Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Captain's Side Hustle

G.D. Ritzy's is my favorite restaurant, and Evansville is home to my favorite G.D. Ritzy's locations.

I may not be the world’s biggest G.D. Ritzy’s fan, but I like to think I’m at least in the top five. Around this time last year, I went on a four day road trip to dine at every operating location. I have a G.D. Ritzy’s logo tattooed on my right arm. In the past 12 months, I’ve traveled from Metro Detroit to the farthest corner of Indiana no fewer than four times for the sole purpose of dining at my favorite three Ritzy’s locations in Evansville. I had long known that the trio of Ritzy’s locations in Evansville were the absolute best thing the town had to offer, but I only recently realized that they were better than everything else in town by such a considerable margin.

I spent a good chunk of this past weekend in Evansville checking out a few other places that struck my interest in addition to making a few obligatory visits to Ritzy’s. My experience led me to the realization that Ritzy’s long term success in Evansville in the face of the closure of nearly all the 120 or so other locations nearly 30 year ago was propelled by the ineptitude of the other businesses in town.

That’s not to say that Ritzy’s is in any way mediocre. I’ve visited every operating Ritzy’s at least once, and have always been rewarded with a transcendentally excellent fast food experience. But when every competing business in town aspires to mediocrity, a place like Ritzy’s that aspires to perfection and seldom falls short, shines all the more. 

After swapping emails with my unofficial lead location scout MapCat, I got curious about a restaurant chain called Grandy’s, the second best known fried chicken chain founded by a man named Sanders. Rex E. Sanders, (no relation) and Walter E. Johnson opened the first Grandy’s in Dallas in 1972. In 1983, the company was bought out by Saga Foods, who grew Grandy’s to a 200 unit chain. A series of buyouts, bankruptcies, and general turmoil of the next three decades left Grandy’s owned by Captain D’s. Their presence is significantly diminished today, with 40 locations open, the vast majority of which are in and around Dallas and Oklahoma City. Outside of Texas and Oklahoma, the largest concentration of Grandy’s locations is in southwestern Indiana and northwestern Kentucky with five locations in the area. I used these locations as an excuse to make my first trip to Evansville of 2019 to get my quarterly Ritzy’s fix and to check out Grandy’s.

I'm looking forward to eating at this particular Captain D's again. 

Grandy’s corporate parent, Captain D’s is a brand that I hadn’t had an experience with in the past 15 years or so. While not a broken chain, they’re definitely regional, and I had spent little time in their operating territory since I left Kentucky in 2004. As luck would have it, I would be passing right by the Defiance, Ohio Captain D’s on my way to Evansville. I stopped in for dinner with moderate expectations. The fast food seafood segment in general is waning in popularity, and my local Long John Silver's locations that haven’t closed are looking pretty long in the tooth. Captain D’s completely took me by surprise, though. The older building had been thoroughly renovated. The staff was courteous and helpful, and my food came out quickly, and was hot and fresh. I left with a much higher opinion of Captain D’s and with greater anticipation of experiencing their sister brand, Grandy’s. 

Grandy's buildings seem to be beige rectangles. 

Meal #1
Location: Grandy's, 2005 US Highway 41, Henderson, Kentucky
Order: Two piece dark meat fried chicken meal with baked beans and coleslaw, (allegedly) sweet tea

"Y'all want some chicken? I got me a whole mess of chicken in this here caterin' van!"

The next day, I drove straight through Evansville to the Henderson, Kentucky Grandy’s. I had checked the menu out before and knew exactly what I wanted. As I walked through the parking lot, past the dilapidated catering van, and in the front door to the order counter, I found the floor was noticeably sticky to the point that I had mild concern that I might lose a shoe. There was no line, and the lone cashier waved me over. I ordered up a two piece dark meat meal, and as if I was Betelgeuse, ordering a burger and fries from the first McDonald’s in The Founder, my order arrived at the counter just as I finished paying. I was taken aback by this, just as Johnny Dangerously had been at McDonald’s, but most fried chicken places tend to fry up large batches in advance and keep them warm, so it wasn’t terribly unusual for this type of place. KFC and Popeyes operate similarly. 

The chicken could have been more fresh and better seasoned, but this wasn't a bad meal. 

Since I had just crossed the Ohio River from Indiana into Kentucky, and was technically in the south, I filled my cup with sweet tea, and sat down in the brightly lit, but generally nondescript dining room. I was surprised to see my meal had come with a yeasty roll rather than a biscuit, but even KFC started out selling similar rolls, and it tasted pretty good when covered with the nondairy buttery spread and packet of honey-flavored corn syrup that came with my meal. Additionally, I was excited to see baked beans on the menu. Not only were they tasty, but they took me back to the good old days when every KFC in every town in America would sell you a Styrofoam cup of the Musical Fruit with your chicken. Sadly, KFC stopped selling baked beans years ago, but these Grandy's beans tasted similar and took me right back to my bean-eating glory days. Additionally, the coleslaw was above average with a tangy sauce coating nicely chunky pieces of cabbage. The chicken on the other hand, reminded me of the fried chicken I'd had in Wisconsin at the last operating Red Barn. 

The beige theme continues inside. 

I've never really met a piece of fried chicken I didn't like. It's one of those foods that's still pretty good, even when prepared badly. As with my trip to Red Barn, I visited this Grandy's at a not terribly busy time of day, thanks to my appetite not adjusting to a new time zone, and as a result, the chicken seemed to have been sitting for a while. It was a little soggy and not terribly warm. It was also under seasoned, without much in the way of flavor. In a fast food segment that's all about seasoning, whether it's Popeyes spicy chicken, The Colonel's famous 11 herbs and spices, or the 21 herbs and spices at Florida's own Maryland Fried Chicken, it's all about the seasoning in the chicken business. Grandy's, on the other hand, lets the natural flavors of the bird parts and breading speak for themselves, and they don't have much to say. To make matters worse, my sweet tea wasn't nearly sweet enough. I chalk that up to the fact I was just barely in Kentucky, nearly within sight of the bridge that led back into Indiana. I'll give Grandy's the benefit of the doubt, and assume that their more southern locations have sweeter tea. 

More like unsweetened and extra-unsweetened. 

I got up from my table, not feeling underwhelmed, but definitely not overwhelmed by my inaugural Grandy's experience. I was merely whelmed by the Henderson Grandy's, but I thought that Grandy's may have a trick or two up their proverbial sleeve yet. Unlike the big fried chicken chains, Grandy's has a breakfast menu. Following my lunch stop at Grandy's, a second lunch at G.D. Ritzy's, and dinner at a different G.D. Ritzy's, I spent the night in Evansville, and stopped by their Grandy's for breakfast on my way out of town.

Meal #2
Location: Grandy's 722 Landbridge Way, Evansville, Indiana
Order: Deluxe Biscuit with sausage, Sinnamon® Roll, Sweet(er) Tea

After spending a not at all restful night in an Evansville hotel, I really needed to cheer myself up with a good breakfast, and my hopes were high as I walked up to the order counter of the Evansville Grandy's. As I studied the menu board, a lone employee darted from the kitchen and drive thru window repeatedly, apologizing and assuring me she'd be right with me every time she passed, the longer I waited, the more apparent it became that she was running the entire place alone, an impressive feat of fastfoodsmanship. 

Menu boards were nicely printed and reasonably modern, if a little busy. 

Once the lone employee had the opportunity to devote the majority of her attention to me, I ordered, and she took my money. From there, I saw panic in her eyes. She yelled to some unseen and/or nonexistent coworker regarding what came on a deluxe biscuit. When she received no response, she turned to me and posed the same question. I replied that I wasn't sure, as I had never eaten breakfast at Grandy's before, but suggested that the picture of the sandwich in question on the menu board behind her showed what appeared to be sausage, egg, and cheese. Relieved, she studied the menu board, and assembled my order from the serving trays behind her as I filled my cup with almost passably sweet tea. I thanked the lone Grandy's employee as she was helping another customer. I overheard her mentioning that all of her coworkers were out back smoking. That turned out to be not quite true, however, as when I rounded the corner into the lobby, another employee seemed to be deeply engaged in friendly conversation with a regular customer while her coworker struggled to keep things running smoothly behind the counter. 

"No time to take the chairs off the tables. We've all got to take a smoke break!"

It was with a combination of amazement that the woman I had dealt with was running the entire place and profound annoyance at her less than esteemed colleagues' collective lack of work ethic, that I found my way to one of the tables that didn't still have chairs still stacked on it, and examined my order. Indeed, my breakfast sandwich had sausage, egg, and cheese on it, but the lone working Grandy's employee who assembled it, obviously overwhelmed by her workload and unfamiliar with the food preparation process had put it on a bun rather than a biscuit. I couldn't fault her for this, as she was doing about as good a job as could be expected given that her coworkers didn't seem to be doing any jobs at all. Still, the bun was too large for the egg and sausage patty, cold, untoasted, and dry. I ate two bites before giving up on it. I didn't have the heart to go back to the order counter to complain to the poor overworked woman single-handedly running the whole joint. 

That's a funny looking biscuit. 

I moved on to the Sinnamon® roll, and found it to be unique among fast food cinnamon rolls in that it contained both nuts and raisins. I don't have a problem with either when they're used properly in baked goods. The confection was enrobed in a sticky glaze, so I cut off a piece with a knife and extracted it with a fork. Unsurprisingly, it was room temperature, which was a shame. I didn't expect it to be freshly baked, but some time under a heat lamp or 20 seconds in the microwave would have enhanced my enjoyment of the Sinnamon® roll tenfold, but at room temperature, eating a pastry proclaiming itself to be sinful hardly seemed worth the risk of eternal damnation. Like the breakfast sandwich, I gave up after two bites, and dumped my tray in the trash. 

A little bit of thermal energy would drastically improve this thing. 
Like most of my non-Ritzy's stops this trip, Grandy's was a bit of a letdown. With its mostly fried menu, of foods that unabashedly aren't prepared fresh, the concept generally feels dated, and the locations I visited were unattractive, poorly maintained, and understaffed. These experiences stand in stark contrast to my meal at a location of Grandy's corporate sibling, Captain D's, which was stellar. If Captain D's corporate has any hope of keeping the Kentucky and Indiana Grandy's locations open in the short term, they need to motivate the franchisee who owns the locations I visited to operate more like the exceptional Captain D's I encountered in Ohio. If they want Grandy's to succeed and thrive in the long term, then they should look at modernizing the overall look, feel, and taste of Grandy's. They seem to have done a great job of doing just that with the Captain D's brand. It's all a question of how many resources they want to sink into reviving Grandy's. 

As for me, I now know for sure that G.D. Ritzy's is the only Evansville-based business worth patronizing. While in town checking out other previously unexplored businesses, I had a couple of other horrific transactions in addition to the one at Grandy's. At the risk of putting too much negativity into the world, expect my next couple of posts to be about the horrors that awaited me at other non-Ritzy's businesses in Evansville, Indiana. 

Broken Chains is now selling merch! Check out our online store, and use the code BIGSHEF at checkout for 15% off your order through the month of April. 

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  1. Congrats on the merch! I'll have to order something soon :)

    And as for your other Evansville destinations... you may be aware of this already, but Coconuts Music is another broken chain in town. Not that that's your usual thing. And you may even have already visited it for all I know (you can keep it a surprise, if so!). But worth a mention, I thought...

    1. I had no idea that Coconuts existed, nor that the last one is in Evansville, a few hundred feet from a G.D. Ritzy's according to Google Maps. I'll have to stop in the next time I'm in town. Thanks for the tip.

    2. No problem! I don't know much about Coconuts specifically, but I did write a blog post a while back on all the brands absorbed by Trans World Entertainment (aka FYE's parent company) in general. Several broken chain types still exist, including Sam Goody and Suncoast, but they're few and far between.

    3. Cool! I'll have to give it a read.

  2. SAGA was the food franchise that operated my college dining hall way back in the dark ages. I was actually their student employee and punched a SAGA time clock and made SAGA donuts on a Rube Goldberg esque trough of bubbling grease. I also wore a SAGA hairnet as the matron of the SAGA salad bar, an innovation in college dining in the early 70s. Not unlike my SAGA contmeporary sister, my coworkers were also sometimes otherwise engaged. So some of your family heritage is linked to Grandy's and Capt'n D's it would appear. For what it's worth. Judy.

    1. Not surprising to hear Saga was in the cafeteria business. The food at Grandy's is still pretty cafeteria-like.

  3. Sorry to hear that your Evansville experience wasn't exemplary. I look forward to hearing what else I should avoid next time I'm out that way.

    1. I'll have a few recommendations to that effect uploaded in the next couple of weeks. Thanks again for your suggestions.

  4. We had Grandy's in Champaign, IL when I was working at Circuit City in the late 90s. There were two locations, and I'm not sure how long they had been there, but judging from the decor I'd guess late 70s/early 80s. One of them was just a few blocks from CC and it quickly became one of my favorite lunch spots. I'd get an hour break in the middle of my 10- to 12-hour work days, and a couple of days a week I would run through the Grandy's drive thru. I used to order the chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes with alarming frequency, being a 22 year old with no concern about taking care of himself. One day I got back to the store and my boss sees me walk into the office yet again with a bag of Grandy's. He just laughs, shakes his head and says "you're gonna die, dude." Grandy's in Champaign wouldn't win any awards - the stores were old and worn, but the service was friendly and quick and I definitely liked the food better than KFC. They lasted in Champaign until around 2005, when they shut down and were heavily remodeled into something called Za's Italian Cafe. Good to know there are still a few around, even if they aren't setting the world on fire. Next time I'm near one in IN or KY I'll give them a visit for old time's sake.

  5. SpaceGhost probably has more information, but Grandy's used to have stores all over Southeast Texas. There was one in College Station that I'm later told was torn down for more parking in the 1980s, and while the Houston ones all closed sometime in the 1990s, a store exists in Victoria, Texas, far away from any others and appearing very similar to how the others looked despite having been there since perhaps the 1980s.

  6. Somehow we've had a couple Captain D's commercials here (near Albany, NY) lately, even though the closest one is probably one of the ones in Ohio, which isn't very close at all.