|It's more than just a movie, it's a big night out! (clap clap clap)
My recollection about that friendly, but decidedly childish argument got me thinking about Max and Erma’s. Nearly all of the locations near me closed a few years ago. The only one I could recall seeing in business recently was in the Delta terminal at the Detroit Metro Airport. A little research revealed Max and Erma’s is indeed a broken chain. There are 25 locations in operation, more than half of which are in Ohio. The rest are in surrounding states with the exception of two outposts near Virginia Beach, though like all broken chains, Max and Erma’s empire was once much larger.
|Max and Erma's at the airport, because who doesn't love a pre-flight Garbage Burger
Max and Erma’s history began, predictably, with Max and Erma Visconik, who, in 1958, opened a small restaurant bearing their names in a historic building in the German Village neighborhood in central Columbus, Ohio. The mom and pop operation would continue with a single location until the first in a long series of corporate acquisitions in 1972. That was when Max and Erma sold Max and Erma’s to a pair of businessmen who proceeded to turn the charming neighborhood restaurant into a homogeneous corporate chain. Barry Zacks and Todd Barnum, the new Max and Erma in all but name added a new menu of high end “gourmet” burgers at a time when burgers were nearly exclusively thought of as cheap convenience food. They also implemented the then trendy, and now clichéd “Nail a bunch of random crap to the walls.” theme that included a sundae bar that used a claw foot bathtub as a serving table for some reason.
The chain grew slowly but steadily through the '70s, and '80s, but exploded in popularity in the '90s, the golden age of mid-priced theme restaurants. It was around then that the company briefly experimented with franchising, but ultimately decided to keep all locations corporate owned. The highest location count I can find for the chain is 80 circa 2009, but I suspect Max and Erma’s peaked earlier, and with closer to 100 locations, as they once operated as far from Columbus as North Carolina and Kansas, areas where they have no presence today. Trouble came for the chain amid recession in 2008, when the brand was sold to a Pittsburgh-based private equity firm who, in turn, declared bankruptcy a year later. The Max and Erma’s brand then bounced around between owners shedding locations steadily, often closing multiple locations overnight with no notice to employees. A recent wave of closures in 2017 included the original German Village restaurant.
With my curiosity piqued, I found my way to the nearest Max and Erma’s location that did not require me to buy a plane ticket and stand in a security line to dine there, though my journey to that Max and Erma’s did require me to enter a time portal that took me back to the mid 1990s.
The only Max and Erma’s in Michigan that’s not in an airport is located in Clinton Township in the Partridge Creek Mall. Partridge Creek is an anomaly among Michigan malls for myriad reasons, but chief among them is its lack of indoor corridors. While the configuration is common in warmer climates, an outdoor lifestyle center-style mall stands out in a region that regularly receives heavy snowfall and brutal cold. The mall employs portable propane heaters in the winter to keep shoppers comfortable, but no outdoor climate control was necessary during my late August visit.
I made the trek to Partridge Creek on a Sunday evening, expecting the mall to be largely vacant of both retail tenants and shoppers. Upon parking and entering the mall near its MJR theater, I was surprised to see a healthy, vibrant retail space, full of moderate to high end shops and packed with patrons who seemed to be enjoying both the space and the near perfect weather as they milled through the mall’s roofless corridors. There was even a live band performing on a stage at the mall's center court. I travel frequently and often visit malls and other retail spaces, and I can confidently say that this was the largest crowd I’ve seen at any mall outside of the holiday shopping season since my adolescent years wandering around Fayette Mall in Lexington, Kentucky back when it still had a Natural Wonders and long before it’s food court caused a norovirus outbreak. Since the common areas of the mall were technically outdoors, one out of every twenty or so people was enjoying a cigarette as they shopped. It had been even longer since I had seen anyone smoking in a retail space. The combination of visiting a thriving crowded mall where people could smoke freely made me forget about the lack of a roof over my head and took me right back to every shopping trip to Fayette Mall I was dragged along for in the 1990s, despite the fact that Partridge Creek didn’t open until 2007. The illusion continued when I navigated the open-air labyrinth of shops and found my way to the stained glass and stone facade of Max and Erma’s.
|Max and Erma's at Partridge Creek
It was clear Max and Erma’s corporate architecture and interior decor guidelines have not had significant updates since their Clinton-era heyday. The guitars, vintage signs, and giant fiberglass hamburger lining the walls had clearly been dreamed up more than twenty years ago. To complete the illusion, Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge” played over the PA speakers as the hostess showed me to a booth near the door.
|The menu was a single page...
At that point, the ‘90s had taken hold. I could only speak in the vernacular of the time. I replied, "Rad!" When my waitress introduced herself and “Awesome!” after she took my order, which included a Garbage Burger, a hamburger I had not discussed with another human since that conversation with Zeke in 1998.
|I don't recall Pink Shirt Guy dancing under the giant burger, but photos don't lie.
Despite the restaurant being about ¾ full, a surprisingly large crowd for a Sunday evening, my order was delivered to my table in around 10 minutes, and the Garbage Burger stood before my in all of its glory, a marvel that I had subconsciously anticipated beholding for over 20 years. It was impressively presented with the crown of its bun off to the side to showcase the grilled onions and mushrooms, bacon, guacamole and marinara that covered the half pound patty. Steve Urkle would also be glad to know the Garbage Burger was topped with two kinds of cheese. I hadn’t expected the Garbage Burger to be as photogenic as it was, but it was downright gorgeous, and while not as impressive in today’s burger landscape as it might have been during its 1970s debut and 1990’s prime, it’s still unique by virtue of its varied list of toppings.
|Behold the garbagey glory!
I sat the crown of the bun on top of the foodpile below and gave it the customary gentle squish to help ensure the layers adhered. I was immediately greeted by a viridescent annulus of guacamole unnervingly oozing from beneath the bun. I did my best to stuff it back where it came from using the business end of my fork. In an attempt to mitigate the Garbage Burger’s inherent messiness I opted to cut the whole thing in half. I then lifted the less messy appearing half of the refuse sandwich to try a bite. I was greeted with a beefy, mushroomy flavor that completely overwhelmed all of the other toppings, the runniest of which now coated my hands despite my best efforts. I powered through and finished the first half, and then the second, interspersed with bites of fries indistinguishable from their Chili’s or Applebee’s counterparts, all the while struggling to taste the guacamole or marinara that was dripping down my arms and onto my lap.
|Garbage Burger cross section and runoff; Yes I ordered it rare. I like to live dangerously.
|Top your sundae from a tub for reasons.
When my waitress asked if I wanted more fries, I emphatically responded in the affirmative, but waited a few beats before adding a sudden “Psych!” thereby creating an original and hilarious joke. I instead asked to visit the sundae bar. A few minutes later she returned with a square bowl of hand-scooped vanilla ice cream, which I Macarena’d over to the sundae bathtub, which was complete with ceramic tile walls. I loaded up my bowl with Oreo crumbs, whipped cream, hot fudge, and cherries from the sundae bar that was impeccably clean despite a crowd rife with small children. My self-made sundae felt more premium than a similar treat I’d find at a feeding trough buffet thanks to real ice cream forming its fundament instead of the grainy soft serve that’s pushed out the sphincter of an ancient, wheezing machine at my local Ponderosa.
|My sundae, shown here after a couple of bites, as is tradition.
|I wasn't kidding about the jacket. Maybe I'll wear it to Raxgiving dinner.
Partirdge Creek Mall lost one of its anchors when its Carson’s department store closed last year along with all other Bon-Ton owned stores. It’s Nordstrom is set to close in a few weeks. Without the big stores to anchor them, the mall’s smaller in line stores, including Max and Erma’s, are in danger of closing. It’s as though the 90’s are coming to an end all over again, 20 years later, as the specter of the Retail Apocalypse looms Y2K-like, over another endangered mall and an ever-increasingly broken restaurant chain. Without franchisees to continue the brand after the inevitable demise of this and all other Max and Erma’s locations, they’re likely to disappear completely, just as Don Pablo’s has in the year since my visit to one. If you were a fan of Max and Erma’s back in the 90s, or you’re just curious about this and other vanishing restaurant chains, then they’re worth checking out, especially if you’re up to beating Zeke’s two Garbage Burger record.