Friday, August 31, 2018

El Perro, el Perro, es Mi Corazón

I spend a lot of time on I-75 in Ohio. It’s the quickest route between my home in Metro Detroit and my immediate family in Lexington, Kentucky. Over the past ten years, I’ve driven the 211.6 mile stretch of highway along the western edge of Ohio more times than I can remember. I can recite every exit with an amusing name, like Needmore Road, Botkins, and Luckey-Haskins, which when I drive by, always makes me think of actor Dennis Haskins who was indeed very lucky to land the role of Mr. Belding on Saved By the Bell. I-75 is a route I that until recently, I tried to complete as quickly and with as few stops as possible, never venturing more than a mile or so off the highway when I did stop. It’s only in the past few months that I realized how much Broken Chains fodder there was between Toledo and Cincinnati, often just another mile or two off the highway. I’ve previously visited the last operating Clancy’s, spitting distance from Exit 94 in Sidney, plus the three Kewpee locations in Lima, each of which are within five miles of Exit 125. On my most recent Kentucky run, I found that three of the 15 or so remaining B-K Root Beer drive-ins were all situated along I-75 in Ohio.

The first B-K Root Beer location opened in Michigan City, Indiana shortly after World War II. The initials B and K stood for the surnames of the founders, Melvin and Mary Bergerson and their partner, someone surnamed Kenefick, whose first name does not seem to appear anywhere on the internet, and may be lost to history. (Somewhere Keneflick is hanging out in a forgotten business partners' support group with Roebuck, and the McDonald brothers.) The two-initials-plus-root-beer nomenclature, was perhaps inspired by A&W which was founded nearly 25 years earlier, and the format of serving a proprietary recipe root beer in a drive in setting is also close to A&W’s early business model. I’m not sure that A&W pioneered this concept, or if someone came before them, but drive-in chains like Dog ‘n Suds and Frostop, as well as countless surviving independent drive ins across the Midwest all seem to function on the root beer-driven drive in model, each with their own distinctive root beer recipe.

At their peak, there were 238 B-K locations across the Midwest, but the increasing dominance of the national fast food chains in the 1970s brought about the decline of many drive-ins and regional chains, including B-K, who ended up under ownership of the Michigan-based DeNovo corporation in the ‘80s along with Dog ‘n Suds and Tastee Freez. DeNovo’s sale of the B-K trademark to Burger King for their then-new BK Broiler sandwich in the late 1980s was the final nail in the coffin for any corporate support for the final B-K franchisees. Wikipedia claims there are around 35 B-K locations left in operation, but my research only shows 15, all of which are in Ohio and Indiana. I suspect the Wikipedia estimate also includes locations that no longer use the B-K name, as I’ve run across a few of those. Given that the remaining B-K locations have been operating independently for 30 years, I was curious about what a still-operating B-K looked like and how consistent the locations were to each other. My most recent jaunt down I-75 afforded me the opportunity to visit three different B-K Root Beer drive-ins.

Meal #1
Location: B-K Root Beer 1407 South Sreet, Piqua, Ohio
Order: Spanish hot dog, onion rings, root beer float

The Piqua B-K Root Beer location is made up of two buildings, the main building with a kitchen, small seating area, and a vintage canopy supported by bright orange V-shaped pillars and the "Patio" an open-sided pole barn next door which is used for additional seating. I opt to eat in my car. None of the B-K locations I visited had intercom systems. Instead, the carhop walked out to my car as soon as she saw me pull up. Slightly unprepared for the transaction, I ordered, and she returned a few minutes later with an antique metal tray that she attached to the partially lowered drivers' window of my car. I was under the impression that this style of tray was incompatible with the curved glass of most modern cars, but that didn't seem to be the case here.

Metal tray attached to my window
Free root beer for toddlers!

Funky canopy supports

The entire menu for the Piqua B-K

Main building and canopy


B-K's food menu seems to revolve around hot dogs. Several hot dog toppings are offered at this B-K, but chili is not among them. The B-K stand-in for a chili dog seems to be the Spanish hot dog. It's the menu item I'm most excited to try, and I'm not disappointed. It's basically sloppy joe meat on top of a hot dog, but it's really good sloppy joe meat. The smoky, sweet, and tangy flavors are well balanced, and the pieces of meat in the sauce are quite small, making for a consistent texture that compliments the gentle snap of the steamed skinless hot dog below it. Copycat recipes I've found call for thoroughly stirring the sauce and raw ground beef to ensure the correct texture, similar to the Taco Tico meat recipe I attempted a few months back.

I was halfway through the root beer float when I thought to take a picture. You'd think I'd know better by now.  
My new favorite hot dog and my new favorite sloppy joe, all in one bun
The onion rings are nothing special, pre-breaded, frozen rings from a bag deep fried, but the root beer float is baffling. It's a paper cup with root beer and a scoop of French vanilla ice cream. (I ordered a large, which comes in a paper cup, a medium comes in a mug. Your experience may vary depending on which B-K you visit.) The majority of the flavor in the float seems to come from the slowly melting ice cream. The whole mixture tastes of vanilla with a slight sassafras/wintergreen undertone. I made a mental note to try the root beer without ice cream before my journey was over.

As I'm leaving, I'm unsure of how to get the carhop's attention so she can remove my tray. I try turning on my car's headlights, and it worked perfectly. She came right out of the building, took my tray, and wished me well. After snapping a few pictures of the buildings as the staff and local patrons eyed me and my Michigan license plate with suspicion, I was on my way to my next destination. 

Meal #2
Location: 2780 Stone Circle Drive, Troy, Ohio
Order: Spanish hot dog, fries, peanut butter shake

I miss the orange pillars.

The Troy B-K Root Beer is housed in a newer building, I'd guess a late '70s to early '80s build with a nondescript canopy and a larger dining area. This was my return trip, and I'd been sitting in the car for a lengthy amount of time thanks to heavy traffic around Florence, (Y'all) Kentucky. Because of this, I opted to eat inside. The very instant I picked a seat at the counter and sat down, another eager carhop/waitress, asked me for my order. I hastily order, noticing too late that this location had hamburgers. Unsurprisingly, my food arrived quickly. The fries were cut thick and well-cooked. I suspected they may have cut from potatoes on site, but further examination revealed their shapes and sizes were a bit too consistent for them to have been made from scratch. The peanut butter shake was blended in a vintage mixer right in front of me, and reminded me of the shakes I'd get at the vintage soda fountain of the old drugstore in the town were I grew up. The Spanish dog tasted exactly like the one I had a couple days earlier in Piqua, which was a pleasant surprise considering how little resemblance my surroundings bore to my previous B-K stop.

Yep. I could really get into Spanish hot dogs. 

The Troy B-K has a more extensive menu.
Come to our restaurant! We're closed every major holiday!
The Troy B-K had my favorite sign. 

The dining area is decorated with various 1950s clichés including a vintage jukebox in one corner of the dining room that doesn't seem to be functional, at least not until Arthur Fonzarelli hits it. Antique branded root beer mugs line the shelves along the perimeter of the room, mostly from B-K, but I saw a couple A&W mugs in the mix as well. This restaurant seems to be the largest piece in someone's antique collection. This B-K serves regular beer as well as root beer, but not on the day I was there, as it was Sunday. Behind me, another employee was repeatedly trying to explain to an elderly and possibly already inebriated customer that local laws prevented them from selling alcohol on Sunday. Their point seems to be lost on him. This is more small town charm than I can handle, so I hop in my car and head for the next (and final) B-K.

Meal #3
Location: 301 Riverside Drive Sidney, Ohio
Order: Two Spanish hot dogs, large root beer

The bare bones B-K of Sidney

Komedy K for the win!

The Sidney B-K is just a mile or so down the road from Clancy's. This location is less of a drive-in and more of a stand. There's no indoor seating, just a few picnic tables around the perimeter of the small building. It's located near some batting cages, and the sign by the road slyly advertises both businesses, using an alternate spelling. This feels the least like the remnant of a chain. The menu boards look to have been hand painted by an amateur, and the branding is minimal.

The most spartan menu yet

The final Spanish dog of my trip

With each Spanish dog I consumed, I became more obsessed with them. It had been over an hour since I had eaten my last one in Troy, so I pretty much had to order two more in Sidney. The carhop, thankfully, seemed to be a little less intense than her counterparts at my last two B-K stops. The Spanish dogs were as tasty as ever. I also took advantage of my final opportunity of the trip to try their root beer. Sadly, I was not overly impressed with it. I generally enjoy trying different root beers and noting how the sassafras, butterscotch, vanilla, licorice, mint, and wintergreen flavors harmonize with one another. The proprietary root beer at Mike's Drive-In in West Frankfort, Illinois is a personal favorite, but Culver's root beer will suffice for me in a pinch. B-K's root beer didn't come close to either. It had little carbonation, no foamy head, and a one-note flavor that reminded me of chugging chilled mouthwash. It strikes me as root beer designed to be the base for a float. It needs the extra flavor from the ice cream to be palatable. Perhaps this was a built-in upsell strategy that had been there since the beginning, though that seems like a risky strategy for a place with root beer in their name.

Testing the strength of my car's window glass

It takes a little more gesticulating to get my carhop's attention here, but she eventually finds her way over to me and takes my tray. I can't say I'm a fan of the old fashioned drive-in trays. They lose their novelty quickly when you're worried about the weight of 22 ounces of mediocre root beer in a heavy glass mug supported only by the glass of your car's window, and you can't drive away until the carhop takes the tray. I'll stick to asking for my food to go on my next B-K run. I was glad when my car was again trayless so I could hop on I-75 at Exit 94 and head back home.

The B-K locations, that I visited seemed to be consistent to the brand where it counts, the food. While there were wild variations in the overall menus, signage, and architecture, the core items I sampled at multiple locations were consistent to one another. While the root beer was a bit of a let down, the Spanish dogs are my new favorite hot dog configuration. I'll be back to B-K for a Spanish dog or two the next time I'm travelling down I-75. I'll probably stop at the one in Troy. It's less than a mile off the interstate.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Ruins of Jerrico

I went to Kentucky this past weekend, which means it's time for me to share with you more vague memories of my Kentucky childhood. One such memory is of a white plastic container with a blue lid, full of my coloring supplies including a mishmash of crayons from various Crayola boxes and restaurant activity place mat coloring kits. A few of those crayons had a distinctive scalloped pattern on the wrapper, and for some reason, I knew those crayons came from Jerry’s.

I have zero memories of eating at a Jerry’s restaurant as a kid, but I’m sure I did at some point. How else would I have had the crayons? I have more vague memories of travelling past their restaurants with gently sloping roofs and maroon signs with distinctive white lettering. I remember their pudgy chef character that bears more than a passing resemblance to Bob Wian’s Big Boy mascot. I would eventually learn that Jerry’s was the original brand of Jerome Lederer’s Jerrico Inc. that launched several restaurant concepts around Lexington, Kentucky, from the 1940s through the 1980s, the most successful of which were Long John Silver’s and Fazolis.

This hair salon was once the first ever Long John Silver's...
...and this recently-closed wing joint was once the first ever Fazoli's (originally called Gratzi's)

It was the early ‘90s when the Jerry’s around Lexington, and indeed the Jerry’s across the southern US, stretching from Florida to Arizona began to close up. Jerrico had divested itself of the Jerry’s and Fazolis brands to focus on Long John Silver’s, and all 46 of the surviving corporate-owned Jerry’s locations were bought up by Denny’s and converted to Denny’s locations. On trips around the Bluegrass State in the ensuing years, I’d occasionally see a franchised Jerry’s still open for business, often rebranded as Jerry’s J-Boy, but over the years, the J-Boys began to disappear. Near as I can tell, Jerrico ceased to exist as a corporate entity around the time of their sale of the Long John Silver's brand in 1999. Long John Silver's and Fazoli's are their legacy, but if you look hard, you'll find a handful of franchised Jerry's locations soldiering on independently, the last remnants of the early days of the Jerrico empire.

I found a surviving J-Boy by accident in Louisville on my trip to Ollie’s Trolley earlier this year and planned to have dinner there, but one thing led to another, and I ended up making a three hour round trip to Evansville, Indiana for a G.D Ritzy’s dinner instead. Later I discovered another Jerry’s in operation in Paris, Kentucky, and finding myself with a few spare hours on a weekend run to Lexington, I made plans to dine at both.

Country Jerry’s

Location: Jerry’s, 4129 Lexington Road, Paris, Kentucky
Order: J-Boy platter with fries and coleslaw, hot fudge cake, sweet tea

Vintage neon

Time capsule exterior (if you ignore the modern cars)

The Jerry’s in Paris, Kentucky is among the first buildings you’ll see after arriving in Paris via Lexington on US 68. The twelve mile drive from Lexington’s north side takes you through the green rolling hills and wooden fences of the horse farms that seemingly occupy every rural road in central Kentucky. The original neon Jerry’s sign beckons you in off the road to a purpose-build 1961 vintage building. It’s a well preserved example of Jerry’s corporate architecture. With its gently sloping roof and windowed facade, it resembles a slightly larger Burger Chef of the same era. Next door is an independent pizza place that’s housed in a former Long John Silver’s, which makes me wonder if the owners of the Jerry’s also owned the franchise for the LJS as well since both were Jerrico brands. The inside of the building is a bit bland compared to the outside. It looks to have been renovated in the past 10 years or so, but the outside of the building is so nicely preserved that I don’t mind. 

I walk in and a disembodied voice of some unseen employee tells me I can sit anywhere. It’s late on a Saturday morning and the place is busy. I’m by myself, so I take a seat at the counter. I had perused their website a few days before so I didn’t have to look at the menu for long. I ask my waitress for a J-Boy burger and fries. She asks if I’d like to add coleslaw to make it a platter, and I agree. I like coleslaw. She returns a minute later with a bowl of slaw and a soup cup containing wrapped crackers. 

11/10 Would slaw again. 

One of my favorite oddball Facebook pages is Coleslaw Review which rates restaurant coleslaw on a number of criteria including but not limited to, taste, texture, presentation, vegetable size, and liquid content. I think they’d like Jerry’s coleslaw. It’s a nice balance of sweet and sour with vegetables sliced just irregularly enough that you can tell it’s made from scratch. 

The famous J-Boy, like a Big Boy, but better. 

The burger  arrived and confirmed my suspicions that were aroused by Jerry’s portly tray-carrying mascot. The J-Boy is a double decker burger with lettuce, pickles, a single slice of cheese and a mayonnaise based special sauce. It looks and tastes like a better quality version of a burger from Big Boy, specifically Frisch’s Big Boy.

(Bob Wian franchised his Big Boy burger to various regional master franchisees who would occasionally alter recipes to suit local tastes. Frisch’s Big Boy whose territory included the entire state of Kentucky used a mayonnaise based tartar sauce as the special sauce on their signature burger rather than Bob Wian’s signature red relish. Other regional master franchisees used a thousand island based sauce.) 

The Big Boy burger, of course, has spawned countless imitators, including the Big Mac. Ram’s Horn, a local Detroit chain unpretentiously calls their double decker, special sauce burger The Famous Imitator. (Unlike in the Bible, Ram's Horn had nothing to do with the demise of Jerrico.) The Jerry’s J-Boy is one of the better double decker burgers I’ve had. It has all the flavors that a burger from Frisch’s has, but tastes fresher, meatier, and more balanced. Detroit-based Big Boy and Cincinnati-based Frisch’s Big Boy are run by completely separate corporate entities these days, and neither seem to be thriving. (The Detroit-based concern also owns the few remaining west coast Bob's Big Boy locations.) Both chains seem to be shrinking and have declined in quality in the past few years. I still visit locations of both chains regularly, and reserve the right to do a full Broken Chains post on them in the future. I don’t think I’ve had a burger at any Big Boy as good as the one I had at Jerry’s in at least a decade. 

There's ice cream in there somewhere. I promise. 

Jerry’s similarities to Frisch’s continued with the dessert course, which was a layer of vanilla ice cream encased between two layers of chocolate cake drenched in hot fudge and topped with whipped cream and a cherry. It looked and tasted just like Frisch’s fudge cake. Likewise, just behind where I was sitting, other patrons were enjoying a breakfast buffet, which is another fixture of most Big Boy locations on weekends. A news article I tracked down talked about a recently closed Jerry’s serving pie containing whole glazed strawberries, which is also a seasonal favorite at many Big Boy locations. Both Big Boy and Frisch’s predate Jerry’s, which makes me suspect Jerry’s was more influenced than Big Boy than the other way around. This isn’t exactly uncommon.

In addition to the Big Boy burger being widely imitated, and entire restaurant chains like Shoney’s and Eat ‘n Park are former Big Boy regional franchisees still operating very similarly to Big Boy in all but name. The difference with Jerry’s is that their parent company continued to innovate and went on to create original seafood and Italian fast food concepts in a time when both were uncommon.

City Jerry’s 

Location: Jerry’s J-Boy, 4832 Dixie Highway, Louisville Kentucky
Order: Champ sandwich, Diet Pepsi

The Louisville Jerry’s building is situated on the busy Dixie Highway in a slightly rough feeling neighborhood on the city’s southwest side. It simultaneously feels newer and older than its relative in Paris. I’d guess the building is a 1970s construction that was last updated in the early ‘90s. Holdout franchisees seem to have adopted the J-Boy signage around this time. Elaborate awnings and brick walkways have been added to the otherwise nondescript building. Signage shows the later Jerry’s J-Boy name rather than simply Jerry’s. Signs are backlit plastic. If there was ever an outdoor neon sign here, it’s long gone. 

Custom concrete signage set into the brick walkway.

Gulf war-era faux retro neon, has gone full circle to being legitimately retro.

Perhaps in order to compensate for the lack of neon outside, the interior of the Louisville Jerry’s has neon everywhere, with “Jerry’s, still the champ” spelled out on the wall behind the counter. I suspect the building was last updated around the time of the Denny’s buyout, at a time when places with a nostalgic theme were popular. Walls are adorned with images of Elvis Presley. There’s a life size Elvis statue by the door. I'm greeted with a "Can I help you?" from a surly hostess as I walk in. I inform her that I'm there to purchase and consume prepared food, and she begrudgingly shows me to a booth in the mostly empty dining area.  

I examine the menu, and find it to be completely different than the Jerry’s menu I’d seen earlier that day in Paris. While the Paris location has separate double-sided single-page lunch and dinner menus, The Louisville location has a single multi-page menu, and serves all menu items 24 hours per day. The wall immediately across from my booth is adorned with several pictures of heavyweight champion and Louisville native Muhammad Ali in his prime. I’m not terribly hungry, having driven straight here from Paris. Perhaps inspired by Ali, or because it’s an item that I recognized from the menu at the Paris Jerry’s I order a sandwich known as a Champ. 

The Champ, a better Buddy Boy

Ironically, it’s a ham sandwich, which Muhammad Ali never would have eaten. It's served hot on a toasted sesame seed hoagie roll dressed with Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and tartar sauce. It's pretty close in appearance and flavor to the sandwich that Frisch's calls a Buddy Boy. The other Big Boy chain has a similar sandwich called the Slim Jim. Like the J-Boy I had in Paris, it's better than any sandwich I've had at a Big Boy in recent memory. This location, while a little rough around the edges in terms of facility and staff, is still able to serve Big Boy inspired food better than any modern Big Boy is capable of. I think it's the consistently good food quality that keeps the holdout Jerry's franchisees in business nearly three decades after the end of support from Jerrico.

As is so often the case, the last Jerry's franchisees are also the best ones. The holdouts in Louisville and Paris, plus a handful of others, outlasted Jerrico, and may very well outlast the Big Boy brand that they began imitating in 1946. These days they're better at being Big Boy than either of the Big Boy chains are, and serve as monuments to Kentucky's lesser known fast food empire. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Rubber Biscuit

Loyal readers of Broken Chains may have, by now, deduced that I spend a lot of time on the road. Years ago, I had a job that required me to drive 1000-1500 miles per week. All that windshield time caused something to permanently shift in my brain, and now I start to feel antsy if I don’t take at least a short road trip once every few weeks. My time in the car gives me a chance to remove myself from the stresses of everyday life and just be alone with my favorite podcasts on the way to a historically interesting meal or two. While on the road, my preferred pit stops are at the large travel plazas open to both professional truckers and amateur road warriors like myself. More often than not, places like Flying J, Love’s, and TA have an abundance of gas pumps, reasonably clean restrooms, and a place to grab a snack or a full fast food meal. The idea of one stop to take care of all the typical travel needs appeals to anyone who’s trying to travel efficiently. The modern travel center fills a niche today that 50 years ago was filled by places like Stuckey’s, Nickerson Farms, and Horne’s.

In a time before strict zoning restrictions, outrageously styled buildings with brightly colored roofs stood by highways beckoning travelers, and their children, to stop and spend money. Whether it was an orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s, a red-roofed Nickerson Farms, or a yellow-roofed Horne’s, the architecture of the building served as an advertisement as much as the billboards that counted down the miles to their next location.

Bob Horne opened his first roadside candy and souvenir shop a short distance from his family’s motel outside Jacksonville, Florida in 1948. Like Nickerson Farms, Horne’s also has a Stuckey’s connection, as Bob Horne worked at the original Stuckey’s in Eastman, Georgia before striking out on his own. Horne and his father took their enterprise public to raise money for expansion and succeeded in expanding quickly thanks to the rise of leisure travel and a booming postwar economy. The concept eventually evolved to include a sit down circus themed restaurant, dubbed Horne’s Circus Grill. Some locations had on site motels as well. By the time Horne sold his enterprise to Greyhound in 1964, the chain boasted 55 locations and would eventually peak around 60. The brand’s decline began in the 1970s as so many businesses set up to cater to traveling motorists did. Thanks to a combination of a decrease in leisure travel due to various oil crises and economic recession and increased competition from the growing network of fast food chains, Horne’s had all but disappeared by the mid 1980s. The 60 unit chain eventually shrank to just one location in Port Royal, Virginia.

Modern gas pumps still sport the old Horne's logo.

Modern gas prices to match the pumps

Between stops at Roy Rogers in Maryland and Darryl’s in North Carolina, Esmeralda Fitzmonster and I were able to stop by the last operating Horne’s for breakfast. The building, a tall A-frame with a brilliant yellow roof adorned with its original neon sign seems to look much like it did in when it opened in 1961. Aside from modern products on the convenience store shelves, modern gas pumps, and updated restrooms, the place felt untouched, and generally well maintained. 

Thankfully, the circus theme stopped at the striped awning. No clowns joined us for breakfast. 

It was mid morning on a weekday when we sat down in what looked to be an original booth opposite the counter, still adorned with a striped awning meant to evoke a circus tent. Our waitress took our drink orders and handed us some nicely printed menus. 

Sadly leads only to a blank page. 

Before discussing the food at Horne’s I should probably digress a bit to provide you, the reader, with some background information. Living in Metro Detroit, Esmeralda and I have a high standard for breakfast food. Seemingly every corner of our fair city has a “coney island,” an establishment traditionally run by Greek immigrants and their families, specializing in Detroit style chili dogs, diner food, and all day breakfast. Coney islands have little to do with the eponymous Brooklyn amusement park beyond a loose connection to hot dogs. Many area independent restaurants as well as a handful of unrelated local chains refer to themselves as coney islands, but you can expect them to have largely the same menu, including a large selection of delicious breakfast offerings for a decent price. In my six nonconsecutive years living in Metro Detroit, I’ve eaten hundreds of breakfasts at coney islands from Ypsilanti to Mt. Clemens, and I can’t remember ever having a bad one. If there’s one area where the Detroit coney islands excel, it’s breakfast even more so in my opinion than their namesake coney dogs.

It is with this relationship to breakfast food informing my perspective that I ordered a western omelette, hash browns, and a biscuit that morning at Horne’s. I found the omelette and hash browns to be generally acceptable, if a bit small in the case of the omelette and mushy in the case of the hash browns. I was really looking forward to the biscuit. As you might imagine, good southern style biscuits are tough to come by in Michigan, and I erroneously assumed that since I was in an ostensibly southern state, that the biscuit would be made from scratch in an antique cast iron oven by a tough old southern grandmother tucked in some back corner of the Circus Grill’s kitchen. I was wrong.

It was made from canned dough.

And it tasted like it had been reheated in a microwave. 

A decent omelette on the right, and the offending biscuit on the left.

I was suspicious when the top and bottom halves of the biscuit split cleanly and easily and the dry, bland flavor cemented my certainty that the Pillsbury Doughboy had more to do with the construction of this biscuit than anyone’s meemaw did.

Still, I like to assume the best about the places I visit. A little research reveals canned refrigerated biscuit dough was invented in 1931, and processed foods were new and even fashionable in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s therefore entirely possible that Horne’s has always slung prefabricated biscuits. On the other hand if I were to assume the worst, it could be that the offending dough puck is a recently-implemented cost cutting measure. A little more research revealed that in 2016, Horne’s changed ownership for the first time in 25 years. Could the new owners be cutting corners? Either explanation seems possible.

Regardless of the reason for the disappointing biscuit, it wasn’t enough to prevent me from buying a couple of Horne’s T-shirts and some Virginia toffee coated peanuts in the gift shop/convenience store area and taking a few minutes to appreciate the unspoiled vintage roadside architecture the building offered. It’s every bit and more the time capsule of a highway-adjacent eat-here-get-gas establishment as the former Nickerson Farms I visited in Ohio a few months back. Experiencing the building was more than worth the stop, and while decidedly mediocre, the food didn’t kill me. I might come back for lunch the next time I’m in the area, but I’ll stick to one of the Tudor’s Biscuit World locations West Virginia for my next biscuit craving, or maybe Suzi’s where I can get a Big Shef with my biscuit.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

We Like Roy! We Like Roy!

In discussing the history of the businesses I visit, I often find myself penning long-winded, soporific paragraphs about the mergers and acquisitions of the companies involved with the inception and decline of each restaurant and retail brand about which I see fit to write. One name seems to come up more often than others in these piles of plain prose. That name is Hardee’s.

Under the guidance of both Hardee’s Food Systems and later parent company Imasco, The Hardee’s operating territory was expanded by buying out and fully converting other fast food chains to the Hardee’s brand. Hardee’s strategy of acquiring and assimilating struggling regional chains is the reason you’re hard pressed to find anything resembling an operating Sandy’s, Burger Chef, or Dee’s Drive In today. Hardee’s assimilation strategy would come to an end in 1997 with their acquisition from Imasco by Carl’s Jr parent company CKE. Until then, every brand Hardee’s acquired was completely swallowed up, except for the one brand that Hardee’s regurgitated.

Like Hardee’s, Roy Rogers was made up of an amalgam of brands, and spent the first couple decades of its life under the Marriott corporate umbrella. The brand evolved from RoBee’s, a roast beef sandwich chain started by a group of Big Boy Franchisees in 1967, the same year Marriott acquired Big Boy. They would go on to acquire RoBee’s the following year. The name change came as the result of legal pressure from Arby’s citing similarities between the two restaurants. Big Boy founder and Marriott board member Bob Wian knew Roy Rogers personally and was able to convince the prolific western film actor to lend his name to the new, east coast-based enterprise. The first Roy Rogers opened in Falls Church, Virginia in 1968. The brand would expand its footprint along the way with the acquisition of the Baltimore-based Gino’s chain. When Roy Rogers absorbed Pappy Parker’s, in the early ‘70s their menu gained Pappy’s fried chicken and burgers making them competitive with the dominant fast food genres of the day. The chain would peak somewhere north of 600 locations thanks in part to a fiercely loyal clientele

Hardee’s, ever megalomaniacal, and seeking to expand their footprint into the Midatlantic region acquired Roy Rogers from Marriott in 1990, and converted company-owned locations to Hardee’s. Many converted locations retained fried chicken on their menus. The pre-Thickburger era Hardee’s Burgers that replaced the Roy Rogers burger line were not well received by customers, and Hardee’s failed to thrive in former Roy Rogers locations. Many of the Roy Rogers-Turned-Hardee's locations were hastily sold off to other brands in the ‘90s, leaving just 24 free standing Roy Rogers locations plus a handful of travel plaza locations in operation, all of which were owned by franchisees.

Pete Plamondon Sr. was one of those franchisees. He was previously a Marriott executive heavily involved with the Roy Rogers Brand before leaving the company and opening his own Roy Rogers in 1980. Having purchased Hardee’s and It’s legacy brands from Imasco in 1997, CKE restaurants had little interest in developing Roy Rogers, and sold the brand to Plamondon in 2002. Plamondon and later his sons Pete Jr. and Jim have been slowly expanding the brand’s presence ever since. Today, there are a total of 55 or so Roy Rogers locations in six states. I ate at the Cumberland, Maryland location a couple weeks back.

I had been on the road since 5:00 that morning, with nothing other than an orange scone from an Ohio Turnpike Panera to eat all day when I darkened the doorway of the Cumberland Roy Rogers at lunchtime. This was mostly by design. I had perused the Roy Rogers menu via their website a couple days before and marveled at the bounty of entrees and sides they had to offer. I wanted to be able to sample as much of the menu as possible, as this would be my only Roy Rogers stop. Since Roy Rogers began as a roast beef chain, I wanted to try the sandwich that started it all. I was also intrigued by the Double R Bar Burger, a cheeseburger topped with ham. There’s also a wide array of unique sides. I went with baked apples and macaroni and cheese. The uniqueness continued at the drink fountain where I was intrigued by Fanta Birch Beer on tap, the first non-fruit Fanta I’d encountered. It was lunchtime on a Sunday, and the place was packed, but the staff was more than capable of handling the crowd. The line moved quickly, and I had my order within a few minutes. 

Roast beef sandwich and Double R Bar Burger before fixin's...

Y'all git yer fixin's!

...and after

Since the early eighties, all Roy Rogers sandwiches are prepared with meat and cheese only. Patrons then dress their sandwiches with vegetables and condiments from “Roy’s Fixin's Bar.” (Burger Chef implemented a similar system around the same time, but instructed customers to order sandwiches “with or without,” either with the default toppings or plain to be dressed from the Burger Chef Works Bar.) Roy’s Fixins Bar has the typical burger toppings, plus a few unconventional selections like pico de gallo and banana peppers. The normal burger condiments are there too, plus the roast beef ones, sauces similar to, but presumably legally distinct from Arby’s Sauce and Horsey Sauce. I load my sandwiches with my preferred accoutrements, and sit down to eat. Both sandwiches seem to be high quality. Unlike Arby’s and Rax processed mystery meat, my roast beef sandwich is actually made from intact pieces of cow, sliced off an actual roast. It reminds me of the sandwiches I’d make out of leftover Sunday roasts when I was a kid. Likewise, the burger has a pleasant steaky quality, but it kind of overwhelms the ham. The sides were perfectly adequate and novel, if a bit incongruous with the sandwiches. I’ll have to order chicken and some more of the sides on my next trip. I want to experience the bulk of the menu here eventually. 

Shiny new building exterior

Thoroughly modern menu

Seasonal limited time menu item

The building appears to be a newer construction, and feels like a modern fast food joint with up to date signage and menu boards. A color palate with a blend of reds and oranges coupled with modern architecture gives the place a modern feel with nods the the brand’s late 1960s heritage. There are posters from Roy Rogers movies all over the walls, and various western themed elements to acknowledge the chain’s original spokesman. Somewhat bizarrely, there’s a lifesize cardboard cutout of longtime Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. in the lobby, plus a few posters of him scattered around the property. He’s apparently Roy Rogers spokesman these days, which is a bit confusing, but somewhat necessary considering Roy Rogers, the person, has been dead for two decades. Still, there’s a plaque with a likeness of Roy Rogers by the order counter with some corporate ad copy about great tasting food and service with a smile. Although the place is busy, the lobby is clean and is a perfectly pleasant place to be despite the crowds. I have no idea if all the surviving Roy Rogers locations are this well run, but I’m inclined to think they are considering this is my first every Roy Rogers experience. Everything about this location has left me intrigued and wanting to experience more. I may have to plan a Ponderosa-esque trek through the Tidewater to experience several meals at different Roy Rogers locations one of these days. 

Now here's Roy...

...and his buddy Cal

Being swallowed up by Hardee’s meant certain death for every other fast food brand that met that fate, but Roy Rogers was able to escape the fate of complete assimilation by the Hardee’s hivemind and come out the other side with a fast food concept that feels both novel and still thoroughly modern despite minimal changes over the years. Whether you chalk up the survival of the brand to Roy Rogers fans not accepting Hardee’s moving in on their territory, the dedication of the Plamondon family, Hardee’s spreading themselves too thin, or some combination thereof, I’m excited that Roy Rogers still exists and seems to be thriving within its regional market. In fact, it really only has broken chain status because the chain is a tenth of its former size. All other indicators show that the Roy Rogers chain is anything but broken. It would be great to see a few more of my beloved endangered fast food brands enjoy similar resurgences, and I’d be overjoyed to be telling a similar story about the comeback of my beloved G.D. Ritzy’s in a few years.

Speaking of, the new Ritzy’s in Columbus is set to open any day now, run by chain founder Graydon Webb and his sons Corey and Bryan. I’ll be making regular trips there once they’re open. If Roy Rogers is any indication, a father-sons team reviving a beloved family fast food business is a winning combination that has the potential to be a regional hit with both old and new fans. I sincerely hope that my acquaintances, the Webbs, have all the success and more with Ritzy’s that the Plamondons have had with Roy Rogers. Like Roy Rogers, G.D. Ritzy’s offers a unique, high quality experience at a reasonable price and is just as deserving of a successful revival, with or without Cal Ripken tagging along.