Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hey, is that an old Ritzy's? G.D. right it is!

Lately, I’ve been playing a game with myself where I use Google Earth and Street view to attempt to spot former G.D. Ritzy’s locations. By virtue of the fact that I’m familiar with the rough outline of the one-time operating area, typical surroundings, and architecture, I’m pretty good at it.

The Huntington, West Virginia G.D. Ritzy's, as seen when I visited late last year.

G.D. Ritzy’s (sometimes just branded as Ritzy’s) was a chain of fast food restaurants that sprang up in Columbus, Ohio in the early eighties, and expanded outward, peaking at around 100 locations. The menu included the typical burgers and fries, but also unique items like steamed vegetables and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the additions of fresh strawberry slices and crushed salted peanuts. They also offered several flavors of hard ice cream, usually made in-house. A strong emphasis was placed on food quality with a nostalgic bent. Buildings were built in a neo-art deco style, with rounded corners and flourishes on the outside, and lots of stainless railings and hexagonal tile on the inside. At the early locations, G.D. Ritzy himself, a mascot sporting a bowler hat, no doubt named for chain founder Graydon D. Webb, would be enjoying the sheer luxury of the the sign.

The sign outside the still-operating Huntington, West Virginia Ritzy's.

Most G.D. Ritzy’s locations closed in the early nineties, ultimately leaving just six operating locations left, spread across three states. The collapse of Ritzy’s left a lot of relatively new, vacant buildings begging to be repurposed. They’re pretty easy to spot on Google Maps if you know what to look for.

Aerial view of a former Ritzy's; note the rounded upper right corner of the building.

G.D. Ritzy's: We have the meats!

Find a shopping center in a medium to large city in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, or West Virginia. Older shopping centers closer to malls or city centers often yield the best results. Look for a smallish, narrow, rectangular building, smaller than a Waffle House, but bigger than a Checker’s/Rally’s. (Ritzy's buildings made efficient use of space, and fit a kitchen, seating area, and restrooms into a surprisingly compact building to keep real estate costs down for franchisees.) If that building has one or two rounded corners, and evidence of a current or former drive thru, you’ve probably found an old G.D. Ritzy’s. You can confirm your find by zooming to street view in and looking for the round awnings that started life green, but may be any number of colors by now, the distinctive rounded buttress on the front of the building, a line of glass blocks at the base of the windows, or the exterior lamps hanging in gooseneck brackets. If your building has at least half of these attributes, it’s probably an old Ritzy’s.

The real fun starts when there’s an atypical building that may have been a G.D. Ritzy’s. Such a find sparks speculation and debate over why this one location in particular was different. This extra large building with typical Ritzy's flourishes is one such example. I suspect this location may have had a large ice cream production and/or storage facility on site to service multiple nearby Ritzy's locations.

So much room for activities!

The best part is you can play this game with virtually any commonly reproduced distinctive building that is likely to have changed in purpose. Converted Hot 'n Nows, A-Frame IHOPs, Howard Johnson's, or Stuckey's are all fun to try and spot on Google Earth. Give it a try today!

You can't fool me with that fancy new facade, Papa John! You're making pizza in a Ritzy's!

You see a lot of Hot Head Burritos locations in Ohio. You used to see a lot of G.D. Ritzy's in Ohio. This is the point on the graph where their respective lines intersect.

The '90s comedian wants to say since there's a Starbucks on every corner, there might as well be one in an old Ritzy's.

The self-serve frozen yogurt trend claims a G.D. Ritzy's.

Retro Roadtrip Part 3: P.S. Olive Juice

As I was getting dressed and ready to face the day after spending the night at the former Howard Johnson’s, now EconoLodge, I realized I had forgotten to pack deodorant. In order to remedy the situation and stick to the retro businesses only ethos of my trip, I drove 15 miles out of my way to Midland, Michigan so I could buy a stick of Old Spice in the late 1980s:

Seriously, visit a K Mart while you still can. It's like a living museum in there.
After I decided to stick with the 80s theme, and stopped by Burger 81 in Bay City for a late morning olive burger on my way out of town. Burger 81 was once one of two remaining locations in the Michigan-born Hot 'n Now chain. The owners had been planning to drop the dated Hot n Now concept, and a kitchen fire in 2016 afforded them the perfect opportunity to rebrand.

The menu and food is still fairly similar to Hot 'n Now, with the addition of donuts and additional shake flavors. The fries are curious segments of a spiral cut potato, and the infamous burger topped with chopped green olives, a regional delicacy, is still on the menu.

Hot n Now started in Lansing, Michigan and took the upper Midwest by storm in the mid 80s. Most locations were drive through only, allowing franchisees to spend less on real estate and overhead. This also enabled dirt cheap food prices. The chain gained popularity selling burgers, fries, and drinks for 39 cents each. Over the years, the chain changed hands multiple times, even briefly being owned by Pepsico. With each ownership change, locations closed, leaving vacant distinctive tall, angular buildings, (and slightly less common double drive thru buildings) dotting towns all over Michigan. There is precisely one location left still operating as a Hot n Now, located in Sturgis, Michigan. I’ve been there, of course, and am planning to go back so I can buy one of their T-shirts for my collection, but that’s another blog entry.

The number 81 refers to the total number of ingredients used in the kitchen
A well-maintained building, typical of a 1980s vintage Hot 'n Now location, albeit with a new color scheme. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Retro Roadtrip Part 2: Chasing the HoJo Mojo

I've sought out and visited a number of endangered chain restaurants, but Howard Johnson's will always be the one that got away. I never had the chance to visit the handful of holdout restaurant locations in the northeastern US before they closed up shop. With the recent criminal charges against the owner of the last remaining Howard Johnson's restaurant in Lake George, New York the restaurant's future is very much in question. HoJo aficionados will tell you without the commissary infrastructure supplying the signature ice cream flavors and fried clams, the Lake George restaurant wasn't a real Howard Johnson's anyway. 

Howard Johnson still exists as a hotel brand, of course, but it's a shadow of its former self. A series of of corporate mergers and acquisitions has left the Howard Johnson brand in the hands of Wyndham, who used the name for hotel properties converted from other brands. This move left Howard Johnson's with virtually no brand identity to two generations, including my own. I grew up in the nineties listening to stories my mother told of her childhood family vacations that would often involve meal or overnight stops at Howard Johnson's locations in their heyday. Wanting to capture a shred of the classic 1960s Howard Johnson experience, I set out to find a still-operating motel in a classic orange roof era HoJo building. With the help of orangeroof.org and some basic Googling, I found an EconoLodge in Bay City, Michigan operating out of a 1965-vintage Howard Johnson's motor lodge building. Like most locations of that era, there was a restaurant on site. It wasn't operational, but amazingly, it had never been anything other than a Howard Johnson's restaurant, even long after the motor lodge changed brands. Orangeroof.org reports that the restaurant was operational as recently as 2005. Upon learning all of this information, I spent $51 and booked a single occupancy room for one night.

For their time, the Howard Johnson motor lodges of the fifties and sixties were quite innovative. Their goal was to provide a comfortable and consistent experience for travellers. Most featured interior corridors, and a patio area for every room. Rooms had amenities, such as the bedside "Pamper Panel" which allowed guests to control all the lights in the room from a set of bedside switches. The panel also included a switch to turn the television on and off in an era before remote controls were standard. Likewise, it even featured an electrical outlet that was easily accessible, I assume for guests to plug in electric razors or early calculators. Guest bathrooms featured silent flush toilets, long countertops, and showers with upper and lower showerheads. Many of these features outlived the Howard Johnson sign in front the old motor lodges, and the Bay City EconoLodge was no exception.

The room I stayed in had been freshened many times in its 53 year existence. Wood paneling gave way to painted stucco. Light fixtures had been replaced and had LED bulbs. Carpets and furniture had been changed. The privacy screen by the bathroom door, and the second sink outside the bathroom had both been removed. In spite of all this, the room still had its share of HoJo mojo. The Pamper Panel was still there, and still worked to control all of the lights in the room individually. The TV switch was inoperative, but also unnecessary since the TV was a modern flatscreen with a remote. The Pamper Panel's outlet charged my iPhone just as it would have powered some weary travelling salesman's adding machine a half century earlier. Likewise, the dual showerheads were present, functional, and appeared original, as did the shower controls. The heat lamp switch was also original. There was even a disposal slot in the bathroom for old double edged razor blades.

Side note: I always found these disposal slots in old buildings novel, because they would just lead to a space between the wall studs and plaster. Over time, the wall would theoretically fill up with razor blades and couldn't be emptied. I suppose architects figured that buildings wouldn't last long enough for it to ever be an issue, and given how few people shave with double edged razors and their small size relative to the space where they'd be disposed of inside the walls, they were probably right in most cases. 

The exterior and grounds of the building were also reasonably well-preserved. The signature A-frame gate lodge was still standing and in use as a lobby and breakfast area, albeit with less glass than it originally had and plain gray asphalt shingles on the roof in place of bright orange metal ones. The pool area had been cemented over, and there was no courtyard to speak of, but plenty of hallway doors leading to it, hinting at the motor lodge's past glory. According to orangeroof.org, most of the restaurant's equipment and furniture, as well as its signature rooftop cupola was sold at auction a couple years ago, but the building still stands. I doubt it will be around much longer though, as most of the windows are broken or missing, and the interior of the restaurant is open to the elements. It's a bit surreal, considering it's attached to a still-operating motel. Still, it's one of the few Howard Johnson restaurant structures that hasn't been converted to something else, or demolished. There are a couple former HoJo restaurants near where I live, but both were converted decades ago. Being able to see a still standing unconverted structure, and even peer inside through window openings was a real thrill. There was even some heavily-weathered signage still out front, still advertising the signature 28 flavors of ice cream. The fact that any Howard Johnson's restaurant remained open in this century was a little bit remarkable.

At their peak in the mid seventies, there were over 500 US Howard Johnson restaurant locations, but like many of the first generation of interstate highway-adjacent chains, Howard Johnson's was hit hard in the seventies by oil embargoes limiting consumer travel and the increasing dominance of the national fast food chains. It was this downturn that forced the sale of the hotel and restaurant divisions. While Wyndham ended up with the hotel division, the restaurant division was acquired in the mid 1980s by Marriott, who at the time owned the Big Boy and Roy Rogers brands. Marriott had no desire to continue the Howard Johnson's restaurant brand, and acquired the chain mainly for the prime real estate near major highways. As a result corporate-owned Howard Johnson's locations were either demolished or converted to Marriott's restaurant brands. This move eliminated roughly three quarters of the US restaurants, leaving only the franchised locations still in operation.

The franchisees banded together and formed Franchise Associates Incorporated (FAI) to ensure their ability to maintain operations with standardized foods, decor, and fixtures. FAI was strong enough to maintain operations, but failed to evolve or expand the chain. No new restaurants opened during the FAI era, and as the restaurant concept became more and more dated, franchisees closed up shop, one by one, leaving only eight locations, mostly in the northeastern US when FAI ceased operations in 2005, the same year as the Bay City, Michigan restaurant. From then on, the fate of the Howard Johnson's restaurant brand was sealed, it was only a matter of time until they were all gone. Citing a decline in business, the Bangor, Maine location which many fans consider to be the last true Howard Johnson's restaurant closed its doors in 2016. I wish I could have had a true Howard Johnson experience before it was too late, but a night at the Bay City EconoLodge and a poke around the on-site abandoned restaurant was still a great way to spend a weekend.

The original, and mostly functional "Pamper Panel

An idea ahead of its time; the Pamper Panel, complete with outlet alongside a modern nightstand-mounted charging station
Original HoJo coat rack
Dual shower heads. I don't get the point, but maybe kids or leg-shavers would. 

Original shower lever. 

The bathroom counter is original. The toilet had been replaced. Upon seeing it, I exclaimed "Too bad it's a modern toilet." I'll probably never utter that phrase again. 
Razor blade disposal. I'm totally bringing my double edged razor the next time I stay here. 

Original heat lamp controls
Modern decor in a vintage building. Note the sloping ceiling. 

Faded sign and glory
Exterior of the restaurant. The roof is still orange under the snow, and you can see where the cupola once sat.

A patio for every room.
Insult to injury: A modern McDonald's is serving hungry travelers next door. 

Retro Roadtrip Part 1: Bees‽

Winter in Michigan is a maddening mix of alternating blizzards and thaws that occur in succession just slow enough that you forget about the existence of grass in between thaws. After a while, it all blends together into gray slush, thanks in no small part to the roads being inundated with enough rock salt to eat through the rocker panels of the average vehicle before it's even paid off. It's mid-February, and my tenth northern winter is drawing to a close. To celebrate, I took a trip. 

The American highway was a vastly different place fifty, even fifteen years ago. Urban sprawl was less sprawled. Chain restaurants, hotels, and gas stations were less ubiquitous, and the signs and buildings you'd see along the highways were completely different. I found myself with a free weekend, and with that free weekend, I decided to take a quick overnight trip, and patronize as many historical businesses as I could. (Historical, for the purposes of this blog shall henceforth be defined as having some past connection to an existing or defunct chain.) I get properly geeked out by visiting a business that used to be something else and finding little clues to the building's original use. There is an entire blog as well as a subreddit devoted to this. See Not Fooling Anybody and /r/notfoolinganybody. In the case of this trip, I set out to experience the closest possible facsimiles to experiences that I missed out on due to pesky things like chronology and geography.

My first stop, was Fowlerville Farms in Fowlerville, Michigan, about halfway between Detroit and Lansing along I-96. Fowlerville Farms is a gas station, truck stop, convenience store, and full-service restaurant all under one roof. It began life as a location of the now completely extinct Nickerson Farms chain. Nickerson Farms was the brainchild of I.J. Nickerson, a Stuckey's franchisee who started his own chain of proto-travel plazas in the mid sixties when Stuckey's wouldn't allow him to oprate a full-service restaurant in a Stuckey's location. At their peak, Fowlerville Farms had sixty or so locations, mostly along interstate highways. The steeply pitched red roofs on their Tudor-style buildings were easy to recognize. There isn't a lot of information about Nickerson Farms online, but near as I can tell, there were no locations left by the mid eighties. Like a lot of the chains that sprung up along the newly-built American Interstate system, the various fuel crises in the seventies, and the rise of national fast food chains slowly eroded the customer base and profit until they were forced to close their doors. Fowlerville Farms is an anomaly. Once the Nickerson Farms chain was no more, they simply changed their name, painted their red roof blue, and continued business as usual.


I stopped in for dinner and a tank of gas. While the building has undergone several renovations, it's basic layout is still the same. It feels small compared to a modern truck stop. The building is essentially split in half with a small convenience store on one side, and a restaurant on the other. The menu is fairly expansive, and I've never had a bad meal there. The ceiling is high and vaulted on the inside with exposed rafters. It makes sense that I've seen pictures of at least one former Nickerson Farms location turned into a church. A gimmick Nickerson Farms employed when they were in business was having live bees in a working plexiglass beehive producing honey for use in the restaurant and to be sold in the convenience store. There's no signs of bees at Fowlerville Farms, I imagine because intentionally having a large number of live bees on site sounds like it could only end with litigation. Still, a meal at Fowlerville Farms comes with hot bread with house-made honey butter, and you can buy honey from local farms in the classic plastic bear container at the register. Until recently, I assumed Fowlerville Farms to be the closest I could come to getting a modern-day Nickerson Farms experience, but I've recently heard of another former Nickerson's, still with a red roof and original gas canopy operating as a restaurant in central Ohio, but that's another blog entry. Stay tuned.

There's at least one Nickerson Farms fan blog out there with decent information including a list of every known Nickerson's location. If you're intrigued, or at least not completely bored by Nickerson Farms, stick around for my next entry about where I spent the night.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

You'd be Surprised at What Still Exists

Welcome to Broken Chains, where I plan to write about my travels to restaurants, hotels, and retail spaces that are part of, or connected to chains that are defunct, regional, or otherwise obscure. My intent is to share my odd hobby with anyone who is interested and to encounter as many obsolete consumer outlets as possible while learning a little bit about their history.