Friday, July 30, 2021

M.F. Glitzy's

For over three years now, I’ve been able to boast that I’ve been to every operating G.D. Ritzy’s location. It’s an esoteric flex, but as a lifelong Ritzy’s fan it’s something I’m proud of. It was the disappearance of my beloved G.D. Ritzy’s from the Lexington, Kentucky market in the early ‘90s that I imprinted on as a kindergartner that sparked a lifelong interest in tracking down surviving locations of not quite defunct restaurant chains, so it’s safe to say that without G.D. Ritzy’s, this blog may well not exist. It felt like an exciting kickoff to my then-new blog in the spring of 2018 when a road trip led me to all six surviving G.D. Ritzy’s locations. When the chain’s founder, Graydon D. Webb and his family opened a seventh location in their native Columbus, Ohio, I was there within a week of their opening so I could continue to brag about having visited all operating locations of my favorite restaurant chain. A little while later, I had the G.D. Ritzy’s logo tattooed on my right arm in commemoration of my trip and in tribute to my favorite restaurant. While I’m not certain I’m G.D. Ritzy’s number one fan, I think it’s safe to say I’m at least in the top five. 

Yes, I am wearing a Hills tshirt, and yes, that is my real face. 

As with all the places I visit, I take pride in my expertise regarding how each surviving G.D. Ritzy’s is both unique and similar to its brethren, and how much it may or may not have changed in the three decades since most locations of the 120 unit chain called it quits. If one were to ask me, or at least not explicitly tell me to not talk about G.D. Ritzy’s, I’d tell them that the three locations in Evansville, Indiana, all of which have the same owners, are my favorite. Their art deco decor and classic diner food are remarkably close to what I remember at the locations in Lexington during my early childhood. They may have pared down a few slow selling menu items and added a couple new flavors of made in-house ice cream, but the Evansville locations are impeccably maintained 1980s time capsules complete with elevated dining rooms that sit a couple feet higher than the floor by the order counter, marble tabletops, hexagonal tile, and big band music played through reproduction teardrop-shaped Seeburg jukebox speakers. Every time I’m fortunate enough to eat in an Evansville G.D. Ritzy’s, I’m immediately transported back to early childhood, and that experience keeps me coming back. 

One of three Evansville, Indiana G.D. Ritzy's locations

An hour away in Owensboro, Kentucky, there are two additional Ritzy’s locations. I say Ritzy’s because by the time they had opened, the chain had dropped the vaguely profane sounding initials from its signage and branding. I’ve heard from a reliable source that the owner of these locations was the last new franchisee to open a Ritzy’s before the chain declared bankruptcy in 1991. The Frederica Street location is clearly a purpose built Ritzy’s building, identical in dimensions and shape to its counterparts in Evansville, but with a newer color scheme and a re-imagined interior designed to evoke the bright and optimistic aesthetic of the 1950s more than the art deco 1940s theme of the older locations in Evansville. A second Owensboro location on Highway 54 is in a newer building with none of the Ritzy’s architectural cues, but similar interior decor. The food at both Owensboro locations is excellent as it is in Evansville. A few additional unique ice cream flavors are offered, as are baked potatoes. Evansville evidently dropped, or never saw fit to pick up the hot potatoes. Both locations are perfectly fine, but fail to be as immersive and magical as their Evansville counterparts in my deeply subjective and biased opinion. 

Ritzy's of Owensboro, a later iteration of the early building design; notice the lack of initials unintentionally implying blasphemy. 

The Huntington, West Virginia G.D. Ritzy’s is the oldest in continuous operation, having opened in 1983, the same year the chain won an award for its chocolate ice cream. Ironically, the Huntington G.D. Ritzy’s is the one surviving location that never made its own ice cream. I was lucky enough to talk to the location’s original owner, who told me that making ice cream from scratch never made business sense for his one location the way it might have for a franchisee operating multiple units who could make ice cream at one restaurant and distribute it to their other nearby locations. On my most recent visit there, the Huntington G.D. Ritzy’s was selling Hershey’s ice cream. Their menu has seen some additions and subtractions over the years, but the Big Bopper fried bologna sandwich is still present on the menu. It’s a glaring omission in Evansville, Owensboro, and Columbus. The Huntington Ritzy’s recently changed ownership, and the new owners have been trying new menu items like premium soups and salads that seem out of place to me, but I take G.D. Ritzy’s more seriously than the average person. They also offer brunch on weekends unlike any other Ritzy’s I’m aware of past or present. The decor, like in Evansville, is what I remember from childhood, though it feels rough around the edges. The patina of decades of continuous operation is more obvious, perhaps the result of the limited resources of a single owner, versus the consortium of owners of the Evansville locations who keep their locations feeling bright and new despite them being closer to their 40th year in operation than their 30th. 

The weathered and worse for wear G.D. Ritzy's of wild, wonderful, West Virginia

The newest Ritzy’s location in Columbus operated by chain founder Graydon Webb and family offers a limited menu of burgers, fries, hot dogs, chili, the famous Ritzy’s PB&J, ice cream, and little else. Sandwiches are topped to order behind a glass counter in front of you, similar to Subway, or if you like, the Canadian burger chain, Harvey’s. The building is a heavily renovated 1950s vintage A&W which bares little resemblance to the Ritzy’s buildings of the ‘80s, but does have nods to the design of the earlier locations here and there. It’s located in a trendy, dare I say ritzy, neighborhood, so efforts were made to make the place feel upscale. Early on, they used fresh cut fries rather than frozen, but have since switched back to frozen, presumably because my opinion that the fresh cut fries were mushy and gross was widely held. Buns are fresh-baked, while other Ritzy’s seem to get mass-produced buns delivered. My one lingering complaint about the Columbus location is that the prices are a good 50% higher than at other Ritzy’s. It’s seriously tough to get out of there for under $20 for a sandwich, fries and ice cream, but I suspect it’s in line with food prices of other restaurants in the (very hip) area. They offer the classic ice cream flavors, but also try out new ones on occasion. I had two scoops of a very nice carrot cake flavor on my last visit to the tune of $7 before tip. 

The Columbus Ritzy's is a modern take on a classic. (I think that big fiberglass burger is from a Max and Erma's.)

Along with the above knowledge gathered from my travels to every surviving (G.D.) Ritzy’s, I’ve carried a shameful secret. There was an eighth location in operation that I had yet to visit. Distance, adult responsibilities, and a pesky little global pandemic kept me away until this past weekend when I finally made it to South Carolina to eat at Burky’s Grill, the bootleg G.D. Ritzy’s of Myrtle Beach. 

Before developing G.D. Ritzy’s, you might recall, Graydon Webb was a Wendy’s executive, and restaurant industry veteran Wayne “Burky” Burkart was one of his esteemed colleagues, also in the employ of Dave Thomas. When Webb opened his own restaurant chain, Burkart became a franchisee, operating six G.D. Ritzy’s locations in South Carolina starting in 1983, keeping them going longer than 95% of other Ritzy’s locations. Burkart sold his restaurants, and attempted to retire in 2000, but had repurchased and renamed the Myrtle Beach G.D. Ritzy’s by 2003. It’s operated as Burky’s Grill ever since. I had seen photos of the place for years, and the interior and food bore a striking resemblance to what I knew to be Ritzy’s signature look and fare. I was eager to visit, but circumstances never worked out until they did. 

It was a Saturday afternoon in late July when I found myself in Myrtle Beach along with what seemed to be the majority of the population of South Carolina and surrounding states. I had picked the exact wrong time to visit a beach town whose local economy is based primarily on tourism. After an hour and a half of dodging overloaded minivans and SUVs packed with caterwauling children, incessant and senseless grandparents, and long-suffering parents, not to mention the hordes of bright and cacophonous full size pick-em-up trucks lifted sky-high in the front and lowered to the ground in the rear in what’s known as a “Carolina squat” stance. I spied a friendly and vaguely familiar looking green sign on the horizon. 

A nonstandard Ritzy's design, or perhaps an early iteration of the more common curved corner, befinned building.

Remnant of the original flat railing and the new tubular railing against the backdrop of Ritzy's iconic hexagonal tiles.

I had arrived at Burky’s Grill. I found a spot at the edge of the crowded parking lot and took a minute to admire the building. It lacked G.D. Ritzy’s distinctive curved corner and decorative fin, but it was clad in the chain’s familiar white stucco, and its entrance was in roughly the right spot. Once through that entrance I felt as if I had walked into my own home, and not only because the original G.D. Ritzy’s “TIME TO EAT” wall clock above the order counter was identical to the one I have hanging in my living room. It had the familiar, inviting look and feel of a 1980s vintage Ritzy’s interior complete with the original tile, furniture, and lighting. There were minor changes here and there. There were spots where the original flat railings had been cut flush with the floor and replaced with tubular ones that allowed the order line a wider berth. The patterned green carpeting in the elevated dining area had been replaced with solid green carpet, and the booths which would have originally been green had been reupholstered with red vinyl. Despite the minor changes, it was still clearly a Ritzy’s interior, and that’s a theme that continued after I worked my way through the order line and received my food. 

Burky's order counter; I don't believe these are the modern menu boards, but they're pretty close to the original 1983 vintage menu boards they use at the Huntington G.D. Ritzy's.

Burky's "TIME TO EAT" clock is a piece of G.D. Ritzy's corporate decor package. 

I have one of my own at home. 

This is what passes for a "TIME TO EAT" clock at the Columbus Ritzy's.

In an effort to experience as much of the menu as possible for the sake of comparison, I ordered three entrees as well as fries and a drink to see how much resemblance each item bore to what I might find at other G.D. Ritzy’s locations. 


If one were to order fries at any of the seven locations using the (G.D.) Ritzy’s name, one would receive the thinnest imaginable objects that could still be considered fries without edging into potato stick territory. They’re roughly ⅛ inch wide, and similar to what one might see at a Steak ‘n Shake or Freddy’s Steakburgers. Burky’s fries, while still in shoestring territory, are closer to ¼ inch, nearly identical in size and shape to McDonald’s fries, and equally similar in texture and flavor. 

Original tables, chairs, light fixtures, and stainless wall trim. 

More original wall trim and lighting, plus the aforementioned original Seeburg speaker

The topping on my chili dog was close, if not identical, to the mild and tangy chili offered at every Ritzy’s. (In Evansville, they give you the option of adding an additional kick to your chili by placing on every table bottles of hot sauce, and what I call Cincinnati Juice, which is a mysterious brownish liquid that imparts the flavor of Cincinnati chili to anything it touches.) It was the dog itself that was off. It lacked the snappy natural casing and strong garlic flavor of what I know to be a Ritzy’s hot dog. Burky’s dog was skinless, and comparatively bland, clearly from a different manufacturer. 

There was no Cincinnati Juice to be had at Burky's but here's some next to the hot sauce on a tabletop condiment caddy in Evansville. 

No strawberry slices here. 

My luxury PB&J was similarly not quite authentically Ritzy’s. It had the requisite untoasted Texas toast (Texas bread?) smooth peanut butter, strawberry jam, and crushed peanuts, but lacked the fresh strawberry slices that make G.D. Ritzy’s PB&J extra luxurious, but in Burky’s defense, I imagine it’s a pain to keep fresh, sliced strawberries on hand for use on only a single menu item. 

Burky's take on G.D. Ritzy's Double Ritz cheeseburger. It's hard to see here, but the patties were upside down.  

Of the items I ordered, my burger was the closest to what I know to be authentically G.D. Ritzy’s, and while like the fries, a G.D. Ritzy’s burger is quite similar to what you’d find at Steak ‘n Shake or Freddy’s, it’s distinct from more mainstream fast food burgers, and feels premium by comparison. During preparation, the burger patties are formed into balls of raw meat and smashed under a spatula on a ripping hot flat top grill, giving them crispy edges and a juicy center. The burgers cook almost completely before being flipped to their respective B-sides to linger on the grill for less than a minute to finish. This cooking process gives the patties a distinctive crispy convex top and a soft concave bottom. I mention this, because the patties on my burger were placed on it upside down from what I’ve experienced not only at Ritzy’s, but at every other place that serves this style of hamburger. I laughed audibly upon noticing, drawing more attention than I had taking pictures of the counter and dining area, because like everything else at Burky’s, the burger was just shy of being identical to Ritzy’s. 

Marble, tile, green, iconic textures all. 

Whether it was the solid green carpet, round chrome railings, the too-soft hot dog, the berryless PB&J, the too-fat fries or the upside down burger, the place was a knockoff Ritzy’s to a comedic degree, which isn’t to say that any of the food was bad. I ate more of it than I should have considering it was my second lunch of the day. It still tasted 85% authentic Ritzy’s and 95% objectively good. The locals, or at least, the tourists in town for more than just lunch, agreed with me because the place remained packed for the duration of my visit well past the typical lunch rush. The table of Mormon missionaries behind me and the table of motorcyclists and their helmets to my right served as an almost too on the nose illustration of Burky’s, which is to say G.D. Ritzy’s mass appeal. 

The view from the top of the elevated dining room.

The crowd was all the more remarkable because of the omission of hand scooped ice cream from the menu. The G.D. Ritzy’s ice cream counter with its 16 flavors in 5 gallon drums in a glass-topped freezer were nowhere to be found. In their place stood a soft serve machine and a menu of soft-serve based desserts. I didn’t bother ordering ice cream due in equal parts to the dearth of authenticity and the fact that I’d eaten two large meals that day and had plans for a third before I would be able to chug some Alka Seltzer and rest my weary head. They seemed to be making the most of the soft serve though, as there was an extensive menu of soft serve based shakes, sundaes, and Blizzard-like concoctions. The lack of ice cream is easy to forgive in Burky’s case. As I learned in Huntington, making ice cream from scratch for a single restaurant location doesn’t make economic sense, and while Ritzy’s ice cream was not present on the menu, Burky’s had every menu item that at least one Ritzy’s or another lacked. They offer the baked potatoes only available at the Owensboro Ritzy’s, the Big Bopper fried bologna sandwich only available at the Huntington Ritzy’s, and the steamed vegetable plate that they only offer in Evansville. If Ritzy’s is your favorite band and Burky’s is a cover band, they can be forgiven for not playing one of Ritzy’s hits in their set and striking a sour note once in a while if they play literally every deep cut. 

And Zapediah wept, seeing as he had no more G.D. Ritzy’s to conquer.

Finally making it to the eighth surviving G.D. Ritzy’s has rewarded me with a sense of fulfillment, but also a sense of sorrow. My most recent trip has me nearing the bottom of the barrel of broken chain locations that I have yet to visit, at least in the eastern half of the U.S. Without new fodder for new blog posts, this silly little project of mine quickly devolves into an ouroboros gobbling down its own tail as if it's dripping with delicious Cincinnati Juice. The out of place, self-referential rhyming posts I wrote last year are the type of drivel I put out when I can’t visit broken chains, and nobody wants more of that. So I implore you, dear reader. Get in contact with me in the comments below, my email, Facebook, or Instagram, (Nothing good ever happens on Twitter.) and let me know what broken chains you’d like to see me visit next. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Big Shef According to Peter

During the pandemic, the list of places to which I could safely travel shrank drastically, as it did for most responsible people. I largely limited my adventures to Southeastern Michigan, and my meals to drive thrus. I’d take at least one long drive just about every weekend, exploring roads and towns that I had never seen before despite them being so close to the area I’ve called home off and on for nearly a decade. I also quickly developed favorite local locations of fast food chains during my localized adventures. For instance, my favorite Dairy Queen is the one in Hamburg, Michigan because it’s one of the few Grill and Chill locations in the area, and driving there on surface streets is an adventure through the gradual transition of the urban sprawl of Metro Detroit to sparsely populated countryside. The same Eight Mile road made famous by Marshall Mathers is paved in mud and gravel and lined with dense trees in the last couple of miles before it reaches the outskirts of Hamburg. My favorite Jimmy John’s in Dundee was a little more straightforward. It’s location at the confluence of US 23 and M-50 made it convenient to routes I’d often find myself on during my aimless weekend drives, and unlike most Jimmy John’s locations in the area, it had a drive thru, meaning that I could satiate my occasional craving for a Vito, or Club Lulu without having to go inside and breathe the same air as other humans. But after a long year of exploring my backyard and drive thru meals, I was vaccinated, and suddenly, my world was again near the size it was before things got weird. I took full advantage and quickly took the multistate road trip that I’ve been writing about in dribs and drabs for the past few weeks, and thanks to that road trip, I can happily report that I have a new favorite Burger Chef.

I say that with acute awareness of how ludicrous it would have sounded a few short years ago. I adhered to the conventional wisdom that Burger Chef, once the second largest fast food chain in the US behind McDonald’s, was dead. The last restaurant to use the name ceased doing so in 1996 when its franchise agreement, the final Burger Chef franchise agreement, expired. The 2015 closure of Schroeder’s Drive-In, a Burger Chef in all but name in Danville, Illinois, thought by many to be the last Burger Chef was widely lamented, but a 1,000+ unit restaurant chain doesn’t go down that easily, even nearly 40 years after Burger Chef’s fate was ostensibly sealed with its acquisition by what was then Hardee’s parent company, there are still thinly disguised Burger Chefs hanging on. Research and reader tips have led me to two surviving bootleg Burger Chefs that are still in operation today, first Suzi’s Hamburgers in South Charleston, West Virginia, and later, The Chef in Cleveland, Tennessee, and I’m no less astounded to have tracked down a third surviving Burger Chef by a different moniker, Pete’s Burgers and More in Reidsville, North Carolina.

Pete's still retains the distinctive Burger Chef covered drive thru. 

Pete’s had been on my to-visit list since a planned trip to the Carolinas had to be called off in the spring of 2020 for obvious reasons. I was therefore eager to experience it for myself, perhaps a little too eager, as I arrived in Reidsville nearly an hour before Pete’s 10 AM open time. I occupied myself with a side quest to a nearby Food Lion where I picked up a couple of 12 packs of Cheerwine, a regionally-available cherry soda that’s abundant in North Carolina but elusive back home in Michigan. Even with an impromptu grocery run, I had to sit in Pete’s parking lot watching the clock in my car and the open sign on the door as a throng of uniformed employees walked across the lot in front of me and into the building to make preparations to open for the day. The building itself retained the formal facade that many Burger Chefs adopted in the 1970s while they were owned by General Foods, eschewing the funky birdhouse look of the 1950s and ‘60s, and adding a distinctive covered drive thru lane that makes Burger Chef buildings from this era easily identifiable. Just as my pondering of Burger Chef architecture and history was beginning to distract me from my eagerness to eat at Pete’s, an employee unlocked the front door, my signal that they were open for business.

Pete's has a decidedly modern order counter. 

Ordering at a bootleg Burger Chef is always an exercise in code breaking. Unable to use copyrighted names for Burger Chef menu items like the Big Shef, Super Shef, and Chicken Club, restaurant owners must give these sandwiches new, but still recognizable names, much the same way they changed the names of their restaurants, and often little else, when their final Burger Chef franchise agreements expired. In this case, the code was easy to decipher, at least in the case of the Big Shef and Super Shef, which at Pete’s were called the Big Burger and Super Burger. I ordered one of each and two apple pies in hopes they’d resemble the Burger Chef apple pies which apparently had cinnamon on top and frosting on the bottom. As I waited for my order, I examined my surroundings in search of any other vestigial signs of the Burger Chef brand.

A 1970s era Burger Chef Works Bar, still in service at Pete's
An up close view of the toppings; I might add onions and jalapeƱos to my next Big Shef

I didn’t have to look far, as at one corner of the dining room was an original Burger Chef self-serve works bar where picky eaters could dress their own sandwiches after ordering them plain. (Roy Rogers adopted a similar setup around the same time and still uses it today, though I’m unsure who did it first.) The addition of coleslaw, which is treated as a condiment as well as a side dish in the Carolinas was the only apparent deviation from General Foods era Burger Chef standards. Furthermore, I was able to date the building thanks to a couple of oddly slanted pillars just in front of the order counter that described the outline of the distinctive pentagonal window on the building’s original facade before it was expanded forward sometime in the 1970s to expand the dining room. This meant that the building was built to be a Burger Chef. I also noticed a large, prominently displayed sign advertising a birthday club for kids. This may be a tenuous connection, but it reminded me of the innovation of the Burger Chef brand, as Burger Chef was the first fast food chain to offer a kids’ meal, and even once (unsuccessfully) sued McDonald’s for ripping off the innovation. Burger Chef also pioneered the combo meal with their “Triple Treat,” and while they didn’t invent the double deck hamburger, they at least had the idea to rip off Big Boy with their own Big Shef before McDonald’s did the same and introduced the Big Mac.

...and this...

...would have once had windows between them and looked something like this former Burger Chef in Northern Indiana.

I was again snapped out of my Burger Chef-history induced trance when my order number was called, and I returned to my table with my newly acquired historically significant fast food. I’ve now been to enough Burger Chefs that I can comment on the various common and diverging attributes of each locations’ modern interpretation of the Big Shef. Even when Burger Chef was a going concern, their offerings were not terribly consistent. Depending on when and where you walked into a Burger Chef and ordered a Big Shef, you’d receive a two-patty burger with a single slice of cheese on a three piece bun dressed with shredded lettuce and a Miracle Whip-based tartar sauce, but the bun may or may not have had sesame seeds on it, and the patties may have been flame broiled or simply cooked on a electric flat top griddle. Unsurprisingly, the modern Burger Chef holdouts that have been operating independently since the early 1980s, are no more consistent than their forebears. For instance, Suzi’s version of the Big Shef is cooked on a flattop and has a seeded bun, while at The Chef, the Big Shef is flame broiled and on a seedless bun. Both buns are split into the distinctive three slices known as the crown (top) club (center) and heel (bottom). Pete’s version the Big Shef offers a third, heretofore unseen iteration of a modern Big Shef. Its bun is seeded but lacks the club center layer. Its patties are flame broiled but have an extra slice of American cheese, but the special sauce retains the tangy zip of Miracle Whip that makes it a recognizable Big Shef.

That's a good Shef!

At this point, I’ve thrown around the term “flame broiled” enough that you’re probably wondering if Burger Chef was an imitator of Burger King or vice versa. There was a stronger connection than simple imitation. Burger Chef’s parent company was a manufacturer of restaurant supplies before they launched the Burger Chef restaurant brand in the mid 1950s. They produced a device known as the Insta Broiler that they both supplied to Burger King and used in Burger Chef locations in a time when the Miami-based Insta Burger King as they were then known and the Indianapolis-based Burger Chef were fledgling chains and not direct competitors in the same geographical territory.

I'd join the Pete's Birthday Club in second if I were 25 years younger. 

When discussing Burger Chef with my fellow millennials who have not experienced it firsthand, I often describe it as a better version of Burger King, and that description rang true when I tasted Pete’s version of the Super Shef, a quarter pound flame broiled burger dressed with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, ketchup, and mustard. It tasted like a Whopper as Super Shefs tend to do, but this one in particular tasted like a Whopper prepared at an especially well-run Burger King. I was born too late to experience Burger Chef in their heyday, but in my idealized version of the past, I like to think that Super Shefs were always as well executed as the one I had at Pete’s Burgers and More.

Super Shef: like a Whopper, but good

The fried apple pies sadly lacked the frosting on the bottom, but I suspect that The Chef in Tennessee may offer a pie that’s closer to the original Burger Chef formulation. I’ve long had plans to make a return trip there to investigate further. Still there was one menu item at Pete’s that I hadn’t ordered that intrigued me. After finishing my initial order, I returned to the order counter and asked what was on a “Chicken Sandwich Deluxe.” the guy working the counter informed me that it came with lettuce, tomato, mayo, and most importantly, bacon. It was a renamed Burger Chef chicken club. I ordered one to go, and unable to contain my excitement of finding another Burger Chef menu item, I outed myself as a weirdo and told a few semi-interested folks working the counter about my odd hobby of visiting surviving locations of mostly defunct restaurant chains, this very blog that describes my adventures, and that I had driven from Michigan to eat there. I rewarded their mild interest with Broken Chains stickers (Available for sale here!) and profuse thanks as I took my chicken club to the parking lot for examination and consumption, washing it down with a warm can of Cheerwine from the back of my car.

My Chicken Club came in what appeared to be a wrapper from Doc Hopper's. 

I felt an exuberant fulfillment. I had finally made it to the bootleg Burger Chef of Reidsville, North Carolina, and it seemed to offer a good many of Burger Chef’s greatest hits, combining the flame broiling of the ‘50s and ‘60s with the works bar of the 1970s as well as the semi-obscure Chicken Club. There’s also a fish sandwich on the menu, that I suspect bears a meaningful resemblance to Burger Chef’s Fishermans’ Fillet, which I’ll have to try and order on a return trip, which I’m currently preparing to make.

This Burger Chef logo may look vaguely familiar to Broken Chains readers. 

I encourage anyone reading this to visit any of the three holdout Burger Chefs I’ve mentioned here, but if you can only go to one, I’d recommend Pete’s. They’ve seemingly distilled everything that was good about Burger Chef into a package that feels modern, yet distinctive. I’ve previously posited that The Chef offers a glimpse into what Burger Chef was like in the ‘60s and Suzi’s feels more like Burger Chef in the ‘70s. But perhaps most intriguingly, Pete’s Burgers and More feels like alternative history. With its collection of positive attributes from varying points in the brand’s history it has the feel of what Burger Chef could have been, and maybe what Burger Chef would have been like if the brand had survived mismanagement in the ‘70s and the sale to Hardee’s in the ‘80s to survive today. 

If you’re a Burger Chef fan and/or a fast food history geek like I am, be sure to check out my new pal Darren’s Burger Chef Podcast in which he delves into the history of the Burger Chef brand and has intriguing interviews with people connected to the Burger Chef brand. 

Monday, July 5, 2021

Another Tray, Another Post

Another Tray, another post
The Thoroughblades, are now just ghosts. 
The chain is broken, The Mask says, "Smokin!"
To Macon Whoopee

I have little interest in sports, but I can appreciate a cleverly-named team as much as I can ironically enjoy a not so cleverly named team, which is to say, a nontrivial amount in either case. I feel roughly equal amounts of delight at the names of two minor league hockey teams that similarly popped up in small southern cities in the ‘90s, but for different reasons, as their respective names occupy opposite ends of the cleverness spectrum. 

The seemingly carelessly named Lexington Thoroughblades were the new local hockey team during my youth in Central Kentucky. They played downtown in Rupp Arena, named for the University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp (born 1901). The Thoroughblades’ name was seemingly a portmanteau of “Thoroughbred,” a nod to the thoroughbred racehorses that are raised in the rolling verdant pastures on the outskirts of Lexington, and “Blades,” which are the sharp metal dealies on the bottoms of ice skates. During my middle school years Thoroughblades games at Rupp Arena were heavily marketed, and at most, moderately attended by Lexington’s tens of hockey fans. Somewhat fittingly, the Thouroughblades had something in common with Adolph Rupp starting in his mid 30s, an unfortunate name. The general consensus among my peers at the time was that “Thoroughblades” was a stupid, contrived name, and my opinion hasn’t changed in the two odd decades since. The clunky half-pun of a team name evoking the incongruous image of a horse precariously balanced on two pairs of ice skates, one hip check away from a broken leg and a bullet between its big brown eyes did little to interest Lexingtonians, myself included, in hockey, but a clever team name does not a successful hockey team make. 

It's the bee. You know, from nature. 

A day’s drive down I-75 in Macon, Georgia, however, another minor league hockey team came into existence in 1996, the same year as the Thoroughblades, but unlike their Lexington counterpart, Macon’s hockey team had the best name for a sports team I’ve ever heard. Their mascot was a whooping crane, and they were known as The Macon Whoopee. (Get it?) Furthermore, their team insignia featured both a whooping crane and a bee, evoking “The birds and the bees” in a second punny nod to 1970s game show-friendly sexual euphemisms. Despite an infinitely more clever and endearing name, the Macon Whoopee folded in 2001, along with the Thoroghblades, almost as if there are other, more complex factors beyond a name that make a successful hockey team. 

This of course isn’t a blog about extinct hockey teams. There’s a whole subreddit for that, but I had the Macon Whoopee and their contemporary nomenclatural antithesis on my mind a few weeks back when I was in not Macon, nor Lexington, but another small, southern city,  Knoxville, Tennessee, where I ate at a surviving S&S Cafeteria location. S&S Cafeteria’s corporate offices, like the Whoopee are based in Macon, Georgia, and like Adolph Rupp, namesake of the one-time home ice of the Thoroughblades, have a name that was innocuous at their inception, but became unfortunate at around the same time and for the same reasons. 

Smitty Somebody (He was #1.)

J.A. “Smitty” Smith Junior opened the first S&S Cafeteria in Columbus, Georgia in 1936. S&S stands for “Smith and Sons,” and fittingly, Smitty’s descendents are still involved with the company today. Near as I can tell, the small, regional chain peaked at somewhere north of 20 locations in the mid 1980s, and six survive today, qualifying it as a broken chain. After visiting surviving Sign of the Beefcarver, Morrison’s, Piccadilly, and MCL locations, I’ve come to appreciate old fashioned cafeteria dining experiences, that are increasingly difficult to find, as cafeterias, and the malls they are often attached to, fall out of favor. 

I arrived at the Knoxville S&S for an early dinner on a Sunday afternoon. The exterior of the inconspicuous building with neocolonial touches had the familiar funeral home aesthetic that is common to cafeterias. Just as I was nearing the front door, a grandmother with all of her young grandchildren, and all of her young grandchildrens’ best friends piled out of the Chevy HHR into which they had been implausibly crammed. Not wanting to be stuck in the cafeteria line behind a large group of children who were likely to be both unruly and picky about the food they received in the serving line, I took a moment to appreciate the dated aesthetic of the weathered, but still eye catching signage outside, taking a leisurely course through the parking lot, lobby, and into the serving line where I was afforded a buffer of several adult customers separating me from the throng of kids supervised by a lone matriarch. As I worked my way through the labyrinthine path of brown tile flanked by painted brick and wallpaper, I took the time to appreciate the displays in the bay windows along the way that featured both a patriotic themed tableau and another created in tribute to the local (non hockey) sports team. 

Some context: It was Memorial Day weekend when I visited. 

The Ut Vols are my favorite squadron. 

I hate to overuse the word, "Kubrickian," but how else would one describe this corridor?

The day's menu offerings

It was in between peak meal hours, and the line was both short and fast-moving, and in no time at all, I was greeted by a stack of vivid blue-green cafeteria trays that looked roughly as modern as the sign on the building. I picked one up along with some matching blue Jello, and some deviled eggs as I shuffled down the serving line. I selected chicken Tampico as my entree after deciding against the turkey and dressing, as the white cream sauce in which it was floating looked questionable, and bore little resemblance to turkey gravy. The real-life equivalent of the Squeaky-Voiced Teen on The Simpsons was working the entrees portion of the serving line, and asked if I wanted some of that same sauce on top of my chicken. I wasn’t sure it belonged on the chicken, but my curiosity was both piqued and morbid, so I asked for it on the side. Some baked squash and mac and cheese found their way onto my tray when the guy working the sides portion of the line, who incidentally had the appearance and bearing of an actor portraying a rascally southern senator in some forgotten political thriller, asked what he could serve me in a Foghorn Leghornish Tennessee drawl. 

Various cold salads

Apps and 'zerts
Various Entrees

Corn won't grow at all at S&S. Parking lot's too rocky by far. That's why all the folks at S&S get their corn from a jar. 

I made those selections after noting a good many of the vegetables on display had the pallid, overcooked appearance of something that had spent time sealed in a large, industrial-sized can, and not prepared fresh in the manner of the various cafeterias I had visited in the past. I selected foods that required preparation beyond opening a can and adding heat in hopes of finding side dishes greater than the sum of their respective parts. 

My tray, fully loaded

As I was patting myself on the back for choosing my side dishes wisely, a slice of pecan pie somehow materialized on my plate, and I reached the end of the serving line. When someone I took to be a cashier printed out a ticket with my selections and a total price, I reached for my wallet, but she informed me that I was expected to pay at the epilogue of my meal, not at the end of the table of contents where I was standing. Making a mental note of this to prevent another inadvertent dine and dash faux pas like the one I had after enjoying a succulent steakhouse meal at Western Sizzlin, I thanked her, and informed her it was my first time there. In response, she produced a soggy flyer from her apron with a detachable punch card on the end and told me I’d get a free meal once the card had reached a sufficiently swiss cheese-like state. I thanked her and proceeded onward. 

A soggy souvenir. 

I walked, with my loaded tray, to the dining room, which was adorned with large artificial trees scraping the top of the high drop ceiling just above the railings of a seemingly inaccessible mezzanine. I’m not sure of the aesthetic they were attempting to evoke with this decor package, but it felt both distinctive and anachronistic. I doubt it had changed much in half a century, give or take a decade, and I’m glad that it hadn’t. I found a table far from the aforementioned grandma and her throng of grandchildren, both biological and honorary, and my server quickly appeared and introduced herself, returning with some butter for the roll that had apparently also materialized on my tray. 

It felt a little like a Mark Twainian riverboat, if riverboats had trees.

With one notable exception, the food was inoffensive. The chicken Tampico, unlike most iterations of the dish that are doused in a cheesy sauce, was simply topped with jalapenos and melted cheese. The addition of the questionable cream sauce lent it a more conventional texture however, and the pickled pimentos floating in the sauce echoed the flavor of the Jalapenos. The deviled eggs and blue Jello were an adequate appetizer and palate cleanser, respectively, and the pecan pie, while not the best I’ve ever had, was far from the worst. The baked squash casserole lived up to my low to moderate squashy expectations, but it was the macaroni and cheese that was the real standout. 

Longtime Broken Chains readers may recall that I always get macaroni and cheese at cafeterias hoping that what I find will come close to the perfection that is the macaroni and cheese at Morrison’s cafeteria, and so far, not one cafeteria’s mac and cheese has even come close to being a contender for Morrison’s title. If Morrison’s mac and cheese were a minor league hockey team name, it would be the Macon Whoopee. Sadly, the mac and cheese at S&S was more of a Lexington Thoroughblades situation. What should have been a creamy cheese sauce had separated into lumpy curds and grease separating dry, chewy noodles. Not to be outdone by the texture, the flavor was unpleasantly pungent and salty. My findings were confirmed by the woman sitting two tables over who flagged down her server to ask to exchange her mac and cheese for another side. Unsure of which canned vegetable I’d select to replace my mac and cheese, I declined to follow suit. 

They cater!

And they know what they're about.

As a frequenter of cafeterias and a sucker for the subtle marketing of food presentation, I rarely find myself leaving a cafeteria less than $25 poorer. When I concluded my meal and paid the actual cashier situated in a little booth by the exit door, I was pleased to find that my meal had come to $16 and change. (I was also amused when the cashier tried, and failed, to punch a hole in my newly acquired and still-moist punch card.) It was then I understood the appeal of S&S. The food is passable, just, and there are certainly better places to eat, but S&S knows what it is and sets its prices accordingly. Had I skipped dessert and drank water instead of Diet Pepsi, I could have been out the door for ten bucks before tip. I don’t know that I’d go out of my way to eat at S&S again, but I’m glad I experienced it once. The charmingly antiquated atmosphere made the meal memorable, if not overly palatable. I think that’s the magic of S&S. Like so many of the places I visit, it’s a time portal back to when people cared less about fresh food, and a couple of oversized artificial trees and a fake atrium were all that was needed to make a meal of canned vegetables and dolled up chicken breast feel premium. If this is all you go in expecting, you won’t be disappointed, and it’s worth experiencing at least once, likely the way a Thoroughblades or Macon Whoopee game would have been back in the late ‘90s. I suspect that S&S is getting by on the nostalgia of people who grew up eating there, which won’t last forever, so it’s well worth experiencing while you can.