970s trucker and CB radio culture. The undisputed king of trucker music in this era was Bill Fries, who used the stage name, C.W. McCall. (I, Zapediah Q. Actionsdower, don’t understand why anyone would want to use a pseudonym for their public persona.) You’ve probably heard, “Convoy,” McCall’s biggest hit which inspired a Sam Peckinpah film of the same name, but this particular Country Kitchen location reminds me of one of his deeper cuts, namely “The Old Home Fill ‘er Up and Keep on a-Truckin’ Cafe,” a song which details a trucker’s courtship with Mavis, a waitress at his favorite truckstop, known as the Old Home Fill ‘er Up and Keep on a-Truckin’ Cafe. The song’s chorus repeats the comically long and folksy name of the place repeatedly, and concludes with McCall proclaiming, “They’ve got a real nice place there.”

This place made the last Country Kitchen look brand new by comparison. 

“A real nice place” is also how I’d describe the Lebanon Country Kitchen. The diminutive brick building with its Waffle House-esque yellow mansard roof is situated just off I-71 northeast of Cincinnati. An ancient billboard by the interstate advertises its presence, and a busy, modern Flying J truck stop is right next door. The Country Kitchen has big rig parking too. The anachronistic Country Kitchen stands in stark contrast to its shiny new neighbor. Once you’re inside, the Country Kitchen, it’s clear the place dates back to a time when every car had a CB radio and half a dozen ash trays, and transporting Coors beer east of the Mississippi was considered bootlegging. From the paneling on the walls to the shingled awning over the kitchen area, the whole place felt straight out of a ‘70s road movie. I half expected Sheriff Buford T. Justice to come in and order a diablo sandwich and a Dr. Pepper.
The view from my seat; they're not ashamed of that microwave. 

The place had a retro, but not retro on purpose feel. 

At the direction of a sign telling me to seat myself, picked a vinyl swivel chair at the ancient counter. Despite the vintage greasy spoon vibe of the place, it didn’t feel dirty. I’d go so far as to call it spotless. The odd juxtaposition of dated and clean put me at ease as I perused the menu. It was my second Country Kitchen meal, so even though it was late afternoon, I ordered a typical lunch, which included a Country Boy burger, Country Kitchen’s answer to the Big Boy, which I ordered with fries and coleslaw in Big Boy fashion. 

Not a great photo, but I had to bob and weave through a very busy truck stop parking lot to get a shot of the old sign by the interstate. 

As I sat at the counter awaiting my order, I noticed the place beginning to fill up with mostly older people, who all seemed to know the staff. It was 5:00 on a Saturday and the regular crowd, as if prompted by some unseen and unheard Billy Joel cover band, was shuffling in. The previously quiet little dining room took on a warm family atmosphere as the crowd exchanged pleasantries and tired jokes among themselves and with the staff. I took them to be a mix of locals and truckers who stop by regularly when passing through. 

A little uninspired, but still better than Frisch's. 

Just as I was beginning to tire of people watching, my order arrived. The Country Boy is unusual among Big Boy imitators, as it’s toppings include a tomato slice, which, while unorthodox for this particular burger genre, was not unwelcome. The special sauce the menu promised seemed to be nothing more than mayonnaise. Still, it was on a genuine three piece bun, and according to my research, I was lucky to find a Country Boy at all. It’s not listed on the Country Kitchen website’s menu, and multiple online customer reviews of other Country Kitchen locations seem to note its absence. In ordering it, I stumbled onto an officially discontinued menu item still hanging on at a handful of locations. With so few Country Kitchens left, could this be the last one that serves a Country Boy? It certainly seems possible if not likely. 

More current marketing; This time I couldn't resist. 

I still have dreams about this cake. 
I found more current marketing when the dessert course came, in the form of a paper sign on the table advertising a “blueberry flapjack cake,” which couldn’t resist ordering. The layers of maple creme between wedges of subtly sweet cake freckled with baked-in blueberries that were set before me seemed overly sophisticated and out of place at an old truck stop, but this was the best thing I ate on my Country Kitchen excursion. Despite it intentionally being served cold, it perfectly encapsulated the essence of eating a blueberry pancake breakfast while being a perfectly satisfying dessert. I didn’t even mind that it added six bucks and change to my bill. Everything about this particular Country Kitchen led me to conclude that they’ve got a real nice place there. Ask for Mavis if you ever stop by.

Meal #3
Location: Cafe by Country Kitchen, 2487 M-139 Benton Harbor, Michigan
Order: Kitchen Sink Omelette, hash browns, pancakes, Diet Coke
Summary: “Breakfast for Dinner”

As I was googling the Marshall, Michigan Country kitchen to check its hours of operation, I was not terribly shocked to learn that it had gone out of business. With only enough time for a day trip, and with a self-imposed deadline for a Country Kitchen post looming, I drove an hour past the husk of the Marshall Country Kitchen to the next nearest location in Benton Harbor. Annoyingly, the Benton Harbor location was a “Cafe by Country Kitchen,” essentially a Country Kitchen that only serves breakfast and lunch. This blew my plan of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at three different Country Kitchens. Even though I was there at 11 AM, I’m counting my visit there as breakfast for dinner since it’s my third and final meal of my exploration of the Country Kitchen brand.

R.I.P. Marshall Country Kitchen. I hardly knew ye. 

In many ways, the Cafe by Country Kitchen in Benton Harbor, Michigan is similar to its counterpart in Hannibal, Missouri. The building is a similar, if not identical design. Much of the same dated decor is present on the inside. Additionally, it’s clear the restaurant’s surroundings were past their prime. After exiting the interstate, I passed two abandoned motels and a handful of seedy gas stations in the less than one mile stretch from I-94 to the restaurant. 

Long live the Cafe by Country Kitchen in Benton Harbor!

Once inside, however, I found a dining room as clean as the one I experienced in Lebanon, Ohio, and unlike its fraternal twin in Hannibal, Missouri, there appeared to have been a few updates made in this century. It was late morning on a Sunday, and the place was packed with the typical mix of the after church crowd and people with hangovers. I was seated at one of the few empty tables. Resigning myself to breakfast food, I ordered a kitchen sink omelette with pancakes. 

The view from my table. I believe the tile and stone in the kitchen area to be modern additions. 

This breakfast is the best dinner I ever had at 11 AM. 

My order took the better part of half an hour to arrive. I overheard my waitress say one of the cooks didn’t show up and the kitchen was backed up as a result, but what showed up at my table was the best omelette I’ve had since my trip to Omelette Shoppe. It even surpassed the omelettes I get from my favorite Coney Island on the regular. While it didn’t have quite the diversity of ingredients the Perkins Everything Omelette contains, the green peppers, onions, hash browns, bacon, and sausage provided a nice balance of flavors and textures. I didn’t even mind that the pancakes only came with one flavor of syrup. 

Award winning

A post-meal trip to the bathroom revealed several awards on the wall in the corridor, the most recent being 2017. Despite the chain’s ever-shrinking footprint, Kitchen Investment Group appears to be actively involved in attempts to keep the brand alive, whether it be new menu items, awards bestowed to franchisees, or up to date marketing materials. I couldn’t help but think that if Country Kitchen has a chance at a future, it’s future would resemble the Benton Harbor location. 

Limited menu with an eye toward optimizing profitability. 

Demographic changes have led to hard times for many family restaurant chains with menus full of classic diner food. Bob Evans and Denny’s have both shuttered quite a few locations recently. For a smaller chain with shallower pockets like Country Kitchen, these struggles must look especially ominous, but the Benton Harbor Cafe by Country Kitchen as employed a savvy strategy to weather the storm.

A wise woman once posed the question, “Why does anybody in the world ever eat anything but breakfast food?” Whoever devised the Cafe by Country Kitchen concept took this prompt and ran with it. The breakfast menu is Country Kitchen’s strength. Brunch chains like First Watch and Wild Eggs are thriving right now while evening diners prefer more upmarket restaurants that serve alcohol. By ditching the lackluster dinner menu and money-losing evening operating hours from Country Kitchen, Cafe by Country Kitchen, plays to its strengths, and becomes a perfectly viable breakfast joint with a few token sandwiches and burgers on the menu for the lunch crowd. While the building is dated, and its neighbors are decaying, a few updates, like tile against the back wall and an impeccably clean dining room make the interior of the restaurant feel almost modern and perfectly pleasant. It’s a place I could see myself returning to if I happened to be in Western Michigan at breakfast time. Realistically though, I can’t help but think that he revamp of a few locations is insufficient and came at too late a time to save a struggling, fragmented, restaurant chain whose 28 surviving locations are spread coast to coast across 16 states and one Canadian province.

In the early 1980s, Howard Johnson restaurant franchisees found themselves orphaned. Their corporate parent had been divided and sold off in pieces to owners that had little interest in maintaining the restaurant brand. The franchisees joined forces to form Franchise Associated Incorporated (FAI) and worked together to keep the franchised locations in operation while maintaining brand identity. A few efforts were made to modernize aging buildings and menus, but FAI didn’t have the resources to keep the Howard Johnson restaurant brand current, and ceased operation in 2005. Today, the Howard Johnson restaurant brand is essentially defunct.

I can’t help but think that Country Kitchen’s current status is analogous to Howard Johnson’s during the FAI era. Both are dated, shrinking restaurant chains that were separated from their respective companion hotel brands and put in the control of franchisees. Despite valiant efforts by FAI, Howard Johnson restaurants faded into obscurity, and as dining trends continue to change, and the value of the Country Kitchen brand continues to diminish, I foresee a similar future for Country Kitchen in the coming years. For now though, two thirds of the surviving locations seem to be more than decent, based on my informal survey with a sample size of three restaurants. If you like those odds, and happen to be near a Country Kitchen, give them a try while you still can. Two thirds of you will be glad you did. 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Same Food, Different Name

Approximately zero of my loyal readers would be surprised to learn that in my adolescence, I was a massive fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s unique brand of novelty music. His clever reworkings of pop songs, and his brilliant, yet underrated original songs spoke to my specific sensibilities, and indeed the sensibilities of a certain type of middle schooler in general. As I grew older, my enthusiasm for Weird Al waned, but I occasionally give him a nostalgic listen on Spotify, both to hear the classic songs I listened to on my Sony Discman in the ‘90s and to check out his later works. “Lame Claim to Fame” is a song from his 2014 album, Mandatory Fun, that I’ve latched onto lately.

The song is basically a long list of the narrator’s circuitous, unremarkable connections to minor celebrities, and while my sister never took piano lessons from Ralph Nader’s second cousin, I feel a connection to the song, not because of an interest in celebrity culture, but because this blog is essentially a list of my own lame claims to fame. Whether I’m trapped in the Drive Thru at Central Park, playing Big Boy Bingo all November long, or getting a G.D. Ritzy’s tattoo, the accomplishments I brag about to my friends are all pretty silly. Of all my dubious achievements, the one I’m perhaps the most proud of is visiting every surviving Rax Roast Beef location.

I got this tattoo a couple of weeks ago. If you follow the Broken Chains Facebook Page, you already knew about it.

I started out as a Rax virgin, and began my quest by first visiting the three freestanding Rax locations in Ohio, finding them completely underwhelming and failing to understand the present day appeal of Rax until I visited the charming time capsule that is the Joliet, Illinois Rax. I went on to dine at a fourth Ohio Rax that was haphazardly cobranded with Long John Silver’s, which sadly has since closed. Finally, I visited the impeccably run Harlan, Kentucky Rax last fall, and the competition of my travels to every Rax became the story of the first Raxgiving

Rax, like roughly half of the brands I explore here, still has a corporate parent in charge of the brand, and unlike places like Kewpee, Hot ‘n Now, or Uncle John’s Pancake House, Rax franchisees do not enjoy the level of autonomy that comes with surviving the demise of a parent company. They’re also required to pay franchise fees, which, ideally, would give them the benefits associated with being part of an established, thriving chain.

Following a long, complicated history of mergers, acquisitions, name changes, restaurant closures, and general decline, the Rax trademark ended up in the control of Rich Donohue’s company, From Rax to Rich’s. (a company name which sounds like it could be a title of a Weird Al deep cut;) Donahue, a longtime Rax manager, turned Rax franchisee, turned Rax CEO seems to have adopted the strategy of simplifying the menu of his own Rax location in Ironton, Ohio, and the other two Ohio Rax locations have followed suit. The limited menu is no doubt a reaction to the massive and ever-changing list of food offerings that scared loyal customers away from Rax in the ‘80s. The result of this strategy is that the Ohio Rax locations are limited to a lackluster menu of sandwiches and sides that fail to make them stand out in the modern fast food landscape. While the Illinois and Kentucky Rax locations thrive and make for a perfectly pleasant meal experience thanks to their impeccably maintained ‘80s style Endless Salad Bars, the salad bar-less Ohio Rax locations feel utterly generic beyond the nostalgic novelty of the Rax brand. While the salad bar locations felt vibrant and busy on my visits, the stripped-down Ohio locations I’ve visited have never seemed especially popular. It would stand to reason, therefore, that a franchised Rax location bound to the spartan modern menu has little incentive to remain affiliated with the Rax brand. 

Judging from timestamped photos on Google and Yelp, the Rax in Bellefontaine, Ohio shed its Rax branding at some point between April and September of 2017, and became the similar, but legally distinct Rancher’s Roast Beef* whose signage bills itself as as having the “same food, different name” spelled out right below a prominent labelscar of the Rax logo. The building is unlike any other current or former Rax I’ve come across. The green and tan stucco on the outside makes me suspect this is one of the few Rax locations that was built in the early ‘90s after the buildings with slotted windows and solariums fell out of favor. As a result, I don’t believe this location ever had a salad bar. Inside, the walls are bare except for advertising a Disney vacation planning service, perhaps the owner’s curious side hustle. In addition to the cartoon mouse-based revenue stream several factors seem to have kept this particular not-quite-Rax in business in a time when fully 99% of other Rax locations have closed for good. 

"Would you care for a Disney vacation with your sandwich?"

The building is situated near the intersection of two major highways that see a decent amount of traffic. Additionally, Bellefontaine’s Arby’s is located at the far end of town. Rancher’s also boasts a 24 hour drive thru, which could be an attractive alternative to the Waffle House across the street, which is sure to be crowded after the bars close. Likewise, the nearby McDonald’s closes at midnight. Losing the Rax name and the obligation to pay franchise fees surely reduced overhead significantly. Presumably, the Rax brand has so little recognition these days that losing it didn't cause a significant dropoff in business, especially since not much changed other than the name. 
There's still a little Rax magic left in this old menu board, just no Rax logos. 
The interior is clean, but a little rough around the edges, and generally bland. There’s a small dining area with no decor to speak of. The menu board is an ancient Rax unit with any and all branding removed. During my first visit, I ordered up a regular roast beef sandwich and a barbecue beef sandwich. Unlike every location still flying the Rax flag, Rancher’s has a self-serve Coke Freestyle machine which looks quite incongruous in the well-worn dining room. Drinks at all other surviving Rax restaurants are poured by the staff behind the counter, ‘80s style. 



Despite the different name and modern beverage service, my sandwiches were virtually indistinguishable from their Rax analogs, with the barbecue beef having the perfect blend of smoky, spicy, and tangy flavors hiding behind an overpowering sweetness that no doubt comes from an alarming amount of corn syrup in the sauce. The regular roast beef was distinctly Rax as well, which is to say, it tasted like a regular roast beef at Arby’s, except with slightly thicker, chewier meat. Unlike the official Rax locations in Ohio, my food came out hot at Rancher’s. 

Rax by any other name would taste as beefy. 

The next time I was in the area, I stopped by again, this time to sample the CBB, Rancher’s version of the Rax Bacon Beef and Cheddar also known as the BBC. What I got was a decent imitation, though the roll was a bit smaller, and the cheese sauce didn’t have the right flavor. I’ve seen modern pictures of containers of a proprietary Rax-branded cheese sauce, and I suspect that since Rancher’s no longer have access to it, they’ve substituted an off the shelf Cheez Whiz-type product. They also didn’t bother to warm it up, so I got a sandwich with hot beef and bacon and room temperature liquid cheese. The real Rax BBC would blow this imitator away, even if it came from the worst Ohio Rax. To quote Weird Al, “If it’s getting cold, reheat it!” On the bright side, my twisty fries were freshly cooked, and tasted just like Rax twisty fries, which is to say they tasted just like Arby’s curly fries. I also got a seriously tasty peanut butter shake on this visit, which is a shake flavor I haven’t seen at any Rax.

Overall, I’d put Rancher’s a notch above its Rax counterparts in Ironton, Lancaster, and Circleville, Ohio, but several notches below the Harlan and Joliet locations. It’s roughly on par with the dear departed Long John Silver’s Rax combo as an odd Rax-related curiosity with a decent interpretation of Rax food. If you’re looking for a Rax experience in Ohio, and you don’t mind not sitting in a solarium and a palpable absence of Uncle Alligator from the menu, you could do worse than dining at Rancher’s. 

Generic fast food. 

In the United States, parody is considered fair use, and as a result, “Weird Al” Yankovic is not legally required to get permission from musical artists to parody their songs. (He gets permission anyway because he’s a nice guy.) I’m not as well versed in fast food law as, say, an actual lawyer, but I can’t help but think that From Rax to Rich’s could build a decent legal case against Rancher’s for infringing on their intellectual property. After all, they seem to be blatantly imitating, and not meaningfully transforming the Rax concept. I doubt however that From Rax to Rich’s has the legal budget or the manpower necessary to pursue litigation at this point. I suspect Rancher’s and Rax will coexist until one brand or another closes up shop without as much as a cease and desist letter being sent. 

*Confusingly, the Rancher’s in Bellefontaine seems to have no affiliation with restaurants also called Rancher’s Roast Beef in nearby New Carlisle, Washington Court House, and Greenfield, Ohio. These Ranchers are owned by a former Arby’s franchisee.