Like Hot 'n Now and Central Park, Back Yard Burgers was a product of the second wave, low overhead, drive thru only, burger fad of the 1980's. The first location was opened by the seemingly backward-named Lattimore Michael in Cleveland, Mississippi in 1987. The chain spread across the south, adding inside dining rooms along the way, and in the early 2000s, briefly had a deal with Yum! to operate co-branded locations with KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut. While the chain peaked at around 150 locations a decade ago, they quickly fell prey to the Yum! burger curse. A series of ownership changes and a boardroom brawl that precipitated a CEO's dismissal took Back Yard Burgers past the Cici's Point to Broken Chain status. Today, there are 45 Back Yard Burgers locations still in operation spread across nine states. Two thirds of those locations are in Missisippi and Tennessee, showing Back Yard Burgers has receded to its home market leaving only a few isolated stragglers behind as far away as North Carolina and Illinois.
Until a few weeks ago, I had never eaten at a Back Yard Burgers, though I had a vaguely positive opinion of them. My middle school years in Central Kentucky's Bluegrass region were marked by a debate that, from my perspective, was waged exclusively using passive-aggressive bumper stickers. It was during those years of the late 1990s that Lexington was expanding outward, most notably on its far east side where the grounds of the historic Hamburg Place Stud Farm had been sold to developers who were rapidly turning the area into Hamburg Pavilion, a sprawling shopping center that would permanently alter Lexington's retail landscape. Proponents of the new development and the economic prosperity it would bring plastered the posteriors of their vehicles with bumper stickers proclaiming "Growth is good!" While the vehicles of the opposition, enraged by the loss of a historic thoroughbred horse farm wore decals that countered with, "Growth destroys the Bluegrass forever." I didn't have much of an opinion on the matter at the time, but I did love the newly built Hamburg Pavilion when it opened. The new shopping center brought new and exciting brands with it. Hamburg Pavilion was the first place I ever saw a Meijer store and a Steak 'n Shake. The Regal Cinema at Hamburg was the first theater with stadium seating I ever visited. All of these places were immensely exciting for me to visit as an adolescent raised on McDonald's and Walmart. Hamburg was also home to Lexington's first Back Yard Burgers location, and while I never managed to eat there before it closed, my high regard for the brand was by virtue of that location's proximity to the shiny new businesses I found so exciting in my younger years.
|The menu board and bizarre tile-less drop ceiling gave the place an early 2000s vibe.
Recently, I happened to be in Lexington visiting family and found myself with an afternoon free of familial obligations. I found myself traveling down US 27 toward Somerset, Kentucky home to one of Kentucky's three surviving Backyard Burgers locations to see if the brand could live up to the positive associations I had developed 80 miles north at Hamburg Pavilion. I'd had an early start that morning, and had been enjoying some other retail sites in town. As a result, I was ready for lunch when I walked into Back Yard Burgers a few minutes past their 10:30 AM open time. My initial impressions of the place were positive. Despite the brand's decline, the owners of the Somerset location seemed to have kept up the building well. The dining room felt clean, if not modern, and the parking lot had been repaved recently. After briefly surveying the menu board, I ordered up a 1/3 Bacon Cheddar Burger combo, and upgraded my side to garlic Parmesan waffle fries thanks to a helpful sign on the counter that advertised that option. As soon as I had selected a booth near the window that looked out on the bright yellow outside tables where a lone employee was raising each table's umbrella, my order was ready.
|Generic-feeling supplemental signs on the counter advertised limited time menu offerings.
|A fun-looking outside dining area.
I had noted another helpful sign on the order counter advertising blackberry and apple cobblers, and I couldn't resist the temptation of sampling such a unique and novel fast food dessert item. The employee with whom I placed my dessert order seemed genuinely surprised that I wanted to conduct a second transaction after ordering a burger and fries, but obliged my request for an order of the blackberry cobbler and a scoop of ice cream. She served the former out of a large warming tray of cobbler, placing a scoop of the runny pie into a small Styrofoam bowl. She then produced an identical bowl containing a single scoop of vanilla ice cream from a small freezer behind the counter before placing both items on a small tray and handing them to me. This presented a problem back at my table. Each bowl was too small to contain both ice cream and cobbler, and my attempt to transfer one to the other resulted in the cobbler bowl overflowing. I suppose the tray's main purpose in this instance was to contain cobbler runoff. It became more manageable to eat after the first few bites made room for more ice cream and made overflows less of an issue, but my desire to finish the dessert was not strong.
|Above average burger and unique, if disappointing fries
I don't make a habit of eating blackberry cobbler. I don't remember the last time I had tasted it before this adventure, so I don't have much of a frame of reference for what good blackberry cobbler should taste like. I found the Backyard Burgers iteration to be insufficiently sweet and possessing an unpleasant medicinal flavor. If Blackberry flavored NyQuil were a thing, I'm pretty sure it would taste like Back Yard Burgers blackberry cobbler, but I suspect this flavor is inherent to some extent in all blackberry cobbler and blackberry products in general. In short, I think the problem is not that Back Yard Burgers makes bad blackberry cobbler, but that I simply don't like blackberry cobbler.
|Too much cobbler, not enough bowls
After a few years in the spotlight, expanding rapidly, Back Yard Burgers is soldering on as a broken chain both in the Mississippi River Delta and in a handful of far-flung outposts. Thanks to an above average burger and a well-maintained building in Somerset, Kentucky, my perception of the brand remains as it was when a Back Yard Burger was only an intangible idea projected into my brain at Hamburg Pavilion. I feel the same generally positive vibe but without excessive fervor or excitement for Back Yard Burgers having eaten there that I did when it was just a building that I'd pass on the way to Meijer. I'd gladly eat there again, but it doesn't elicit the same excitement I feel for other broken chains I've encountered and experienced for the first time.
|Mr. Zap Actionsdower in a dessert mess, yeah yeah yeah yeah.
That slight let-down compelled me to drive another 110 miles to Harlan, Kentucky, straight from Somerset, for a meal at my favorite Rax, which never disappoints. Speaking of, if you happen to be anywhere near the Harlan, Kentucky Rax on Friday November 29, 2019, you can join me in observance of the broken chain holiday of Raxgiving. There will be copious sandwiches, twisty fries, baked potatoes, and the signature Rax Endless Salad Bar. I'm working on some Raxgiving-exclusive giveaways too. You can find more details about the event here.