Saturday, January 26, 2019

The (Nonspecific) Chef

In a couple of weeks, I'll have been travelling in pursuit of broken chain experiences for a full year. In that year, I've made some unexpected discoveries that I found truly surprising. The outlets of otherwise extinct, or at least rapidly disappearing chains I thought I'd never have the opportunity to visit make me constantly recall the title of my very first blog post. With every holdout business I stumble upon with help from my loyal readers and Google, I repeat it like a mantra.

I've consistently been surprised and impressed with the places that are still open for business as usual, decades after the majority of their sister locations have closed up shop. Just when I think I've discovered everything within a reasonable driving distance, I turn over more rocks and find more places that call to me with the siren song of obsolescence.

Once a Burger Chef, always a Burger Chef

Over the summer, I visited a place called Suzi's Hamburgers located in South Charleston, West Virginia, and found it to be a relatively faithful recreation of a mid 1970s Burger Chef including operating out of an era-appropriate Burger Chef building. I had previously assumed Burger Chef to be completely extinct. In my excitement, I composed a blog post that, in retrospect, I realize discusses the history of the chain a bit too much, and my experience at that specific location not quite enough. A few months later, to my ever-increasing surprise, I would be afforded a second chance to write about Burger Chef. 

This is The Chef. In addition to reasonably-priced chicken biscuits, he makes burgers. 

While I was in the Volunteer State visiting Central Park locations, I found myself in Cleveland, Tennessee, a town whose Central Park is situated just around the corner from a restaurant called The Chef. I had known about The Chef for years thanks to the building's familiar pentagonal front facade, and cryptic posts about it on old Burger Chef fan sites. While the building is a 1966 vintage Burger Chef structure, and the name of the restaurant's name evokes the building's original purpose, I couldn't find any evidence on any website of it having anything resembling Burger Chef food. Through the lens of Yelp or Google, it looks like a generally well-regarded breakfast and lunch joint operating out of an old Burger Chef building. I figured I'd stop by for an early lunch on my way out of town just to check the building out. I didn't hold out much hope for the menu to retain any Burger Chef items. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong, and that much of the lunch menu was true to not only Burger Chef, but the era of Burger Chef in which the building was constructed. 

It's at this point that should probably provide you with a little history. I'll try my best to keep it brief. Burger Chef was founded in the early 1950s as a subsidiary of a restaurant equipment company based in Indianapolis. The chain grew quickly by franchising during the postwar fast food boom, eventually becoming the #2 fast food chain behind McDonalds. Cashflow issues led to Burger Chef being acquired by General Foods in 1968. Lacking experience in the restaurant business, General Foods implemented sweeping changes across the chain with mixed results. (They also owned, and similarly mismanaged Rax and Ponderosa around the same time.) Building designs were updated. Marketing strategies and logos changed frequently. In the 1970's a Roy Rogers style topping bar was added, and flame broilers were discarded in favor of electric griddles. General Foods' mismanagement of Burger Chef led to Hardee's acquiring the brand in 1982, and quickly converting corporate-owned Burger Chef locations to Hardee's locations. The few remaining franchised Burger Chefs closed up shop over the next 14 years as franchise agreements were allowed to expire. The last restaurant to use the Burger Chef name closed in 1996. Fans of the chain regarded Schroeder's Drive-In in Danville, Illinois, a Burger Chef that changed its name, but not its operations when its franchise agreement expired, as the last true Burger Chef. Sadly Schroeder's closed in 2015.

In present-day West Virginia, Suzi's is probably best known for it's various breakfast biscuit sandwiches that rival Tudor's Biscuit World, West Virginia's homegrown chain, known for all things biscuit-related, but their lunch menu is the closest thing to the 1970s iteration of the Burger Chef menu that you'll be likely to find anywhere. Hamburgers are cooked on an electric griddle, and are prepared and topped as they would have been in the Burger Chef days. Close analogs of later menu additions like the Chicken Club sandwich and Fisherman's Fillet are available. The topping bar is present in the lobby, and appears to be an original Burger Chef unit. In fact most everything about the building is '70s era Burger Chef, including not only the structure itself, but the indoor and drive thru menu boards. In my mind it's less a fast food joint, and more a fast food museum, a glimpse into the past to an era when Burger Chef was still a major force in the fast food industry, but was clearly in decline, and trying desperately to reinvent the concept to stay relevant in an industry where its market share was shrinking. 

Modern order counter under a distinctively Burger Chef vaulted ceiling

If Suzi's is the best surviving example of a 1970s era Burger Chef, then The Chef is easily the best surviving example of a 1960s era Burger Chef. It's building has had some updates over the years, but all the trappings of a second-generation Burger Chef building, known internally as a "Cosmopolitan II" design, which retains the basic shape of the earlier Burger Chef building design, but adds an L-shaped indoor dining room flanking the kitchen. I stopped by during the transition from breakfast to lunch on a weekday. The original Burger Chef menu boards are long gone here, and have been replaced with a couple of flatscreen monitors. I ordered a drink and sat in the lobby, staring intently at the menu screens until they changed over from breakfast to lunch. After taking a minute to parse the names of the burgers in an effort to determine what Burger Chef items they might bear similarity to, I returned to the order counter and requested what the menu called a Big Deluxe and a Super Deluxe, suspecting the words "Big" and "Super" might indicate they are copycats of the Big Shef and Super Shef, which were fixtures of the Burger Chef menu.
Modern-day Big Shef, perhaps my favorite Big Boy imitator. I just love that tangy zip, y'all!
Within a few minutes, my order was ready, and with cautious optimism, I unwrapped the first sandwich. Sure enough, it was a double deck burger on a three-piece bun with a pair of two-ish ounce patties, a single slice of cheese, shredded lettuce, and a chunky white sauce. It was a renamed Big Shef, Burger Chef's knockoff of Bob Wian's Big Boy, which beat McDonald's knockoff, the Big Mac, to market. My first bite confirms the sandwich's true identity. As with the Big Shef I had at Suzi's, (They call theirs the Double Decker.) the sauce had the unmistakably tangy zip of Miracle Whip, which served as the base for the special sauce Burger Chef put on the Big Shef. Unlike Suzi's however, this Big Shef had the flavor of the 1960s, as the patties had been cooked in a flame broiler as they would have prior to the General Foods era. You've gotta love food that's era-appropriate to the building. If Suzi's is the 1970's exhibit in a hypothetical Burger Chef museum, The Chef is its 1960s counterpart. 

and a modern-day Super Shef; Add some sesame seeds to that bun, and it could pass for a Whopper.
I then gave my Super Deluxe, aka Super Shef a try. This is my first Super Shef, as I usually opt for a Chicken Club of Fisherman's Fillet as my second sandwich in addition to my customary Big Shef when I visit Suzi's. The original Super Shef was a deluxe burger with all the typical toppings garnishing a quarter-pound patty, essentially, Burger Chef's answer to Burger King's Whopper. Unsurprisingly, with it's flame broiled patty, The Chef's version of the Super Shef tastes strikingly similar to a Whopper. Given the ingredients, this is unsurprising. Likewise, Burger Chef's historic relationship to Burger King also contributed to my utter lack of surprise over the flavor of the Super Shef. General Equipment, Burger Chef's initial parent company supplied Burger King with flame broilers during the King's early days in business. Burger Chef, then a subsidiary of General Equipment used the same broilers. It's therefore no great mystery why the flavor of the Super Shef is so similar to the Whopper. 

When I build my dream house, I want it to have a room that looks just like this. 

As I finished up eating, I took a stroll around the dining room to bask in the vaulted ceiling glory of a historic Burger Chef structure. I was pleased to find framed pictures of the building as it looked in full Burger Chef regalia as well as a photo of the original menu board featuring the Big Shef and Super Shef at 1966 prices. The management here isn't shy about the business's heritage. Like Suzi's, they've expanded the breakfast menu for wider appeal. The building's interior has been modernized, but it's clear they're proud to be a former Burger Chef. They've preserved the Burger Chef menu, building, and brand to the greatest extent that they could given the legal and logistical constraints of outliving the Burger Chef brand by 37 years and counting. After a year on the road, The Chef gives me hope. 

The same building, 52 years ago

Sadly, The Chef serves Coke products rather than RC Cola these days. In many ways, RC Cola is the Burger Chef of colas. 

I dread the day that I run out of places to visit and write about for Broken Chains. I've recently found myself casting a wider net and travelling farther in search of places that are still operating under their original names. Places like The Chef, Suzis, and indeed, Fowlerville Farms and Farmstead, give me hope that there are more holdouts of broken chains nearby hiding in plain sight, doing business as they always have, but under new names so as not to arouse the legal teams of whatever corporate entities control their brand names today. Though they rarely use it, Hardee's parent company, CKE, is very protective of the Burger Chef name, hence the necessity of former locations disguising their true identity. I look forward to the prospect of tracking down other holdout businesses conducting business as usual under new names. When I find other broken chain locations that have entered witness protection, I'll be sure to out them here. Hopefully my writing will serve to increase their foot traffic without getting them sued. 

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Oh, What They've Done to the Chili!

Kiss my grits, Mel!

The past few days have been the coldest so far of the winter in my Metro Detroit home. This past weekend, the abysmally frigid temperatures sapped my motivation to leave the house, and saw me remaining at home for all but the most necessary outings. I passed the the time watching reruns of Mama’s Family and Night Court on my 1980-vintage 12 inch black and white Philco TV, onto which I recently connected the necessary adapters for it to pick up the digital broadcast signals from the local stations, many of which air programming that is period appropriate to the very device I’m watching on. These days, nearly all of my television viewing is done using various streaming services which allow me to watch any of their offerings whenever I want. It seemed like an eternity since I sat down and channel surfed until I found something that I could watch that happened to be airing independently of my schedule.

From what I saw, it appears everyone under the age of 70 also abandoned so-called “appointment TV,” because the commercials that aired between the reruns were targeted squarely at the elderly. As I sat through the endless commercials for term life insurance, hearing aids, and scammy reverse mortgages, I was reminded of a much warmer day a month or so back. Counter-intuitively, I was in Minnesota, and it was the Winter Solstice.

I’d been driving around The Land of 10,000 Lakes all day, having dined at both the Zantigo in St. Paul and the Bonanza in St. Cloud. My last Minnesota meal of the day came around 3 PM, an hour or so before sundown on the shortest day of the year. I was in Mankato at the last operating Happy Chef Restaurant.

Like Sign of the Beefcarver back in Michigan, the lone surviving Happy Chef was also the very first location, opening in Mankato in 1963. The chain grew to around 80 units in Minnesota and surrounding states. Downfall came in the ‘80s as the Happy Chef brand grew increasingly dated with each passing year, and failed to adapt to a younger clientele. Locations began to slowly close, leaving only the original location in Mankato open.

The first thing anyone who visits the Mankato Happy Chef will notice is the titular chef character out front. The sheer size of the statue puts even the biggest Big Boy to shame. The Happy Chef stands with a wide grin, holding a massive wooden spoon skyward, and gesturing toward the door with his other gigantic fiberglass hand. He towers over the building, despite being severely bowlegged, attracting attention from everyone driving by on highway 169 as he has for more than 50 years. Local newspaper articles claim that the long dormant speaker system that resides within the bowels of the chef had recently been restored to operating condition, allowing him to shout pre-recorded phrases at passers-by. Maybe I didn’t walk by the correct spot to trigger the system’s motion sensor, or maybe there was a malfunction, but on the day of my visit, the Happy Chef had nothing to say to me. 

When I walked inside, the lone waitress said I could sit anywhere. I chose a booth near the kitchen in the surprisingly small dining room. Aside from myself and a table of six or so active seniors, the place was empty. The decor felt, dated, and surprisingly bland, given the 30 foot chef out front. The atmosphere had an inoffensive pastel late 1980s palate, like a cheap nursing home. As the table of oldsters next to me discussed their views on the current political climate and provided to one another various graphic descriptions of their respective physical maladies, all in accents that made them sound like bit players in some long forgotten deleted scene from Fargo, I thumbed through my menu and found it to be full of typical American diner food.

The view from my table, dated, clean, inoffensive

The overflow dining area could pass for the rumpus room at grandma's.

When my waitress returned, I ordered up the most distinctive food I could find on the menu, a pork tenderloin sandwich, a cup of chili, and a glass of Rochester Root Beer, a brand I hadn’t encountered before or since. A few minutes later, my order arrived, and my waitress offered me a ominous “Good Luck” as she gestured toward my sandwich whose breaded meaty innards extended several inches past the bun in all directions. I proceeded to fold the porcine patty into thirds like a deep fried wallet and add some of the tangy barbecue sauce and vegetable garnishes from my plate to the sandwich before taking a bite. As pork tenderloin sandwiches go, this was a good one. The breaded hunk of swine in the middle had been prepared from scratch and was moist without being fatty or chewy. Likewise, the Rochester root beer was pleasantly sweet and thick with strong notes of vanilla and sassafras. Rochester must be a root beer that is marketed strictly toward the elderly, though, as there appears to be no information about them anywhere on the internet. Likewise, the chili was clearly formulated for the geriatric palate. 

"Good luck"
The crackers were the spiciest thing in this chili. 

Actually, to call it chili would be generous, since both cumin and chili peppers are requisite ingredients for chili. I tasted no notes of either in what was essentially a tomato, beef, and bean stew. I'm not even certain salt was added to it. While the chili was the definite low point of my meal, it was, like my surroundings inoffensive, if bland. Like much of the rest of Happy Chef, the unnervingly mild chili appears to have been concocted to cater to a clientele with an average age of 85, whose digestive systems a spicier blend might not agree with. Still between Happy Chef and Zantigo, I'm beginning to realize why Minnesota isn't known for its chili. 

While I'm a solid 40 years younger than Happy Chef's target demographic, I'm glad I got to experience it, and take a step back into the past while dining with people who may well have been eating at that very Happy Chef since it opened. While the experience wasn't terribly unique, it was comforting, like a day spent watching bad TV while swaddled in a couple heavy blankets as snow gently falls outside. Just as are better ways to watch TV, than connecting the rabbit ears to the old Philco, there are better restaurant chains than Happy Chef, whether they be thriving or broken, if you're not too set in your ways to seek them out. However, when you're in the right mood, a bowl of mediocre chili or a few hours in front of a tiny, ancient cathode ray tube, can be immensely comforting. 

Anyone who can tell me piece of culture the title of this post is referencing will receive an imaginary high five from me.

(Yes, I stole the obscure cultural reference shtick from Judge John Hodgman. What's he going to do, sue me in his imaginary internet courtroom?)

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019


There are multiple motivating factors that keep me on the road in pursuit of broken chains, but one of the big ones is chasing down my vague childhood memories. Whether I’m going to Jerry’s, Omelet Shoppe, G.D. Ritzy’s, or Darryl’s, I’m attempting to experience something that interested me decades ago that I didn’t get a chance to fully explore at the time. Up until now, the earliest and vaguest of those early vague memories has eluded me.

The fast food row of my early childhood in late 1980s Central Kentucky consisted of an Imasco-era Hardee’s, an Arby’s in a former Burger Queen/Druther’s, and a Fazoli’s in a heavily modified former KFC. All of these structures still stand today, (though the Fazoli’s is now a Dairy Queen) but another fast food joint in the area was leveled and forgotten decades ago.

I didn’t even remember the name of the place, but I remembered the building. It seemed impossibly tall and impossibly narrow to my preschool-aged eyes, with its bright mansard roof topped with a four-sided sign whose letters meant little to me at a time in my development that I was just beginning ponder the concept of written language. I was probably attracted to the bright colors and ornate trim. It was also the first fast food place with no inside dining area that I remember being aware of. My family and I never ate there when it was open, and it had been closed and demolished for a solid decade by the time I was old enough to drive.

With no restaurant name to Google, and with friends and family from the area unable to recall what the place was called, I had all but given up on researching the place more to see if there were any of them left open anywhere. That is, at least until I was browsing and found their entry for a chain called Central Park. Upon seeing the pictures of the double drive thru buildings with a tiny footprint, standing a good three and a half stories tall including the four sided sign on the roofs, I was 90% sure I had found more examples of that near forgotten building of my late toddlerhood. (I chalk up the 10% uncertainty to the fact that this is one of my earliest fast food memories.) Furthermore, I was ecstatic to learn of a handful of locations still open, mostly in East Tennessee.

Double drive thru in action. 
In fact, the first Central Park opened in Chattanooga in 1982, an early entrant in the then-crowded field of second-wave, no-frills fast food chains that sought to forego the salad bar and playground-laden excess that fast food had become, and take it back to its stripped-down roots, with limited menus, no inside seating, and dirt cheap prices. Checkers/Rally’s is a still thriving chain born of this boom. The all but defunct Hot ‘n Now is a relic of the same era, as are other defunct or near defunct chains like Snapp’s and Zipp’s. Even my beloved G.D. Ritzy’s tried to get in on the action with their short-lived Daddy-O’s concept. Most of these chains employed a double drive thru ordering system with two separate ordering lanes and windows as a way to maximize efficiency.

At their peak, Central Park had around 60 locations, mostly in the south, plus a few in Utah thanks to a lone franchisee in Salt Lake City. Like many other regional double drive thru chains, Central Park declined in the ‘90s, and locations, including the one I grew up near, gradually closed. Their name makes them difficult to Google, but constantly adjusting search terms and dragging the map away from Manhattan shows five Central Park locations open today, three of which are in their original 1980s-era buildings, another in an larger, presumably newer building, and a fifth operating out of a former Hardee's complete with inside seating. On a recent run to Tennessee, I stopped by a couple of the locations operating in their original structures.

My first stop was at Knoxville’s only surviving Central Park location, tucked on a tiny lot just off I-640. It was lunchtime, and the place was doing a brisk business. Upon my arrival, I noted there was no customer parking in the lot. As with many double drive thru chains of this era, you're expected to get your food and leave. The setup made taking pictures tricky, as I couldn't exit my car, but the drive thru lane that went all the way around the back of the building was helpful. When it was my turn at the order speaker, I asked for what seems to be the chain's signature burger, the Big Bubba, along with fries, and a sweet tea, as is my preference when checking out southern chains. I made the unusually short drive from the speaker to the window, paid, and received my order which I drove down the street to a gas station parking lot to examine and enjoy. 

I would totally hang a giant burger and fries in a conspicuous spot in my house.
 I can't help but think that the Big Bubba was inspired by the Rally's, and later Checkers Big Buford, or perhaps it was the other way around since Central Park predates both Rally's and Checkers. Like the Big Buford, the Big Bubba had two quarter pound patties, a couple slices of cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and the regular condiments. As with the Big Buford, the Big Bubba is also completely forgettable. It's not an especially good burger, but it's also not especially bad. It's free of any unusual or unique toppings or flavors. It reminds me of a burger I could make at home, especially since I'm fairly sure that the beef patties were the type that you can buy in boxes of 50 at Sam's Club or Costco. Again, like Checkers/Rally's the fries were straight, but seasoned, though the seasoning wasn't as strong. They were closer to Arby's fries than Checkers/Rally's in flavor. Regardless of its shortcomings, the food was fresh and hot, and met the basic requirements I expected of a fast food meal. I was disappointed that it all came in generic packaging, as signage on the building showed branded drink and fry containers. I had hoped to take a branded cup or fry box home to add to my collection. Likewise, the price was a bit of a shocker, north of $10 for a large combo. For that much, I'd expect a place to sit and eat on site with a roof over my head, but they have to do what's necessary to survive, and the pricing hasn't scared off the locals.

The Big Bubba comes wrapped in plain foil. 

A generic Styrofoam cup of what I suspect are straightened curly fries
 Later that day, I stopped by a second Central Park in Cleveland, Tennesee, and found it to be less busy, though it was mid-afternoon by the time I got there. This location, while housed in the signature tall structure, had some differences. There were no intercoms. Instead you ordered, paid, and received your food all from the same window. This location also offered shakes, which weren't present in Knoxville. Having grazed all day, I wasn't terribly hungry, so I ordered only a chili dog and a Diet Coke. This time around, there was parking nearby, so I headed that way to enjoy my order. As before, the chili dog was well prepared, tasting hot and fresh, topped with mustard and onions. Maybe I've become too used to the Detroit style Coney dogs of my adopted home, but I found Central Park's chili to have an odd aftertaste that lingered an hour after eating, as if a bit too much of some seasoning had been added to the chili. Still, I take that as an indication the chili sauce was at least made from scratch, though it's tough for me to have strong feelings about it one way or another.

Cleveland rocks. 

Acceptable, but unremarkable chili dog

I spent that night in Chattanooga, Central Park's birthplace and home to two of the surviving locations. I attempted to have a third Central Park meal while in town, but found the location nearest my Airbnb closed at 7 PM despite Google indicating they were open until 9, forcing me to conclude that the Central Park brand is Googleproof, or at least Google-resistant.

 While I can't confirm it's the case, I don't see any evidence of corporate support for the remaining Central Park franchisees. Signage is weathered and dated, branded packaging is nonexistent, and there's no official website for the brand that I can find, though searching for Central Park invariably lands me in the famous greenspace in New York City far from the odd tall-small burger joints in Tennessee and Georgia. On the one hand, the lack of brand evolution is charming given that some of the surviving locations are dead ringers for the long gone Central Park that I vaguely recall from 30 years ago, but in an age where even the major fast food players are offering five and six dollar deals, a no frills chain like Central Park could thrive by undercutting them the way Checkers/Rally's does. While I didn't find the food at Central Park to be anything special in terms of uniqueness or price, it was at least decently prepared. The main attraction was always finally finding operating locations of what is perhaps my earliest memory of a broken chain a solid three decades after my first Central Park encounter, scratching an itch that I'd had for far too long. 

5/8/2020 Edit:

I guess should have trusted my gut and given my 10% uncertainty a little more attention. It's recently come to my attention that the fast food joint of my vague childhood memories was not a Central Park at all. The double drive thru burger stand that once stood on South Main Street in Nicholasville, Kentucky, near what is now Ollie's Bargain Outlet (and what was then Kroger) was an architecturally and conceptually similar Grand Junction Hamburger Station. The building and operation look to have been very similar to Central Park's, but it's tough to say who came first, and who was imitating whom. In the double drive thru fad of the 1980s, everyone was imitating everyone else to some extent. Information about Grand Junction online is scant, and the chain appears to be completely extinct. I'm disappointed that I never got to experience a whistle stop at the Grand Junction Hamburger Station, but I'm glad my fuzzy recollections of Grand Junction led me off the rails down the Central Park rabbit hole. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Zantigo Returns

Auhor's Note: I wrote this post during a more innocent time. I made a playful reference to US Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito. It's a name I would not invoke were I rewriting this post today. 

-Zap Actionsdower June 24, 2022

A year or so ago, I was back home visiting my parents in Kentucky. My father and I were in the car after having lunch at Lexingon's only surviving Taco Tico, as we often do when I come to town. He was reminiscing about how he came to love Mexican-inspired fast food, and recounted an early date he went on with my mother in the late '70s to dine at Lexington’s sole Zantigo, location, which was still open in the early days of the very Taco Tico where we had just eaten. As we passed the former site of the Lexington Zantigo, just a couple miles east of the Taco Tico we were returning from, he pointed out the building to me.

This was once the Lexington, Kentucky Zantigo

It was a distinctive looking building with floor to ceiling arched windows adorning the front facade along with a prominent buttress. The roof was also odd, with a flat-topped center portion extending skyward atop a more conventional hip roof. The building was sitting disused when I managed to stop by to take a picture of it a while later, most recently functioning as a Chinese, or perhaps barbecue restaurant, (There were remnants of signage for both.) but it had begun life as a Zantigo, and in its heyday, it served as a venue to my parents’ budding romance.

At some point after my father struck out with my mother’s cousin Agnes following their first and only date at Darryl’s, he began seeing my mother. They opted to give the nearby Taco Tico a pass to have dinner at Zantigo instead, and my mother, having eaten her fill, stuffed a couple leftover tacos in her purse to enjoy later, only to forget about them, and find them still in her purse a few days later. The narrative serves to illustrate not only my mother’s forgetfulness and lax attitude toward food safety, both of which persist to this day, but also my father’s cheapness, bringing a date to a fast food taco joint, perhaps learning his lesson after an expensive first date at Darryl’s.

Given my pre-existing interest in near-forgotten restaurant chains, and perhaps a feeling that I might not exist had my parents not eaten at that exact Zantigo, I became obsessed with the Zantigo brand after hearing this story. Predictably, I found myself spotting other former Zantigo locations in my travels. With their unique architecture, they’re certainly easy to spot, not unlike former G.D. Ritzy’s buildings. Naturally, I read up on their convoluted history as well.

This payday loan place in Columbus, Ohio isn't fooling anybody. 

Neither is this Wendy's in Belleville, Michigan.

Marno McDermott, not to be confused with Dermott Mulroney or Dylan McDermott opened the first Zapata restaurant in Minneapolis in 1969. His operation was purchased by Hueublein, then parent company of KFC, in 1974. Hublein changed the name of Zapata’s restaurants to Zantigo, and changed the name of Zapata’s grocery products to Ortega, a brand which still exists today. Heublein was acquired by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in 1982, which merged with Nabisco in 1985, after which the restaurant division, including KFC and Zantigo were sold off to PepsiCo, who already owned Taco Bell. As a result, the 80 or so remaining Zantigos were either closed or converted to Taco Bells by 1988. Meanwhile, Marno McDermott had moved on to his next venture, again selling a Midwestern version of Mexican food, co-founding Chi Chi's in 1975, after which, he co-starred in My Best Friend's Wedding with Julia Roberts. Or maybe that was Dylan McDermott? Regardless, the Zantigo brand was effectively defunct for the next decade, until a former Zantigo manager bought the rights to the name, and revived the chain with the original menu, plus some additions. 

Classic Zantigo building, modernized for the modern Zantigo customer

The dining room is on the small side, but the large windows and high ceilings make it feel spacious. 

Modern electronic menu board

Ever since learning this, I had been trying to find an excuse to drive out to Minnesota, as all four locations are in and around the Twin Cities. Two are in nondescript strip mall locations, another is in a former Pizza hut, but the fourth is in an original 1970s-era Zantigo building, that housed a Taco Bell in the dark Zantigo-less years of the '80s and '90s. Not unlike the restored Stuckey's I visited last summer, I couldn't resist the allure of a resurrected Zantigo building, so I hopped in the car, and drove the 700 miles to St. Paul at the first opportunity I got. I arrived to find a vintage building that someone has obviously poured a lot of money into. The interior and exterior appointments felt modern, but with a decidedly vintage feel, as if the building had always been a Zantigo that slowly evolved into having modern decor, as if it's from an alternate reality where the Zantigo brand had never disappeared. Menu boards were on flatscreen monitors, and everything felt shiny and new. The building was even in the process of getting a new roof during my visit. 

I was making the most of my time in the Gopher State, and I had a full day of eating planned. I had to pace myself, and this was my first meal of the day. My plan was to order judiciously, purchasing just a few items that best exemplified the Zantigo experience. I went with the classic Mild Chilito, a Taco Deluxe, and Cheese and Chips, the latter being at the recommendation of my father. A couple weeks prior, I'd also ordered and eaten a Chili Cheese Burrito at a Toledo, Ohio Taco Bell so I could compare and contrast it with the Zantigo Chilito, as the Chili Cheese Burrito at Taco Bell is based on the Chilito, and seems to be the only Zantigo-related item you can sometimes still find on the menu at certain Taco Bells operating in former Zantigo territory. This phenomenon, and the website that helps fans locate Taco Bell locations that sell the Chili Cheese Burrito have been discussed in-depth over at Tedium

The Taco Deluxe is a decent enough menu item. I'd order two or three of them on my next Zantigo run. 

The chips and cheese lived up to my father's hype, though they were simple and easily replicable, consisting only of grated cheddar jack cheese melted in the microwave over a bed of tortilla chips with a side of pickled jalapeƱos. I enjoyed them much more than any fast food nachos I've had in recent memory. Real cheese instead of fake liquid nacho cheese made all the difference. Likewise, the Taco Deluxe, a taco in a crispy corn tortilla wrapped in a soft flour tortilla adhered with a layer of refried beans was also a pleasurable experience. The meat had a mild flavor that blended nicely with the other flavors at play. With its refried beans and guacamole, it reminded me a bit of a hand-held seven layer dip. The only let-down was the much anticipated Mild Chilito, which wasn't as good as the Taco Bell burrito. The Chili Cheese Burrito I'd had in Toledo was the same size as a Taco Bell bean burrito, but filled with chili and melted cheddar instead of beans. All that chili made for a hearty and delicious, if slightly messy, meal. The Chilito from Zantigo on the other hand was a tortilla with a light sprinkling of cheese and a token smear of chili folded flat, and rolled up, more of an untoasted quesadilla than a burrito. As a result, I tasted the tortilla as much as, or more than I tasted the filling. I wasn't a fan. While much easier to eat, the Chilito comes off as bland, and skimpily topped compared to the Chili Cheese Burrito. You heard it here first. Not unlike Lance Ito, or Samuel Alito, I judge the Toledo burrito to be superior to the Zantigo Chilito.

Pleasantly plump Chili Cheese Burrito at Taco Bell

Sad, deflated Chilito at Zantigo. 

Regardless of the slight disappointment I felt when experiencing my first Chilito, I'm always excited when an extinct chain makes a comeback, and Zantigo is no exception. I'd love to see them expand into more of their old buildings, and I'll probably always plan on stopping by Zantigo any time I happen to be in their territory, since they have special significance to me. After all, if a butterfly flapping its wings can change the course of history, then it's entirely possible that I wouldn't have been born if my parents had eaten at Taco Tico instead of Zantigo.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Texas de Illinois

This empty parking lot ain't big enough for the both of us. 

If there’s a list of the most popular steakhouse themes floating around somewhere, “Texas” is probably quite near the top. Whether you’re enjoying a meal at a Longhorn or a Texas Roadhouse, your surroundings were designed to evoke the beefy aura of the Lonestar State. The ubiquity of allegedly Texan steakhouses served as an unintentional camouflage for the near disappearance of one of their own, Lone Star Steakhouse.

It has only just occurred to me that the odd roofline of the building is meant to resemble the Alamo. 
The first Lone Star opened in 1989 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The chain peaked with around 265 locations in the late 1990s, and was bought out in 2006 by Lone Star Funds, a coincidentally-named, Dallas-based private equity firm. The twin specters of private equity ownership and the 2008 recession were predictably not kind to Lone Star Steakhouse, as the chain has been hemorrhaging locations for the past decade. Today, there are three surviving Lone Star locations in the continental US, plus one in Guam.

I was aware of none of this until recently, and generally regarded Lone Star as relatively healthy chain that was of little interest to me, not unlike the similarly branded Texas Roadhouse. I knew they were separate chains, but the two were very much in the same bucket in my mind. It took a tip from a reader (Thanks Matt!) to alert me to Lone Star’s endangered status. Coincidentally I was days away from a trip that would route me through the Chicago suburbs when I learned of Lone Star’s decline. I had planned to stop at the Joliet Rax for lunch, but cancelled those plans when I learned one of the four operating Lone Star locations was half an hour east of Joliet in Crestwood, Illinois.

I had to kill a few minutes when I arrived at the Crestwood Lone Star, an outparcel at the edge of a large shopping center. I had failed to account for the time zone change I encountered while driving in from Michigan, and I arrived a good 15 minutes before the restaurant’s 11 AM opening time. As I sat in the parking lot, deserted save for a few employee vehicles, I noticed the lot of Portillo’s next door was nearly half full. Soon, it was 11:00, and I entered the Line Star as their first customer of the day.

It's pretty Texasy in here.

The hostess quickly seated me in a booth, and said she was about to turn on the many televisions around the dining room. I told her she didn’t need to on my account, but the many flatscreens were soon showing daytime talk shows, regardless, albeit with the sound mercifully muted. Every bit of theming on the walls was somehow connected to Texas. The vibe of the place felt like it was a couple propane tanks shy of a fever dream you'd have while passed out on NyQuil in front of a TV playing a King of the Hill marathon. I reviewed the menu, and concluded that I did not want a steak. For one thing, it was lunchtime, and I would have felt weird eating a steak for lunch. Also, there was a $3 per side dish upcharge if you wanted side dishes with your steak other than mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables which enraged my inner baked-potato-and-Caesar-salad-loving cheapskate. I also reasoned that steak is difficult to screw up, and I’d get a better idea of the quality of the food if I ordered something a bit more complex. 

When the hostess returned, now acting as a waitress, I ordered a steak sandwich, topped with peppers, onions, and cheese. While admittedly very steaky, the sandwich at least afforded me the opportunity to evaluate the kitchen staff's ability to prepare and assemble the constituent ingredients of a steak sandwich, rather than a steak alone. It came with fries, and I added a side salad. Somehow, this order also came with a basket of hot yeasty rolls, which tasted great, but decidedly Ponderosa-ish, with honey butter. Overall, the food was acceptable, but unremarkable. As I was finishing up, more than half an hour after I walked in, the second customers of the day were seated. Around the same time, I received my bill, and was astounded to see that my sandwich, fries, salad, and iced tea were going to cost me $21 before tipping my attentive, but not terribly busy waitress. 

Does the word, "Yeasty" Make you uncomfortable? Yeasty yeasty yeasty yeasty yeasty!
A perfectly decent, but overpriced lunch

I imagine that this place, like most steakhouses is much busier during dinner hours, and that the menu is more geared to a dinner crowd at a dinner price point. Still, without a viable, cost-effective lunch menu, I can’t imagine they’re turning a profit between 11 AM and 5 PM. The Gordon Ramsay in me wants to scream at their corporate overlords to either come up with a decent sub - $15 lunch menu, or remain closed prior to dinner time, all the while peppering in some delightfully British insults and obscenities.

Or do. I'm a neon sign, not a neon cop. 

If anyone has given the folks in charge of Lone Star such a recommendation in the past, it’s clearly not been heeded, as they’re down to four locations, one of which seems to be open and losing money for half the day. While the staff and food were generally pleasant, the menu and pricing reflects management is out of touch, and perhaps indifferent at a corporate level to this rapidly fading chain. Since my visit to the now-closed Norwood, Ohio Don Pablo’s over the summer, the chain, has shrunk from seven locations to one, down from a peak of 120. The general vibe at this Lone Star felt very similar to that Don Pablo’s. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the four operating Lone Stars shrink to a count of one or even zero a year from now.

These thoughts all occurred to me as I was sitting in that nearly empty steakhouse finishing my midday meal. It was almost too much to bear. After i paid my bill and left, I had to stop by the Portillo’s next door for a chocolate cake shake just to cheer myself up.

For a more authentically Texan retail history experience, be sure to check out my friend Mike's blog, Houston Historic Retail. He recently sought out a broken chain experience of his own at a Frostop drive-in.

Also, if you're a person who enjoys liking Facebook pages, be sure to like the Broken Chains Facebook Page, were I occasionally post bits of extra Broken Chains content.