Saturday, September 29, 2018

Dissimilar and Not Quite Extinct

This is a follow-up to my previous post Similar, but Legally Distinct. If you haven't read that post, consider going back and reading it before reading this one. 

Visiting multiple locations of a broken chain that still has more than one location can be immensely informative. Stops at different outlets of the same brand give you a more complete picture of the state of an endangered chain from a uniquely comprehensive perspective. My travels to every operating (G.D.) Ritzy’s showed how franchisees can vary in their day to day operations if left alone for a decade or two, plus how the chain founder’s vision can be modified to appeal to a modern audience. Visiting every remaining Rax (except one; I’m coming for you, Harlan, Kentucky Rax!) showed me how great (and not so great) a Rax experience can be. When I visited four Ponderosa Steakhouses in a single weekend, it became clear that the chain was in disarray, but my trip to the lone Bonanza Steak and BBQ showed that there was still a glimmer of hope for the Ponderosa-Bonanza brands. I have also long entertained fantasies of of taking a two week road trip to all 15 or so remaining Taco Ticos that are spread from Iowa to Louisiana with a large clump of locations in and around Wichita. It was with this mindset that I realized that when I visited the three Lima, Ohio Kewpee locations and a couple locations of the related Halo Burger chain, I wasn’t quite getting the full Kewpee experience.

Not long after I dined at the Lima, Ohio Kewpees, all of which have the same owner, I took a trip to Racine, Wisconsin to visit the last operating Red Barn. While researching Racine, I learned it was also home to another of the five remaining Kewpee locations, and that the fifth was less than two hours from me in Lansing, Michigan. Naturally, I visited the Racine Kewpee while I was in town, and I found my way to the Lansing Kewpee last week. The Kewpee chain hasn’t had any meaningful corporate support in close to fifty years and the Michigan and Wisconsin Kewpees have different owners than the Ohio locations. I was curious to see how close the experience was at the outlying Kewpees compared to the three Lima locations.

Kewpee, named for the then popular, but objectively creepy looking Kewpie doll figurines was founded in Flint, Michigan In 1923 and grew to 400 locations around the Great Lakes by the start of World War Two. The chain fell apart in the sixties when a new owner attempted and failed to impose a modern franchise agreement on the longtime owners of Kewpee restaurants. Kewpee was a favorite spot of a young Dave Thomas, and it heavily influenced Wendy’s which opened its first locations while Kewpee was in sharp decline.

A 1990s interpretation of the 1930s

During the two days Esmeralda Fitzmonster and I spent in Racine, Wisconsin, we didn’t really adjust to central time. We found ourselves ready for lunch at 10 AM on a weekday when we parked a couple blocks away from the Kewpee in downtown Racine, opting to walk the rest of the way. The building, according to, a 1997 recreation of its circa 1939 predecessor, was instantly recognizable from a block away thanks to its sign featuring a Kewpie doll, resembling a fully nude, crucified, pointy-headed infant. True to it’s design, the inside and outside of the structure looked older than its 21 years with its glazed bricks, porthole Windows, and low U-shaped counters. There’s a glass display case built into one wall at the rear of the dining area full of vintage Kewpie dolls. I made a point of not looking at, or getting near it. While the architecture was distinctive and felt appropriate for a brand with such a long history, it also bore no resemblance to the prewar Kewpee in downtown Lima nor its two 1960s vintage counterparts across town. 

I don't get how this sign is supposed to make people hungry. 

The food and service were also at odds with the Lima locations. Upon entering, the surprisingly crowded dining room, Esmeralda and I ordered at the register, received our orders wrapped to go, and sat down at the counter to eat. It was only then that we noticed that employees were taking other customer’s orders where they sat and bringing their food on plates. The Lima Keepees employ a more traditional fast food ordering system and do not offer table service, or plates other than plastic trays. 

Yes, I saved the wrapper, but I hate looking at it. 

I order up a burger with mustard, pickles, and onions, Dave Thomas’ preferred burger toppings, plus fries and a chocolate shake. Despite a half century of divergent evolution, the square, ragged-edged burger I received was functionally identical to the Kewpee burgers I’d experienced in Lima, and just as with the Lima Kewpee Burgers, it reminded me of Wendy’s original burgers more than a little bit. The culinary similarities began and ended there, however. The fries were crinkle cut, unlike the straight cut fries in Lima. Likewise, my chocolate shake was made of blended milk and ice cream, and tasted homemade, while the Lima Kewpees use a soft serve machine to dispense their Frosted Malts, a product that’s like a better version of a Wendy’s Frosty. Likewise the Racine Kewpee menu lacks the chili and freshly baked pies that are available in Lima, but does offer fish and chicken sandwiches that aren’t available at the Ohio Kewpees. Overall, the experience was perfectly pleasant aside from the decor, but if you remove the Kewpee name and dolls, it didn’t feel terribly distinctive. 

Downtown Kewpee in the shadow Michigan's capitol.

It took me a while to visit the Lansing Kewpee, but a few days ago, I found my way there. It was late afternoon on a weekday, and like the Racine location, this Kewpee was downtown. I parked a couple of blocks away, took a moment to admire Michigan's Capitol building, which was directly in front of me, then made my way down the street to the Kewpee. It's the only non freestanding Kewpee still open, housed in a short brick building crammed between taller buildings. There's a Yoga studio upstairs. People who look like they do yoga are filing in and out of the shared entryway as I walk in. I don't look like I do yoga. I look like I drive around and eat hamburgers.

Immediately upon entry, I'm met with a large red and white porcelain "Kewpee Hotel Hamburgs" sign, that looks to date from the early days of the Kewpee brand. A little research revealed that this location dates back to 1923, and is therefore the oldest Kewpee still in operation. The interior of the place with its exposed brick, arching alcoves, and tufted booths feels old and comfortable. The business is still run by the family of the original owner, and outside signage reads "Weston's Kewpee Restaurant." It feels like one of thousands of mom and pop burger places, which it essentially is. I doubt many of the regulars here know that Kewpee was ever a chain. Still, there are Kewpee artifacts here and there on the walls, mostly the same blue and white monochrome logo that's on the top of the menu. It's an odd time of day and the place is nearly empty. A sign near the door tells me to sit whereever I want. I oblige, and a waitress greets me at my table. I order a Diet Coke and review the paper menu. It's the most extensive Kewpee menu I've seen, with only a small section near the top devoted to hamburgers. Shakes are nowhere to be found, but this Kewpee is true to the chain's Michigan roots. 

You have to flip the menu over to get to the burgers.

The likelihood of encountering green olives on a hamburger increases dramatically the further west one travels in Michigan, and I suspect the Flint-born Kewpee was slinging olive burgers from the very beginning. The Lima Kewpees, which dress each burger to order, offer green olives as a topping option. Halo Burger, which is a descendant of Kewpee also has an olive burger on the menu. While green olives were conspicuously absent from the Racine Kewpee, they're prominently featured on the burgers of the lone remaining Michigan Kewpee. Three different topping options and patty sizes work out to nine different burgers being present on the menu at Weston's Kewpee. When my waitress returns with my drink, I order up the mid sized King Deluxe which comes topped with olive sauce, lettuce, and tomato. She warns me that it has olives on it, expressing concern that I was expecting something akin to a Whopper. If only she knew I've forced myself to consume olive burgers repeatedly to the point of almost enjoying them. 

Historic burger on a trendy bun with a side of middle school cafeteria fries

My order came up quickly, and the first thing I noticed was the brioche bun. I suspect it to be a recent addition given the recent brioche fad and the fact that it's the first I've seen at any Kewpee. The olive sauce seems to be little more than a mixture of olives and mayonnaise, which is consistent with just about every other Michigan olive burger I've had. Despite the differences, the burger is a Kewpee hamburger where it matters, in the patty. It has the signature square shape with ragged edges and uniform thickness I've come to appreciate from the other four Kewpees. Despite the inconsistencies elsewhere, a Kewpee burger patty is perfectly consistent across five locations in three states that have been operating essentially independently since the early 1970s. The operators knew that it was that meat puck that made them successful, and tailored the rest of their businesses as needed over the years.

Meals at all five Kewpee locations gives a comprehensive frame of reference of what remains of the Kewpee brand. It's tough to say from my 21st century viewpoint which is the most authentic. Maybe they all are in their own way, or maybe none of them are. The Lima locations feel the most modern, frozen in an era when the Kewpee chain was struggling to remain relevant and adapt to the changing fast food landscape, yet they seem to offer the most authentic menu. The Lansing Kewpee has a storied atmosphere, and a long history, but the majority of its menu is a decided departure from the original Kewpee offerings, and the Racine location simply feels like a tribute to Kewpee, the burger joint equivalent of a cover band. Each has its own merits, and offers a pleasant, if inconsistent experience, but the blend of consistencies and inconsistencies is what makes these places interesting and worth travelling to in the first place. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Stuckey's Stuckey's Stuckey's!

Shortly after finishing my post about the last operating Horne’s, it occurred to me that I had mentioned Stuckey’s here one time too many, and not unlike Beetlejuice, saying “Stuckey’s” repeatedly seems to spontaneously summon a blog post about them into being. People from the south and/or over a certain age no doubt have memories of stopping at the Stuckey’s locations along major U.S. highways to gas up, use the famously clean facilities, and maybe buy a pecan log roll or souvenir or two while on roadtrips. Like its offspring Nickerson Farms and Horne’s, Stuckey’s was one of the early chains with a business model centered around catering to travelers in areas where not much else was around.

William Sylvester Stuckey Senior got his start in the 1930s selling freshly harvested pecans from the orchard on his family’s farm out of a roadside shack in Eastman, Georgia. The business would eventually grow and evolve into a restaurant, gas station, and novelty shop housed in a building with a teal blue roof. The pecan theme evolved as well. Stuckey’s wife, Ethel, would supply the store with pecan candies to supplement the plain pecans already on the shelves. After WWII, Stuckey began to franchise his business, and blue-roofed buildings began to pop up in sparsely developed spots along major highways where traffic was heavy, real estate was cheap, and competition was limited. Stuckey’s peaked at around 350 locations all over the US. Like most early businesses set up to cater to American motorists, decline come for Stuckey’s in the 1970s. Fuel shortages, economic recession, and increased competition from the national fast food chains all made it difficult for Stuckey’s to remain competitive. The brand had been acquired by Pet Inc, makers of Pet evaporated milk, in 1964, and by the ‘70s they had little interest in evolving the Stuckey’s brand. The chain had shrunk to around 75 locations when William Sylvester Stuckey Junior bought his father’s legacy back from Pet in 1985.

The history section of the Stuckey’s website proclaims the reacquisition of the brand by the Stuckey family as a triumph, and states 115 locations are currently open for business. However, a little fiddling with their difficult to use store locator yields a count of only 82 operating locations. My internet friend, Mike, who runs Houston Historic Retail, was nice enough to research some of those locations and found that there’s a high degree of variation between them. While some locations are traditional old-style Stuckey’s with teal blue roofs and inventories stocked with pecan candy and cheap novelties, while others are little more than modern convenience stores and travel centers that stock Stuckey’s merchandise. Many of those seem to have no visible outside signage to reflect their affiliation with the Stuckey’s brand. A truck stop with a shelf or two of pecan log rolls can hardly be considered a real Stuckey’s. I therefore suspect that the actual count of Stuckey’s locations recognizable to the average passerby is well below their supposed 1980s-era rock bottom of 75 stores.

These days, roadsides are littered with abandoned and repurposed Stuckey’s buildings. I pass two of them (plus an empty Nickerson Farms) along I-94 in Michigan when I drive to the last operating Hot ‘n Now. With the Stuckey's brand's best days decades behind it, I decided to seek out an operating Stuckey’s location that best exemplified the heyday of the brand. My search landed me in Johnston City, Illinois, home of a long defunct Stuckey's that was restored and reopened in 2017. It seems to be marketed as something of a flagship location for the brand. It had long been on my list to visit, but my recent Festiva trip across Indiana and Illinois finally afforded me the opportunity to visit.

Even without the sign or blue roof, it's clear that this is a Stuckey's.

My initial impression upon pulling my ridiculous car in under the gas canopy was positive. All the signage appeared modern, but sported the classic Stuckey’s logo, which was even present on the individual gas pumps. The building looked to have been nicely restored, and though it lacked the signature blue roof, its distinctive roofline with varying slopes was classic Stuckey’s architecture. The interior was spotless and well lit, and I was delighted to see not only a plethora of pecan products lining the shelves, but also the cheapest, cheesiest tourist trinkets imaginable. After a visit to the impeccably clean restroom, I went shopping. 

It's the most fun gas stop I've had in recent memory. 

I started with a couple of Stuckey’s logo T-shirts, then a blue, black, and white striped falsa blanket, another of Stuckey’s better known offerings. I also picked up a couple bags of whole pecans for the next time I feel like baking a pecan pie. I also bought a large Stuckey’s pecan log roll, because it’s tough not to buy one when you’re at a Stuckey’s. I ate it for lunch the next day, and found it to be tooth-meltingly sweet, but very filling. All told, including half a tank of gas, I spent a little over $60 at Stuckey’s, but I was and still am excited about everything I bought. The one item I was anticipating the most was a pecan milkshake, though. 

Tchotchkes as far as the eye can see. 

Stuckey’s has experimented with offering fast food off and on over the years, sometimes using their own branding, sometimes integrating an existing fast food concept, often Dairy Queen, into their stores. There’s not a clear legacy of memorable fast food menu items, other than the pecan shake. While the Johnston City Stuckey’s doesn’t offer much in the way of fast food, I was happy to see shakes advertised across the front of the building at this location, but when I asked what flavors they had, I was met with a reply of “Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.” I settled for a nondescript strawberry shake which came in a “Caribbean Creme Smoothie” cup. It was the one letdown of my visit to Stuckey’s. 

♬Caribbean Creme
Is not what's in this drink
Now my hopes are all but gone
Of milkshakes with pecan♬
Maybe it’s concerns over loose pecan dust in the air aggravating patrons’ nut allergies, or the limited appeal of a pecan flavored shake, but it’s something I’d love to see at the flagship Stuckey’s location, preferably in a Stuckey’s-branded cup rather than a mislabeled one advertising some manner of Billy Ocean-inspired smoothie. Is anyone with a severe nut allergy setting foot in a Stuckey’s anyway?

My Stuckey's purchases, minus the pecan log roll, which I ate, and one tshirt, which I gave to Esmeralda Fitzmonster.

Aside from the lack of a pecan shake, I have nothing but good things to say about the Johnson City Stuckey's. It's a step in the right direction for the chain. I'd love to see more locations like this one, operating out of refurbished original structures following the original Stuckey's business model. I could see them doing well with billboard advertising along routes to major tourist attractions. The only notes I'd offer would be to keep the roofs blue and keep pecan shakes on the menu. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Pop and Sizzle

The back of a customer comment card I swiped from one of the Evansville, Indiana G.D. Ritzy's contains the following copy:

“A visit back to the old-time goodness of G.D. Ritzy’s is deliciously special indeed.

G.D. Ritzy’s Award-Winning Luxury Ice Creams, voted one of the 4 best ice creams in America are created with dairy-fresh cream and milk, pure cane sugar, egg yolks and bursting with beboppin’ goodness.

G.D. Rity’s Grilled Coney Dogs are 100% pure beef and pop with every juicy bite.

Our 1940s Style Hamburgers are grilled right before your eyes. Shaped and seared on our extra-hot grill, they’re served crisp on the edges and tender in the middle.

And G.D. Ritzy’s Slow Cooked, Secret Recipe Chili. A rich tomato stock blended with chunks of sauteed beef, a delicate blend of spices, and the finest, freshest toppings.

It’s all a delicious Part of G.D. Ritzy’s Luxury Grill & Ice Creams.

G.D. Ritzy’s Has What The Other’s Have Not ..

Pop Sizzle & Bebop”

About half of the places that I write about, I’m experiencing for the first time. When I walk into a Roy Rogers, Ollie’s Trolley, or Arthur Treacher’s, I like to think that I can assess the establishment’s merits and shortcomings in a more or less objective way. I never intended to become an amateur restaurant critic. Instead, I set out to experience and document often overlooked pieces of history. But somewhere along the way, I fell into a groove of jabbing gently, and occasionally not so gently, at the foibles of the anachronistic businesses I patronize. It’s easy to be witty when you’re talking about a suboptimal dining experience, but difficult to make a post praising an establishment an engaging read. With little to no emotional skin in the game I feel little to no remorse skewering the places where my experience was less than perfect. Understand that I’m not sharing this information as a preamble to turning over a new leaf. I’m sure that I’ll continue to lambaste the occasional eatery, and even more occasional retail establishment, provided that I have sufficient emotional distance to maintain objectivity, but if there’s one chain I lack emotional distance from, it’s G.D. Ritzy’s.

G.D. Ritzy’s was hands down my favorite place to eat as a kid, and it’s sudden disappearance and subsequent long absence from my life made my heart and stomach grow fonder. Some of the earliest road trips that helped me discover my passion for forgotten fast food over a decade ago were to the holdout G.D. Ritzy’s locations in Indiana and Kentucky. It was a trip to the Huntington, West Virginia G.D. Ritzy’s last December that served, partially, as my inspiration to start this very blog. Earlier this year, I made a pilgrimage to every operating G.D. Ritzy’s location that culminated in me meeting chain founder Graydon Webb, who was working with his sons and a family friend to open a new Ritzy’s, the first in its one-time core market of Ohio and surrounding states to open since 1990. Last week, that new Ritzy’s opened. I drove down to Columbus to have lunch there on its fourth full day in operation, not fully realizing my closeness to the Ritzy’s brand would make the experience exceedingly difficult to recount here.

The previous weekend, I was travelling through southern Indiana, and made the obligatory stop at the University Boulevard G.D. Ritzy’s in Evansville for lunch. The six surviving franchised Ritzy’s are owned by three separate longtime franchisees, and while each franchisee’s locations have evolved a bit over the years and all have their own individual charms, the Evansville locations are my favorite. Their buildings, menus, food, furniture, even cups and tray liners, are all identical to the long-gone Lexington, Kentucky Ritzy’s locations of my childhood. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, powerful enough to draw me 450 miles from my home to Evansville for the sole purpose of eating at Ritzy’s no fewer than three times this year. (I’ve also been to the two Owensboro, Kentucky Ritzy’s one time each, and the Huntington, West Virginia G.D. Ritzy’s three times in the past ten months.) My secondary motivation for the stopping there, a distant second from nostalgia, was to have a fresh memory of my favorite Ritzy’s when I ate at the new location the following weekend. I had no doubt that the new Ritzy’s, while updated a bit from the original concept, would still have the same pop, sizzle, and bebop as my favorite locations in Evansville, but I thought it might be fun to compare the new Ritzy’s to the old. I figured it would be a unique angle. People would be flocking to the newly opened and long anticipated Columbus Ritzy’s, and the Evansville G.D. Ritzy’s locations are as popular as ever, but very few people, perhaps only me, would have been to both within a week, and all the other Ritzy’s in operation in the past six months. Every experience I’d had in the old Ritzy’s from Indiana to West Virginia had always been stellar. Why wouldn’t a shiny new Ritzy’s run by the founding family be any different?

An unforgettable luncheon in Evansville.

The new Ritzy's in Columbus, Ohio
At this point, you, the reader, are probably thinking that I’ve led you to some lofty precipice so that I, the author, may shove you over the edge in a dramatic reveal about some abysmal experience I had at the new Ritzy’s. I can assure you that said precipice is no more than an inch and a half drop. Congratulations. You’ve reached the anticlimax of this post. All things considered, my experience at the new Ritzy’s was pretty good. Given that the place, at that point, had been open for business for three full days with brand new staff, and that droves of nostalgic locals (and not so locals) had been lining up out the door from open to close for each of those three days my experience was more than satisfactory. Still, I left after my meal feeling vaguely disappointed. Some hard reflection has helped me realize that this disappointment is my own fault and not the fault of the new Ritzy’s.

The main focus of Broken Chains has been longtime holdouts of otherwise defunct chains. My exploration of decades-old businesses left me ill-prepared to fairly evaluate a place that had been open for half a week. My lifelong love for the G.D. Ritzy’s brand, and past exemplary experience at more seasoned Ritzy’s locations left me with expectations far too high to give the new Ritzy’s a fair shake. When you’re used to A++ experiences, an A- can be tough to cope with at first. 

I’m not even going to discuss the specific shortcomings of my experience at the new Ritzy’s. All you need to know is they’ve got the pop and sizzle, but the bebop needs work. I have no doubt that they’ll master said bebop in good time. To discuss the minor imperfections of my experience at the fledgling restaurant in detail would be picking the proverbial nit. I’ll admit to having nitpicked in previous blog posts, and I’ll continue to nitpick in future ones, but I have way too many emotions tied up in G.D. Ritzy’s to be give it the same treatment. I never set out to be a critic, and there are certain things that I can’t bring myself to criticize. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018


The missing frames haunt me. 

At the tail end of my tour to every operating G.D. Ritzy’s earlier this year, I made a quick stop at a Frostop drive in just down the street from the Huntington, West Virginia G.D. Ritzy’s. I generally enjoyed the atmosphere of the outdoor seating area despite it being a chilly damp day in early April. I had just eaten a full meal at the Ritzy's up the street, so I just had a chocolate shake, and enjoyed it while taking the time to appreciate the giant spinning root beer mug atop the building. I took a quick video of the spinning mug, but realized too late that I failed to capture a full revolution, and that a .gif made from the video therefore wouldn’t loop properly. Still, I kept the cup my shake came in as a souvenir. You can see it in the header image above. I made a mental note to research and write about Frostop later.

LS Harvey opened the first Frostop in Springfield, Ohio in 1926. The brand expanded rapidly after World War Two and rode the wave of the drive in boom of the fifties and sixties, peaking at around 350 locations in the south and midwest. Like A&W, Dog ‘n Suds, and B-K, Frostop drive ins would make their own root beer using a proprietary recipe. As with many brands covered here, decline came for Frostop in the seventies with a slowing economy and increased competition from the National fast food chains. Corporate support for franchisees ended in the early eighties, rendering the remaining Frostop locations independent.

Today, there are thirteen surviving Frostop drive ins open for business, spread from Mississippi to Idaho. Frostop-branded beverages are also available in select retail outlets in several states, thanks to Ohio-based FBG Bottling who seems to own the Frostop brand these days. Their website has a decent amount of information on the drive ins as well, but the definitive online source for all things Frostop is the blog run by the operators of the LaPlace, Louisiana Frostop.

With nonexistent corporate support for the past 35 years and hundreds of miles between formerly-franchised locations, I thought it would be fun to visit and compare a couple more surviving Frostops and see what, if anything, they have in common. I also needed to find another spinning mug sign in order to get a properly looping video. My recent trip through Indiana and Illinois routed me through two different Frostop towns, and of course, I stopped and ate at both of them.

It was Saturday morning when I rolled into Tell City, Indiana. I had time on my hands. I planned on getting to town right when the local Frostop opened, but had neglected to account for the change to central time, which had occurred somewhere between where I was and the hotel just north of Louisville where I had spent the previous night.

♬Steakhouse for sale or lease,
Traps are full of rancid grease,
No food,
No lights,
Some rats,
The kitchen's full of feral cats.♬
Clumsy song parodies aside, this is the most original Ponderosa I've encountered in recent memory, and I say that as a person who visits a lot of Ponderosas. 
To kill time, I snooped around an empty Ponderosa on the edge of town, which had been closed for over three years but still had its signs up. I then walked a couple laps of the local Walmart before ending up parked down the street from Frostop. I still had 15 or so minutes to kill, so I walked around the block, repeatedly. On my third pass of the Frostop, they were open. 

Tell City Frostop menu

A giant mug would really jazz this place up, don't you think?

This location didn’t seem to offer curb service, as the parking space was limited. Tragically, there was also no giant mug to be found anywhere on the property. Aside from the individual letters along the roof spelling out “FROSTOP” the building was pretty nondescript, little more than a pole barn with a porch. I examined the menu, walked up to the window, and ordered something called an Orbit Burger and a root beer. I had fuzzy memories of some forgotten Food Network show where the hosts were seeking out a flying saucer shaped burger, a beef patty encased in round discs of bread crimped together at the edges. They ended up finding it at some old drive in. Could it have been a Frostop? Had I stumbled on nearly forgotten, retro-futuristic burger by accident? My hopes were high as I removed an oddly placed structural toothpick, and unwrapped my Orbit Burger. I was quickly disappointed when I found the Orbit Burger I had ordered off the unillustrated menu had two patties, lettuce, a single slice of cheese, and was slathered in thousand island. That’s right, it was a Big Boy knockoff. It wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t great. The one detail I remember a week later is that the patties were overcooked and leathery.

Wrapped Orbit Burger, note the curious toothpick placement. 
The aggressively average Orbit Burger in all its glory

The house-made root beer was another story. The typical sassafras/vanilla/wintergreen flavor was there, but there were more complex flavors in the background including hints of cinnamon and maybe spiced apples. Yeah I like to talk about root beer as if it’s fine wine. What of it? I was a little disappointed there was no frosted mug, and disappointed further when the styrofoam cup had no logo on it. The crushed ice in the cup was a nice surprise though. Long after I’d finished the drink, the remaining saturated ice became a makeshift root beer snow cone, which I enjoyed in the car for the next hour or so on my way to my next destination.

Would you drive this car 1200 miles in three days? I was crazy enough to do it, and I'd do it again, I tells ya!

Chrisman, Illinois was my next, and final Frostop stop of the trip a couple of days later. I was in rough shape when I rolled into town. I’d been on the road for three midwestern late summer days in my old Ford Festiva, which is not equipped with air conditioning. I’d spent the night before in a tent, camped out at a friend’s family farm with several other Festiva enthusiasts. I had been up since before dawn that morning thanks to a rooster adhering to cartoon stereotypes and crowing repeatedly starting at around 4:30. I had been outside in a hot asphalt parking lot all day long autocrossing Festivas, and as much fun as I’d had, I’d managed to get what turned out to be the worst sunburn of my life. Still, I pressed on, taking solace in the fact that Google Streetview showed the Chrisman Frostop had a giant mug sign, and I’d have my chance to get my video of it spinning that I could turn into a perfectly looping gif. 

The Chrisman Frostop.

As I piloted my Hawaiian shirt on wheels into the parking lot, I was crestfallen. The mug was still there, but it was badly in need of restoration and looked like it hadn’t spun in at least two decades. The menu bore no resemblance to the menu of the Tell City Frostop, and was augmented by handwritten signs advertising new menu items and newly raised prices. The place was packed. It was a balmy Sunday evening, and the next day was Labor Day. It seems everyone in town had a hankering for Frostop that night. Management had not anticipated this holiday weekend boom, and only a single carhop seemed to be working. She darted in and out of the kitchen serving other customers before she got to me. I ordered a double cheeseburger, fries, and a root beer, and when she returned a few minutes later with my order, she took my money, and said she’d be back with my change.

Maybe spend some of that extra revenue on new signage.

Stationary mug of LIES!

The burger was passable, but in no way distinctive. It could have come from just about any mom and pop burger joint. Simultaneously, it bore absolutely no resemblance to the Frostop burger I’d had a couple days before. The size, shape, and flavor of the patties was completely different. The fries were the generic and ubiquitous crinkle cuts. I was looking forward to at least enjoying another good made from scratch root beer, but was again disappointed to find it completely different than the root beer I’d had in Indiana. The licorice and cinnamon undertones were gone, and this brew was a good deal sweeter. One might say it had bite. The menu at this location prominently features Coca Cola products, so I strongly suspect I was surreptitiously served Barq’s root beer, which would render the giant Frostop mug out front a giant lie.

Decent, but forgettable burger

It was around this time that I noticed I was almost done with my meal, and my carhop hadn’t returned with my change. The scene out my windshield was mayhem. An old farmer was engaged in an argument with some scruffy looking bikers to my right while unruly children were ripping the taped-on paper amendments off of the unusually low mounted menu board directly in front of me. The carhop ran in and out of the door at least ten more times before she came back with an apology and correct change from the 20 I had given her earlier. I was ecstatic to fire up my tiny engine and let all 63 horsepower pull back to my tent at the edge of a cornfield. I got the best sleep I had ever gotten with a sleeping bag and air mattress that night, at least until the rooster woke me up again right on schedule at 4:30.
The building on the label looks a lot like the Frostop in Huntington. 

A week later, I was back in air conditioned civilization with a mostly healed sunburn. I began wondering if that with so much variation between locations, if either Frostop I visited was actually serving the authentic root beer recipe. According The the LaPlace Frostop blog, the bottled version uses the original formula, so I set out to find some in Metro Detroit. Luckily, my local Rocket Fizz carried the stuff, and I brought home a couple bottles to sample. This evening I mowed the lawn, came inside and opened one of the bottles. The liquid inside had the same cinnamony aftertaste, as the stuff I had in Tell City. It's unique, but quite pleasant almost like apple pie flavored root beer. The verdict: Tell City Frostop root beer is the definitive Frostop root beer, Chrisman, not so much. Based on the three locations I've visited, the Frostop brand seems to be a mixed bag. The one in Huntington seems to have the best handle on things in terms of outward appearances, and they make a good chocolate shake. I might have to swing by there for a full meal the next time I'm in town. I'll probably make a new post when I do, and you better believe it will feature a properly looping .gif of the spinning mug.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Feed Me, Seymour!

In the early sixties, the American automobile manufacturer, Studebaker was short on cash and struggling to remain relevant in an increasingly competitive marketplace. In a last ditch effort to attract consumer interest, they threw every available resource at designing a distinctive new car, the Avanti. With its minimalistic yet stylish fiberglass body, the Avanti looked nothing like any other car Studebaker, or anyone else had ever made and was an instant classic. Ultimately, the Avanti wasn't enough to save Studebaker from bankruptcy, but the car, designed and produced with minimal time and cash to spare by a company fighting for its life, became a symbol of going out in style. I recently encountered the Studebaker Avanti of steakhouses. 

A few months back, I spent a weekend traveling around Michigan to dine at four completely different Ponderosa Steakhouses. I found that the food, buildings, staff and overall experiences varied wildly depending on the location. I haven’t felt much desire to eat at a Ponderosa since, but I’ve remained curious about Ponderosa’s competitor turned sister brand, Bonanza.

Ponderosa and Bonanza barely survived the Great Recession. Their parent company, Metromedia, declared bankruptcy in 2008, but emerged with a new name, Homestyle Dining LLC, and a plan to modernize their aging restaurant concepts. In 2014, a year after the fiftieth anniversary of the Bonanza brand, There were plans to revitalize Ponderosa locations with badly needed building and signage upgrades as well as new menu items to attract a younger more health conscious clientele. Additionally, the Bonanza brand would be completely reimagined to differentiate it from the nearly identical Ponderosa concept. The plan was to move the Bonanza brand upmarket and rebrand it as Bonanza Steak and BBQ. Additionally Homestyle Dining introduced a fast casual steakhouse concept known as Cole’s Backyard Grill. Plans called for opening 100 franchised locations of each new concept over the next five years.

Plans changed suddenly in 2017 when Homestyle Dining LLC was purchased by FAT Brands, who owns Fatburger as well as a few other restaurant brands. Prior to the buyout, Homestyle Dining LLC hand managed to open one Cole’s which has since closed, and two Bonanza Steak and BBQ locations. The first Bonanza Steak and BBQ in Eureka, Missouri opened in 2015 and closed a year or two later. The second, the remains open in Seymour, Indiana. FAT Brands appears to have all but abandoned the new concepts as well as all North American Ponderosa-Bonanza operations in general, in favor of growing the brands internationally. Ponderosa and Bonanza seem to ultimately be doomed to the same fate as other brands like Chi Chi’s and Kenny Rogers Roasters, whose owners abandoned the American market entirely, but still exist abroad.

My initial plan was to visit the Seymour, Indiana Bonanza Steak and BBQ as well as a still-operational 1960s vintage, old concept Bonanza location in Lincoln, Illinois in order to compare and contrast the original and new Bonanza experiences. Unfortunately, multiple recent customer reviews of the old Bonanza in Lincoln stating live cockroaches were seen on the walls, tables, and salad bar deterred me from eating there. I'll therefore be forced to use my previous experiences at Ponderosa for comparison, which should be reasonably close, as old concept Bonanzas seem to function nearly identically to Ponderosas. Likewise, my local Ponderosa is housed in a former Bonanza building of the same vintage as the Lincoln, Illinois Bonanza.

The Dearborn Heights, Michigan Ponderosa, a former Bonanza with the typical barn-shaped facade. It's slightly dingy inside, but is roach-free, near as I can tell. 

(I’ll have to visit one of the old, and hopefully cleaner, Bonanzas in Pennsylvania in the name of completionism at some point, but that’s another blog post.)

I kicked off my Labor Day weekend road trip with a dinner stop at the sole surviving Bonanza Steak and BBQ. I was driving my vintage Ford Festiva, as I had plans to meet up with some of my Festiva-loving friends later on in Illinois. Though it's not without its own merits, my Festiva is no Avanti, and I was really feeling all of the 330 or so miles I had driven in my 25 year old economy car with no A/C to get there from Michigan by the time I pulled into the mostly full parking lot. I walked in the building's front door and was greeted by more branded material than I was expecting, including signs with both the original Bonanza logo and the Bonanza Steak and BBQ logo. A near life size cardboard cutout of NASCAR driver Chase Elliot was advertising a contest that was current at the time, but has since expired. It's the only official marketing material I've ever seen for the Bonanza Steak and BBQ brand.

There were plenty of nods to the past despite the overall modern atmosphere. 

The Cal Ripken cutout from Roy Rogers could totally take this poor man's Cole Trickle in a fight. 

It was around 7:30 PM on a Friday evening, and the place seemed relatively busy. The dining room was full, and there were a few people waiting for a table, seated on padded benches just past the entryway. Since I was by myself, the host sat me at the bar right away. A couple of things struck me as unusual right away. No one took my order before seating me, as is the case with most Pon-Bon locations, and this location has a bar. I've only encountered a single Ponderosa that offered beer and wine served to you at your table. Most don't seem to have liquor licenses at all, but this one had a full bar, with a bartender to hand me a nicely printed hardcover menu and take my order. I assume there would be regular servers in the main dining area. 

Nicely displayed Bourbon bottles. Other liquors were displayed similarly at the other end of the bar. 

I think this rug really ties the steakhouse together, man. 

The hot food buffet and dessert bar, longtime staples of the Pon-Bon chain, and monuments to quantity over quality, were also noticeably absent, however, there was still a salad bar, which was massive, close in size to the entire salad bar and buffet combined at my local Ponderosa. The salad bar felt new and modern, with its refrigerated slab holding salad ingredients in large porcelain serving trays. An employee was nearby to ensure that the entire operation remained clean and well stocked. It appeared to be her sole job duty. While a salad bar would be considered a mark of a low end restaurant by some, this one thanks to its appearance and quality actually managed to feel upscale, while providing a nice nod to the Bonanza brand's heritage. I was also able to make myself a really great salad. I wish I had a salad bar this good near my office. I'd have a salad for lunch every day, and in turn, be able to consume more empty calories at oddball fast food joints and then write about them on my silly blog. 

A bonanza of salad fixins

I'm going to spend the rest of my life remembering, and futilely trying to recreate, this salad.

My steak arrived in a reasonable amount of time, and was nicely prepared and topped with a tasty herbed butter. It tasted like a better quality of meat than I would normally get at my local Ponderosa, but it was the same cut I always order. It also came with four hot yeast rolls, not unlike those found on Pon-Bon buffets, as well as a large cup full of cinnamon butter. I also got a baked potato, which was nicely prepared, but it's tough to screw up a baked potato. 

Behold, the best steak I've ever had at a Ponderosa or Bonanza!

There's a live musician here, playing guitar and singing mostly southern rock tunes from the '70s. As I'm eating, he starts into CCR's "Midnight Special," singing, "Ain't no food upon the table, and no pork up in the pan." and pauses for a minute to interject, "They ain't at Bonanza!" He's only part right, though, there's plenty food upon the table, but surprisingly little pork up in the pan for a place with BBQ in its name. The only barbecue inspired items on the menu seem to be ribs, pulled pork, and a smoked prime rib, which I should really try on my next visit.

Despite the limited selection of smoked meats on the menu, just about every aspect of Bonanza Steak and BBQ feels modern, and compared to the dingy, dated, and overpriced Ponderosas I've experienced, I can safely say that this concept is a definite improvement over the antiquated Pon-Bon model. Nearly all aspects seem more upscale and modern without seeming overly generic. It's everything I prefer this location to three of the four Ponderosas I visited previously. (The Ponderosa in Bay City, Michigan retains it's #1 spot thanks to better than average quality buffet fare and unintentionally entertaining patrons.) It's not really any more expensive to eat here than it is at any of the Ponderosas I've experienced. Having ordered a ten ounce sirloin, salad bar, a potato and a soft drink, I was out the door for under 25 bucks, including a tip for the bartender and another for the musician. I've had much worse meals for more money at Ponderosa.

The exterior building design feels thoroughly modern and vastly more upscale than the average Pon-Bon. The architecture is tasteful and restrained, if a bit generic. Old Google Street View images show the building was previously a Max and Erma's, but even the striking Studebaker Avanti rode on the same chassis as its predecessor, the humble Studebaker Lark. I imagine a stronger corporate image plan might have come later had the concept had the opportunity to grow. It would be great to see FAT brands attempting to open more US locations, but that doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon, as they have their sights set elsewhere in the world.

As solid a concept as Bonanza Steak and BBQ seems to be, it seems to have been too little too late to keep Pon-Bon relevant. Though both the Pon-Bon and Bonanza Steak and BBQ websites state that franchises are available, I don't think they're getting many bites, due to better franchise arrangements being available from other brands and/or the diminished state of the Ponderosa and Bonanza names in the US. FAT Brands has owned Ponderosa-Bonanza for nearly a year at this point, and from the perspective of the customer, they seem to be doing little to revitalize existing locations and re establish a dying chain that was once 1,200 locations strong. I suspect things will get worse for the 100 or so remaining US locations before they get better, but I'm happy to have experienced Bonanza Steak and BBQ, as the final push of a corporate parent to revive an ultimately doomed brand that resulted in a stylish and memorable product.

Following the end of Avanti production, a pair of Studebaker dealers purchased the rights to the Avanti name as well as the manufacturing equipment and space, and survived as a boutique manufacturer, building Avantis in small numbers. Avanti cars would be built in some form or another for the next 40 years following Studebaker's demise. I sincerely hope that Bonanza Steak and BBQ can continue on for at least that long after the last of the US Ponderosas and Bonanzas close for good. It's every bit as deserving of a long life on the market as the Avanti was.