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!)


  1. You had me at hollandaise! Sounds like there's a lot of pride and care in this restaurant. I'm a breakfast all day kinda girl so this is up my alley. Complete with butter covered cake, because I'm fat.

    1. Embers definitely sounds like your kind of place. As is often the case with all but defunct chains, the last location open is pretty awesome.

  2. A chain with breakfast as the hook that serves real hollandaise? That's shocking, even if that chain is broken!

    I'm finding that for Cracker Barrel, at least, the decline in quality is widely varied by location. The one we go to locally here west of Richmond being vastly superior in quality to the ones along the 95 corridor on our annual Floridian adventures.

    1. I could see that happening. Admittedly, I've only been to one Cracker Barrel in the past three years or so, and it's pretty terrible. Others are likely better.