Saturday, May 26, 2018

What's Left of Lum's?

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.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Mideighties Times

My parents’ courtship in the late seventies was apparently full of shared meals at locations of what are now broken chains. I grew up hearing stories of my mother bringing Zantigo tacos home in her purse and forgetting about them for days. When we would visit Lexington, Kentucky’s Rupp Arena when the circus was in town, my father would point out the small shopping mall inside the arena building that once housed Lexington’s Magic Pan location where he and my mother would go to eat crepes and feel fancy. When my parents wanted to feel fancier than eating at Zantigo, but not Magic Pan fancy, York Steak House was their dining venue of choice. I don’t recall ever eating at a York as a kid, but I feel like I owe some small part of my existence to York Steak House.

The first York Steak House opened in 1966 partially in response to the success of Ponderosa. Locations were often built near shopping malls which were sprouting up at the same time, in order to attract hungry mall shoppers. The chain peaked just shy of 200 locations, mostly in the eastern U.S. Though the chain had cafeteria style service, an emphasis was placed on high quality ingredients and a memorable experience. Cashiers would relay orders to the kitchen verbally, in French, to give the place an exotic feel. In 1977, General Mills bought York and began making changes to increase profitability. They began cutting corners and added a salad bar, likely to cut down on labor costs. These changes coupled with the shopping mall building boom beginning to taper off resulted in growth of the brand stagnating. Most York Steak Houses closed in the late eighties.

That's a dead mall across the street from a thriving vintage chain restaurant. 

Today, there is a single York left in operation, located in Columbus, Ohio. It’s owner, Jay Bettin, a longtime York manager bought the restaurant in 1989 and operated independently as Jay’s York Steak House, dropping the Jay’s after the trademark on the York name expired. The mall across the street is completely empty and shuttered. A nearby casino is what draws customers in these days. I was recently in Columbus for a Festiva meet, and stopped by York for lunch on my way out of town.

The old building appears to be in great shape, and is striking in design.

I found my way to the York Steak House late on a Sunday morning a few minutes before they opened, which afforded me the chance to appreciate the exterior of the tan stucco building with its distinctive red mansard roof. The exterior signage definitely had a vintage feel and appeared in good condition. Upon entering the building, I was greeted by a massive menu board with backlit larger than life photos of every entree. The interior is a bit disorienting. The building’s parking lot and main entrance are at the rear, and you walk down a long corridor around the interior perimeter before reaching the order counter. The building also has no windows. I could see how so many have beloved York Steak House memories. The giant pictures of food, and the dim labyrinth up to the order counter certainly make strong contributions to an immersive and unique experience.

The next time a cranky relative complains about millennials taking pictures of their food, gently remind them that York Steak House did it first. 

Upon reaching the dated but clean stainless steel order counter, I order up York fillets, two small cuts of beef, each topped with an individual fried onion ring. Disappointingly, the cashier doesn’t yell my order to the kitchen in French, or any other language. Undeterred, I venture on down the serving line, picking up a piece of coconut cream pie from the dessert station, a plate for the still-in-use General Mills-era salad bar, and a glass, which I fill with ice and Orange Lavaburst Hi-C. Like many Ponderosa locations, York doesn’t serve alcohol, and I get Orange Lavaburst whenever I see it on tap, ever since McDonald’s stopped selling it. My final bill is $25 and change, not a bad price considering I ordered an expensive cut and got a dessert. I could have gotten an 8 ounce sirloin for half the price.
King in the castle, king in the castle! My wiiiife!
Even the trays are vintage here. 

I carry my logo-adorned antique tray with pie, a salad plate, silverware, and my brightly colored beverage out to the dining room and grab a seat. Like every other part of the building, the dining area appears perfectly preserved, as if encased in amber, just as the Evansville G.D. Ritzy’s were. Lighting is dim, and the walls are adorned with mouldings meant to resemble the battlements of a castle. Tables, chairs, and booths all appear original, but have no doubt been recovered. I pick up my empty plate and head to the salad bar and was delighted to find that the salad ingredients were just as stuck in time as the rest of the place. Instead of fancy mixes of romaine and spinach, the only leafy greens present was shredded iceberg lettuce. Fake bacon bits were also present, along with carrot shreds and thin tomato slices that appeared to have been cut in-house. No labor-saving cherry tomatoes or pre shredded carrots here, because they weren’t commonly used in the ‘80s. In addition to a handful of other raw vegetables, there were also individual cups of Jell-O, marked by an engraved sign that looked older than I am informing the world that the red Jell-O is now sugar free. I load up a plate with a salad and snag some green Jell-O and head back to my table. I had just finished watching Wild Wild Country and idly thought about how this 1980s salad bar was probably a lot like the 1980s salad bars in Oregon that the Rajneeshees poisoned. The dining room has begun to fill up, mostly with older people and families. I don’t see anyone wearing varying reds and maroons hanging around though, so I keep eating undeterred.
I want onion rings on top of all my food from now on. 

Just as I’m finishing my salad, the server brings out my steak along with a baked potato and a dense yeasty roll the size of a hamburger bun. I’m delighted to see that everything looks exactly as it did on the menu board, including the onion rings on my steaks. The meat is tender and flavorful, well worth the price. The pie is pretty good too, and I can’t help but feel that I’ve had a genuinely unique dining experience as I walk out to my car, just as countless other York Steak House diners have felt before me.

Like the last Hot ‘n Now, the last York Steak House is impeccably run and beautifully maintained. haven’t had much desire to go back to Ponderosa since writing about them, but I’ll definitely go back to York Steak House the next time I’m in Columbus. I’ll have to figure out a way to get two meals in the same trip though because the Webbs have really been making progress on their new G.D. Ritzy’s on the north side of town. I’m hoping it will be open this summer. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Riding Fences at the Ponderosa Part 3: Ol' Green Sign and the Fool's Gold Corral

The Ponderosa sign of my youth, still in use in West Branch, Michigan. 

Modern restaurants really need more buttresses. 

Following my lunch at the Bay City Ponderosa, I made a stop or two you may hear about later on in future updates, after which I pulled into the West Branch, Michigan Ponderosa for dinner. This is the only purpose-built Ponderosa I visited on this trip, likely built in the '80s. The building had the typical architecture of the time, still in decent shape with minimal updates. It still even had the green sign with the old Ponderosa logo. This was my favorite building, but least favorite dining experience. Let's get into it, shall we?

Meal #3
Location Ponderosa Steakhouse 2882 Cook Road, West Branch, MI
Order, half rack of ribs, baked potato, dinner buffet, iced tea

The menu board at this location is screwy. It won't tell you how much any entree costs, only how much more it costs than just getting the regular buffet. Somehow, I end up paying over $20 for the meal you see above. It's 5:30 on a Saturday evening, and the restaurant is about half full, and the buffet is messy and not well stocked. At least half of the trays are almost or completely empty. There were no rolls out from the time I walked in until just before I left. There were a lot of families with unattended kids here. Children are the scourge of buffets. They're too short for sneeze guards to be effective, and they don't understand basic sanitation or germ theory. I witnessed a young girl wearing a very frilly pink dress use her bare hands pick up a peanut butter cookie off the very sparsely stocked dessert table, only to take a bite and put it back where she found it. I took it upon myself to remove the offending cookie. The ribs were decent, but not stellar.

The only real highlight of this meal were the baked beans I got from the buffet. They contained at least four kinds of beans in a sauce that was simultaneously sweet, tangy, smoky and spicy. There were chunks of bacon and pineapple mixed in there too. I may try to replicate them at home sometime. Beans and architecture aside, I don't have many positive things to say about the West Branch Ponderosa. It's a shame that such a beautiful example of 1980s retail architecture is so poorly run.

There were no writing implements or paper near this suggestion box, but it's cool to see the old logo again. 

Meal #4
Location: Ponderosa Steakhouse 1301 Pickard Road, Mount Pleasant, Michigan
Order: Breakfast Buffet, iced tea

A Golden Corral by any other name would smell as meaty

Note the strawberry biscuit on the left.

They gave me a to go cup at this location. I brought it home to add to my collection. 

From West Branch, I drove on to Mt. Pleasant, and spent the night. In the morning, I made my way to the local Ponderosa, which is one of the locations that offers breakfast. I had learned my lesson from the day before, and was the first customer in the door after they had opened. Plus, it was Mother's Day and I was trying to beat the brunch crowd. The Mt. Pleasant Ponderosa is a converted Golden Corral. Aside from signage, and the same buffet tables made to look like antique stoves, it feels like a Golden Corral.  I doubt the regulars here even noticed the change. The food is indistinguishable from Golden Corral's breakfast buffet food, with the exception of the strawberry biscuits. They're typical biscuits with the centers scooped out and filled with strawberry pie filling and topped with warm icing. They're my new favorite thing, and are on my list along with the beans from West Branch to try to recreate at home. Aside from that the food is unremarkable, the scrambled eggs are overcooked and on par with the eggs you might find at a Comfort Inn's continental breakfast, but there's also an omelette station with a cook preparing omelettes to order, so I can't complain too much about the eggs from the buffet, but it's all pretty generic.

So what kind of shape is the Ponderosa-Bonanza brand in? If the four locations I ate at are any indication, the brand as a whole is in disarray. The food, buildings, staff, prices, and overall experience at four Ponderosas relatively nearby to each other were wildly inconsistent. There were a few standout food items that I only encountered at one location or another that would have really enhanced my experience if they were available at every location. Most everything else feels bland and generic, food you could get anywhere, and often for a better price elsewhere. The steak and ribs I had were of acceptable quality and would be worth the cost, but with the exception of the impeccably run Bay City Ponderosa, the rest of the experience falls short. It seems Ponderosa is trying to be both a family friendly buffet like Golden Corral and a mid-tier steakhouse like Longhorn at the same time, and isn't doing either particularly well. FAT Brands should pick one of the above concepts and commit to it, or perhaps, make an effort to go upmarket. That's what I'd do if I were in charge.

With the hundreds of millions of theoretical dollars I've amassed with my imaginary Nickerson Farms revival, I'd acquire Ponderosa-Bonanza from FAT Brands, and immediately close or renovate any locations not operating out of original buildings. I'd revert to a logo closer to the old green and white sign with the ponderosa pine tree outline in the A. I'd stop trying to compete with the low end buffets and steakhouses, and focus on offering a premium product at a price competitive with high end casino buffets, maybe eventually using the Ponderosa name for new high end restaurants. For the other end of the market, the Bonanza name for something closer to the existing concept, but with emphasis removed from either the ordered items or buffet. New standalone locations would be built in a modern style with nods to both the '80s style buildings and the earlier ones with the western general store look.

My silly fantasy plan will probably cost much more than FAT Brands is willing to spend, and involve too much risk. Also, it's something I came up with after thinking for about 30 seconds, and therefore not a viable business plan. I imagine they'll either try to make Ponderosa-Bonanza more of a Golden Corral competitor or keep it as it is let it shamble on into obscurity as locations slowly close their doors. In the meantime, if you happen to be near a well run Ponderosa or Bonanza like the one I encountered in Bay City, enjoy it while you still can.

Riding Fences at the Ponderosa Part 2: The Legend of Bill Knapp's Bonanza

While planning out my Ponderosa trip, it occurred to me that I hadn't eaten anything other than the mediocre buffet food at my local Bonanza turned Ponderosa. A couple days before I hit the road, I stopped by and ordered up a steak at the order counter. I'm going to try and list every item I order, as I did with G.D. Ritzy's, only slightly ripping off tesg's lunchtime social in the process.

The Dearborn Heights Ponderosa, a former Bonanza with a new sign and 40 years of patina

Meal #1
Location: Ponderosa Steakhouse 19014 Van Born Rd. Dearborn Heights, MI
Order: 8 oz sirloin cooked medium, baked potato, side salad with Italian dressing, iced tea

When you order a meal without ordering the buffet at a Ponderosa, your meal comes with a side salad served to you at the table. After ordering I sat down and watched with equal parts 'musements A and B as my waitress prepared my salad using ingredients from the salad bar. It's better than her pulling a pre made salad out of the fridge I guess.

I generally order steak medium rare, but fearing I would get a low grade, enzyme-tenderized pseudosteak, like I've encountered in the past at Chili's and Texas Roadhouse, I ordered it medium. I was pleasantly surprised when my steak arrived and it was perfectly decent. It didn't have the telltale fall-apart zombie meat texture that cheap artificially tender steaks tend to have, nor should it for the $18 and change this meal set me back. It wasn't the best steak I've ever had, but it was far from the worst. I enjoyed it much more than anything I've ever had from the buffet here. I should have ordered it medium rare. As I mentioned previously, the interior of this place is in sad shape, but they do always have good music playing, mostly hits from the seventies. It's a bit like having a bootleg Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack playing as you eat.

The Bay City Ponderosa, a nicely converted Bill Knapp's

Meal #2
Location: Ponderosa Steakhouse 2861 Wilder Road Bay City, MI
Order: Lunch buffet, see pictures below, plus some pecan pie I forgot to take a picture of, iced tea


My trip began in earnest with a run up to Bay City, just a couple of exits north of the old Howard Johnson’s I’ve covered previously. The Bay City Ponderosa operates out of a converted Bill Knapp’s. (There are no Bill Knapp’s left in operation, but some grocery stores in the Great Lakes region carry Bill Knapp’s branded baked goods). It's 11:00 AM and they've just opened for business. The lunch buffet is a couple dollars more here than it is at home, but it's also more impressive. This Ponderosa has fried chicken on the buffet whereas the one local to me only has wings. Plus there's some really good perogies. There's also a larger salad bar, and a better dessert selection. The building feels bright, and modern compared to the nearly windowless converted 70's era Bonanza my local Ponderosa operates out of. Having just opened for the day, the buffet food is well stocked, and fresh. It all tastes great. I watch an elderly couple navigate the buffet as I eat.

"Where's the plates?" the old woman asks no one in particular, far too loudly.

A nearby waitress hands her a plate from the stack the old woman was standing right next to only to have her exclaim, "I'm visually impaired!" as thanks upon receipt of the plate. She begins inspecting the salad bar offerings when her husband shuffles up and interjects, "Joyce, they've got pecan pie for dessert!" even louder than his wife. This is good news. I hadn't checked out the desserts yet, and I like pecan pie. The only reply I heard from Joyce was, "Where the heck is the lettuce?" as she was standing next to the salad bar.

The pecan pie is straight off the Sysco truck, with very few pecans and a gooey filling, but it's not bad. My Southern upbringing has made me a pecan pie snob. Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with the staff, food and service at this location. Unlike my local Ponderosa which overcooks everything, the vast majority of the buffet food here is well-prepared. Plus the other customers are entertaining. I could see myself stopping here again for a meal the next time I'm running up I-75 from Detroit.

These antique stove buffet tables were neat. I wondered if they were from the buildings Bill Knapp's days, but I saw the same ones at another Ponderosa later on. 

Vintage Metromedia signage

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Riding Fences at the Ponderosa Part 1: Prologue

Whenever I plan to write about a certain brand, I ask myself, “Is this really a broken chain?” I then research the brand’s past and present location counts as well as changes in corporate structures and business models in order to determine if it’s a brand I should seek out and write about. Up until now, I’ve mostly covered chains with between zero and 25 operating locations. This is more due to happenstance than any conscious decision on my part. I don’t consider a location count under 25 as a requirement. There are plenty of thriving regional chains with fewer than 25 locations. Likewise, there are plenty of National and even international, restaurant, hotel, and retail chains with more than 25 locations that have declined to the point where I’d consider them broken chains. If I were to formulate a working definition for what I would consider a broken chain it would be something like:

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.

It was with this definition in mind that I chose to cover the Ponderosa-Bonanza Steakhouse chain, which according to their website, operates 64 Ponderosas and 11 Bonanzas in the Continental US, plus an additional 26 Ponderosa and Bonanza locations in Puerto Rico and 11 additional Ponderosas in the UAE, Egypt, and Taiwan. The two longtime competitors boasted around 600 locations each at their respective peaks before finding themselves under the same corporate umbrella in the late 90s. With 112 locations down from over 1200 total, Ponderosa-Bonanza is clearly a broken chain, unless you live in Puerto Rico, where there's apparently one on every corner.

Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright on the popular western TV series, Bonanza, opened the first Bonanza steakhouse in the western-in-name-only city of Westport, Connecticut in 1963. Two years later, Dan Lasater and Norm Wiese opened a western themed steakhouse of their own in Kokomo, Indiana. Perhaps attempting to cash in on the popularity of Bonanza, they named their restaurant Ponderosa, which was the name of the Cartwrights' ranch on the Bonanza TV show. By that time, Sam and Charles Wyly had bought Bonanza from Dan Blocker, and when the Wyly brothers heard of the planned Ponderosa steakhouse, they quickly trademarked the Ponderosa name. They however failed to trademark their own name, which was then in turn trademarked by Laseter and Weise. The two chains then ended up exchanging trademarks to gain the rights to their own respective names.

Ponderosa and Bonanza were strikingly similar, with names and theming inspired by the same TV show, similar menus of bargain priced, lower grade steaks, and the same cafeteria style ordering system designed to reduce overhead and keep prices low. Both brands experienced the normal ups and downs over the years due to fluctuating economies and beef prices. In 1988 Bonanza was acquired by Metromedia Group, who also owned Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale at the time. Metromedia would go on to acquire Ponderosa in 1997 and effectively merge it with Bonanza, rendering the already similar chains basically identical in all but name. Metromedia went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2008, and emerged as Homestyle Dining LLC with both the Ponderosa and Bonanza brands, in tact if diminished. Ponderosa-Bonanza was recently sold off to a new corporate parent, FAT Brands. 

Remind me to buy that '80s cactus when this place goes out of business. 

Vintage arcade machines, note the Pac Man table in the background.

Believe it or not, this is a NEW menu board.

I don’t have many memories of Ponderosa/Bonanza growing up. (We were a Western Sizzlin’ family.) It had been at least a decade since I had eaten at one when I learned that the Dearborn Heights, Michigan Ponderosa, itself a former Bonanza, was the last operating location in Metro Detroit. Upon learning that, I began eating lunch there occasionally. The building itself has seen better days. Decor is dated and sparse. Exposed wiring powers hastily-installed accent lighting and menu board lights. Most of the tiles in the drop ceiling are water stained. Entree prices have crept up to Outback/Longhorn level pricing, yet patrons still order at the counter upon walking in as they did 50+ years ago. Still, the place is clean and the staff is friendly, so I keep coming back.

When I eat at the Dearborn Heights Ponderosa, I get the lunch buffet. It’s ten bucks and change for all you can eat, a couple bucks more if you’re drinking something other than water. There’s a passable salad bar, a medium sized selection of hot foods, plus a dessert bar. The food is on par with most other buffets you’re likely to encounter, but there isn’t much variety. I think if a Golden Corral were to open across the street this Ponderosa would be out of business within a week. Still, the buffet and appeal of the retro brand is decent enough to keep me coming back. The old arcade machines don't hurt either. This location, and the fact that Ponderosa/Bonanza was recently acquired by FAT Brands (owners of the international Fatburger chain) got me curious as to the state of the whole Ponderosa-Bonanza chain. This curiosity and a lack of anything better to do prompted me to road trip to eat at a few different Ponderosas to get a feel for the state of the entire chain and see just how much work FAT Brands has ahead of them. My next entry or two will be all about Ponderosa.

Sorry Bonanza fans. I won’t make it to any Bonanza locations this trip, but Bonanza is on my list of places to visit in the future.