Wednesday, May 5, 2021

You Don't Have to Call it Taco Tico

Up until the beginning of last year, I made efforts to maintain a relatively timeless tone in my writing, keeping my posts about places I’ve visited divorced from current events as much as possible and allowing my writing to exist in a similar way to many of the surviving locations of broken chains do, in an apparent vacuum isolated from the world around them, operating has they have for decades. Circumstances later on in the year made operating in that manner impossible for both restaurants and for yours truly. As restaurants began to rely more heavily on delivery and takeout, and as they began hanging clear plastic dividers at order counters and requiring staff and customers to wear PPE, my writing gradually began to acknowledge the realities facing the restaurant industry and humanity in general. Later that same year, when the most consequential election of my life was on the horizon, I allowed my usually staunchly apolitical writing to get a tiny bit political. (I will never explicitly discuss my political beliefs here, but you’ll get a pretty good idea of which way I lean if you read The Kewpee, and probably the rest of this post, too.)

Now that things are beginning to trend toward what looks and feels normal, I was excited for my writing to do the same, so I set out on a trip across Indiana last weekend for what I hoped would be a normalish trip for a few normalish restaurant experiences, but with less than a week in my tenure as a fully vaccinated person, I should have known better. It’s still more than a little weird out there, and over the past year, my understanding of what is and is not normal entered a time of profound transformation, a transformation which is still in progress. 

To paraphrase my favorite Canadian TV show, there’s such a thing as too much pandemic talk and a feller ought to be aware of it. I am acutely aware of the amount of pandemic talk I’ve allowed to seep into my writing, and I’ll make a promise here that’s roughly as firm as a flour tortilla that barring the very real possibility of any new, unforeseen pandemic-related calamity, this will be the last Broken Chains post where I discuss my processing of the pandemic at length. However, the realities of living through a pandemic, and how to navigate the world as one of the lucky vaccinated people weighed heavily on my mind when I stopped by Taco Casita, a former Taco Tico in Terre Haute, Indiana that I suspected might still be a Taco Tico in all but name. 

Clever re use of the original Taco Tico sign pole

Where's the T&A?

My weekend jaunt to Indiana was my first time leaving Michigan since my trip last June. My home in the bluest part of a bluish-purple state was my only real frame of reference for pandemic-era etiquette, and I was scandalized by the occasional maskless individuals I encountered at truck stops, stores, and in common areas of my hotel in firmly red Indiana. Here in Michigan, the mostly older, mostly white people who don’t wish to wear masks in indoor public spaces will at minimum, make the entirely pointless gesture of wearing one on their chin below their mouth. Before I was vaccinated I would at least give these people dirty looks, and would occasionally confront them outright, but I made myself a promise that on this trip that I was going to let things go. I would ignore anyone with an exposed nose or entire face, and I would trust my antibodies to keep me safe. I would assume that any adult I encountered in public was either vaccinated themselves or at least unvaccinated and out in public by choice, and therefore did not require me to speak on their behalf to any inconsiderate individuals with unnecessarily exposed faces. This adjustment was easy enough for me to make when encountering the occasional unmasked trucker at a Love’s truck stop or while dining maskless at a safe distance from other maskless diners at some meal stops you’ll hear about later this month, but it took dinner at Taco Casita to put my promise to myself, and my belief in vaccine efficacy, to the test.

The menu board has a decidedly vintage look, despite the modern Pepsi branding. 

I walked into the 1970s era Taco Tico building on a Saturday evening to discover a mostly full, tiny dining room full of maskless diners and a maskless staff working behind a recently-added plexiglass partition at the counter. I stood, masked, in the order line of mostly maskless people ordered, and took a seat to wait for my number to be called as I watched new maskless customers, representing a surprisingly diverse selection of ages and ethnicities enter the building and stand in the order line. I suspect that since Indiana and other nearby states were spared from the recent surge in cases that hit Michigan earlier this spring, the locals see wearing a mask as less of a priority, regardless of their political affiliation. It really shouldn’t have been a political issue to begin with anyway. Still, after a year of masking up, social distancing, and not so silently judging anyone who didn’t, sitting in the crowded dining room waiting for my food as more and more air-sucking, droplet-exhaling disgusting squishy human bodies entered the little trapezoidal faux-pueblo, I found myself feeling more and more uneasy. 

My table had a peeling top and graphics by Powerpoint.

I took the opportunity to use one of the grounding techniques I had discussed with my therapist for exactly this kind of situation, and began to assess my surroundings, identifying individual items in the room, and silently noting them in my head. I took the time to look at, and appreciate the large, taco-shaped window at the front of the building, then the ancient wrought iron lamps hanging from the vintage drop ceiling. It was around the time that I noticed the prints of stylized cacti hanging on the opposite wall that I realized that the dining room was largely unmodified. Even the Taco Ticos I grew up with in Kentucky that likely last had major redecorating done in the late ‘80s were not this original. I wouldn’t have dreamed of walking into this place were I not fully vaccinated, but I’m glad I did. The original decor was well worth the six bucks and change I paid for a taco, sancho, “cinnamon chips” and a Diet Pepsi. 

The cactus pictures and funky frames calmed me right down. 

The food occupied the opposite end of the Taco Tico Authenticity Spectrum from the building. While I was pleased to see they had a sancho (essentially a burrito shell stuffed with taco ingredients) on the menu, it came on a little disposable tray, not in a wrapper as Taco Tico would serve it. I suspect most Sanchos here are served covered in an enchilada sauce (“Deluxe” in Taco Tico speak, “Wet” in Taco Casita parlance) as the Sancho I ate had an unusually dry and brittle flour tortilla shell that would have benefited from some extra sauce, whereas Taco Tico sancho wrappings are always soft, pliable, and pleasantly chewy. The Taco Casita sancho fell apart when I tried to pick it up and eat it as I would its Taco Tico counterpart. It's most noticeable characteristic however was its flatness. The sanchos I've come to know are almost perfect tubes of deliciousness. This one looked like it had been run over by a taco truck. The sancho appeared to have been microwaved lettuce and all, which is not to say that Chef Mike has never been employed at Taco Tico, but they know enough there to microwave the meat separate from the tortilla and toppings. Unfortunately, the flavor of the meat bore no resemblance to Taco Tico’s signature blend. Rather, it tasted like Taco Bell’s meat with a few glugs of Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce added to the pot. 

That's a sancho on the right, not an extra napkin. 

The taco at least looked the part of a Taco Tico product with its unevenly folded hard tortilla and half tomato slice, but the salsa on the taco overpowered the flavor of the meat, rather than working with it in transcendent fast food harmony the way Taco Tico sauce does with Taco Tico meat. 

The taco looks the part, but fails to deliver Taco Tico flavor. 

Weirdly enough, while the cinnamon chips were quite unlike Taco Tico’s analog Cinnamon Crustos, I liked them better. The fried bits of tortilla were softer, a little greasier, and had a more complex flavor than the ones at Taco Tico. I suspect Taco Tico’s crustos only get seasoned with cinnamon and sugar, but the cinnamon chips at Taco Casita also had hints of nutmeg and allspice. I suspect they’re seasoned with sugar and a premixed apple pie spice, and the flavor, and texture work really well together. They were the only menu item I bothered finishing after a long day of eating. 

Order the cinnamon chips though, and you'll be glad you did. 

So is Taco Casita a bootleg Taco Tico? I’d have to say no. There’s more than a passing resemblance in the menu, and the building is a must see for any hardcore Taco Tico fan, but the food tastes little like the Taco Tico menu items that inspired it. What makes Taco Casita worth a stop for broken chain enthusiasts is the intact nature of the vintage Taco Tico building and the legitimately delicious cinnamon chips. There is, however, still hope of a better approximation of Taco Tico in Terre Haute. 

Terre Haute's other former Taco Tico/Casita, now closed. 

There were once two Taco Ticos in Terre Haute, and both became Taco Casita at some point before I was alerted to their presence, however, the second location closed permanently, in a way making Taco Casita a miniature broken chain having lost 50% of its locations. We can all keep our fingers crossed that some enterprising individual or group might move into that empty, but similar building, and open a legitimate Taco Tico, or at least a more convincing imitation, and keep the interior intact to create an immensely authentic vintage Taco Tico experience. 

With my pandemic-related hackles mostly lowered, I concluded my meal, and put my mask back on. I was making some notes on my phone as my favorite David Allan Coe song came on the decades-old wall-mounted speakers. 

It was then I sent a text to my good friend Sid Hoffman, and I told him that I was about to write the perfect Broken Chains post.  Well, he texted me back and told me it wouldn’t be the perfect Broken Chains post if I didn’t say anything about olive burgers, or G.D. Ritzy’s, or Ford Festivas, or if I didn’t make any silly rhymes. Well, I sat down and wrote another paragraph, and after reading it, I realized I had written the perfect Broken Chains post, and I felt obliged to include it here. The last paragraph goes like this:

Well I made a burger, but I was fresh out of olives. 

So I went to pick some up in the rain. 

But as I drove past G.D. Ritzy’s in my Festiva. 

I saw a guy who looked kind of like Conrad Bain. 

And I’ll eat up all the tacos down at Tico

And I never minded sanchos with no sauce. 

But you don’t have to feed me tacos, Casita. 

Because you didn’t try to copy Wichita’s.

Broken Chains on Facebook Broken Chains Store

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Fit to Rejoin Society?

Ernest T. Bass isn't the timeliest reference, I'll admit. For those not in the know, he's a tertiary character from the Andy Griffith Show.  

Over the past 14 months or so, I’ve tried to keep the pandemic talk, or rather bemoaning the realities of living through a pandemic to a minimum. With my travel and restaurant-based writing prompts suddenly limited, I figured my role in the ongoing crisis was to provide a distraction from the world with what little motivation to write that I had. The last thing my loyal readers needed was a year’s worth of “Woe is me!” blog posts from an objectively privileged perspective, so I hunkered down and tried to write and post something silly once a month or so to give anyone reading a brief moment of diversion, if not happiness. 

I’ve been called a loner, hermit, and recluse more times than I care to admit, but I prefer to think of myself as an “Extreme introvert.” As such, I was well-suited for the lifestyle we all suddenly had to adopt late last winter. The only person I saw regularly was my partner, Esmeralda Fitzmonster. I was able to do my day job 95% from home. All my shopping was done online, and necessities were delivered to my door or loaded in the back of my car by the essential workers who were doing well more than their fair share of work to keep society functioning. The only pieces of my old life I really missed were road trips and restaurants, two pastimes that had given me quite a bit of joy since long before I started my ridiculous blog about endangered chain restaurants. 

March 10, 2020 was the last time I ate in a restaurant that I can recall. I gave up shopping for groceries in stores sometime last summer. My distaste for small talk led me to begin cutting my own hair long before DIY grooming became a pandemic-driven necessity, and not having to work daily in an office environment meant I could grow a majestic mullet and beard. (I stopped shaving around the same time I stopped going into grocery stores.) In short, I had gone full Howard Hughes, and my newfound levels of reclusiveness might have spiraled into a Grey Gardens scenario had Esmeralda not been around to remind me to bathe and help her clean up around the house occasionally. I share these details, not because I think I’m unique in these experiences. We’ve all had a long year of uncertainty, sweat pants, and sourdough. Instead, I’m discussing the weirdest year of my life because I now find myself in a time of transition that countless others are also in or will soon be, and my dumb blog feels like as good a place as any to process my feelings. 

As of this week, I am considered fully vaccinated per the CDC’s guidelines, and I find myself consulting the imaginary parole board that lives in my brain to determine if I’m fit to rejoin society. In the time in between my first and second shots, questions of what I could and couldn’t do safely in a few weeks time monopolized my thoughts during my free moments, and I had serious concerns about my ability to conduct myself appropriately in civilized society. I wasn’t sure I still possessed the ability to interact with people out in the world. I was more than a little concerned I’d run around throwing rocks at windows and laughing giddily like Ernest T. Bass the second I tried to venture back out into the world. 

After a great deal of consideration, I concluded that it would be safe, ethical, and honorable for me to start doing my own grocery shopping in-store, eating in restaurants, and traveling domestically again once I had obtained the prerequisite antibodies. My thought process was that as essential workers, anyone I encountered working in a restaurant, hotel, or retail store has very likely at least had the opportunity to be vaccinated, and any other customers I encountered were there by choice whether they were vaccinated or not. Coupled with my strict adherence to masking up to protect those around me and the preliminary indications that it is more difficult for vaccinated people to be carriers, I concluded that I could resume something resembling my old pre-pandemic hobby of seeking out and visiting the surviving locations of broken chains. My body was ready, but was my brain?

I decided to start out slowly only yesterday, with a trip to my favorite local big box store for my first in-store grocery run in nearly a year. I’ll spare you the mundane details of exactly what went down, but the shopping trip didn’t go as well as I had hoped, and I was probably at least 51% to blame. Thankfully, no rocks were thrown by me or anyone else, and I made a promise to myself that I’d get right back on the proverbial horse and ride it to a restaurant with the intention of dining in. 

Carving beef since 1957

Today, I made good on that promise and had a late lunch/early dinner in Royal Oak, Michigan at the last operating Sign of the Beefcarver, the sole remaining holdout of a chain of roast beef-focused cafeterias that once had around 20 locations in and around Detroit and Chicago. Thorough Broken Chains readers will recall I visited and wrote about them in the early days of this blog. Given their broken chain status, Sign of the Beefcarver seemed a fitting place to dip my toe back into the figurative au jus of being a fully-functional member of society, but I felt no small amount of trepidation about dining in for the first time in over a year. Would I say or do something rude, offensive, or illegal like literally dipping my literal toe in the literal au jus? Would eating somewhere other than my house or car feel completely foreign to me? Would I be able to remove my mask long enough to shovel food into my face without worrying about endangering anyone else in the building? These were the thoughts that haunted my drive to Royal Oak this afternoon.

I was relieved to learn my concerns were mostly unfounded. I feel I was able to conduct myself reasonably well; I was at least able to keep my toes and various other appendages out of the serving trays. My largest faux pas was when the employee tasked with carrying my heavy cafeteria tray to my table asked me to step to the left so he could pick up said tray, I stepped to the right and had to be reminded to step to the other left. There were a couple of instances where I was eating while maskless that members of the very attentive staff approached my table, masked, to make sure my food tasted alright and my glass of Diet Pepsi was sufficiently full, and I wasn’t able to react quickly enough to put my own mask on. I felt weird about possibly endangering them, but I took a moment to remind myself that they were probably vaccinated, or at least, unvaccinated by choice. 

This meal made me feel things. 

It was still the same old Beefcarver with only minimal nods to present circumstances, such as clear plastic dividers along the serving line separating employees from the public and chairs removed from half the tables to limit capacity. There were no other diners in my immediate vicinity, and it felt reasonable and safe, at least from my antibody-rich perspective. My only real disappointment was when I noticed the self-serve pickle and beet station was bare, but an employee noticed me noticing and was quick to offer to bring pre-packaged pickles and beets from a nearby mini fridge to my table, along with the horseradish I requested. I even ordered exactly the same thing I had ordered when I wrote the initial Sign of the Beefcarver Broken Chains post, mostly by accident. It was all a welcome taste of normalcy, and I found myself feeling uncharacteristically emotional halfway through the meal. I was suddenly past what seemed to be the nadir of pandemic-related weirdness, and the catharsis was hitting me before I had even tasted my blueberry pie. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice I was going through something, and the meal was largely uneventful. 

Pickles and beets, pickles and beets! I gotta get me some pickles and beets!

I apologize for not taking more pictures, but I had covered Sign of the Beefcarver before, and I am not yet confident in my ability to photograph restaurant interiors covertly after a year of letting my sneaky camera skills atrophy. It’s something I’ll work on in the near future, as I’ve tentatively planned several trips to some broken chains I’ve not yet explored as well as an old favorite or two. Stay tuned, and check back often. The reopening of Broken Chains is upon us. Please wish me luck, and feel free to point out any flaws in my logic regarding the ethics of travelling and eating in restaurants. The last thing I want is for my frivolity to endanger the health of any non-consenting parties. 

On that high note, I’ll conclude. Thank you for your continued readership and for tolerating the sparse, increasingly silly posts. Stay safe, mask up, and get vaccinated!

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Alphabetical Broken Chain Directory

Photo Courtesy of the Orange County Archives

lliteration and assonance abound after abundant accounts of amazement about adventures abroad and appetizers I ate at Arthur Treacher’s and Azars. 

Brother, I was blown away by breakthroughs of bootleg Burger Chefs, brimming with beef bought at Bonanza, buzzed by Budweiser from Bennigan’s, but bummed by Big Boy’s buffet. Blimpie, by the by, baked bread while bums begged for beer at B-K. Ben Franklin bagged bountiful bric-a-brac, but blackberries from Backyard Burgers brought about bemusement. Barnrd’s bland beef, begat more bummers, but Big Cheese and Bakers Square were better than bad. 

Clancy’s cartoon cops and classic cooking contrasted Country School’s crummy chicken. I crossed a cavalcade of counties for Country Kitchen and a circus of cities for Cici’s and Central Park. 

Down the road, I dined at Don Pablo’s days before its demise, downed dogs at the Daly Drive In, Drove down to Druthers and droned-on about my dad’s date at Darryl’s. Dog ‘n Suds distributed different dogs, and Dutch Pantry did the same with dinner and donuts. I then devoured a dozen additional at Dawn Donuts and Donut Connection before I watched Detroit lose to Dallas at the dearly departed Damon’s north of Dayton. 

Eat ‘n Park evoked ethereal etchings of Elias Bros and Elby’s, and Empress Chili was the exemplar of all chili establishments from East Liverpool to Elizabethtown. Eating at Embers evoked the essence of Emily, Eunice, Ethel, Emma, Everett, Ensign, Evergreen, Englemein, and, Eskwagama, eight of eleven thousand lakes. 

Frostops in four states filled me with fixins and foam, and the Frisch’s franchise fed me fries and more fine food than Fyvush Finkle could flap a flounder at. 

Graydon’s grand G.D. Ritzy’s galvanized my globe-trotting to grizzled grills and generating glyphs about greens, grits, and gravy. Garfield’s guided me to a still-going Sam Goody. (Goody got it!) Going to Ground Round granted a glimpse of generational gustation, and Grandy’s got me grousing about great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts.

Heck, my homeboy from historic Houston haunted the hallowed halls of House of Pies, and the chili at Happy Chef made Hormel seem heavenly. Howard Johnson hotels proved historic, if hellish. Hot ‘n Now, Halo Burger, and Henry’s hucked and hawked hamburgers by the hundreds while Horne’s and Hen House hang on as hackneyed and haggard highway hosts. 

Isaly’s intensity intimidated my initiative to imbibe ice cream despite being inviting and inversely inedible. 

Jovially, I judged my journey to Jerry’s far from jinxed. It left me joyous as Joan Jett, not jeering like J. Jonah Jameson. 

Kewpee is keen on kitschy kinder. Kuku keeps its kitchen kicking, while Kmart is keeling over, kind of killed. 

Look, on the lam like Lyle Lanley, I had a last look at Lone Star Steakhouse, now lost and lifeless. Likewise, Lucky Steer left me largely languid and feeling lucky to be leaving after lunch. 

Morrison’s Cafeteria made me miss my monotonous family mall meals, while Maid Rite, Miner Dunn, Mister Kwik, and Max and Erma’s manufactured masterpieces made of meat. I masticated Maryland Fried Chicken in Michigan, home of Marshall Mathers, and made haste to the last Mister Donut west of Manilla. I met the mistress of Minute Man, and MCL’s manager made a merry mood for me and my mate, Matty-Mark Matlock, but the mediocre meal made for a mammoth meh. 

Nickerson Farms, now not quite nonexistent; a neo-Nickerson’s nurtures nightly noshers and their Nissans, Nashes, and Novas just off ninety-six notwithstanding non-Nixonian nays from the nattering nabobs of negativism. 

Ollie’s Trolley was an ostentatious outhouse whose ostensible opulence omitted ottomans while Omelet Shoppe obliged my obsessions with the outpourings of overproducing ovaries. 

Pappy’s Family Pub produced pizza and poured pitchers of pilsner for the people of podunk Pennsylvania while Ponderosa proceeded to pillage my pockets and perturb my pancreas. Po’ Folks perniciously parodies pauperdom in Pensacola and Pinellas, sure as I plagiarized poetry from the pitter patter pals. 

Quarantine quietly quashed my quite quixotic and quirky quest to Quincy’s Family Steakhouse quicker than Quetzalcoatl in a Qvale. 

Rabidly, I reveled in the radiant and rampant roasts from Rax and Roy Rogers, and reviewed the rheostats and resistors at Radio Shack. Ritzee was as revolting as a rhombus is round, and my Roly Poly report is as ridiculous as Rita Rudner. 

Sweet Sally Struthers! Sears is sorrowfully and slowly sinking while Sirloin Stockade serves up slop from a silo. Spageddie’s was too late to be saved by the screeching singer of “Subdivisions,” and the single surviving Sign of the Beefcarver serves Salisbury steak and sides to the septuagenarians and the senile alike. Spudnuts slings sweet spirals. Shoney’s survives in the South, and Stuckey’s sells pecan sandies, super-unleaded, and seashells down by the seashore.  

True, I’ve traveled to two trios of Taco Ticos, but it took a trip toward Topeka to turn my tastes toward Taco Grande, who taught Taco Tico to turn out tasty, tangy tortillas topped with tomatoes and tallow. I totally took the time to try Tastee Freez too 

Utter unacceptability at Uncle John’s Pancake House underscored my umbridge with unheated bacon despite unique unicycles, ungainly umbrellas, and undergrown ukuleles upright on the walls.  

Verily, I’ve never ventured, in my Volvo, van, Volkswagen, nor any vehicle to visit the vestibule of a venture starting with V. 

Whistfully, I wandered a winding way to Wiener King, which was wonderful. White Tower, a White Castle wannabe wasn’t a waste, whilst Western Sizzlin was well worth the wampum. 

Xylophone Xavier’s Xiaolongbao Xanadu is a restaurant that never eXisted, but XXX Root Beer is eXtant. 

Yo, I yammered about yams, yeast, and yak served ye olde York Steak House, yielding to the yeomen of yesteryear. Youngish Yodelers on Yelp yelled, “Yum!”

Zoinks! With Zayres numbering zilch and zero Zeller’s left in the zone of Živojinović, I zoomed my Zamboni to Zantigo and zipped my Zimmer to Zesto for my zine.

Zestfully yours,

Monday, December 28, 2020

A Narrative From When I Was Tiny

Back when my raging social anxiety and moderate misanthropy were my only obstacles to in-person social interaction, I would often be asked how my interest in tracking down the surviving locations of mostly defunct restaurant, and occasionally, retail chains began. In many answerings of this and similar questions, I honed a boilerplate response that would be something to the effect of, “I liked to eat at Taco Tico and G.D. Ritzy’s when I was a kid in the ‘90s in Kentucky. All the locations of those two chains near me closed at around the same time, and when I discovered, years later, that there were surviving locations of both chains, it made me wonder what other survivors may be out there.” I’d then credit the late, great Evil Sam Graham’s work in the fast food blogosphere for being my inspiration to document my adventures in writing, and then excuse myself from the conversation as graciously as possible in accordance with the aforementioned social anxiety and my strict upbringing in a culture of honor. 

While my carefully crafted response was the truth and nothing but the truth, however, it did not reflect the whole truth. It showcased merely the most prominent threads in the tapestry of my fixation on anachronistic restaurants and stores. In actuality, a veritable panoply of experiences led to me becoming the very specific type of nerd that I am today, and since I can’t exactly take a multistate road trip to eat inside a restaurant without posing a significant risk to myself and others these days, I thought I’d reminisce about one of my earliest experiences visiting a surviving location of a broken chain instead. 

It was my Aunt Sis who introduced me to G.D. Ritzy’s in the early 1990s, shortly before it became a broken chain. She was often gracious enough to take me and my younger brother on various outings, not only to G.D. Ritzy’s but also to movies and on Christmas shopping trips anytime my parents required respite from the daily horrors of raising children. One day out with Aunt Sis in particular sticks out in my mind as one of my earliest, perhaps my first encounter with what was then a broken chain. 

During my elementary school years, Aunt Sis’s mother, my paternal grandmother, Granny Nova Scotia Actionsdower was in her late 70s, living alone in Stanford, Kentucky. My father and aunt would each try and make the drive down from the Lexington area once a week to check in on her and help with household chores, as did her other son, my uncle, and my numerous adult cousins, all of whom lived nearby in and around Stanford. On a spring day in the mid 1990s, Aunt Sis saw fit to bring me along on a trip to Granny Nova Scotia's house instead of our usual lunch and movie, perhaps in an effort to assassinate two proverbial pigeons with the same pyrite. Even in her prime, Granny was a mediocre driver, and she relied on friends and family to chauffeur her on out of town excursions by the time she was deep into her retirement years. 

Granny was an avid collector of S&H Green Stamps, trading stamps used as a marketing tool by various small businesses to various extents throughout the 20th century and to almost no extent by the dawn of the 21st. The stamps were sold in bulk to business owners who would then give them out to customers in proportion to the dollar amount of their transactions in an effort to attract new customers and encourage existing ones to spend more. Customers then collected the stamps, often pasting them by the hundred in special green stamp books. They could then trade them for items from the S&H Green Stamp catalogs as well as brick and mortar Green Stamp stores. If you’ve ever saved Pepsi points, Camel Cash, or any chain restaurant loyalty points, the concept is similar, except, multiple unrelated businesses gave out Green Stamps and/or other brands of trading stamps regardless of which items a customer purchased. Trading stamps gradually began to fall out of fashion in the 1970s, and things like rewards credit cards serve a similar function today. 

Back in the mid 1990s with Aunt Sis and Granny Nova Scotia, Green Stamps still existed, but were clearly a relic of another time and not long for this world, not unlike Granny Nova Scotia herself. The only business I ever witnessed handing out Green Stamps was the bizarrely old fashioned pharmacy in my hometown that still had a working art deco soda fountain and lunch counter and shelves stocked with decades-old brittle and yellowed packages of Brylcreem and Ipana. Naturally, Granny Nova Scotia enlisted my father to have all of her prescriptions filled by the crusty old pharmacist who ran the place just like his crustier older father before him so she could reap the Green Stamp rewards. She had likewise enlisted Aunt Sis to drive her 35 miles south to Somerset Kentucky on the day in question, with me in tow, to the nearest Green Stamp store, which had recently announced its impeding permanent closure. 

Truth be told, I don’t remember much about the visit to the store itself other than vague memories of standing in a long line amid half-bare shelves in some tiny, nondescript storefront in a strip mall, but the experience gave me a lasting appreciation of the then vanishing, now extinct, concept of trading stamps and perhaps also instilled in me an interest in tracking down the businesses that offer a glimpse into a different time, and whose brands still manage to exist in some small way despite overwhelming odds to the contrary. It was then that I had my earliest inkling about the broken chains that may still be out there hiding in plain sight. I like to think I had the foresight to make a mental note to look into that 20 to 25 years later, but I very likely didn't. 

As if to really emphasize the lesson that a handful surviving locations of a chain often last long past the majority of their brethren, our next stop after Granny cashed in her Green Stamps was at the Somerset Kmart. Granny At the time, Kmart was still a relevant retail brand, merely approaching the precipice of its ultimate decline, but I recall the visit to that Kmart being a nostalgic experience for me even at the tender age of 8 or 9 since the only Kmart my family would ever visit with any regularity was the one in Nicholasville which had closed a year or two before. 

It was late in 2018  when I learned that the Somerset Kmart was still open for business, and was the only Kmart I had visited as a child that was still in operation. It was Memorial Day weekend 2019 by the time I paid the store a visit, which turned out to be well-timed, as its liquidation and closure were announced only a few weeks later, along with the only other surviving Kentucky Kmart in Erlanger. I’ve visited and documented many doomed Kmarts over the years, and I took a walk through the store executing the routine photography protocol I had developed over the course of countless Kmart runs. I was saving the pictures for a rainy day, and since this year has been a deluge, now seems as good a time as any to share images of the Somerset Kmart near the end. 

A sign adorned with branded word salad greeted me in the parking lot.

The exterior was in decent shape by Kmart standards. 

These cart corral signs are usually weathered and faded, not so here. 

The garden center was even operational, a rarity at the time. I'd be surprised to hear there are any Kmarts that still have operational garden centers these days. 

There might still be a Kmart pharmacy or two kicking around though. 

More Pharmacy marked by classic Kmart signage.

It's been a year and a half, so I can't be sure, but I think I took this picture so I could mention that the alleged discount price was dropped from a grossly inflated one, and was still comparatively high. I had bought a comparable freezer from Menards earlier that year at full price, which was well below $200. 

More classic, if inaccurate signage. I haven't seen actual music and video in a Kmart music and video section in years. 

Most Kmarts have these giant round ceiling vents. I try to photograph one in every store I visit. I remember seeing them in more places years ago, but they've mostly vanished from everywhere but Kmart thanks to their perpetually delayed store upgrades and maintenance.  

Starting around the 2018 bankruptcy, Sears and Kmart really had trouble convincing their suppliers they could pay for merchandise. Bare shelves abounded as a result. 

This is the typical appearance of a Kmart soft drink aisle. This picture is from the spring of 2019, long before panic buying became a thing. 

This was a blatant lie, unless they meant that the sales floor would be completely empty and the store closed by the end of the year. 

The Die Hard automotive battery shelf has been nearly empty at every Kmart I've visited in recent memory. One of Sears/Kmart's last assets of any value, the Die Hard brand has since been sold to Advance Auto Parts as part of CEO Eddie Lampert's years-long quest to profit off the lumbering decline of the Sears and Kmart brands. 

Again, it was late May in Kentucky on the day of my visit. The temperature outside was close to 90 degrees, but the Somerset Kmart had plenty of rock salt and snow shovels for sale at full price. 

Plastic totes spread out to hide bare shelves; this was a common site at many of the Kmarts I've visited. It probably still is, but I haven't been to a Kmart in almost a year. 

The Layaway counter likely looked exactly as it did when I was last here during the first term of the Clinton administration. 

Every Kmart has a breakfast nook on display. Who buys them? Nobody knows. 

It wasn't all snow shovels and rock salt. To their credit, they did have a nice display of patio furniture and Kenmore-branded grills. I don't believe Fast Eddie has sold off the Kenmore brand... yet. 

Florescent lighting always looks bleakest in a Kmart. 

As with all my Kmart visits, I try to spend a little money while I'm there gawking. 

The furniture department didn't look half bad. 

This was once the in-store cafe. It was off to one side, though I remember it being at the back of the store. I'm probably wrong though. I was only there once 25 years ago. 

But that’s not all! In January of this year, my beloved Esmeralda Fitzmonster and I took a trip to South Florida, and we managed to visit two of the three operating Kmarts in the Florida Keys. Most people would probably regret spending their last vacation in the final carefree days before cataclysm gripped the world shopping at Kmart, but I am not most people, and Esmeralda was and continues to be a good sport about my various quirks and flaws. In accordance with Broken Chains year-end tradition, below are a selection of photos of those two island Kmarts, who along with around 35 other locations spread far and wide across the U.S. and its territories are the last that have managed to stay in operation. 

Kmart in Key Largo; not pictured are the wild chickens that roamed the parking lot. 

It was the first time I had encountered these cylindrical department signs. They're apparently part of a rare decor package, and I'm the kind of guy who gets excited about that type of thing. 

Remember before when I said every Kmart had a breakfast nook on display? The one in Somerset was $100 cheaper. 

Another rare, if inaccurate, cylindrical department sign. 

The Marathon Kmart is unique in that it has a massive section of the store devoted to fishing equipment and is adorned with an ocean-themed mural. 

Mural detail 

They still had plenty of Christmas wrapping paper out on MLK Day weekend, but it was at least marked down. 

The Kmarts in the Keys were among the nicest I've visited in recent memory. While definitely dated, they still felt functional, serving tourists and locals alike. Hopefully the lack of competition in the area will keep the Key Largo, Marathon, and Key West Kmarts going a while longer. 

That's it for 2020 blog posts. I'm going to try to post at least once per month moving forward, and I hope to be able to hit the road again and return to something closer to my five post per month schedule once things are a little more normal, hopefully sometime in 2021. Thanks for sticking with me during the weird times.