Monday, June 14, 2021

Biff Inquiry: Failed Fortunes

Hi Everybody! Zap here. Today's Broken Chains post was written by a guest author. My new pal Peter was nice enough to visit the last location of the old Biff-Burger chain that still uses the Biff-Burger name. His account of his visit is below:



No matter how long you park your carcass in a given locale, chances are pretty good there’s a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. It might be a patch of greenspace, a historical monument, a parking lot from where the sunsets are given an unreasonably pretty view. Having lived in the greater Tampa Bay area for longer than I’d like to admit, I find myself pleasantly surprised time and time again by something I’ve been overlooking until a chance encounter.

Thus, when I hear from Zap Actionsdower that a building I’ve passed by perhaps hundreds of times is one of the final remnants of a chain that’s been largely forgotten to the ravages of time and expanding multinational corporate dominance in fast food, I make a plan to find out what it’s all about. When I finally roll into the Biff-Burger in St. Petersburg (3939 49th St N) on an early Wednesday evening*, I have certain expectations. Logically, I know expectations are often impossible to meet, but I hold them anyway.


I can’t say with any certainty what this particular Biff-Burger was like when it first opened. A requisite archival search of the local papers doesn’t seem to note its establishment, though it’s hard to be surprised that a burger stand opening in an era where such fares were common wouldn’t have warranted even a passing mention. Given that the chain was founded locally and eventually covered perhaps hundreds of locations, it wouldn’t have been anything special then.

The beautiful, angular “Biff-Burger” sign, dated by the font every bit as much as its shape and complete with an old-style marquee, still peers out over 49th Ave N. The facade could probably use a good cleaning and a paint touchup, but even a newer, completely mismatched and haphazardly mounted sign beneath it (proclaiming a “World Famous Biff Burger” — where’s the dash between “Biff” and “Burger”?) fails to dampen its charm and splendor. There’s a feeling that it must have been meticulously maintained for quite some time, though possibly not recently (as hinted at by the vegetation growing out of it).

The original building (or, at least, what I believe must be the original building) is intact. The lovely red, white, and blue diamond-festooned gable is as inviting as any feature I can recall for a burger joint and it hints at what one must hope would be an era-appropriate interior. It’s underlined by a red and white metal awning. Judging by the pictures on the Biff-Burger.com website, the building appears to have once been Biff-Burger’s “Port-A-Unit” from the early 60’s, pretty heavily modified over time to create enclosed space. Looking rightward reveals the results of what must have felt like an inexorable march of long-term changes: an enclosed dining room (that is likely not actually part of the original building; I’m no architectural or interior design expert, but it feels different than the rest of the building); a covered porch dining area; a long, covered bar that incorporates a line of palm trees into the corrugated metal awning; and another small free-standing building that advertises the “other” dining feature: Buffy’s Bar-B-Que & Catering (topped with a kitschy-in-a-good-way replica of a “57 Chevy”). My interest in making this journey isn’t in the bar, the bar-b-que, or in the myriad of possibly interesting architectural tales and bespoke design decisions of the property, however. I’m after a straight-forward burger experience.



Immediately opposite the front door, the counter presents a variety of mixed visuals. The old-school menu board behind the counter is superseded and obscured by newer LCD menu boards. An assortment of awards and clippings from newspapers about the quality of their burgers is scattered about, taped on various windows or propped up on random surfaces; perhaps worryingly, none of these kudos seem to be any newer than about 5 years ago. Next to the door, making a surprise appearance, is an old-school cigarette vending machine, and I certainly cannot recall the last time I’ve seen that. Seen in the kitchen through the countertop windows is the usual assortment of implements: deep fryers, flat tops, etc. Unfortunately, the location of the “Roto-Broiler” that is considered to be Biff-Burger’s signature cooking apparatus isn’t immediately obvious. 


I have plenty of time to pursue the menu: There is a single person tending to the entirety of the kitchen and (as I eventually find out) two wait staff patrolling the bar. Although there are few patrons inside, a steady stream of drivers from food delivery services and the handful of people ordering outside at the bar mean I am left standing at the counter for at least 10 minutes before one of the wait staff is able to come in and take my order. Perhaps it would be easier for me to join the bar patrons as they eagerly engage in karaoke (to paraphrase from Citizen Kane: Their singing, happily, is no concern of this department), but avoiding groups has become my default over the last 16 months or so, and I am in no mood to change that this day.
The interior dining area appears to be enclosed from the once-open overhang of the building. The booths (and they’re all booths in this area) are a mixture of faux-wood veneer along with orange and yellow laminate that to me suggests they were installed somewhere in the late 70’s or early 80’s. The kitsch adorning the walls might be excessive in another setting, but seem rather natural given the already crowded environs. A number of the tabletops include signs requesting patrons not sit there, even though all mandatory COVID-related restrictions have been lifted by the state government. You could imagine that Biff-Burger’s management has decided to retain some of those for the sake of their customers, but given the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of the tables, I’d posit that it’s equally as likely they have forgotten that those signs are still there, or just can’t be bothered to take the time to remove them.


Looking to remain close to Biff-Burger’s roots, I order a “Cheese Biff Deluxe” (the “Deluxe” indicating the addition of lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, pickle, and onion), making it a platter with the addition of either fries or tots as well as a side of either beans or slaw (I choose the tots and the slaw, pretending for a moment that the inclusion of vegetables in the slaw somehow makes this entire endeavor slightly less unhealthy). I round this out with my usual beverage of choice: an unsweetened iced tea**. Several minutes later, I am summoned back to the counter to pick up my meal (table service appears to be reserved for patrons outside at the bar).


To say that I am underwhelmed by the presentation would be a mild rebuke, and I am willing to attribute that to the presence of only that single person tending the entirety of the food preparation line. It is possible, of course, that the taste might belie the lackluster appearance of the not-entirely-clean plastic serving tray and the handful of not-entirely-unsticky ketchup packets. After all, who among us hasn’t had something absolutely incredible from a greasy diner, or at least a better than expected sandwich from an otherwise unremarkable fast food joint? I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt.


Unfortunately, that’s where the graciousness allowed by the otherwise nostalgic or understandable deficiencies comes to an end. The food, simply put, is not good. The patty on the Cheese Biff is probably about 2 oz. of overcooked charcoal. The so-called “Biff Sauce” that such burgers are supposedly dipped in after cooking does nothing to restore any moistness. If I had to venture a reason for this, I’d guess it’s that the Roto-Broiler is calibrated to cook the bigger patties used in the larger, specialty burgers, and these smaller patties simply don’t stand a chance. The tater tots, while seemingly cooked for an appropriate amount of time (though I might prefer them to be a bit crispier) are cooked in oil that may be stretched out approximately three changes too long. The coleslaw is simply tasteless generic mayonnaise with cabbage for texture. It is among the most disappointing fast food experiences I can recall; that’s a low bar to hurdle, too. The BIFF (“Best in Fast Food”) in Biff-Burger, alas, turns out to be a DIFF.
However, just like there may be something to Jerry Lewis’ purported popularity in France, maybe there’s something here I’m simply missing. Biff-Burger hosts what seems to be regular bike nights and classic car shows, which I’m led to believe are quite popular. Their specialty burgers might be a step above, and these smaller, classic burgers may still be on the menu only for the sake of maintaining expectations; what’s Biff-Burger without a “Cheese Biff Deluxe”, after all? Perhaps that solitary employee running the kitchen all by themself is as stressed and overworked as so many of us, and just isn’t able to put their best effort forward on this particular day.

St. Petersburg is awash in high-end burger options among the multitude of great dining experiences — both high-end and low-brow — in the city’s relatively recent emergence as a food center. If you want buzzwords around your “sandwich consisting of one or more cooked patties of ground beef inside a sliced bread roll or bun” like “wagyu”, “prime”, “akaushi”, “artisanal”, I promise you don’t have to go far around here to get it. If you want recommendations, I’ll give you several within a 15-minute drive of Biff-Burger. At the same time, I want to give Biff-Burger another chance. In part, it’s because I desperately want to see classic and under-appreciated brands like this succeed. I believe there’s a place in this scene for a straight-forward, unpretentious burger joint. I am, however, going to wait for a time when they’re hopefully better-staffed and recovered from the pandemic-influenced stupor so many of us are only now starting to emerge from. Just to be safe, though, I think I’ll check their inspection record before I try the next time.


*Truth be told, I’ve actually been to Biff-Burger once before, in a possibly ill-advised intra-pandemic visit that was, frankly, unmemorable. Whether this is due to the stress and anxiety of the time or rather due to my own usual faulty memory, I cannot adequately express.

**Whereas carbonated soft drinks are largely uniform in flavor across establishments that serve the same products (e.g., a fountain Coca-Cola from Wendy’s should taste the same as one from McDonald’s, etc.), iced tea can actually tell a diner something about the restaurant: Is it over-brewed? Has it been sitting too long? Is it brewed on-site or is it an instant or fountain abomination like Nestea?


Thanks Peter! 

If you, the reader, liked this post, be sure to check out Peter's podcast, Diggin' With Peter, at this link or on your favorite podcatcher. -Zap

3 comments:

  1. Thanks Peter. Zap's mom, Judy, here. I am of the vintage when I encountered Tampa and St. Pete Biff Burgers when they were brand spakin' new during my 1960s visits to my Florida cousins. I still recall the novel taste of the char buyers, salty fries dipped in an icy vanilla milkshake. The stand was open to the parking lot festooned with concrete tables with inlaid broken pastel tiles and metal umbrellas which cast only slightly more shade than the young palm trees which fascinated a 7 year old Buckeye girl. Haven't found another flavor/atmosphere adventure like it since. Gone like Lowry Park, I guess.Thanks for your vivid account. One can hope for a revived Biff somewhere over the rainbow.

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  2. As a St Petersburg native I had thought about submitting Biff Burger for review by Broken Chains, knowing only from family Recollections that there were once many more Biff Burger restaurants located throughout Florida and the southeast.
    So I'm excited to see it reviewed on your channel, even if not by Zap himself.
    Biff burger has been known to host car and motorcycle rallies for as long as I can remember. Growing up it wasn't my parents kind of vibe, so we never went there, but I remember many times passing by when I was growing up and seeing the crowd outside.

    I finally visited Biff Burger about 10 years ago when I moved back to the area. I was impressed with the Vintage decor and I'm glad to see that most of it is still intact judging by the photos in this post. I liked my meal, but I haven't been back because I'm not often on that side of town.

    I've heard that the restaurant is under different ownership now, and recent reviews say that the food is not as good as it used to be. Which is unfortunate, because I want them to succeed as well. I do hope to go back someday.

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  3. While I hate that the meal was nothing to write home about (even though I suppose you still did!), I thoroughly enjoyed the post. Very nicely done and well written, Peter.

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