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. 

...you 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.





8 comments:

  1. I work in a small Southwest Ohio college town. We had a Maid-Rite in Oxford for a hot minute about nine years ago. It came and went so fast I never got to try it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It seems that attempt at expansion was as widespread as it was brief.

      Delete
    2. They (Maid-Rite Diner) made it as far south as Texas, opening a Dallas location in the early 2010s.

      Delete
  2. I'd be on board with Raxgiving if it wasn't a 7 hour drive for me! I'm getting old.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ideally, I'd like to have other Raxgiving-like events in the future. If Raxgiving goes well, maybe the next event like it will be closer to you.

      Delete
  3. Per the vinyl decal, "Fred's loose meat sandwich is still just as popular and delicious as the day he created it!"

    On the day he created it, surely no one knew about it and it was not popular at all? Perhaps this is more true than they know... no, that is too sad.

    I am very happy that you made it out to a Maid-Rite! I'm not sure why but there is something about that sandwich that does look distinctly appetizing. The pale-blue checkered paper and the branded cups are really exceptionally snazzy as well. I must get out west to see what I'm missing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Questionable grammatical choices aside, Maid-Rite is absolutely worth a stop should you ever find yourself in Iowa or nearby territories. Thanks again for the tip.

      Delete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.