Thursday, August 19, 2021

Get in Loser, We're Going Chain Breaking

While writing about a trip to several different Ponderosas over three years ago, when there were still well over 100 Ponderosas and Bonanzas still in operation, I defined a broken chain as:

A business which, at some point in its history, had multiple, similarly-functioning, physical locations where a customer could purchase goods and/or services which presently has a significantly diminished presence and/or value as a brand compared to the same brand in its heyday. 

Today, there are closer to 22 Ponderosa/Bonanza locations left, but my working definition of a broken chain remains unchanged. I have, however, started throwing around a related term with friends and family that I have not yet used here until now:

chain breaking - the act of seeking out and visiting surviving location(s) of broken chains

Contrary to what the name implies, chain breaking has nothing to do with contributing to the downfall of a chain, rather it’s about celebrating what’s left of a broken chain. Motives for chain breaking can include, but are not limited to, a desire to experience or document an endangered brand or a location that is relatively untouched by time, to try unique and often difficult to find (fast) food items, or simply to have a flimsy excuse to take a road trip. For me, all of the above motivate my chain breaking expeditions, which are generally pretty straightforward. The steps usually look something like:

-Learn of a near defunct or endangered restaurant or retail brand from a friend, reader, or forum post.

-Research the history of that brand and track down anything resembling a holdout location. 

-Plan a trip to that holdout location or locations, usually including stops at other unrelated broken chain locations along the way, for efficiency’s sake.

-Visit, experience, and document that location. 

In carrying out these steps, I usually encounter few complications. Sure, I’ve gotten food poisoning on more than one occasion, and sometimes I'll visit a place expecting it to be open for business only to find it closed, the result of theoretical operating hours that were posted online not matching the actual operating hours in practice, but these obstacles standing in the way of a chain breaking mission are generally pretty easy to overcome when I encounter them. One chain breaking mission in particular, however, stands out as being especially fraught with obstacles, which leads me to another slang term for which, I thankfully cannot take credit:

The devil is beating his wife. - when it rains while the sun is out 

I’ve only ever heard the term used by people who, like me, grew up in Kentucky, which makes it a little ironic that the most memorable instance of this tenuous metaphor that needlessly invokes unsettling images of both the occult and domestic violence occurred in Tennessee. The brilliantly shining sun was just beginning to set as I was westbound on interstate 40 near Crossville at the tail end of a chain breaking trip across the south, when the rain suddenly began. The combination of the fresh rain and sunlight turned the road surface into a mirror, reflecting sunlight directly into the windshields of westbound traffic. Just as I realized that this was a potential recipe for disaster, a car directly in front of me swerved from the fast lane and plowed into the guard rail on the right shoulder, bouncing back across two lanes and into the median. It was all I could do to slow down and pull safely onto the shoulder in time to avoid contact with the out of control vehicle. The two 18 wheelers behind me weren’t as fortunate and collided with one another as I was dialing 911 to report the first incident. Thankfully, no one involved appeared to be injured, but it was quite a string of events to witness unfolding in real time. Shaken, but unharmed and as resolute as ever to complete my chain breaking mission, I continued onward after confirming with the 911 operator that I didn’t need to hang around. I took the next exit, and followed a series of two lane blacktops to McMinnville, Tennessee, home of the last operating Chicken Chef. 

Chicken Chef is a chain whose corporate parent seemingly faced myriad obstacles of its own, existing as a corporate entity only from 1968 to 1971. Near as I can tell, they were not related to Burger Chef. Locations were primarily in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas, but there may have been Chicken Chefs in other nearby states as well. It seems at least as likely as not that some franchised Chicken Chefs held on and operated independently past their parent company’s 1971 expiration date, but half a century on, the McMinnville Chicken Chef appears to be the sole survivor. 

An hour or so after witnessing a pileup on I-40, I arrived at the McMinnville Chicken Chef only to encounter a second obstacle, its parking lot. The little A-frame building sits a few feet below street level, and very close to the curb, allowing only for a few oddly-angled, downward-sloping, parking spaces out front, all of which were occupied, relegating me to the one remaining parking spot at the rear of the building. Once parked, I was almost immediately blocked in by a vehicle that pulled into the similarly idiosyncratic drive thru lane. It was a Sunday evening, and I hadn’t expected the place to be so busy at the dinner hour of the evening that I assumed the locals would be relaxing at home to enjoy the last of the weekend before the workweek began anew the following morning. I judged the place’s popularity at an off hour as being related to its unlikely long term survival, and carefully navigated my way around the car in the narrow drive thru lane to the front of the building where a third obstacle awaited me. 

The building’s front facade had two doors marked ENTER and EXIT. I pulled on the ENTER door and it wouldn’t budge. Pushing yielded a similar result. I checked the posted hours on the door and found I had arrived at a comfortable interval before the purported closing time, and I could see through the glass doors that the tiny dining area was full of happy patrons. I tried the ENTER door a second time and only gained entry to the building when a sympathetic diner witnessed my plight and opened the fully unlocked and functional EXIT door for me to enter as if I were wearing the type of raspberry beret one might find in a secondhand store. I got the impression that the ENTER door hadn’t been unlocked in years, and that in attempting to use it, I had immediately failed to pass as a local and had outed myself as a chain breaker. I felt as if the record needle of some unseen jukebox had been scratched across whatever disk was playing as I walked in, and all eyes on the place were upon me as I was shaking off the cold. 

Original menu board with late '60s ad copy; notice the chicken who is also a chef.

Flustered by the myriad slings and arrows I had encountered up to that point, I failed to read the room, which was full of diners eating from ceramic plates brought to their tables by servers. I clumsily walked up to what looked like an order counter where an employee, slightly puzzled by my less than graceful entrance, asked if I wanted to place a to go order. Feeling no small amount of implicit social pressure to not be difficult and making note of the complete lack of unoccupied tables in the dining room, I agreed, and ordered a three piece, two side, “Chef Dinner” from the ancient plastic menu board behind the counter, along with a 7Up, noticing too late that their house cola was not Coke or Pepsi, but Royal Crown. I was clearly off my chain breaking game, and it had cost me the opportunity to taste RC Cola not from a can or bottle, but from a fountain, something I had not seen in person in at least 15 years.

The tiny table where I awaited my cooked to order chicken

Once I had ordered, I did my best to stay out of everyone’s way in the absurdly small and bustling dining room, finally finding a seat at a recently vacated two-top table near the door, but not before making note of and photographically documenting the aforementioned menu board as well as a framed black and white photo that hung on the wall behind the counter showing what appeared the location’s opening day. It depicted several suited men and a Family Guy-esque giant chicken costume presumably with a person inside it standing outside those same glass doors whose riddle I had failed so miserably in deciphering. The date below the photo, January 20, 1968 indicated that this was likely one of the first Chicken Chefs to open. 

"People have got to know whether or not their chicken mascot is a cook. Well, I am not a cook. I'm a chef."

Coincidentally, the date was also one year to the day before Richard Nixon assumed the presidency, and while the Nixon administration would infamously be cut short, Chicken Chef corporate would meet its undoing long before Nixon would do the same. When most Chicken Chefs called it quits in 1971, the Watergate hotel and office complex that would forever be tied to Nixon’s downfall was still under construction. Fifty years on, the concept of a president's own party holding him to account for his misdeeds and forcing his resignation in the face of a likely impeachment seems as unlikely and quaint as one surviving Chicken Chef location remaining a popular dining spot, yet the latter is reality in a little town in Central Tennessee. The place must have been brilliantly managed over the past fifty years for it to maintain modern popularity despite operating out of a tiny and antiquated building with an inhospitable parking lot and restrooms that looked no more inviting, accessible only through narrow doors on the outside of the building on its rear wall. 

The rear of the building, note the restroom doors below the A/C unit of Damocles.

I mention those restroom doors specifically, because they were my view as I ate my to-go meal at the tail end of a dicey chain break, seated on the rear bumper of my car, an open tailgate providing shelter from the elements as I cursed my own missteps and misfortunes in a jowly Nixonian grumble. I wondered what horrors lurked behind those restroom doors and if they were left unlocked for customers, employees, and wandering vagrants to pass through to haphazardly perform their various bodily functions, or if accessing the vintage crappers required the use of a key chained to the exhaust manifold of a ‘64 Rambler. I decided it was best to leave all those questions unanswered and to focus on my dinner. The chicken, which had been fried to order, was my final obstacle, as it remained blisteringly hot from the fryer. I therefore opted to try the sides first. I found the mashed potatoes likely to have been cooked from instant flakes, but superior to the watery, allegedly potato-based product KFC foists upon its clientele these days. They were topped with an opaque, light yellow, chickeny gravy, which I suspect came from a can or jar, but nonetheless contributed positively to the experience. The coleslaw was chunky, but otherwise unremarkable, and the bread was a store bought roll. With the sides thoroughly examined and mostly devoured, and the chicken at a manageable temperature, I finally gave it the evaluation it deserved. 


Taters and gravy

In the dimming light of a summer’s evening in a parking lot illuminated by the flickering halogen bulbs at the rear of the little A-frame restaurant and the headlights of the occasional vehicle in the makeshift drive thru lane, the already orangish hue of the chicken’s breading appeared a little oranger. The seasoning blend was a simple one, and the primary flavor was that of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt or a facsimile thereof. It was, however, applied perfectly to enhance the flavor of the chicken without overpowering it, and the breast, leg, and thigh were all perfectly cooked, an ample reward for enduring the myriad obstacles, setbacks, and indignities involved in chain breaking at the world’s last Chicken Chef. 

The main event, made by, or perhaps from the Chicken Chef himself

Should you read this post and feel inspired to venture upon your own chain breaking expedition to Chicken Chef, I implore you to learn from my mistakes, drive safely, and relieve yourself elsewhere. Come to think of it, that’s good advice for visiting most of the places I’ve experienced and written about here, though the Rax in Joliet, Illinois does have a weirdly pleasant bathroom. That seems like as good a place as any for me to leave you. Go forth and chain break. 


  1. Dinner music:

  2. I live in Nashville and had made the trip to that amazing gem at least half dozen times.
    The KFC in that town is extremely popular and busy. They opened a Bojangles there a few years ago and I thought The Chef would definitely fall into a memory, but Bojangles has closed and The Chef lives on.

  3. I'm far too young to have been familiar with Chicken Chef in person, but I do know of them from flickr photos; apparently there were several around the Memphis area. For such a short-lived chain, it's very neat to hear one location is still surviving, although that definitely sounds like a lot of trials you had to go through to get to experience it! Oh, and by the way, I've heard (and used) that phrase for raining while it's light out, too.

  4. My mother, born and raised in Newnan, GA, home of one of the few remaining Wishbone Fried Chicken locations, still tells me about the Devil's poor wife when it rains in sunshine.

  5. I didn't even know RC Cola still existed at all, let alone in fountain service!

  6. In Ohio we said the devil was getting married, it seemed charming at the time but now that I realize that wedding was a precursor to domestic violence it's less innocent.

    Thanks for another trip and stumble down memory lane.