Monday, April 29, 2019

The Definitive Taco Tico

Last fall, I was enjoying a Sancho (a burrito shell full of taco fixins) and some Cinnamon Crustos (Fried tortillas coated in cinnamon sugar) at Lexington Kentucky’s sole remaining Taco Tico. It occurred to me that despite my lifelong love for the Taco Tico brand and the unique blend of fatty ground beef, fillers, and spices that is at the heart of most of their menu items, that my entire Taco Tico experience had been only at locations in Kentucky. Since Kentucky has only had two Taco Ticos for more than a decade, that worldview was a little too narrow for my taste.

This has been my go-to Taco Tico for more than 15 years

Dan Foley opened the first Taco Tico in Wichita, Kansas in 1962, and there were once 120 locations all over the Midwestern and Southeastern United States. In 2013, following decades of slow decline and shrinking location count, ten company-owned, Wichita area Taco Tico locations were forced to close by the Kansas department of revenue due to their failure to remit sales tax revenue back to the state, leaving only a handful of franchised locations, including the two in Kentucky, open for business. This marked the low point in Taco Tico history, and while things aren’t much better today, there is a faint glow of a bright future for Taco Tico.

Most of the Wichita area Ticos that were forced to close by the state have since re opened, and today, a total of 17 Taco Tico locations are open for business, nine in Kansas, plus two each in Oklahoma, Iowa, and Kentucky, one in Louisiana, and one in Texas. The restaurants are loosely associated today with each owner running a separate website, many of which show nonstandard menu items supplementing the classic tacos and burritos. 

 Like Seymour Skinner, I'm an odd fellow, but I steam a good ham
In the early days of this blog, I set out to replicate Taco Tico’s signature meat using a copycat recipe shared by YouTuber, AverageIowaGuy. I found his recipe to be bland, and lacking in the garlicky pungency of the Taco Tico meat I grew up eating in Kentucky. To paraphrase Seymour Skinner, I came close to madness trying to recreate it here in Michigan, but I just couldn’t get the spices right! That experience caused me to wonder how much regional variation there was in the flavor of Taco Tico meat, and if there was a recipe that could be considered the definitive Taco Tico. 

Mason City's Taco Tico is ridiculously photogenic at night.

My investigation began last December in Iowa, specifically in Mason City, home to one of the state’s two Taco Tico locations. It was the winter solstice, and night had fallen early as it often does on the shortest day of the year. I had been eating all day, storing up fat for winter like the large hairy woodland creature that I am, and Taco Tico was my last stop in a single-day broken chain marathon that included meals at Zantigo, Bonanza, and Happy Chef

But it's pretty standard inside. 

 Come to think of it, it's also weird that they had Pepsi. Every other Taco Tico I can remember has had Coke products. 

As one might imagine, I wasn’t terribly hungry, and tried, in vain, to work up an appetite by taking pictures of the exterior of the building, which featured the unique zigzag stripes that many Lexington-area Taco Ticos had during my childhood. (The surviving Lexington Taco Tico appears to have had few updates since the 1970s does not sport the ‘80s vintage zigzags, but functions as a time capsule from an earlier era.)  

Inside, the time warp feeling was milder. While the building still had its original built-in booths and tables, the menu board had been updated with a non-standard unit, and the freestanding tables and chairs were modern. I ordered up three tacos, two crispy, and one Choco after the cashier caught me taking a picture of the menu and asked if I had come to take pictures or order food. I paid, and she handed me a curious little ticket with the Taco Tico logo and my order number on it. I had never seen this before, and I still carry it in my wallet. (I’m a weirdo.) Oddly, it was the the only Taco Tico branded piece of ephemera I received on that visit.

My order came up a few minutes later, and I was greeted by a tray containing two tacos in plain white wrappers and a white Styrofoam drink cup. Despite their relative isolation from the Taco Tico homeland in Kansas, the Lexington and Louisville Taco Ticos have used custom printed cups and wrappers for years, with only a brief interruption around the time the state shut down the company owned Ticos in Wichita. 

Generic wrappers and an odd little order ticket.

A smear of meat up one side of the shell
The construction of the tacos themselves was curious. Firstly, the meat was smeared on one side of the shell rather than along the bottom, but I seemed to recall Louisville’s Taco Tico doing something similar. Secondly, a single tomato slice was in top rather than the diced tomatoes I’d eaten on Taco Tico tacos in Kentucky my whole life. The biggest shock came with my first bite though. The flavor of the meat bore little to no resemblance to what I had become accustomed to in Kentucky. Simultaneously, it tasted nearly identical to AverageIowaGuy’s copycat recipe. Kudos to him for perfectly replicating his local Taco Tico meat formulation, but it didn’t taste like the Taco Tico I know and love. 

Taco Tico’s Wikipedia page states there was a change in the meat recipe implemented following Dan Foley’s sale of the brand to a former KFC executive 1988. The change proved unpopular, and was quickly reverted to the original. Were the Iowa Taco Ticos still using the 1988 vintage recipe, the Taco Tico equivalent of New Coke, or was I raised on the supposedly inferior meat recipe in Kentucky? My parents would have started taking me to the Lexington area Taco Ticos right around 1988. Had my exposure at an early age caused me to develop Stockholm Syndrome for the Taco meat everyone else hated?

For better or worse, the next major event in Taco Tico’s history is set to happen in Lexington Kentucky. Longtime Cheddar’s franchisee, The Greer Companies, purchased the Lexington Taco Tico earlier this year along with a 10% stake in the entire Taco Tico brand. They’re planning widespread expansion starting with a second Lexington location across town in a building that was originally a G.D. Ritzy’s. I visited that very building last spring on my trip to every operating Ritzy’s. Taco Tico setting up shop a former G.D. Ritzy’s is a combination of my two favorite fast food brands that had only occurred in my wildest fantasies. The news that it’s set to become a reality had me acting more weirdly obsessive about both Taco Tico and G.D. Ritzy’s than usual for at least a solid week.  

Once a Ritzy's, later an Arby's, soon to be a Taco Tico

Still, the suspicion that the Kentucky Taco Ticos were using the wrong meat recipe was getting to me, even if it was the recipe I preferred. Relief for my foil hat-level paranoia regarding a taco meat recipe came when Esmeralda Fitzmonster suggested we take a trip to New Orleans in the spring, and since  Louisiana’s only surviving Taco Tico is just around the corner from the New Orleans airport, I emphatically agreed with her suggestion. Naturally, Taco Tico was our first stop after we landed and picked up our rental car. For the first time ever, I had flown to a broken chain. 

If you ever visit New Orleans for the food, you can't pass up the Taco Tico by the airport. 

The Kenner, Louisiana Taco Tico is housed in a purpose built Adobe with a near identical layout to its counterpart in Lexington. The main differences being that the Kenner location wears ‘80s vintage zigzag stripes similar to those at the Mason City, Iowa Taco Tico, and that one of the front corners of the dining room is walled off and houses a few slot machines, no doubt the owner taking advantage of local gambling laws to create a second non-taco related revenue stream. The walls inside were decorated with murals that evoke a 1980s southwestern aesthetic. While no such murals are present at either surviving Kentucky Taco Tico, I have vague memories of them being present at other Lexington locations that closed in the mid ‘90s. 

I want this exact mural in my kitchen at home. 

This location is a near perfect 1980s time capsule
I placed my normal order, a #2 combo, two tacos and a Sancho, with cautious optimism, comforted by a decades old menu board identical to the one at the Taco Tico in Lexington. Esmeralda ordered the same. I was delighted to see branded cups and wrappers on the tray when our order was ready, and the first bite of my Sancho took me right back to every Taco Tico meal of my childhood. 

I've never been here before, yet it feels like home. 
Behold the bounty of Taco Tico

Louisiana’s only Taco Tico was using the meat recipe I grew up with. The very same flavor that fueled my lifelong obsession with Taco Tico was here, 750 miles from Lexington. With the Louisville, Lexington, and Kenner Taco Ticos serving my preferred garlicky taco meat, Mason City, Iowa was the outlier, the weirdo selling the bland garlic-less tacos in plain white wrappers.

The tiny Taco Tico casino is behind the partition.
Sadly, though, the nagging taco paranoia continues. I’ve only eaten at four of the 17 total operating Taco Ticos, and in only three of the six states that house them. I’ve never eaten at a Taco Tico in Wichita, home of Taco Tico Enterprises and birthplace of the brand. That’s where the truly definitive Taco Tico flavor is, tax evasion and all. I’d like to make it to every Taco Tico eventually, but regardless of what and where the definitive Taco Tico is and was, it’s likely to be the Lexington flavor in the future. 

Greer Companies’ president, Lee Greer is a longtime Taco Tico fan, and his long term plan includes acquiring a majority stake in the Taco Tico brand and moving headquarters to Lexingon, Kentucky, much to my delight. Lexington, one of the few cities that has been home to a continuously-operating Taco Tico for the past four decades may soon be home to the Taco Tico brand itself. For me that makes Lexington Taco Tico the definitive Taco Tico, regardless of how the Sanchos taste in Mason City or Wichita, but if you're a midwesterner and/or vampire who grew up without garlic in your Taco Tico tacos, YouTube user, AverageIowaGuy has you covered. He even figured out the bean recipe. 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Ray Roberts

Cups from Carl
The primary purpose of my adventures is to experience and document the remnants of diminished brands. However, since making the acquaintance of my good friend Carl Poncherello, my secondary purpose has been to collect any branded cups, wrappers, or napkins I can get my hands on.

Hey, remember the old header? 
Carl initially contacted me a few months ago after finding my blog when it still had its previous header image consisting of a row of disposable fast food cups that I had collected in my various wacky adventures. Like myself, Carl is a collector of what he and others like us (There are dozens of us!) call restaurant ephemera, basically items such as tray liners, disposable cups, or paper napkins, essentially anything that has branding and isn’t designed to be used more than once. (Ephemera, in my opinion, is not a descriptive enough name. I prefer to call it treasure garbage, because when 99.9% of something is thrown out, the remainder is rare enough to be considered a modern-day treasure.) Thanks to our shared interests, Carl’s initial message to me turned into regular correspondence and an offer to meet up and trade cups.

Our first meeting was early this year, when I met Carl and his wife Lorelai and brought with me a shoe box full of paper, plastic, and Styrofoam cups branded with the logos of the restaurants I had encountered on the previous month’s trip from Michigan to Tennessee via Minnesota. Carl reciprocated my offering of no more than ten cups with two sizable boxes of all his duplicate cups, totaling around 120, some of which appeared to be more than 50 years old.

Carl collects ephemera from all chains, new and old, broken or thriving and approaches collecting with a “Gotta catch ‘em all!” mentality. Having been blown away by his generosity in providing me such a massive collection of rare and interesting specimens, I’ve tried to reciprocate by collecting treasure garbage when I visit places he’s likely to find interesting. For instance, I’m writing this on a plane on a return trip from New Orleans with a carry-on bag full of branded disposable cups from gulf coast chains to bring to my next meetup with Carl and Lorelai. You’ll be hearing more about my New Orleans trip in the near future, but today, I’d like to discuss the setting of our most recent meeting.

The main reason restaurant ephemera is so appealing to me is its anachronistic nature. As restaurant chains evolve, and grow, their aesthetic also must change to adapt to changing consumer demographics and market trends. As such, logos, color palettes, and materials of the ephemeral cups, food wrappers, and napkins changes every few years, as do more concrete aspects of a chain’s corporate image, like menu boards and even the buildings themselves. More often than not, efforts are made to scrub the old corporate image from marketing, and indeed the collective consciousness, but bits and pieces of the previous incarnations of various brands can shine through the decades when one encounters a half century old paper cup. It’s a feeling akin what I feel when I encounter a Red Barn or Burger Chef holdout still doing business as usual in an old building with a new name. It’s a feeling I imagine time travelers having, if they have ever existed, or will ever exist.

If you live near a McDonald’s in North America, chances are it has lost its bright red mansard roof and yellow fluorescent light bars in the past few years and has transformed into a structure that has a neutral-colored, boxy, understated look. With a few notable exceptions, this toning down of fast food buildings is an industry-wide trend aimed at giving fast food a more upmarket appearance and better complying with various local zoning laws where new locations are being built.

Roy Rogers is a chain that has been slowly mounting a comeback over the past 20 years, and makes efforts to remain modern and relevant while also providing meaningful nods to their brand's legacy. It can be tough for a chain named for a long-dead actor known for cheesy cowboy films to feel modern, but my visit to the Cumberland, Maryland Roy Rogers last summer showed that they had been successful in modernizing their corporate image while still acknowledging their roots. 

The Cumberland, Maryland Roy Rogers as it looked last summer
A few months after my visit there, my suspicion that the Cumberland Roy Rogers was a new build was confirmed by a reader. (Thanks Marc!) An older Roy Rogers building had previously been located next door to the current one, and the building was just as much of a time capsule as an old Roy Rogers cup. 

And the old Cumberland Roy Rogers before its 2016 demolition

The original building’s trapezoidal roofline and stone corners were typical of Roy Rogers locations built in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The building also spotted a prominent solarium, a touch that many fast food buildings had in the ‘80s, likely inspired by Rax. Sadly, the building’s lack of a drive thru sealed its fate, and it was demolished and replaced with a shiny new building next door in 2016. The current building with its faux-retro signage and bright colors is quite distinctive by modern standards, but still lacks the character of the old location. I realize buildings don’t last forever, but I still hate to see Plamondon Company, Roy Rogers’ corporate parent, turning their back on their classic buildings.

For years, the world’s westernmost Roy Rogers location was at 474 Roney Lane in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 2012, the restaurant’s owner, son of the original franchisee, left the Roy Rogers chain in 2012 when he was unwilling to make changes to the menu and building that Plamondon Company had mandated. What followed was a strategic de-branding of the location. The restaurant's name was changed to Roney’s, which was both the name of the street they were located on and happened to be an easy word to use when modifying 1969-vintage covered wagon Roy Rogers neon sign. Trademarked menu items, such as the Double R Bar Burger, changed names as well, but the food itself, and business in general was very much as it was in the Roy Rogers days. Sadly, a lease dispute forced Roney’s closure in 2014. A used car lot occupies the old Roy Rogers/Roney’s building today, but that’s not where the story ends.

A year after the old Roney’s in Cincinnati closed, the owners packed up their yellow covered wagon sign and moved it four miles north to an all new building in the Cincinnati suburb of Milford, Ohio. Unlike the new Roy Rogers in Cumberland, Maryland, the new Roney’s in Milford bears a strong resemblance to Roy Rogers’ original architecture, with the same trapezoidal roofline and stone corners. The classically-styled structure also contains an operating drive thru, accomplishing what Plamondon failed to in Cumberland. Impressively, this single-restaurant operator appears to have paid an architect to design a modern fast food building that nearly perfectly captures the classic Roy Rogers aesthetic that Plamondon Companies has all but abandoned. A lesser small business owner would have tried to relocate on the cheap to a strip mall slot or empty Long John Silver’s rather than erecting a working monument to fast food history. I applaud the effort. 

Roney's as it appears today, more Roy Rogersy than Roy Rogers (Photo courtesy of Al Coleman)

After Carl casually mentioned Roney’s in his weekly email to me, I was obsessed. A newly-constructed architectural and culinary tribute to Roy Rogers was too enticing to keep me away for long, I routed my recent trip to Evansville, Indiana home via Cincinnati, and arranged to meet Carl and Lorelai for a cup exchange and lunch at Roney’s. We arrived within five minutes of each other on a Sunday morning, shortly before the restaurant’s 11 AM open time. The building was just as impressive in person as it was in the pictures I had seen. I would have sworn it was a 1970’s or earlier vintage Roy Rogers had I not known it was new construction. The modified covered wagon sign out front had clearly been altered as part of the name change, but it was in great shape. As we concluded our cup exchange and general geeking out about where we were, we noticed the first patrons of the day were walking into the building, and quickly followed suit. 

Classic fast food architecture, re-imagined for the 21st century

While Roney's couldn’t use the Roy Rogers restaurant brand, they weren’t shy about using images of Roy Rogers the person, and his costars inside. Seeming every vertical surface was covered in Roy Rogers movie posters and memorabilia. This not-Roy Rogers had more Roy Rogers in it than an official Roy Rogers. There were also a few other nods to the buisiness’ history, including the original stained glass dividers from the old building on the backs of the booths, and sign font that was reminiscent of the font on the Roy Rogers logo.

Roney's menu and order counter

Roy Rogers and pals; I'd be remiss in not pointing out Gabby Hayes on the lower left. 

As we got in line to order, I studied the menu, and found it relatively simple compared to Roy Rogers’ current menu. The burgers, roast beef, and fried chicken were all still present, but the later Roy Rogers menu additions like hand-scooped ice cream and specialty sandwiches like the Gold Rush chicken were missing. Additionally, sides were limited to fries and coleslaw, while Roy Rogers offers those plus mashed potatoes, beans, macaroni and cheese, and baked apples. Maybe these were the menu modifications that caused the initial schism between Roney’s owner and Plamondon. 

Vintage Roy Rogers stained glass sunset
When our turn to order came, Carl and Lorelai each ordered a roast beef sandwich, while I ordered a Lucky R Burger (Roney’s version of Roy Rogers’ ham-topped Double R Bar Burger), fries, coleslaw, a chicken leg, and a curious individual apple crisp topped with shredded cheese in an attempt to sample as much of the menu as possible. After ordering, we filled our drinks. Sadly, the birch beer I encountered at Roy Rogers was nowhere to be found at the drink station, but our order came up quickly, shortly after we had found a table. 

Y'all git...

...yer fixin's!

Just as they would have under the Roy Rogers banner, Roney’s prepares all sandwiches plain and allows patrons to dress them themselves from a topping bar (known as a Fixin’s Bar in Roy Rogers parlance) in the dining room. We proceeded to top our sandwiches and returned to our table to enjoy our meal. 

Lucky R Burger, undressed...

...and dressed.

Cup 'o slaw

While I didn’t sample the roast beef, the sandwiches Carl and Lorelai had looked very similar to the sandwich I had eaten at Roy Rogers last summer. The meat looked to be authentic slices of a real cut of beef rather than the processed mystery meat you’ll find on an Arby’s or Rax roast beef. My Lucky R Burger was a little undercooked by modern fast food standards. The thin quarter pound patty was still pink in the middle, but I didn’t mind as I prefer a burger on the rare side. Just as it would be at Roy Rogers, the ham on top had been warmed up on the grill. The sandwich didn’t taste quite as beefy as its Roy Rogers counterpart, but it was still pretty tasty. Everything else I had ordered was a new experience for me. 

The burger was definitely not overcooked. Ignore my ugly thumb. 

Slightly soggy, but still fresh fried chicken leg

Fries and apple cheese crisp

I’ve never tasted Roy Rogers, fries, coleslaw, or fried chicken, so I have no idea how the remainder of my order compares to the real thing. Likewise, the apple cheese crisp appears to only exist at Roney’s, though it may have existed at Roy Rogers at some point in the past. What I do know is that the sides were perfectly decent. The fries were fresh and had a size and shape similar to McDonald’s fries. The coleslaw was finely chopped and creamy, with a flavor profile similar to KFC coleslaw. The chicken leg, curiously came wrapped in foil, which trapped steam and made the breading a little soggy, but it was still a perfectly decent piece of chicken. The breading was similar in flavor and texture to what you’d find on an Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion. I occasionally enjoy a little cheese with my apple pie, and the apple cheese crisp was well-balanced, with just enough of the orange shreds mixed in with the crumb topping to provide a salty undertone. I’d rate all of it as above average for a fast food meal, as I would the food at Roy Rogers. After the massive meal, I resolved not to eat anything else that day, and was mostly successful in adhering to that plan.

Now that I’ve tried Roney’s chicken, coleslaw and fries, I’m going to have to take a trip back out to Roy Rogers' operating region in the Midatlantic and see how they compare. Unsurprisingly, I’m looking forward to it, but not as much as I’m looking forward to my next stop at Roney’s the next time I’m rolling down I-75. It’s throwback architecture and signage plus its underdog narrative have made this bootleg Roy Rogers my favorite Roy Rogers.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Contrabulous Fabtraption

Last fall, I visited a few Dog ‘n Suds locations toward the end of their operating seasons to mark the beginning of the colder months. After a brief, but very angry winter, the seasonal outdoor food stands are beginning to open for business again. The spring bloom of these perennial businesses coincided with my recent trip across Indiana. I took this as a sign that it was time for me to see what the Hoosier remnants of the Zesto chain had to offer.

In the optimistic postwar environment of 1945, inventor and entrepreneur Louis Austin Merritt “LAM” Phelan, whom I can only picture as a living, breathing, wacky cartoon inventor, was in charge of the Taylor Freezer company and looking to create a market for his latest creation, the Zest-O-Mat frozen custard machine. Zesto, a chain of franchised frozen custard stands which had the exclusive, and mandatory rights to use Zest-O-Mat machines was the result. The chain expanded nationally during those prosperous years. Following a tumultuous decade, however, Taylor Freezer management, unaccustomed to retail businesses, and ill-equipped to deal with an ever-expanding base of franchisees with their own concerns and complaints, abandoned the Zesto brand, forcing franchisees to operate independently.

LAM Phelan, probably

Many newly-independent Zesto owners kept the Zesto name, and many surviving Zesto operators began offering hot food in addition to ice cream, including Ernie Hernandez, who sold pasta and made from scratch sauces from his Central California stand. He even published a proclamation regarding his method for success in the pasta sauce business. He called it Ernesto’s Modesto Zesto Pesto Manifesto.

Okay, I made that up, but a good many Zesto franchisees started selling burgers and hot dogs after Taylor Freezer and LAM Phelan walked away from the business. The Zesto name would end up under the control of the Wahoo, Nebraska-based TJ Investments who sells the rights to the Zesto name and logos, though the food offered at the original and new Zesto locations open for business in Indiana, Georgia, Missouri, South Carolina, and South Dakota seems to have a high degree of variation between locations. (Wahoo, Nebraska sounds like it’s probably populated entirely by cartoonish LAM Phelan types.)

My travels through Indiana would take me through two Zesto towns, Fort Wayne (also Home of the last Azar’s Big Boy) and Evansville, whose G.D. Ritzy’s locations I try to visit quarterly. Both towns are home to both original, and later post-Taylor Freezer era Zesto locations. I approached Zesto as a purist. I visited two locations that opened between 1945 and 1955, and ordered only ice cream items at both places. Newer locations and hot food were of little interest to me, at least on this trip. 

Fort Wayne Zesto

Fort Wayne’s original Zesto location is situated near the center of the city at a quiet corner on the edge of an old residential neighborhood. I visited on a rainy weekday evening, but there were still a few people ahead of me at the order window. While I waited, I took the time to appreciate the distinctive old stand’s architecture. The blue and white stripes and giant sideways teardrop shaped neon sign on the roof made the little building stand out, even among other old buildings nearby. The brickwork on the front of the building was notable as well, with the front wall being constructed of flat red bricks and curved glass brick that flanked a central window containing the menu. The building and its surroundings appeared impeccably clean and well maintained, and the staff other customers appeared generally happy to be there, despite the unfriendly weather. 

When my turn to order came, I asked for a small turtle sundae, because ever since I visited a Stuckey’s, I’ve been a sucker for anything with pecans. When the cashier asked if I preferred caramel or butterscotch, I opted for the latter. The sundae I got from the order window a couple minutes later was notable for a few reasons, not the least of which was the unique butterscotch sauce, whose flavor profile not only contained butter, cream, and caramelized sugar, but perhaps some nut extracts as well. I suspect it was made from scratch. 

This sundae was sufficiently turtley for the Turtle Club. 

The ice cream it rested upon was decidedly not frozen custard. In order to be considered frozen custard, a product must contain a certain percentage of milkfat, egg yolks, and a 15 to 30% overrun, an increase in overall volume due to aeration during the churning process. Ice cream contains less fat and more air than frozen custard, and the eggs are optional. The ice cream in my sundae lacked the telltale yellow tint and dense, smooth texture of frozen custard. It was simply soft serve ice cream, much lighter and airier than what one would receive at Culver’s or Freddy’s, but it was of good quality, much richer and smoother than what you’d find at Dairy Queen or McDonald’s. While I suspect there are Zesto locations out there still selling frozen custard, I doubt any are still using Zest-O-Mat machines.

For one thing, I doubt it’s feasible for a small business to operate and maintain a frozen custard machine that could be well over 70 years old with components that aren’t readily available. I also suspect there’s a dark unspoken history surrounding the Zest-O-Mat machine. LAM Phelan’s Wikipedia page says he died in 1971 at the age of 87, but it doesn’t say how. In my mind, it seems likely as not that he was murdered by a Zest-O-Mat machine that he had bestowed with sentience during a misguided experiment in the secret underground laboratory that he probably had. Perhaps that’s also why I can’t find a picture of a Zest-O-Mat machine anywhere on the Internet. Maybe they were all destroyed for fear of an uprising leading frozen custard machines ruling humans as slaves, at least, that's the theory that I'm going with.

I pondered all of this the next day on my way from Fort Wayne to Evansville, where in between Ritzy’s and Grandy’s stops, I found my way to Evansville’s original Zesto. The building was a near twin to the one in Fort Wayne in terms of design, but it was clear that it had endured a harder life than its sibling. The building’s surroundings were rougher. This Zesto was seemingly surrounded on all sides by old gas stations now operating as loan sharky buy here pay here used car lots. The building was in poor cosmetic shape as well. While the aesthetic of the Fort Wayne Zesto was retro, funky, and clean, its counterpart in Evansville felt run down and grimy. A vending machine was blocking the central window and a motley collection of signs formed the menu in the remaining window openings. Even one of the the curved glass bricks at this location had been broken and was being used as a makeshift ashtray. 

In spite of the dilapidated appearance of the building, I ordered a strawberry shake, paid, and waited by the pickup window. The weather was fairly nice that day, and the place was busy serving several other customers. The menu was much larger at this location with extensive hot food offerings in addition to ice cream. People who were sitting at picnic tables on either side of the building were being called up to get their food orders. No one outside seemed to be ordering ice cream, and no one inside seemed to be making any. I stood around for a good ten minutes waiting for my shake before I gave up and walked away. 

Decidedly busy menu. 

This appears to be a newspaper clipping from the grand opening, or more likely a reasonable facsimile thereof. 

Understand that I didn't leave due to impatience. I realize the place was busy, and there were orders in front of me. I would have waited longer, but I noticed employees were placing unwrapped straws in customers’ cups with their meaty, sweaty, bare human hands. This, coupled with the less than immaculate building led me to the decision to leave empty handed without bothering to get a refund on my three bucks and change. Since none of the locals were ordering ice cream, I took it as a sign that I should probably steer clear myself. I didn’t want a repeat of my experience at Sirloin Stockade. 

It was the contrast of this Zesto compared to the one I had experienced in Fort Wayne the day previous that first caused me to question the quality of non-G.D. Ritzy’s businesses in Evansville. Later, a miserable, David Lynchian night at the local Howard Johnson, and a laughably bad breakfast the next day at Evansville’s Grandy’s location that led me to conclude the only reason I’ll travel to Evansville in the future is to eat at the three local G.D. Ritzy’s locations, that in my mind, represent the pinnacle of the brand.

Zesto, like many brands that have survived decades with no corporate support, is a mixed bag, it seems. Just as with Frostop, locations sharing the same brand offer little in terms of consistency. I’d love to see a better operator take over and clean up the Evansville Zesto and start using wrapped straws, or a perhaps a vintage LAM Phelan-designed kerosene-powered, self-sterilizing, straw-placing automaton to put straws in customers’ drinks. You know, whichever is more cost effective.

For decidedly less silly and more factual documentation of Zesto locations, check out Roadarch and these two posts from my friends at Marie, Let’s Eat!

Use the code BIGSHEF at checkout for 15% off your order.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Nervous About Staying With J Tonight

Diane, 3:30 PM, March 29th. Entering the town of Evansville, less than a mile north of the Kentucky state line, twenty miles east of Illinois. I’ve never seen so many traffic lights in my life. As G.D. Ritzy would say, this town’s full of pop, sizzle, and bebop. Forty-four degrees on a rainy day. My weather app said warm and partly cloudy. If you could sell an app a million times for 99 cents and have it be wrong 60 percent of the time, it’d beat working. Mileage is 69,420. Gauge is on full because I filled up in Kentucky where gas was cheaper. Remind me to brag around the office about saving a nickel per gallon. Lunch was nine dollars and forty-two cents at Grandy’s. That’s on Highway 41 in Henderson. That was fried chicken, baked beans, coleslaw, and some allegedly sweet tea. Damn mediocre food. Diane, if you ever get down this way, eat at the Taco John’s next door instead. Okay. Looks like I’ll be staying at a hotel named for Howard D. Johnson. Shouldn’t be too hard to remember that. I thought I’d get a room there so I could take a look at the building that used to be a Signature Inn. I hope that it’s a clean place, reasonably priced. That’s what I need, a clean place, reasonably priced. Oh Diane, I almost forgot. I’ve got to find out why this town has so many traffic lights. They’re really annoying.

Loyal Broken Chains readers have probably deduced that I spend a lot of time on the road and quite a few nights away from home. Following a series of increasingly poor experiences, I largely gave up on staying in chain hotels, instead opting for Airbnb properties, which more often than not offer an excellent experience, and are more comfortable than the average chain hotel for around half of the price per night, but recently, I developed a curiosity about one hotel in particular.

Thanks to the impressively comprehensive blog, The History of Signature Inn, I’ve developed an interest in the essentially defunct Signature Inn brand. While no original locations remain in the chain today, a good many of their distinctive buildings remain standing particularly in Indiana and Ohio, states I visit often. The majority of these buildings are still open for business under different hotel brands. I’ve also long had an interest in the diminished Howard Johnson brand, that led me to spending the night in an Econo Lodge that had originally been a classic, 1965 vintage Howard Johnson. The point at which these two interests converge is in Evansville, Indiana, home to Howard Johnson-branded hotel, operating out of a structure that was originally a Signature Inn.

Howard Deering Johnson got his start running a pharmacy and ice cream shop in Quincy, Massachusetts in the 1920s, slowly expanding first into seaside concession stands and then a restaurant chain. The first Howard Johnson Motor Lodge opened in Savannah, Georgia in 1954, and they quickly popped up all over the US in the 1950s and 1960s. Locations had iconic architecture, featuring an A-frame lobby structure known as a gate lodge out front with a bright orange roof, and a distinctive finned cupola, usually not far from a similarly roofed Howard Johnson restaurant. Rooms offered innovative amenities like silent-flush toilets, dual shower heads, bedside light switches, and a patio for every guest room. As automobile travel declined as a result of fuel shortages in the 1970’s, Howard Johnson's like many chains set up to catered to travelers, struggled. The restaurant and hotel divisions would eventually be split and sold off to new corporate parents. The restaurant brand is essentially dead today, though one restaurant in upstate New York uses the Howard Johnson name and erroneously claims to be the "Last one standing." Meanwhile, the hotel brand has bounced between numerous owners since 1979, each of whom neglected the brand to varying extents as its value slowly diminished. Wyndham owns the brand today. There were once around 500 Howard Johnson motor lodges in and around the US, while the brand was controlled by Howard D. Johnson, and later his son Howard B. Johnson, (It’s too bad he didn’t go by Howard Johnson Junior. They kids could have called him HoJoJu!) but following a series of ownership changes, the count of Howard Johnson Hotel locations today is around 331, few of which were originally built as Howard Johnson properties, not a major contrast from the 500 that once were in operation, but if you compare their location count to that of Holiday Inn, their largest competitor in the early days of motel chains the contrast is much greater, as there are nearly 1,200 Holiday Inn hotels open around the world today.

Signature Inn came on the scene just as Howard Johnson was beginning to fade. John Bontreger opened the first one in Indianapolis in 1981, and the chain grew throughout Indiana and surrounding states through the ‘80s and ‘90s. Signature Inns had distinctive architecture of their own, with a tall canopy leading to the main entrance to a lobby with a small atrium. The peaked roofs had a prominent rib running along the top throughout the building. Signs would be mounted on the outside of the rib and the top would house skylights. Many locations also featured an S-shaped pool. The chain fell on hard times not long after merging with Jameson Inns in 1999. Bankruptcy came in 2011, and by the close of 2012, the last of the Signature Inns had closed. The brand ended up in the hands of America’s Best Franchising, and they would go on to use the Signature Inn name on a few different hotels, but none are housed in purpose-built Signature Inn structures.

The Evansville Signature Inn was built in 1986, and became a Jameson Inn twenty years later. It was among the last of the chain to carry the Jameson brand when it became a Howard Johnson in 2012. It was one of a few businesses in Evansville I wanted to check out on my trip there a couple weeks ago, so I eschewed my normal Airbnb, and spent $79 plus tax for a room at the Howard Johnson instead. I had long been curious about the current brand image Wyndham is trying to cultivate for Howard Johnson, as it seems to lean heavily on the history of the brand, perhaps to attract nostalgic baby boomers who grew up dining and sleeping under the orange roof on family vacations. Marketing emphasizes rooms decorated with the classic orange and turquoise Howard Johnson color scheme with Midcentury Modern touches. This new nostalgic aesthetic Wyndham is trying to cultivate for the Howard Johnson brand, plus the prospect of visiting a former Signature Inn was simply too much for me to resist. 

There's no mistaking that roofline and canopy. This is an old Signature Inn.  
The outside of the building is still striking today, if a bit dated. 

From the outside, the Evansville Howard Johnson still looks much like it did in its Signature Inn days. The prominent roof, faded green in color is still there. The fact that it wasn’t painted orange during the Howard Johnson conversion felt like a missed opportunity. It was late afternoon when I checked in, slightly unnerved that the process involved signing a waiver absolving the hotel from responsibility should my belongings or vehicle be stolen or damaged on their property. Once I had my room key, I took a few minutes to appreciate the lobby, noting that minimal changes had been made. 

A group of Norwegian businessmen abruptly got up and left these tables shortly before I took this picture. 

The furniture, tile floors, and exposed wood ceilings all seemed to date back to the Jameson/Signature era. The skylight and vaulted ceiling extending from the canopy outside to the lobby atrium inside was a striking bit of vintage Signature Inn architecture. Only signage and a few strategically places swaths of orange and turquoise paint indicated the place was a Howard Johnson property now. The dining chairs in the breakfast area had been adorned with stretchy orange cloth covers in a hasty attempt to incorporate the corporate color scheme. On one wall, an enlarged Howard Johnson print ad from the 1950’s showed a family relaxing in a hotel room with a view of the pool and a Howard Johnson restaurant out the window, as if Wyndham is begging customers to remember what the brand used to be. 

 ˙ǝlʎʇs uᴉ ʞɔɐq ǝɯoɔ oʇ ƃuᴉoƃ sᴉ ǝʞᴉl noʎ uᴉɐɥɔ lǝʇoɥ ʇɐɥ┴ ˙sʍǝu pooƃ ʇoƃ ǝʌ,I

The ancient carpet looks especially out of place against the colorful door frames. 

I proceeded down the hallway toward my room, and noted that the guest room door frames had been painted in alternating shades of turquoise and orange. The funky color palette was incongruous with the surroundings however. The door frames seemed to clash with the blond wood of the doors themselves, and the busy baroque pattern on the carpet, both of which likely dated back to the Signature/Jameson days. Incongruous was a word that kept occurring to me once I was in my room as well. While the beds were against a turquoise accent wall, and were trimmed with matching turquoise runners, and there were some similarly funky lamps, mirrors, and artwork, all the furniture in the room seemed to be leftovers from the Jameson/Signature days. Their neoclassical aesthetic clashed with the newer furnishings in the room, and served to highlight how cheaply the rooms had been updated. During the conversion, a single wall had been painted, a few things were hung on the wall, some colorful cloth was thrown on the bed, and some lamps were replaced. Anything heavy or expensive was left where it was. I was disappointed, but not surprised. Hotels at this price point rarely invest significantly in the rooms beyond basic upkeep, if that. It was clear the room was meant to look good when photographed from one specific angle, which was the angle used for room pictures on the booking websites. Once in the room, it was obvious that it was a thrown-together mess. 

The room looks fun, fresh, and funky from this angle...

...but rotate 90 degrees, and you'll find some tired furniture...

...and old carpet that doesn't match the rest of the room. 
I had the strangest urge to headbutt this mirror. 

For all its aesthetic faults, the room did manage to tick many modern hotel boxes. The bed was comfortable. The TV was modern with more than enough channels, and the WiFi worked well. My main complaint about the place is with the staff. My room was across the hall from the laundry room where the housekeeping staff washes the linens, and they were at work, playing loud music and having boisterous, argumentative conversations until well after dark, all of which were perfectly audible in my room. Around the time they finished up and went home, my neighbors began having a loud argument of their own that didn’t subside until past midnight. When I called the front desk to complain about the noise, nothing was done despite the clerk's assurances otherwise. 

She's deactivated; Wrapped in plastic!

Guest safety also appeared to be of minimal concern as well. When I entered my room, a clear plastic trash bag had been placed over the smoke detector, presumably so some previous guest could vape in the room without worry of setting it off. Housekeeping had neglected to remove it, creating a potential safety issue. Likewise, when I went outside to check out the S-shaped pool (It was drained and the gate was locked. It’s still pretty chilly in Southern Indiana in early spring.) I noted the card reader on the side entrance to the building was broken, but the door had been propped open with a small rock, allowing anyone wandering by to enter the building undetected. 

"I've gotten all new drapes for my hotel room. Ed bought them for me yesterday at Gentleman Jim's."
Between the noise, worries about safety, and a barely functional in-room HVAC unit, I managed about three hours of sleep during my time in my hotel room. When I did manage to drift off, I had strange dreams involving a little man in a red suit slowly dancing while seeming to talk backwards. Weirdly, I understood every word he said. When I checked out the next day, there was no manager present for me to make aware of the issues I’d had. I left a list of complaints with the desk clerk, but it seems as likely as not that it went in the trash. I held off putting on my red-framed glasses on, clutching my laptop to my chest, and informing her that one day, my blog would have something to say about this. My blog saw something that night. (Ask it!)

During the heyday of the Howard Johnson brand, as well as the Signature Inn brand, a high emphasis was placed on customer satisfaction and guest comfort. Efforts were made to keep the experience between locations consistent and positive. In the low to mid priced hotel segment, that emphasis has slowly eroded away. For many large hotel companies, including Wyndham, franchising has become an increasingly lucrative revenue stream, and as a result, it has become increasingly advantageous for the company to keep franchisees, regardless of whether their properties meet basic standards to carry their brand. Many hotel companies, Wyndham included, own the rights to multiple hotel brands, arranged in a hierarchical structure of price points. When a franchised location no longer meets the standards of the high-priced Brand X, the parent company merely offers them a franchise agreement under the lower-priced Brand Y rather than forcing them to clean up their act, allowing the hotel owner to continue to operate as part of a well-known chain, and allowing the company to continue to collect franchise fees. It’s win-win. The only loser is the customer. Howard Johnson’s is at the low end of Wyndham’s brand portfolio, meaning it’s squarely in Brand Z territory, which would probably explain my disappointing, but in retrospect not surprising experience.

My brief stay at the Evansville Howard Johnson, formerly Signature Inn, was emblematic of problems with the hotel industry as a whole. Once storied and respected brands are now being used to allow franchised operators to run glorified flophouses under the flag of a national brand, often resting on the laurels of that brand's former glory There are still decent budget-priced chain hotels out there, but in today’s hotel market, cheap hotels run the gamut from generally acceptable to uninhabitable. For the foreseeable future, I’ll stick to Airbnb when I’m travelling, looking for a clean place, reasonably priced, as they tend to be acceptable to excellent for much less money, thereby freeing up resources for me to travel to more broken chains, and to continue my quest to find perfect cup of coffee and slice of cherry pie.