John Y. Brown Jr. is a figure in fast food history I’ve discussed before. During his long career as a lawyer, restaurateur, businessman, and politician, he had proverbial fingers in many proverbial pies. The Lexington, Kentucky native worked his way through the University of Kentucky as a door to door salesman, eventually earning a law degree. When the fast food industry was exploding in the early sixties, Brown and his wife Eleanor operated a small chain of barbecue restaurants. Brown’s experience in foodservice led to him meeting Colonel Harland Sanders at a political event in 1963, and eventually convincing venture capitalist Jack C. Massey to buy the entire KFC enterprise from the Colonel while keeping Sanders on the company payroll as a spokesman. With Brown as chairman KFC’s business model transformed from a chicken recipe sold to franchisees to be prepared and sold in otherwise independent sit-down restaurants to the traditional fast food concept that survives today.
Brown and Massey sold the KFC brand in 1971, the same year a group of investors led by Brown purchased the Lum’s restaurant chain from brothers Stuart and Clifford Perlman, who had purchased Caesar’s Palace a couple of years earlier. Lum’s origins can be traced to 1956 when the aforementioned Perlman brothers purchased a 16 seat hot dog stand in Miami beach. Lum’s evolved into an early fast casual chain, peaking at around 450 locations. Hot dogs steamed in beer were their signature menu item. When John Y. Brown took over the helm at Lum’s, he concluded that the menu needed additional distinctive items beyond lager-soaked weiners. Those of you who read my piece on Arthur Treacher’s will no doubt remember that the marketing strategies of most chains influenced by Brown all featured a Colonel Sandersesque spokesperson, and once Brown took over, Lum’s was no exception.
Enter Ollie Gleichenhaus, a notoriously cranky Miami restaurateur, whom Brown hired. Gleichenhaus brought with him his signature Ollieburger, a hamburger marinated in 23 secret herbs and spices. Sound familiar? Brown’s strategy was for Ollie to be the Colonel Sanders of Hamburgers, and 23 herbs and spices sounds much more impressive than the Colonel’s eleven. The Ollieburger was marketed as the “World’s best hamburger.” With Ollie on board, Lum’s locations began selling Ollieburgers and Ollie Fries, fries tossed in Ollie’s spice blend, alongside the beer-steamed franks. In 1979, Brown sold Lum’s to Weinerwald, a Swiss restaurant company known for schnitzel, not weiners. Brown ran for the office of Governor and Kentucky in 1979 and won. Weinerwald, in turn, declared bankruptcy in 1982, forcing most Lum’s locations to close before the end of Brown’s single term in office.
So what’s the current state of Lum’s? The short answer is that there are none left. According to Wikipedia, the last holdout Lum’s location, located in Bellevue, Nebraska closed in May of 2017.
(I’m somewhat skeptical of this, as Wikipedia also says there are no White Tower restaurants left in operation, but I know of one in Toledo, Ohio that’s still open for business, albeit with a drastically altered menu.)
The long answer is that while Lum’s is gone it’s spinoff brand, Ollie’s Trolley lives on.
Ollie’s Trolley, was designed as an ultra-low cost, quick service, companion to Lum’s. Locations were tiny buildings designed to resemble trolley cars, occupying a footprint roughly equivalent to four medium-sized parking spaces. The diminutive restaurants began popping up in mostly urban settings in the mid seventies, selling Ollieburgers, Ollie fries, and not much else. There was no inside seating, and very limited, if any outside seating. Customers would enter a tiny room with an order counter at one side of the building to order. In a time when many fast food outlets were beginning to offer drive thru service, Ollie’s Trolley offered walk-up service only. The buildings were designed to be set up on small, cheap pieces of land, often existing parking lots, and I suspect the extra real estate and logistics needed for a drive thru would have defeated the purpose of the ultra basic concept. The first Trolleys opened in Louisville, Kentucky, and there were around 100 of them in operation at their peak. The lack of drive thru service and Weinerwald’s bankruptcy forced most Ollie’s Trolleys out of business by 1980. Near as I can tell, there are three left in operation, one in Washington D.C. which operates out of a more conventional storefront, and seems to market their Ollieburgers as a high end product, on par with Shake Shack. There’s also one in Cincinnati, still in the original trolley car building, which sells Ollieburgers and Ollie Fries in addition to an expanded menu. The third is located in Louisville, Kentucky, and seems to be the truest to the original concept. I opted to check out the Louisville location.
|No, it's not the Neighborhood of Make-Belive. It's Old Louisville.
|Menu or middle school science fair display?
The Louisville Trolley is located in the neighborhood known simply as Old Louisville. It’s situated on a corner near the sidewalk, and shares a lot with what looks to be a long-deserted gas station. I park a block away and walk to the corner. It’s about 1:00 PM on a Friday afternoon, and I’m somewhat surprised to see a line about 15 people long stretching from the building’s door. As I get in line, I note a beefy, spicy aroma in the air. The line, made up of older working class people and a few young hipster types, (I like to think I'm somewhere on the middle of that spectrum.) moves pretty quickly, and soon I squeeze my way inside the door. I knew the order counter area would be small, but I wasn’t prepared for just how small it would be. The entire space is maybe four feet by eight feet, and there are at least four other customers in there with me. The menu board is homemade and housed in a glass case on the wall. It reminds me of an elementary school bulletin board. There are a few burgers on the menu, which clearly defines what an Ollieburger is, and calls out which burgers are not Ollieburgers, to avoid confusion when ordering. I suspect most first-timers don't research the history of the Ollieburger to the extent I have. I order up an Ollieburger with everything on it, Ollie fries, an extra cup of Ollie sauce, and because I’m in Kentucky, a sweet tea. I pay with cash, the only payment option, and pick up my food at the next window, maybe two minutes later. I walk back to my van with my food.
|The long line certainly supports the "World's greatest hamburger" claim.
I suspect the Cajun fries they serve at Five Guys are influenced heavily by Ollie Fries. The spice mixture is similar, though not quite as hot as Five Guys. Ollie Fries are also crispier and cut a bit thinner. Just like Five Guys, my fries are on top of the bag, burying my burger. I eat a few and dip them in the Ollie Sauce until I can gracefully exhume my Ollieburger. The Ollie Sauce is an interesting take on the ubiquitous ketchup+mayo fast food special sauce. Rather than pickle chunks, there seem to be small pieces of pimento present, and maybe some of the Ollie spice blend too, though it’s hard to tell because my fries are also coated in the same spices. The sauce reminds me of the pimento cheese spread you see all over the South, but without the cheese, if that makes any sense. The elusive Ollieburger, is the main event, and it didn’t disappoint. The quarter pound patty is juicy with a complex savory flavor with hints of cayenne and celery salt. I think there’s some sage in there too. The texture is more tender than most burgers this size, but not unnervingly so, no doubt a product of Ollie’s marianating process. There’s a thick chunk of Mozzerella cheese and a generous portion of Ollie Sauce, and the flavors work pretty well together. I might forego the vegetables next time, as they seem to throw off the balance of flavors and textures a bit. I don’t know if it lives up to John Y. Brown’s world’s best hamburger hype, but it’s definitely unlike any burger experience I’ve had before, and was well worth seeking out. I’ll be back the next time I’m in Louisville.
|Ollie Fries, like Five Guys fries, but good.
|The Ollieburger, pretty tasty, and historically significant. Apprieciate it on all the levels I do!
The Ollieburger, with it’s brief fame, and quick descent into obscurity, is a bit like an aging one hit wonder musician. Eating at a still-operating Ollie’s Trolley in 2018, is a bit like stumbling upon said musician giving a rare, one night only performance in a dive bar. The listener/taster is afforded a rare glimpse into a brief moment of brilliance under the patina of several decades of obscurity. It’s these fleeting remnants of near-forgotten history that keep me on the road seeking out the remaining, intact links in otherwise broken chains.