Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ekelhafte Nostalgie

The year 1957 was a significant one for the Warsaw Pact nations. It was the year the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into space. It was also the year a new East German car, the Trabant debuted and was named in honor of Sputnik’s success. “Trabant” means satellite in German, but it also means companion, and starting in 1957, the Trabant would be a ubiquitous companion to the East German worker for the satellite Earth’s next 32 revolutions around the sun. In fact the Trabant would have the dubious distinction of being East Germany’s most popular car for much of the state’s history. 

The Trabant was never officially sold in the US, but a few found their way here. This 1962-1988 model in Proletarian Beige was on display at a mall in Michigan last year. 

The Trabant was not popular because of its merits, however. The humble automobile was motivated by a two cylinder, two stroke, air cooled engine that required oil to be mixed with the fuel to keep the engine lubricated. That oil would burn as the engine ran, producing thick, noxious exhaust, not due to a mechanical fault, but by design. Thanks to inherent limitations of the rudimentary lubrication system, and the lack of a freewheeling device in the lowest three gears of the transmission, Trabant drivers were forced to shift to neutral or push in the clutch when coasting in any gear other than fourth or risk destroying the engine by starving it of oil. The Trabant’s body was made of “Duroplast” a crude material made of cotton fibers bound together with resin. As a result, a Trabant’s body panels would soften in the rain, and folklore of goats taking bites out of Trabant fenders and doors abounded in the Eastern Bloc. The car’s top speed was just over 60 MPH, a velocity that could be attained in a short 21 seconds of hard acceleration on level ground, perhaps a little quicker downhill. Most Trabants lacked even the most basic features like a fuel gauge or automatically cancelling turn signals. Seat belts were available for front seat passengers only. A humble and mechanically simple West German Volkswagen Beetle appeared advanced, bourgeois, and decadent compared to its proletarian East German contemporary. The Trabant saw few updates for the vast majority of its production run. In fact, Trabants made from 1962 through 1988 are virtually indistinguishable from one another. In spite of all of this, however, the Trabant remained in high demand as long as the Berlin Wall stood. People waited up to 13 years to receive a new Trabant after ordering one, and on the used car market, secondhand Trabants routinely sold for twice as much as brand new ones. In the planned, state-run East German economy, a Trabant was the only car most citizens could feasibly own, and demand for the increasingly archaic vehicles consistently soared beyond the supply that the state-run automotive monopoly could churn out. I couldn’t help but think of the Trabant during a visit to the sole surviving Country School restaurant a few weeks ago

Country School is little more than a footnote in the fast food history books. Fleeting mentions of the brand online allowed me to piece together that the chain was based in Lyons, Illinois, was active in the 1960s and 1970s, and had locations in Ottowa, Macomb, and Rochelle, Illinois, as well as Evansville, Indiana. There were likely other locations as well, though their exact locations may be lost to history at this point. Country School buildings were designed to resemble old fashioned red schoolhouses, and their menu focused heavily on fried chicken, though burgers, and perhaps a few other entrees were also available. The variety of items offered on the menu and not dissimilar corporate architecture make me think that Country School was at least partially influenced by Red Barn, and may have been designed to operate primarily in small towns where they’d be the only fast food, much like Clancy’s and Burger Queen/Druther’s. At some point, the chain disappeared, perhaps due to the slowing 1970s economy or the fact that their main territory was directly in the proverbial back yard of McDonald’s corporate headquarters. Today only the Rochelle, Illinois Country School remains in operation. 

Time for school!

The building in Rochelle looks much as it would have in its heyday, clad in bright red brick, its simple gabled roof topped with a cupola that may have once housed a bell. A fenced in picnic area out front mimics a schoolyard where old-timey children might be seen pushing barrel hoops with sticks or playing marbles, jacks, and tiddlywinks. A prominent sheet metal sign out front mimics the shape of the building and stands on a pole adorned with the ABCs and assorted school supplies. Something that was likely not present during the restaurant’s heyday was the freshly renovated McDonald’s next door, standing alarmingly close to the weathered parking lot of the world’s last Country School. 

Note the vintage "Drive thru service" sign and the menacing golden arches lurking in the background. 

The stop at Country School in Rochelle was my last on a four day 2500 mile trip that took me across the American Midwest, a last-minute addition to my itinerary thanks to a tip from a reader. (Thanks William!) I arrived in town after being routed through a labyrinth of back roads and subdivisions as my GPS struggled to avoid the toll roads that make the small towns of northwestern Illinois feel isolated, despite their proximity to Chicago. It was 11:30 on a Monday morning, and the lunch crowd had already begun to line up in the Country School’s drive-thru lane. Wanting the full Country School experience, I opted to dine in, and walked into the building’s humble, but clean dining room. I studied the expansive menu board, suspecting it had grown over the years to include Windy City specialties like Italian beef and Chicago-style hot dogs, but also no fewer than 25 different burgers, tacos, hand-dipped ice cream, and fried clams. I ordered with authenticity in mind, as I do when circumstances allow, opting for a three piece chicken dinner with two sides, plus a double junior cheeseburger. 

Pleasant, but basic surroundings undermine the overcrowded menu board.

The dining area was on the small side, but didn’t feel cramped thanks to large windows on three of the four walls. Blue trim around the windows and in the corners of the vaulted ceiling along with quality wood chairs helped combat what would have been an institutional appearance otherwise. The inside of the restaurant felt especially spacious because for the duration of my meal, no one else came inside to eat, though the drive thru kept the staff busy. I had pondered my status as the lone indoor diner for no more than five minutes when an employee delivered my order to my table. 

Cremated chicken would fit right in across the street from the last operating Darryl's

Sides straight from the supermarket. 

Basic burger

I am particularly fond of the elusive fast food side dishes that aren’t based on fried potatoes, and I usually opt for baked beans and a scoopable mayonnaise-based salad when available, so I was especially looking forward to the beans and potato salad I had ordered with my chicken. I tried the beans first, and was greeted with the familiar, but not unpleasant taste of Bush’s original flavor baked beans, straight from the can with heat from a stove being the only added ingredient. I didn’t expect them to prepare the beans from scratch, but some added hot sauce or seasoning to set them apart from a cartoon hobo’s meal of choice would have been nice. The potato salad seemed to be of similar origin as it reminded me of every potato salad I’d had from a prepackaged tub from the refrigerated section at a grocery store. I moved onto the chicken, hoping it would be similar to the symphony of herbs and spices at Maryland Fried Chicken that put Colonel Harland Sanders famous 11 to shame, but sadly, the chicken at Country School was on par with the sides. There was no discernible seasoning, in the overcooked breading and the chicken itself was dry and rubbery. The cheeseburger was no better. True to the school theme, it reminded me of the burgers in my elementary school cafeteria. I was baffled.

I pondered my disappointing meal all the way back to Detroit. Had I ordered the wrong thing? I had certainly failed to observe the local custom of ordering from the drive thru and never entering the building. But the sign out front said “Rochelle’s FAVORITE place for chicken.” Surely, chicken was their specialty. And multitude of delectable side dishes should go hand in hand with fried chicken. Plus, with such a burger-heavy menu, one would assume that any Country School burger would be seasoned with the flavor of authenticity. How had this Country School in particular outlived all of the chain’s other locations despite a lackluster menu and a next door neighbor that is an outlet of the world’s second largest fast food chain? It wasn’t until I researched the fast food landscape of Rochelle and the surrounding communities a few weeks later that I was able to develop a hypothesis.

Presently, “Rochelle’s FAVORITE place for chicken” seems to be Rochelle’s ONLY place for fried chicken other than the Walmart deli. The nearest Popeye’s is 15 miles east in Dekalb. The nearest KFC is 20 miles north in Rockford, and the nearest Church’s is a whopping 71 miles away in Maywood, though at that point, I’d rather drive a few more miles to eat at Rax in Joliet if I lived in Rochelle. There has been a Culver’s in town since at least 2007, if not before, but Culver’s phased out its fried chicken chain wide in 2016. Perhaps it was while Culver’s was selling fried chicken in Rochelle, that Country School’s menu expanded to include gyros and pizza puffs in an attempt to increase foot traffic, though I’d suspect the menu grew gradually as Rochelle’s mainstream fast food outlets grew up around the Country School. In any case, the Rochelle Country School has managed to survive, selling an inferior product, thanks in part to public demand for fried chicken and a lack of a viable competitor for much of its existence. Unlike the aforementioned Joliet Rax, which is 200 yards from an Arby’s and the Lima, Ohio Western Sizzlin’ which is across the street from a Golden Corral, I can’t help but think that a well-run Popeye’s or even a KFC opening in Rochelle, would pose a serious existential threat to the Country School, or at the very least force them to add haggis, shabu-shabu, and vindaloo to their menu in an attempt to set themselves apart.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, an attempt was made to modernize the Trabant. The updated vehicle eschewed its quaint two-stroke engine in favor of a newly available Volkswagen-built four cylinder, four stroke unit that no longer required oil to be mixed with the fuel, but the archaic socialist chariot, even enlivened by a decidedly modern capitalist powerplant failed to capture the interest of the car buying public of the newly reunited Deutschland. The warmed-over decades-old spartan design simply couldn’t compete with the slew of modern western vehicles that were suddenly available to a car-starved East German public. Predictably, production of the Trabant soon ended. Over the ensuing decades, however, the Trabant became a symbol of the phenomenon known as Ostalgie. The term is a portmanteau of the German words for “east” (ost) and “nostalgia” (nostalgie) that describes a collective appreciation for the aspects of East German life that ceased to exist following reunification. Today, Trabants enjoy a status as a cult collector car across Europe and even abroad, and function as a window into a bygone chapter in history.

The Rochelle, Illinois Country School manages to embody every chapter of the Trabant’s history simultaneously. Like the Trabant in its Iron Curtain glory days, the last Country School is popular by default while offering an objectively sub-par product. Like the post-reunification Volkswagen-powered Trabant, Country School has made haphazard changes in an attempt to stay modern in a rapidly-changing marketplace. As the Trabant in a modern-day context is an icon of Ostalgie, Country School serves as a local nostalgic symbol, a reminder of a different time. While my meal at the last Country School was far from enjoyable, it was, at least a memorable experience that offered a glimpse into a chapter of history that is otherwise lost. To coin a term in the German tradition of combining words, the unchanged building and exterior signage coupled with the less than stellar cuisine provoke a sense of Grosstalgia, and I think that feeling makes Rochelle’s FAVORITE (only) place for chicken worth seeking out. 

"Lots of space in this mall!"

If you’re up for enjoying objectively good food in an underappreciated historical setting consider joining me a the Harlan, Kentucky Rax for Raxgiving next month. I’ll be there with Broken Chains swag for everyone who attends.

He probably doesn’t need my help, but if you’re interested in Trabants or other oddball vehicles, check out Aging Wheels on YouTube.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

All Size Appetites

People ask me occasionally if I have any plans to visit the last operating Howard Johnson restaurant in Lake George, New York. My answer to them is always a resounding “Not anytime soon.” The reason for this is m my research of the place shows serious deficits in both quality and brand authenticity. It’s longtime manager was unaware of, or indifferent to the nostalgic value the Howard Johnson brand had, and by all indications he failed to capture the essence of the brand in the restaurant he operated. Online reviewers repeatedly cited poor quality food and outrageous prices as complaints about the world’s last HoJo. That manager stepped down last year in order to serve jail time related to sexual harassment of his employees. Since then, there has been little improvement from what I can see.

Customer reviews from the past few months contain complaints about a deteriorating building emitting unpleasant smells, the same poor quality, overpriced food, and a rude staff. I should probably go there and evaluate the place for myself, but the poor reviews and the troubling history of the location have kept me away. For all these reasons, I consider The Howard Johnson restaurant brand dead, despite the single persisting location still using the name to serve food that bears little resemblance to the cuisine that once helped Howard Johnson become the largest restaurant chain in the US.

Even though the restaurant brand is effectively defunct, it hasn’t stopped me from exploring other remnants of the fractured HoJo empire. In the earliest days of this blog, I stayed in an EconoLodge that began life as a Howard Johnson motor lodge with a HoJo restaurant on site. I also spent a night in a former Signature Inn that had been hastily converted to a Howard Johnson hotel. Neither was an especially pleasant experience, but I imagine a meal at the Lake George HoJo would be worse.

Despite the unfortunate demise of of the Howard Johnson restaurant brand, other restaurant concepts launched by Howard Johnson still have operating remnants today, the largest of which seems to be Ground Round. The Howard Johnson company opened the first Ground Round in Massachusetts in 1969, offering both a bar and grill atmosphere and a family dining atmosphere under one roof, but largely separated under that roof. The chain spread quickly across the Northeast and Midwest, and peaked somewhere north of 200 locations. People who grew up with Ground Round will likely have fond memories of shenanigans employed in the day to day operations of the restaurant.

In their 1970s heyday, Ground Round employed a litany of Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag style gimmicks to appeal to families, including showing silent (and not so silent) films and cartoons on a large projection screen in the dining room, though Shakey’s may have done this first. Children would be weighed upon entry to the restaurant and their caretakers would be charged a penny for every pound the child weighed for the child’s meal. Free peanuts were also offered, and guests were invited to toss the empty peanut shells on the floor, not unlike Texas Roadhouse and Logan’s Roadhouse who have been known to employ the same policy off and on.

Ground Round’s fortunes went through the usual ups and downs as they were traded among a slew of corporate parents over the years, but the chain fell apart in earnest when in 2004, American Hospitality, owner of the brand at the time abruptly closed all 59 company owned Ground Round locations shortly before declaring bankruptcy, leaving the owners of the remaining 72 franchised locations to fend for themselves.

The newly disenfranchised franchisees came together to form Independent Owners Cooperative LLC to maintain the integrity and value of the Ground Round brand, much the same way Howard Johnson restaurant franchisees formed Franchise Associates Incorporated decades earlier. Since that time, the Ground Round brand has been losing locations, and is down to only 17 operating restaurants scattered across seven Northeastern and Midwestern states. I found myself in Western Wisconsin at the tail end of a 5 day 2500 mile road trip, and stopped into one of those 17 surviving Ground Rounds for dinner after a long day on the road.

Ground Round's neighbors are the typical strip mall occupants. 

It was just before sundown on a Sunday night when I arrived at the Tomah, Wisconsin Ground Round, which is situated at the end of a strip mall. Predictably, the restaurant was mostly empty, and I was shown to a table on the non-bar side of the restaurant at my request. I took a few minutes to take in the atmosphere of the place. It was dimly lit by a series of can lights and stained glass lamps hanging from the open ceiling. There were no signs of a child weighing station, but a framed peanut bag and framed photos of the Three Stooges and Marx brothers adorning the walls provided subtle nods to the brand’s gimmicky heritage. The wackiness quotient was very low overall. The place had a very generic casual dining vibe. 

Groucho, Karl, and Richard
Subtle nods to history were all over the walls. Why I oughtta...

I turned my attention toward the menu packed with large burgers and other typical casual dining type offerings. There was a problem, though. I wasn’t remotely hungry. I had eaten two meals back to back at the last operating Embers only 3 hours and 180 miles prior, so I couldn’t bring myself to order a burger at Ground Round. Out of a sense of self preservation, I opted to eat light, and when my server came, I ordered the “Lighter portion” of the balsamic chicken from the “Better for you” section of the menu. Yes, I ordered chicken at a place called Ground Round. Yes, I acknowledge I can no longer give Esmeralda Fitzmonster a hard time about ordering chicken the one time I convinced her to go to Rax with me.

Bonus points for the chilled fork.

My meal began with a salad composed mainly of iceberg lettuce served on a square green plate. The salad itself was not terribly impressive, though the fact it was served with a chilled salad fork was novel, if incongruous with the salad’s pedestrian ingredients. When my entree arrived, I couldn’t help but laugh at the presentation, which featured more condiments than actual food. I attribute this to my own limited appetite forcing me to order a light portion, and an overabundance of condiments, rather than stinginess on the part of the restaurant. My plate came loaded with four ramekins containing, a butter sauce and a bruschetta topping for my one small chicken breast, plus, curiously, sour cream and butter for my single scoop mashed potatoes. Where I come from, this stuff gets mixed into mashed potatoes before they’re served, but what do I know? I added the toppings to the chicken so it resembled the picture on the menu a bit more, and mixed in some sour cream with the potatoes. 

You know, some people like food with their condiments, said every dad ever.  

I try to eat a healthy-ish diet when I’m not on the road, and I’ve been known to order this kind of thing at restaurants that I have no intention to write about. As healthy meals go, this one was well-prepared, and tasted fine for what it was. Like present-day Ground Round, it was devoid of gimmicks and served its purpose well. What I needed that night was a light meal that would allow me to get a good night’s sleep for the final leg of my trip the next day, and that’s what I got. Had I ordered the chicken fajita egg rolls, pulled pork-topped Little Piggy Burger, or beef taco flatbread pizza that also appear on the Ground Round menu, and forced them through my digestive tract soon after both an Emberger and a breakfast skillet, I would have had a miserable, sleepless, gastro-intestinal distress-racked night. Instead, I ate light, and I’m thankful that I did. I’m also thankful that Ground Round was able to easily accommodate my requirements. 

Had I not been planning a meal at Ground Round for weeks, I would have skipped dinner entirely that night, but I was traveling on a tight schedule, and this was my one chance at a Ground Round experience. For their part, Ground Round did what the Howard Johnson brand was known for in its heyday, they catered to my specific needs. After a long day on the road overeating, I needed a light meal that could be enjoyed within the walls of a Ground Round, and that’s exactly what I got. The large menu was typical for the casual dining segment, and its wide array of dinner entrees, burgers, sandwiches, appetizers, and desserts means that most anyone who comes in will also get what they need from Ground Round. The almost completely separate bar and dining areas also allows Ground Round customers to get their preferred atmosphere along with their preferred meal, and in that willingness to cater to a diverse clientele, the Howard Johnson DNA shines through in the fading remnant of the Ground Round brand. 

Another subtle nod to history in my home. 

Howard Johnson called itself the Host of the Highways, and like any good host, they took pains to ensure the comfort of guests, whether they were stopping in for a quick scoop of ice cream, a fried clam dinner, or spending a night or two in Howard Johnson hotel. A 1960s vintage Howard Johnson print ad hanging framed on my living room wall brags that they cater to all size appetites, and I’m glad to report that their descendant, Ground Round, endangered as they may be, does exactly the same thing more than half a century later. The surviving franchisees have figured out what works about the brand and what doesn’t and distilled it to a casual dining concept that still upholds the Howard Jonson ethos better than the last restaurant using the Howard Johnson name ever could. I don’t even lament the loss of the silent movies and peanuts. Does anybody really need silent movies and free peanuts when they're dining out? I know I don’t.

(Use the code OLIVE15 at checkout to receive 15% off your order through the end of the year.)

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Better Than the Campfire

In addition to regularly taking long, meandering, wholly unnecessary, road trips to visit operating locations of broken chains, I also keep an eye on restaurant industry news to get a feel for what presently struggling chains may be the broken chains of the future. If there’s one conclusion that I can draw from the news articles that I read, it’s that this is an unfortunate time to be a family restaurant chain. Any full-service, medium to low price restaurant brand that does not serve alcohol seems as likely as not to be struggling these days. Following its second bankruptcy in less than a decade, Perkins is being split from its ailing sister brand, Marie Callender’s, and sold off to the more successful (for now) Huddle House. Steak and Shake is offering up franchises for a paltry $10,000 in a desperate attempt to re-open an ever-increasing list of shuttered locations, and I spent the entirety of last November exploring and discussing the shattered remains of the Big Boy empire. (I plan to do the same this November.) Between the rise of fast casual dining and a growing public distaste for chain restaurants as a whole, places where you can sit down and order a hot meal on the cheap are becoming increasingly rare, at least the ones that are affiliated with a chain. One upper midwestern chain’s decline over the past 20 years served as a harbinger of doom for others of its ilk, but the existence of a single surviving location was a major factor in my decision to drive to Minnesota for the second time in less than a year.

Fridley, Minnesota lies just north of Minneapolis, and is home to the last operating Embers restaurant, the last outlet of a chain that once boasted 30 locations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas. While the Fridley Embers was among the last to be opened, the chain’s first location opened right across town in 1956.

Embers was born of a bromance between Henry Kristal and Carl Birnberg, close friends since childhood, who joined the navy together, and found themselves assigned to different posts. Company lore states that the two exchanged letters complaining about navy food and pining for their respective mothers’ cooking, and wishing for a place where working folk could get a decent hot meal for a reasonable price. Their dream became a reality when they opened their first restaurant on the south side of Minneapolis, and the single location grew to a chain, first in the Twin Cities, and then to the rest of Minnesota and surrounding states, serving up charbroiled Emburgers and hearty breakfasts wherever they set up shop. The chain went through the usual ups and downs over the years, eventually falling onto hard times in the ‘80s and ‘90s, thanks to over-reliance on the breakfast menu and discounts. As we saw with Country Kitchen, breakfast is often the last refuge of a dying family restaurant chain. Newly appointed vice president David Kristal, son of Henry led an initiative to “Rekindle the Embers” in the late ‘90s by offering up inexpensive Embers franchises to established independent restaurants. Multiple sources say his inspiration was Ace Hardware’s business model, but I think a certain Kentucky Colonel and overall-clad, double deck burger-slinging obese child were at least equally influential, as KFC and Big Boy grew their empires in much the same way decades before Embers attempted the same move. It was then that the chain peaked at around 30 locations, and that the Fridley Embers, known as Ricky’s Embers opened for business an early entrant in the final wave of Embers restaurant openings, marked by a series of jokey commercials starring Henry and David Kristal that I highly recommend watching on YouTube.

This article about Ricky’s Embers describes the history of that specific location better than I ever could, but the story in a nutshell is that the owner is the son of an Embers waitress and an Embers janitor who worked his way up to becoming an Embers vice president. His upbringing entrenched in the Embers brand led not only to him becoming not only an Embers franchisee, but the final Embers franchisee, operating Ricky’s Embers, the final Embers which he named for his father.

The world's last operating Embers
It was with this heady backstory in mind that rolled into town on a Sunday afternoon having eaten nothing but donuts and beef jerky from a gas station west of Fargo that morning. Thanks to my upbringing in Kentucky, far from Embers’ operating area, this was to be my first Embers experience, aside from witnessing the brand second hand in the films of Minnesota natives Joel and Ethan Coen who set scenes in both Fargo and A Serious Man inside Embers restaurants (The latter teaches us that Embers is not the forum to discuss legalities, though the former heavily implies Embers is a perfectly acceptable place to discuss illegalities, like the plan for handing off ransom money to the thugs you hired to kidnap your wife in a convoluted scheme.) 

The distinctive vaulted ceiling over the kitchen. Note the kitchen wall's 45 degree orientation to the outer wall on the far left.  
The building housing Ricky’s Embers is unique not only among restaurants but also among Embers locations. If the chain ever had standardized architecture requirements, this location was opened long after they had gone by the wayside. The floor plan of the place was inventive and striking, as the dining room was split into two triangular sections that converge at the entrance. The kitchen is situated in the center of the building with its front walls situated at a 45 degree angle to the exterior walls of the building. A vaulted ceiling mirrored the Zantigo-like roofline of the exterior of the building and converged over the kitchen, which presumably had an open ceiling under the vaulted portion. 

The view from my table, 

After the cashier finished accepting a payment that seemed to be mostly composed of change from one of a throng of elderly patrons, he assumed the role of host and showed me to a booth in the triangular section to the right of the entrance. I read through the menu carefully, and by virtue of my hunger and desire to not repeat the mistake I made 875 miles away at Isaly’s, I decided to order a breakfast skillet to eat at my table, and a to-go Emberger that I would shame-eat in my car immediately after my meal. My opinion of Embers soared well past both Country Kitchen and Lucky Steer when my server asked how I wanted the eggs on my Everything Skillet cooked. I opted for Embers famous coffee cake as my breakfast side, and also took the opportunity to order my to-go Emberger. 

I'd love to have one of these vintage Embers menus in my collection 

The walls were covered with pictures of old locations. I'd like to visit again when it's less busy so I can look at them all. 

I didn’t realize at the time that this particular Embers was only 20 or so years old, and I was struck by the modernness of the decor. Nothing felt dated or tired, which in retrospect makes sense. Framed photos of old Embers locations and old Embers menus lining the walls gave the feeling that the owners have a deep appreciation of the history of the Embers brand, which they surely do given their history. I managed to take a few sneaky photos before my breakfast arrived, and my server told me in a perfect Minnesota Nice accent that she was about to put my to go order in, so it came up fresh just as I was finishing my breakfast. Good thinking, Minnesota Nice Server. 

Broken chain, broken hollandaise. It still tasted great, as did the coffee cake. 

The Everything Skillet lived up to its name thanks to the hash brown-based foodpile being topped with onions, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, ham, bacon, sausage, hollandaise. Even though the delicate emulsion of the hollandaise sauce had separated, it was still the best broken chain breakfast I’d had since Druther’s and Clancy’s. It was easily on par with my beloved Coney Islands back in Detroit. If the skillet was above average, the coffee cake, served warm, was stellar with its airy texture and subtly sweet flavor. I wasn’t sure to do with the scoop of butter that came on top of it. None of the cake’s surfaces seemed conducive to butter spreading, but then again, I don’t eat butter on pancakes either, so maybe I’m the weirdo.
It seriously looked this good as soon as I opened the to-go box. I made zero adjustments before taking this picture.  

True to her word, my server brought out my to-go order along with the bill just as I was finishing up. I then settled my bill with the cashier up front and proceeded to my car. Like most places in the Twin Cities, Ricky’s Embers is immediately adjacent to a Target, and I decided a Target parking lot was as good a place as any to enjoy my first Emberger. I opened the Styrofoam clamshell container to reveal an amazingly perfectly presented burger and fries, with a thick, hand-formed patty brushed in barbecue sauce and flame broiled. The onions seemed to have been grilled as well. I’m generally opposed to flame-grilling meat, subscribing to a Hank Hillian “Taste the meat, not the heat.” philosophy, but I thoroughly enjoyed the Emberger’s smoky flavor, crispy edges and juicy center, though some mustard, or better yet, extra barbecue sauce would have been a welcome addition. On my next visit, when I’m under less pressure to sample as much of the menu as possible, I’ll have to try an Emberger Royal, which is rumored to be the first ever bacon cheeseburger. 

The single-page menu has breakfast on the front, 

lunch and dinner on the back. 

I grew up taking regular family vacations with a father and brother who were picky eaters. No matter where we went, we’d typically end up having dinner at a Bob Evans, Marie Callender’s or Cracker Barrel rather than sampling any local cuisines. These meals are likely partially responsible for my love of chain restaurants and the somewhat contradictory desire to venture to far-away, half forgotten chain restaurants to experience a little local culture that I would have otherwise missed out on. The same vacation meals also gave me an appreciation for the family restaurant where weary travelers or locals who didn’t feel like cooking could sit and be served a well-prepared meal. In addition to Marie Callender’s struggles, Bob Evans has been slowly shedding locations for the past few years, and Cracker Barrel’s largest shareholder is the same holding company that controls Steak and Shake. I’d contend that all of these brands have also exhibited a significant decline in quality over the past 20 years as well. It therefore seems like it’s only a matter of time before the big family restaurant chains disappear to the extent that Embers has over the past 25 years. Hopefully the broken chains of the future will have holdout franchisees as dedicated to their original restaurant concepts as the owners of the last Embers are to theirs. Every defunct restaurant chain deserves to have at least one location holding on to show future generations what their brand was like at its best, and I have no doubt that’s exactly what Ricky’s Embers is.

Another great example of a holdout franchisee running a great outlet of a mostly defunct chain restaurant is the Harlan, Kentucky Rax, where I'll be hosting Raxgiving next month. Consider joining me and your fellow Broken Chains fans for a quintessentially Rax experience. 

(Use the code OLIVE15 at checkout to get 15% off your entire order through the end of the year!)

Friday, October 11, 2019

You've Gotta Know the Territory

"What the heck, you're welcome, join us at the diner...

The first stop on my recent trip across the Midwest was at the Joliet, Illinois Rax which I initially visited and wrote about last summer, for a quick, just for fun, pre-Raxgiving Rax lunch. While enjoying a dessert of salad bar Oreo fluff and strawberry shortcake, I got my phone out to view my route to my next stop, a bootleg Zantigo all the way in Minnesota. I had expected to take I-90 across Wisconsin, but my navigation app instead routed me across Iowa via I-80. Since this unexpected turn of events had occurred under the solarium of the Joliet Rax, I could only conclude that my new route was the result of the divine intervention of Uncle Alligator. I had recently learned from a reader (Thanks Alex!) that the uniquely Iowan restaurant chain, Maid-Rite, had shrunk well past the Cici’s Point and into broken chain territory. This unexpected route change gave me the perfect opportunity to have a Maid-Rite experience. I hastily plotted a route to a Maid-Rite location near the interstate in Davenport, and left Rax, offering up a salad bar crouton to Uncle Alligator as tribute on my way out.

Two hours and one Mississippi River crossing later, I had entered The Hawkeye State, like a modern-day Professor Harold Hill, handsome smooth-talking charlatan that I am, and no sooner had exited the interstate in search of the Maid-Rite that would provide my second lunch of the day. This would be the second Maid-Rite experience of my life. The first was a disappointing stop at the only official Maid-Rite in Ohio, which is attached to a dirty Sunoco station in Piqua. (A formerly-affiliated, presently unofficial Maid-Rite is a beloved institution in Greenville, Ohio.) I was looking forward to a definitively Iowan Maid-Rite experience at what I hoped was a long-standing location. Maid-Rite is, after all, among the oldest surviving American restaurant chains.

Maid-Rite began with Fred Angell, a butcher from Muscatine, Iowa who developed a unique blend of beef cuts and spices, ground to a proprietary texture. In 1926, he opened his first restaurant, selling sandwiches containing his beefy creation, not pressed into patties, but loose, like a sauceless sloppy joe, also known as a tavern sandwich. The single, carry-out only restaurant grew to a chain of franchised sit-down units across Iowa and surrounding states, peaking somewhere around 130 to 150 locations. Angell’s family lost control of the chain in 1984 when Maid-Rite was sold to a pair of business partners, one of whom abruptly backed out of the deal shortly before the other died. A years-long legal battle then ensued as the families of each of the partners fought in court over ownership of the Maid-Rite brand. During that time, a court order prevented new locations from opening, and a lack of corporate organization oversight resulted in a decline in quality and widespread closures. The brand never seemed to fully recover from that era, and today, Maid-Rite is down to 31 operating locations, 20 of which are in Iowa.

The Maid-Rite story as told by vinyl letter decals.
It's hardly Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac, or any of them other highfalutin' Greeks.
The format of surviving Maid-Rite locations seems to vary wildly, with some Maid-Rites operating out of decades-old family-owned restaurants, while others are modern free standing units. Others still, like the one I visited years ago in Ohio, operate out of gas station, strip mall, or food court slots. Had I planned a trip to Maid-Rite more than a couple of hours in advance, I would have attempted to carefully select the Maid-Rite I’d be visiting, ensuring that it best exemplified both the history and the current state of the brand. Instead, I chose the closest location to I-80 in Davenport.

Back in Davenport, I was proceeding up the street in a suburban commercial area. As I approached the location where my GPS said the Maid-Rite would be, I eagerly scanned the horizon for the telltale stop sign of the Maid-Rite logo, which confusingly, never seemed to appear. As I arrived at the promised Maid-Rite location, I found only a Family Video. Something wasn’t right. I pulled into the Family Video lot to study the GPS screen more closely, and suddenly I saw it.

The Glenview, Illinois-based Family Video operates over 500 video rental stores in the U.S. and Canada. Thanks to low corporate overhead, and some savvy business moves, they outlived Blockbuster to become the largest video rental chain in North America. One of Family Video’s many strategies that has allowed them to remain in business nearly a decade into the streaming era is leasing out subdivided retail space in their stores to other businesses. It’s not uncommon to see a hair salon, gym, or a pizza joint occupying space under the green metal roof of a Family Video store. Just off I-80 in Davenport Iowa, one corner of an operating Family Video building houses a Maid-Rite location. Upon discovering this, my first impulse was to look for other Maid Rite locations in the area that might be a bit more Maid-Riteish, but I ultimately decided to eat at the Family Video Maid-Rite. It was simply too weird to pass up. 

Cash for the movie rental, cash for the loosemeat, cash for the crinkle fries, cash for the CBD

Family Video with a capital V, and that doesn't rhyme with M, and that stands for Maid-Rite
Giant food! don't you understand?
Friend, either you're closing your eyes
To a situation you do now wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
By the presence of giant food in your community.

They'll be trying out Grapette, trying out Mil-Kay, trying out IBC and Hires like root beer fiends! Well, I should say!

Once I was inside the restaurant, I quickly forgot that I was in a Family Video building In fact, it barely even seemed like I was in a chain restaurant. The dining room was completely separate from the video store and lacked the generic corporate feel of a place affiliated with a chain that still has an active corporate structure. Instead, the atmosphere of the place felt like an independent sit-down diner, what my neighbors in Metro Detroit would call a “Coney Island” for reasons I’ve never fully understood. There were servers waiting on tables, vintage advertising signs on the walls, and faux vintage red vinyl chairs at each table with matching stools at the counter, the black and white checkerboard tile floor completed the trifecta of generic, independent faux-retro diner decor, though a massive three-dimensional rendering of Maid Rite sandwich on the wall provided a unique counterpoint to the cliched decor. A little research after the fact revealed that this particular Maid-Rite was owned by a franchisee who operates five locations billed as Maid-Rite Diners, offering the classic Maid-Rite sandwiches plus an expanded menu of breakfast and lunch diner food. There were even several conventional patty-based burgers on the menu. can eat your fill of all the food that you buy yourself."

I had little interest in the expanded diner menu, and when my server asked for my order, I ordered up an original Maid-Rite with the default mustard, pickle, and onion along with fries. It was mid-afternoon on a weekday, and the place wasn’t terribly busy, so my order arrived quickly. The Maid-Rite sandwich tasted different from the one I remember eating in Ohio a few years previous. The Ohio Maid-Rite had a mild, almost sweet flavor, while the one I was eating in Iowa tasted more bold and beefy. It’s entirely possible that I am remembering the flavor of the Ohio Maid-Rite incorrectly, but it seems at least equally likely that two locations of a diminished, not terribly well-organized chain that are hundreds of miles apart may be using different recipes and preparation methods for a signature product. (That certainly seems to be the case with Taco Tico.) At any rate, the Maid-Rite not quite burger, not quite sloppy joe tasted great. The soft, steamed bun was topped with the perfect amount of meat to compensate for the bit that that inevitably spilled out the bottom, and the toppings complemented the aptly named loose meat without overpowering it. Future trips I make across Iowa will from now on, include at least one Maid-Rite stop. The fries were generic crinkle cuts, but had a slightly olive-ish aftertasted, as if they had been fried in olive oil, but that may have been a hallucination on my part, as I was still recovering from the initial surprise at the prospect of having lunch at Family Video. 

76 French Fries were in my lunch today... 

...with (at least) 110 beefy pebbles close at hand... 

...and with a spoon, in place to help me stuff my face, and save me from using my bare hands!

Seeing that branded to-go cups were available, I asked for a to-go refill of my Diet Dew as well as a chocolate shake for the road, thus ensuring that I, and my cup-collecting pal, Carl Poncherello of Roney’s fame, would each have a Maid-Rite cup to add to our respective collections. The shake was blended to order, but appeared to be based on soft serve ice cream from a machine to which milk and syrup were added. Regardless, it was a perfectly acceptable shake, tasting smooth, yet homemade, without the telltale icy chunks that are often part of shakes blended from scooped ice cream.
The cup on the left gave me a bit of a fright when I got it home...
 I almost shipoopi'd myself!
I continued westward with those, and other cups I had collected along the way on a trip that took me all the way to North Dakota, only washing them out when I returned home a few days later. When I went to wash the Maid-Rite cup that had contained my chocolate shake, I was greeted by a very angry spider inside the cup, the diameter of whose body was a good deal larger than the X-shaped straw opening on the lid that had been in place since Davenport. I can come up with two, roughly equally distasteful explanations for how the spider got there. Either, it was the sole survivor of a milkshake full of Iowa spiders that I had ingested but failed to notice while careening down I-80, or that my car is infested with magical spiders capable of teleportation in and out of sealed vessels. Just to be safe, I’ll plan on avoiding Maid-Rite shakes in the future and enlisting the services of an automotive exterminator/exorcist to ensure my vehicle remains free of enchanted arachnids. I’m not sure what I am meant to learn by encountering a live spider in my milkshake cup, but I suppose Uncle Alligator works in mysterious ways. 

Goodnight my sandwich, goodnight my love. 

If you’re free the day after American Thanksgiving this year and you’ll be within a reasonable distance from the wilds of southeastern Kentucky, consider joining me for Raxgiving at the Harlan, Kentucky Rax where we will dine together under the benevolent gaze of Uncle Alligator.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Zapata Zigs to Zantigo, Zags to Zanz

Author's note: I wrote this post in a more innocent time. I made reference to a Z entity, itself a reference to the Q entity from Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the intervening years, the letters Q and Z have become symbols of nefarious political movements, both of which I emphatically condemn. Please understand that the use of letters is not meant as a sign of support for those political movements. My intent was only to reference Star Trek. I wonder how Sesame Street is dealing with this problem. -Zap Actionsdower March 24, 2022. 

Late last year, I took a tour of a few different locations in Minnesota that fit the Broken Chains theme. The trip resulted in a tiny narrative about the Bonanza in St. Cloud and a full post about the last operating Happy Chef restaurant in Mankato, but the stop I made at a recently re-opened Zantigo in St. Paul was my favorite of the trip, thanks chiefly to Zantigo's connection to a family anecdote I grew up hearing. My meal at the St. Paul Zantigo resulted in a blog post that erroneously assumed that anything remotely resembling Zantigo did not exist after Pepsico's acquisition and phase-out of the brand in the mid-80s, and before the brand's revival in the '90s by former Zantigo Manager Don Kaelble. I even went so far as to lament the "dark Zantigo-less years"of the late '80s and early '90s. I should have known better.

If there's one thing that I've learned in tracking down experiences to write about here, it's that in the chain restaurant world, it's not at all unusual for a franchisee or two of an ostensibly defunct chain to remain in business decades after their corporate parent fades away. Often, those holdout franchisees acquire the rights to the brand, as is the case with chains like Rax and Dog 'n Suds. In other cases, holdout franchisees change the names of their restaurants and menu items, but carry on as they always have. I've visited two different former Burger Chefs that have done just that, and I have a lead on a third. It was therefore not surprising when I learned that Zantigo had never fully disappeared.

After uploading that initial Zantigo post, I continued having my silly adventures and writing sillier narratives about them until I was stopped in my tracks, as if contained by some manner of Roddenberrian forcefield grid. An entity known only as “Z” commented on my Zantigo post and informed me of Zanz, a former Zantigo that had been in continuous operation in Mankato, Minnesota since the early 1970’s, back when Zantigo was called Zapata. Starting in the late '80s the Mankato Zantigo became Zanz after PepsiCo phased out the Zantigo brand, and Zanz had functioned as a Zantigo in all but name ever since. Upon learning this, time seemed to freeze all around me, and could only be unfrozen by a visit to Zanz. At least that's what the Z-Entity told me as it shape-shifted and taunted me. I had little choice but to drive the 700 miles back to Minnesota for the second time in less than a year so I could appease both the Z-Entity and my curiosity about Zanz.

Not your typical Zantigo building
It was after sundown when I arrived, road-weary and hungry. The sun-faded taco on the backlit plastic sign below glowing red letters spelling out ZANZ marked the end of my journey. The name, "Zanz" was different enough from Zantigo to keep the lawyers placated, but similar enough to let the general public know what they could find inside. I walked across the parking lot, under the building's long canopy that hinted to its past life as a drive-in, and into the building's small dining room.

Interior dining area, note the unique light fixture. 

I had my doubts about how authentic of a Zantigo experience I could expect at Zanz, since the building was not a standard example of Zantigo's corporate architecture. It had clearly been converted to a Zapata from something else before it became Zantigo, and finally Zanz. From the outside, the building lacked the stucco walls, arched windows, and tall wedge that made its estranged cousin in St. Paul look the part of an authentic vintage Zantigo building, but once I was inside, those doubts melted away like shredded cheddar in a Chilito. Every flat surface was covered in terra cotta, Spanish tile, woodgrain, or gold formica. Tall, amber-tinted light fixtures hung over every booth, and while the panels in the menu board were modern, they had what I took to be its original frame. It was the vintage Zantigo interior I had hoped for, in vain, in St. Paul. In fact, Zanz seemed to occupy the opposite end of the Zantigo spectrum from its Twin Cities counterpart.

This chain restaurant blog is quickly becoming a tile blog. 

The St. Paul Zantigo, was clearly a purpose-built Zantigo building, but it had been updated extensively, inside and outside to suit a modern aesthetic. The color and decor in St. Paul were decidedly modern, and the old backlit menu board had given way to modern flatscreen monitors. (These updates were likely a necessity, as the St. Paul Zantigo was a Taco Bell for many years before it reverted back to a Zantigo location, and it was likely extensively remodeled during the Taco Bell era.) The interior at Zanz, on the other hand, was a perfectly preserved 1970s time capsule, quite possibly the most complete Zapta/Zantigo interior left in existence. If the St. Paul Zantigo, and the other locations around the Twin Cities are representative of the modern Zantigo brand, Zanz serves as an unofficial reminder of the brand's heritage.

Hey, remember when this tile blog was about chain restaurants?

My plan was to compare and contrast the Zantigo and Zanz experiences further by ordering the exact same thing at Zanz as I had at Zantigo. When the cashier nodded me over, I started with the same mild Chilito and chips and cheese I'd had in St. Paul, but panicked slightly when I could not find a Taco Deluxe on the menu. Thinking on my feet, I ordered a taco burrito instead, and took a seat to await my order, and ponder the difference in menu, and the nature of Americanized Mexican food in general.

Despite them being modern, the panels of the menu board have a vintage feel. 

Multiple sources state that during the modern Zantigo revival era, Don Kaelble and company made a few additions to the Zantigo menu. I suspect the Taco Deluxe, a hard shell taco inside a softshell tortilla with a layer of refried bean adhesive was one of these additions, likely made to compete with the similar Taco Bravo from Taco John's and the recently discontinued Double Decker Taco at Taco Bell. I suspect no such menu item existed in the first wave Zapata/Zantigo era during the 1970s and '80s, and that the addition to the menu was never made at the independently operated Zanz. While I was slightly disappointed not to find a Taco Deluxe on the menu, I was excited to try a Taco Burrito.

The wrapper is twisted at the end of the Chilito, just as it is at Zantigo.

Longtime readers know I'm a massive fan of a Mexican fast food chain known as Taco Tico, which, like Zantigo, has Midwestern origins and also like Zantigo, was founded by someone who was not even remotely Mexican. Taco Tico has their own version of a Taco Burrito, that is, a burrito shell stuffed with fast food taco ingredients, known as a Sancho. The abscence of a Taco Deluxe at Zanz afforded me the opportunity to try what I took to be Zantigo's equivalent of the Taco Tico Sancho, apparently a staple of Midwest-Mex cuisine.

Zanz Chlito cross section. Ignore my ugly hand. 

I started with the most easily replicable menu item, the chips and cheese, and found like at Zantigo, they consisted of white corn tortilla chips under a layer of shredded cheddar jack, microwaved to form a melty blanket atop the simple, yet delicious appetizer. I then moved onto the Chilito, which had failed to thrill me in St. Paul. It's unofficial counterpart in Mankato, however was more to my taste. Perhaps it was a different tortilla, was a bit more generously filled with the chili-like Chilito sauce, or maybe my previous experience helped me manage my expectations, but at any rate, I enjoyed Zanz bootleg Chilito a bit more than the official Chilito I'd eaten in St. Paul, even if the flavor of the filling was nearly identical.

Taco Burrito cross section

I then moved onto the Taco Burrito, which I unwrapped to find was little teapot-like, short and stout, compared to the long and slender Sancho at Taco Tico. A couple bites revealed the meat inside to be identical in flavor to the taco meat I'd had in the Deluxe Taco at Zantigo the previous winter, and a generous layer of shredded cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion, provided a nice contrast to the warm beef. It's clearly a menu item best eaten fresh before homeostasis renders the fillings uniformly lukewarm, but it was delightful, if ephemeral.

I stopped by on my way out of town the next morning for more exterior photos. I think that's a Signtronix sign? Can any sign aficionados confirm? 

Having experienced the extremes of the Zantigo brand, it's tough to say which I enjoyed more. While inarguably similar, the modern Zantigo and the vintage and unofficial Zanz occupy two distinct places in my mind. Zantigo, a brand saved from the brink of obscurity and given new life has all the trappings of a modern fast food chain, yet is distinctively different from both the Taco Bells and Chipotles of the world, clearly a viable competitor in the quick serve Mexican segment, with what I hope is a bright future in the Twin Cities and beyond. Zanz, on the other hand feels like the combination of a beloved local mom and pop, which it essentially is, with a connection to both an endangered brand and a bygone era of fast food. It lacks modernity in every aspect where Zantigo has heaps of it. If Zantigo is a modern fast food chain, then Zanz is the working fast food museum that I love to stumble upon. I'm immensely grateful to the Z-Entity for alerting me to its existence, as I am to everyone who sends me tips about places I should check out. If you're reading this, and have a broken chain location in mind that I've not yet visited. Don't be shy. Comment below, email me, message my Facebook page, or slide into my Instagram DMs. I'd love to hear about your favorite surviving location of an endangered or defunct brand, and maybe even visit it and compare you to a recurring Star Trek character.

Or if you're in the mood to travel to a remote town in Eastern Kentucky on a busy holiday weekend, you can tell me all about your favorite place on November 29th at the Harlan Kentucky Rax, where I'll be hosting Raxgiving 2019. I'll be around to hand out free Broken Chains stickers, along with another surprise or two while we enjoy a meal at my favorite Rax.