Thursday, January 16, 2020

Behind Every Great (Minute) Man...

When I’m out adventuring, and come to think of it, when I’m living my life in general, quirks of my personality motivate me toward a goal of having complete anonymity. It’s a strategy that has lead me, in my capacity as a documentarian of endangered restaurant chains, to write mainly about the food, building, and overall experience associated with a restaurant, and not about the people behind it. Getting to know the owners and employees of a place I write about adds a level of socializing that, when repeated during every restaurant visit, would quickly diminish the level of fun I have in my travels. This blog is my hobby after all, it should be fun. An exchange with the people who run the places I write about would also add a layer of logistics and complexity when planning trips. I’d either have to call places in advance to set up interviews, or try to visit during off-peak times when owners and staff might have time to chat, and that’s assuming they’d even be interested in talking to me in the first place. This desire for anonymity and ease of experiencing surviving locations of mostly defunct restaurant chains has led me to simply showing up, eating, semi-discreetly taking a few pictures, and moving on to write about my experience later. It’s a process I’ve settled into over the past couple of years, and is a contributing factor to my oft-repeated self-criticism that I’m too much of a restaurant critic, and not enough of a historian.

I occasionally find myself with a desire to open a dialog with the people behind the places I write about, in the pursuit of becoming more of a historian than I am. That’s what George Motz, the world-renowned hamburger scholar seems to do when he’s on the road experiencing historic burger joints, but I lack Mr. Motz’s level of fame and I wager that he’s more outgoing than I am In most cases, I’m eager to tell people about my hobby or what I’m doing eating at a near forgotten restaurant in some far-away town, but I’m unsure how to bring it up, so the cycle of anonymity continues. I was mulling all of this over a few weeks ago on the long drive to Arkansas from my Metro Detroit home, but little did I know that my visit to the last operating Minute Man restaurant would break that cycle.

If Frank Lloyd Wright designed a fast food place, it would probably look a lot like Minute Man. 

The first Minuteman opened in Little Rock in 1948 as a 24 hour coffee shop, but the fast food craze of the 1950s, motivated Wes Hall, one of the owners of the Minute Man coffee shop to buy out his partners and convert the restaurant to a fast food concept in 1956. The single location grew to a chain of franchised and company owned locations, peaking around 57 locations in Arkansas and surrounding states sometime in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Hall left the company in 1981, and it slowly shrank to the single location that remains open today in El Dorado, Arkansas. (Locals pronounce “El Dorado” so that it rhymes with “Well, Alfredo,” which rumor has it, is how Ronald Reagan would address his favorite pasta dish. For the non-Americans reading this, “Arkansas” is pronounced like Noah’s big boat and the cutting implement he presumably would have used while building it, “Ark-an’-saw.”)

The view from my table
I found my way to El Dorado on a quiet Friday afternoon, and headed straight to the world’s last surviving Minute Man, which is housed in a low brick building with a midcentury modern flair, sitting diagonally on a lot on Main Street. I parked near the door, and found my way inside where I was greeted by a woman working the only cash register, situated in front of an imposing indoor charcoal grill, a unique feature in the fast food world. She gestured toward the posterior of my car, which sported a Michigan license plate and asked where I was from. When I told her I was visiting from Detroit, she followed up wanting to know what brought me to El Dorado. It was in that instance that my desire to talk about my hobby and silly blog outweighed my desire for anonymity, and I replied that I had driven all the way from The Motor City to eat at Minute Man. I explained my hobby and blog, which seemed to delight the cashier, who I quickly learned was Linda McGoogan, longtime owner of the El Dorado Minute Man. Miss Linda became increasingly inquisitive about my blog and the places I had been, and we chatted about my adventures as she took my order, which included a seemingly Big Boy-inspired Big M burger, a taco, chips and cheese dip, and a drink known as Mexican Punch. Unfortunately, I learned that the El Dorado Minute Man no longer serves the apple and cherry pies associated with the chain, which had the dubious distinction of being among the first restaurant foods to be prepared using a microwave. 

Vintage menu board and an indoor charcoal grill

After ordering, I ran out to my car to retrieve the vintage Minute Man cup gifted to me by Carl Poncherello and some Broken Chains stickers to give to Miss Linda and her lone employee who was preparing my meal. I didn’t catch his name, but he had dark hair and a mustache, and because of that, and the fact that he works in a restaurant with an outgoing woman named Linda, I’ll call him Bob. I headed back in to hand out stickers, and show Miss Linda my cup, which she said predated her 40 year tenure with Minute Man, and before too long, Bob brought my order up to the counter. I was delighted to see my food was placed on a plastic tray that didn’t look much newer than my Minute Man cup. A Minute Man logo had been printed on the tray, likely sometime before my birth. A stack of trays just like it sat on the counter, meaning that the rare fast food artifacts still got regular use. 

Antique tray.
Contemporary food, with my old Minute Man cup

I thanked Bob for preparing and delivering my meal, and dug in, beginning with the taco, which I’m proud to report is my new second favorite fast food taco, second only to Taco Tico. The meat was seasoned with a unique blend that has a complex and slightly spicy flavor profile that’s not unlike pastrami. It was perfectly complemented by the tiny plastic cup of hot sauce served with the taco. The cheese dip, which I later learned is a regional specialty strongly associated with the state of Arkansas, was unlike any other nacho cheese I’ve ever experienced. It was thinner and more orange than the bright yellow stuff that you see at convenience stores and sporting events. Likewise, it was thinner than I expected, just thick enough to coat one of the round tortilla chips it was served with. Also unlike the ubiquitous fluorescent cheese product I’ve encountered in the past, Minute Man’s cheese dip actually tasted like cheese, punctuated by just enough heat to let you know that it’s more than just a generic cheese sauce. The Mexican punch was regular red-flavor fruit punch, which was a welcome, if not distinctive, addition to the meal. I was two bites into the Big M burger when Miss Linda called me over to the counter. She’d called up her business partner, Perry Smith so he could say hello to me. The two of them are in the process of opening three new Minute Man locations spread between Little Rock and Conway, Arkansas. I love a good broken chain comeback story, so I told Perry I’d have to return to Arkansas once the new locations were up and running. The Minute Man Memories Facebook page seems to be a good source for news about the upcoming locations as well as general Minute Man content. 

Almost a month later, and I can't get this taco out of my head.
The Big M, broiled over real charcoal
After speaking to Perry, I returned to my table. As I finished my Big M burger, I found myself craving more of the uniquely seasoned tacos, so I ordered two more from Miss Linda, and made small talk with a couple other patrons, who by that time had overheard my explanation of my silly hobby visiting surviving locations of defunct and diminished restaurant chains. I was simultaneously in my element, experiencing the lone survivor of an otherwise defunct chain, and out of my element as the center of attention for the restaurants staff and other customers, yet I found myself to be oddly comfortable sharing stories of my adventures to interested strangers. The experience afforded me thanks to Miss Linda's warm welcome and keen interest taught me that, at least under near-ideal circumstances, giving up some anonymity and being the center of attention isn’t such a bad thing. It also made me wish I had been a little more open about myself when I met the owners of the last Wiener King and the Lima, Ohio Western Sizzlin. Moving forward, I’ll try and introduce myself to restaurant owners and staff, at least when the situation seems to warrant it.

Miss Linda told me from the window that "Minute Man... Hold!" is how she answers the phone when the restaurant gets busy.

Broken Chains on Facebook

Broken Chains Store

Monday, January 6, 2020

Last Exit to Springfield

So long, dental plan!
Due to an ambitiously planned travel schedule and a few unforeseen circumstances, I drove a total of 5300 miles between December 18th and New Year‘s Day. That’s a lot of windshield time, even for a haggard old road warrior like me, and as a result, I’ve only just recovered after a weekend spent sleeping heavily in between extended naps. The point of all this travel was to visit a handful of far flung restaurants that fit broken chain theme, and I’m happy to report that I’ve dined at enough broken chains to satisfy my blog post and caloric requirements well into February.
Lisa needs braces.
The first stop on my trip was an obligatory lunch at the Joliet, Illinois Rax after a quick jaunt across Michigan and the northwest corner of Indiana on I-94, but somewhere on I-55, which, in Illinois, runs more or less concurrently with what was the famed Route 66, the reality that I was on a bona fide road trip set in. It was therefore fitting that my second stop of the day was at a place designed with road trippers in mind.
Dental plan!

Exit 90 on I-55 on the south side of Springfield, Illinois has the feel of an area that has long been an oasis for travelers. To the west of the interstate stand both a shiny new Road Ranger truck stop and the Route 66 Motorhead’s Bar, Grill, and Museum which operates out of a former Stuckey’s building. Across the interstate stands a collection of chain motels of varying ages, a Cracker Barrel, and a weather beaten barn-shaped sign topped with a blue and white chicken that advertises the similarly barn-shaped Hen House Restaurant that’s tucked between an abandoned Hardee’s and a tired looking Motel 6.
Lisa needs braces.
Hen House restaurants sprung up along the major highways of the American Midwest in the late 1960s back when a rural image was a requirement for selling hot meals to travelers (see also Bob Evans, the aforementioned Cracker Barrel, and Dutch Pantry) and for selling fried chicken (see also Kentucky Fried Chicken, Minnie Pearl’s Chicken, Red Barn, and Country School). The chain peaked at around 42 locations in the early 1980s, but bankruptcy in 1991 forced the company to liquidate. Most locations closed except the handful of franchised Hen House locations in Illinois which remain open today, operating independently. The Springfield Hen House is one of these, and it has outlived the vacant Hardee’s and converted Stuckey’s that occupy the same exit.
Dental plan!
It's just a little guy! (Toyota Avalon for scale.)

I had been meaning to visit a Hen House for a blog post for months and was excited to arrive there late on a Wednesday afternoon. I had only seen pictures of Hen House buildings, and was surprised to find the restaurant that had looked imposing and barn-like in pictures was instead diminutive and decidedly shed-like in person, standing a story and a half tall with a roughly Waffle House-sized footprint.
Lisa needs braces.
Hard wooden seats to keep your mind on your meal. 
I took a seat in the dining room, noting rustic, well-worn wooden tables and booths, and various nonspecific farming tools lining the wall. It immediately reminded me of a scaled-down version of the surviving Dutch Pantry location I visited in West Virginia.
Dental plan!
I studied the menu, and found there was more than fried chicken offered, but in an effort to both pace myself on what would become a grueling fortnight of eating and travel and to order the quintessential Hen House meal, ordered a two piece chicken dinner with coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, and the vegetable of the day, which my server determined was peas after running to the kitchen to confer with the cook. She told me they were out of rolls and offered me hot biscuits instead. I gladly accepted this offer, which sounded like a definitive upgrade. 

A decent plate of food after a long day on the road.

Lisa needs braces

The near antithesis of Horne's biscuits

The coleslaw arrived first, followed by the hot food ten minutes later. I suspected that my chicken had been fried to order and a quick feel for temperature confirmed my suspicion. The leg and thigh that I ordered didn’t quite rise to the level of Maryland Fried Chicken, which still holds the title of best broken chain fried chicken, but with its freshly fried light and crispy breading Hen House is a close second. The coleslaw was creamy and sweet, with a seasoning blend that gave it a curious, but not unpleasant, subtle root beer flavor. The macaroni and cheese was simple in its composition, but had been made from scratch. The peas, on the other hand had the gray-green pallor of canned peas and the uniformly scalding temperature of peas that had been microwaved for slightly too long. Not even a generous dollop of butter could make them palatable. The biscuits which, if not freshly baked, had at least been carefully warmed up in an oven more than made up for the peas, though. Their warm fluffy innards were the perfect vehicle for delivering the contents of the little tubs of apple butter from my table’s jam and jelly caddy to my face.
Dental plan!
The little attic area is probably for storage, but part of me wants to buy a Hen House and live up there while I operate a restaurant downstairs. 

After finishing my meal, I walked past the little display of candy, cheap toys, and T shirts by the door to pay my bill. I must have raised my eyebrows all the way to my receding 30-something-year-old hairline when the cashier told me I owed $18 and change before she realized she had misread the handwritten bill and quickly dropped the amount to something below $10. I thanked her, and adjourned to the parking lot to take more pictures.
Lisa needs braces. 
I was midway across the Motel 6 parking lot next door, attempting to get a picture of the massively tall sign meant to be seen by motorists on I-55 when it occurred to me that the little roadside restaurant that was a destination for me exists as a liminal space for most of its visitors, at least historically.

Signage at the rear of the building, strategically pointed at Motel 6.

Dental plan!

Liminal space is a place or time of transition, what exists between what was and what is next. Roadside restaurants and convenience stores, highway rest areas, waiting rooms, and airports are all examples of physical liminal spaces. They exist not as destinations themselves, but as corridors between destinations as and as such they all tend to provoke a slightly creepy, unsettling feeling in human beings that occupy them.
Lisa needs braces. 

The four surviving Hen House restaurants situated along major interstates have survived decades after the demise of their parent company as liminal spaces, a place for a quick hot lunch while on the road or a decent dinner within walking distance of the motel that’s your creepy, liminal, temporary home between two or more long days of driving. Over the ensuing decades, the businesses that line interstate exits have become increasingly homogeneous and bland, which if anything, increases their unsettling liminality. Places like Hen House on the other hand, have become increasingly rare and novel, and in my opinion are long overdue to become not liminal spaces, but destinations in their own right, whether you’re making a special trip to visit one or, stopping in for a meal on the way to somewhere else, Hen House is a more memorable, and decidedly less liminal than a stop at a national restaurant chain. Just be sure to get biscuits, skip the peas, and make sure your bill is written clearly.
Dental plan!

Lisa needs braces.