Friday, June 18, 2021

Kenney's: Entirely Non-Negative Enjoyment of Yesterday's Sauce



The disappointment of travelling to a surviving location of a broken chain to find it neglected, mismanaged, and going through the motions, barely paying lip service to its original brand and heritage is a pain I know all too well having witnessed the last gasp of Red Barn at its final location in Racine, Wisconsin, which has since closed. I therefore felt a nontrivial amount of guilt for sending Peter to the last location still using the Biff-Burger name where he struggled to find any redeeming qualities. (He outlined his experience at Biff-Burger in the previous Broken Chains post.) There were once 133 Biff-Burger locations, and thankfully, the one he visited in St. Petersburg isn’t exactly the last. While Peter was in Florida visiting Biff-Burger, I was in Virginia experiencing Kenney’s. 

In the fast food gold rush of the 1950’s new, regional burger chains were signing up new franchisees en masse. Those newly minted entrepreneurs quickly scrambled to build and open new locations, seeking their own piece of the burgeoning fast food market. Bill Kenney was one such franchisee, operating several Biff-Burger locations in Virginia starting in 1958. Kenney worked with architects to develop distinct building styles for his Biff Burger locations that included indoor dining, something many of the early locations of the Florida-based chain lacked. Mr. Kenney’s independent spirit would lead him to sever ties with Biff-Burger in the early 1960s starting a new chain, Kenney’s, in the process, first consisting of his old Biff Burger locations, but growing to include new purpose-built Kenney’s restaurants eventually totaling 28 locations in Virginia and West Virginia. Kenney’s menu included the sauce-coated burgers from the Biff-Burger days but also expanded to include fried chicken and the requisite side dishes. Most Kenney’s locations (and coincidentally, most Biff-Burger locations) closed in the 1980’s, but three independently owned Kenney’s locations remain open in Lynchburg, Buena Vista, and Lexington, Virginia today. This makes the Biff-Burger-descended Kenney’s unique, being a broken chain begotten by another broken chain. 

With limited time and plans to visit Beef Burger, another Biff-Burger descendant in North Carolina, the following day, I elected to visit the Lexington, Virginia Kenney’s for my only Kenney’s meal on my recent trip through the various Virginias and Carolinas. I picked this location, as it’s the only surviving Kenney’s that is both a former Biff-Burger and is an example of Bill Kenney’s unique wide A frame building design. 


A simple, yet unique fast food facade

A dense gray fog and an unseasonable chill had been following my route since that morning, and the aura of dread and despair it had cast over my breakfast at Friendly’s had given way to a sense of otherworldly mystery as I navigated the surface streets of Lexington, Virginia. Having grown up in and around Lexington, Kentucky, I couldn’t help but think I was in a strange, parallel Lexington where horses ride jockeys and intramural curling, not college basketball, is the spectator sport of choice. The unyielding fog and my flight of fancy dreaming up the bizzaro location of my childhood hometown caused me to miss the turn to Kenney’s not once, but twice, but in my defense, the fact that the Lexington Kenney’s is located at the edge of a residential neighborhood, situated atop a hill on a poorly-marked dead end street, and completely obscured by a used car lot may have also contributed to my navigational mishaps. If one were prone to hyperbole, one might erroneously conclude that it is comparatively simple for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an outsider to find the Lexington, Virginia Kenney’s.

A charmingly dated order counter, complete with a Biff-Burger-era diamond pattern

Once I had managed to point my vehicle in the right direction and ascend the narrow road leading up the hill to Kenney’s, I felt as if I had stumbled upon a secret spot I wasn’t meant to find. A single converted Biff-Burger sign faded and weathered by decades of sun, rain, and fog at the edge of the parking lot confirmed the Lexington Kenney’s was at the end of its bent white arrow that had once been covered in blinking light bulbs. The green and white color scheme of the tired old Biff-Burger sign in Kenney’s drag was echoed by the gently sloping roofline of the building’s facade, formed by two walls consisting almost entirely of windows meeting at an angle somewhere north of 170 degrees, but south of 180. It was a striking design, perhaps more so than it was 60 years ago when it was new. I parked my Michigan-plated car amid a sea of Virginia plates, and walked in one of the two exterior doorways which I correctly guessed to be the entrance. I was trying my best to not look like what I was, an outsider, and worse, a tourist there to gawk at the local fast food anachronism. 

A shibboleth adorned with Pepsi logos

The yellowed plastic menu board hanging above the order counter posed the most significant challenge to my efforts to blend in among the alternate universe Lexingtonians. My plan was to order Kenney’s version of a Biff-Burger with a patty dipped in a distinctive red sauce just before it was placed on its bun, but what appeared to be the burger section of the menu consisted of the following items:

-BURGER

-SMO

-LTM

-DK

-BK

-SWISS

I began to look around frantically to determine what this curious shorthand might have meant, thankful that the staff were otherwise occupied and hadn’t not yet asked me for my order, and asking them what a “smo” was would surely out me as someone not from around those parts. My eyes finally settled on a series of chalkboards situated atop the left side of the old painted cinder block order counter. Thankfully, they contained nicely written descriptions of each of the inscrutably-named burgers, functioning as a Rosetta Stone for interlopers. They also contained a list of additional menu items, including the fried chicken Bill Kenney added to the menu around 60 years ago when Kenney’s splintered from Biff-Burger. When a cashier materialized to take my order, I confidently asked for a burger (That’s a hamburger with a patty dipped in sauce on a bun) and an SMO (a burger with Sauce, Mustard, and Onions) along with a side of fries and a chocolate shake, trying my best to approximate an authentic Biff-Burger meal. 

I sat on the bench on the left. It was the most comfortable bench to ever cradle my ample posterior, and I have no idea why. 


One of two dining areas

After paying, I took a seat on a simple, but strangely comfortable wooden bench opposite the order counter that still sported a very Biff-Burger like diamond pattern to await my order. Strangely, I could feel the plate glass window behind me shift inward and outward as a steady stream of customers opened and closed the doors causing pressure in the room to change, as if the old building, rough around the edges but still vibrant and bustling, was alive and breathing thanks to its sustained popularity with locals. I sat, formulating the clumsy metaphor you just read until my order number was called a short while later. With a bag of food in hand, I faced a new decision. The long order counter was flanked by two small dining areas tucked into the front corners of the building. They perhaps served as smoking and non-smoking sections before public smoking was banned even in states like Virginia with powerful tobacco lobbies. I opted to make a left turn from the register and head for the further, less crowded dining area, where there was less risk the locals realizing I had infiltrated their cleverly, but not quite well-enough hidden burger joint. 

A burger I once thought to be entirely theoretical

Picture, if you will, a graph, with X and Y axes intersecting at the center of the page. The X axis represents meat cohesion, increasing from left to right. The Y axis represents sauciness increasing from bottom to top. A plain hamburger patty on a bun with no toppings would therefore occupy the lower right corner, while its inverse, a sloppy joe with loose meat swimming in sauce would dwell in the opposite corner on the upper left. A sauceless loose meat sandwich, like one might encounter at Maid Rite would appear on the lower left. Until I visited Kenney’s, I was not aware of any extant ground beef sandwich that would perfectly represent the heretofore unoccupied upper right corner representing maximum meat cohesion and sauciness, but that’s precisely what the unimaginatively named “Burger” was, essentially a sloppy joe with a patty instead of loose meat. The sauce was ketchup-forward, but not entirely ketchup. There was some extra tang and spice that one wouldn’t get by simply dunking a patty in a warmed vat of Heinz, Hunt’s, or even Red Gold. There were also chunks of what looked to be relish mixed in, adding a touch of texture. This Biff-Burger fansite has a few recipes for those looking to recreate the sauce at home, consisting of a ketchup base plus other varied ingredients running the gamut from Catalina dressing to liquid smoke, but I feel a can of Manwich sloppy joe sauce warmed with a quarter cup of dill pickle relish mixed in would approximate the Kenney’s version of Biff-Burger sauce effectively. 

SMO

After finishing the burger, I moved on to the SMO, essentially the same little two, or perhaps 1.6 ounce hamburger patty, dripping with the same warm, red sauce, but with the addition of mustard and onions. The added toppings made it more like a typical small fast food burger than its sloppy joe-like sibling. It’s tough to say which I preferred. Were I to return to Kenney’s for burgers, I’d probably order one of each again. Though they are similar in composition, the Kenney’s burger and SMO offered distinct yet equally pleasurable experiences that I wouldn’t mind having a second time. The fries and shake were well above average, but otherwise unremarkable and unworthy of having their traits plotted on any graph, real or imagined. 

Fine fries. 

Brown shake

With nothing left on my table but wrappers, I disposed of my trash and left the Lexington Kenney’s behind, content that I had successfully infiltrated a hidden gem of fast food history. As I drove down the Blue Ridge Parkway toward accommodations for the evening, my mood was one of wonder at the otherworldly experience I’d had at that ancient fast food joint, surrounded by fog at the top of a hill in a seemingly forgotten corner of a small Virginia town. I was excited to see what awaited me the next day in North Carolina at the similarly Biff-Burger descended Beef Burger. Safely ensconced in my hotel room that evening, I googled Beef Burger in Greensboro to double check its hours to be sure it would be open while I was in the area. Sadly, I learned this would be impossible, as Beef Burger had permanently closed only a week before my visit to the area, meaning that the Lexington Kenney’s would be my only Biff-Burger related stop of the trip. 

A branded rug with a forgotten mascot, whose name is probably Kenney

My experience with the remains of the Biff-Burger brand is bittersweet. While I had a positive and memorable experience at Kenney’s, I feel ashamed for giving my esteemed guest writer, Peter the short end of the stick, condemning him to eat burger cooked on fire and brimstone at the last Biff-Burger, which happens to be in Florida, a hot, often unpleasant place down south while I was inspired by a succulent meal of saucy burgers at Kenney’s to craft equally saucy metaphors and hamburger graphs while eating at Kenney’s high on a hill situated among literal clouds. Had a Michigan-based chain not already claimed the moniker, "Halo Burger" might be a better name for Kenney's if my experience is any indication of what's typical there. Yet, I feel regret for not planning my trip a week earlier so I could have made it to Beef Burger just before it closed for good, not unlike my fortuitous trip to Don Pablo’s a few years ago when trips to Don Pablo’s were still possible. I also regret ignoring the rest of the Kenney’s menu in search of authentic Biff-Burger fare. Kenney’s was a chain in its own right for over two decades, and has been a broken chain for at least three. I owe them the courtesy of sampling their entire menu and maybe even visiting the other two surviving locations one of these days. I’ll add that to my to-do list. 

Even amid the regrets, I take solace in the fact that there is still at least one piece of the Biff-Burger brand that still exemplifies the backronym “Best In Fast Food,” and it’s Kenney’s in Lexington, Virginia. It’s a true working fast food museum exhibit, exemplifying the best that not just one, but two broken chains have to offer under a single distinctive, gently sloping roof. If you have a decent navigation app on your phone and are sufficiently pure of heart, then you just might be able to find the Lexington Kenney’s and experience it for yourself, and I hope that you do. 


Special thanks to the folks who run the Biff-Burger.com fansite, which proved to be an invaluable resource to both myself and Peter. 




10 comments:

  1. Know when to hold 'em. Know when to fold 'em.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Picture, if you will, a graph..."

    Thus begins the most unexpected yet perfectly justified discourses ever written about 3 ounces of protein, fat and carbs.

    But this is your first evidence that sauceburgers exist? I could have sworn you said you've been to Pal's.

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    Replies
    1. Busted! I have been to Pal's. I used a little artistic license for the sake of the passage about the graph.

      Delete
  3. Fantastic read. I hate that Beef Burger closed before your visit, so we'll never be able to get the conclusion that this trilogy deserves.

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    Replies
    1. It stings more than a little when one gets away, and this one most of all.

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  4. One of your best entries -- really enjoyed this. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And thank you for the compliment and for reading!

      Delete
  5. Reverend Zap
    Excellent as always.
    You mission, should you decide to accept it is to visit an Old Hickory House and report back. Bonus points if you sole the Diablo Sandwich debate from Smokey and the Bandit once and for all.
    While I don’t think the Diablo Sandwich debate can be truly solved I would love to hear your review of the restaurant

    http://www.shadeone.com/diablo/

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    Replies
    1. Preliminary research shows there's still a Hickory House open in Tucker, Georgia, and their website mentions Smokey and the Bandit by name and says there's still a Diablo sandwich on the menu.

      https://oldhickoryhousebbq.com/

      Learning that makes me want to grow a mustache, paint a screaming chicken on the hood of my Volkswagen, and try and drive there and back in 28 hours. I'll add it to the to-do list, good buddy.

      Delete
  6. Well, you'll need a truck driver best buddy, a cute bride avoiding her wedding, and a morbidly obese Sheriff and his idiot son In High-Speed Pur-suit of you for the complete experience....

    OTOH, when I went to NYC to visit friends during the brief "We can re-open, right?" lull last...Summer? Fall? What is this strange concept, "weekday"?

    Anyway, during that lull I pretty much listened to "Convoy" and "Round the World with The Rubber Duck" on pretty much perpetual repeat both ways.

    ReplyDelete