Monday, May 13, 2019

Pretend You've Got No Money

My grandparents’ and great grandparents’ generations lived through a series of world-altering hard times. A depression and a couple of world wars made life in much of the first half of the previous century difficult to live through, but their perseverance made the world a much more comfortable place for their children. Once hardship is overcome, and time is allowed to pass nostalgia for the era of one’s earlier, more difficult life often ensues, and that nostalgia inspired not only a solid seven decades of movies about World War Two, but Whisperin’ Bill Anderson’s 1961 hit single, “Po’ Folks,” whose lyrics describe a his supposed upbringing in a loving family while enduring abject poverty.

If one were to open a themed restaurant today, “Poverty” would likely be at the bottom of the list of potential themes, but in 1975 in Anderson, South Carolina, restaurateur Malcolm Hare had different ideas, when he opened the first Po’ Folks restaurant, whose name was inspired by Whisperin’ Bill’s song of the same name. The single restaurant grew to a 102 unit chain, thanks in part to a 1982 acquisition by longtime White Castle imitator, Krystal. Whisperin’ Bill Anderson was persuaded to act as a spokesperson for the chain, after somehow being talked out of a lawsuit, as the Po’ Folks name was initially used without his permission. 

The Po’ Folks brand would end up paying a karmic debt for its socioeconomic cultural appropriation in 1988 when a distinct lack of funds forced them into bankruptcy, simultaneously forcing the closure of the majority of their locations and making the poverty theme feel more authentic, thanks to actual poverty.
I bought a couple of these to go boxes for two bucks each for my collection and for my friend Carl's. 
I’m lucky enough to have a single vague childhood memory of eating at Po’ Folks kicking around in my brain. It was around 1990, and I was preschool-aged and on a trip with my mother to visit her parents, my grandparents in eastern Ohio. My grandparents, in turn, took us to visit my grandfather’s mother, my great grandmother, Cordelia, about whom I remember little, aside from her apartment at a retirement home which was furnished with her uncomfortable antique furniture. My memories of lunch on the way back to my grandparents’ house was more vivid. 

Somewhere along the way, we stopped at a Po’ Folks location that had managed to survive at least a couple years past bankruptcy. Perhaps my grandparents were nostalgic for their childhoods in the Depression, though more likely, it was the only decent place to eat around. I recall the building having white siding and a tall red roof, and I recall being amused by the drinks served in mason jars. My young mind was blown by the fried fish my mother had ordered, because it still had all of its bones. The fact that a real life fish’s skeleton looked just like fish skeletons from the Top Cat and Heathcliff cartoons I was partial to made for a lasting memory. That lunch on the way back to Steubenville from Great Grandma Cordelia’s would be my only Po’ Folks memory until almost 30 years later. 

Strip Mall Po' Folks in Pensacola

Following an early lunch at the last operating Morrison’s Cafeteria, Esmeralda Fitzmonster and I continued east on Interstate 10 until we had just crossed into Florida and entered Pensacola, home of one of just seven surviving Po’ Folks locations. It was mid afternoon on a weekday when we stopped in for second lunch. The Pensacola Po' Folks is tucked into a slot of a nondescript strip mall, a far cry from the visually striking freestanding Po' Folks I remember all those years ago in Ohio. We headed inside, and were shown to a table in the mostly empty dining room. The spacious dining area's walls were sparsely adorned with antique architectural remnants and other random junk. They were the kinds of things you'd see on the walls at Cracker Barrel, but they were spread much thinner. There was plenty of wall space in between. Signage was unique, as well, as all of the signs directing customers to the hostess station and restrooms and away from employee areas were designed to look hand painted, and written in an intentionally misspelled hillbilly patois. The table cloths were printed with ads from old Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogs, just like the tables that used to be at most Wendy's locations. 

I have the strangest craving for a Frosty right now. 

Junk on the walls is spread thin here. 

Our waitress showed up, took our drink orders, and handed us menus. I had every intention of ordering bone-in fish for the sake of my own personal nostalgia, but found only boneless fillets on the menu. Shortly after I had noticed the lack of cartoon alley cat fish on the menu, our waitress returned with our drinks not in mason jars, but in regular glasses. Slightly disappointed, I ordered up chicken and dumplings, and Esmeralda ordered fried shrimp. When our orders showed up, the food looked oddly familiar. Perhaps the decor should have tipped me off, but Esmeralda's shrimp and steak fries looked just like what you'd be served at a Cracker Barrel as did my chicken and dumplings and fried apples. Had Po' Folks been a Cracker Barrel knockoff all along? I'm inclined to think so. Cracker Barrel predates Po' Folks by six years. Both chains originated in the south, Cracker Barrel in Tennessee and Po' Folks in South Carolina. Both chains offered southern cooking in a rural themed setting. Cracker Barrel menus even are written in the same folksy hillbilly dialect, though they've been toned down in the past few years. Given that Malcolm Hare stole the name of his restaurant chain from a hit country song, it doesn't seem terribly unlikely that he'd also borrow menu and decor from an existing chain as well, but in its heyday, Po' Folks at least had unique touches. Now without mason jars or fish skeletons, Po' Folks feels like Cracker Barrel stripped of its decor, country store, and breakfast menu. It's Cracker Barrel lunch and dinner, served out of a strip mall slot, at least it is in Pensacola. 

If you've ever wondered what Cracker Barrel food looks like on an old Wendy's table, then check out Po' Folks
Could you theoretically tip your server well enough that they wouldn't be allowed through this door? 

In researching this piece, I became curious about the other six surviving Po' Folks locations, and did a little Google Street View snooping to see what they had to offer architecturally. What I found was the most interesting and diverse set of buildings comprising a restaurant chain since my exploration of the hodgepodge of structures that compose Fricker's. The Pensacola Po' Folks is arguably the most boring of all the seven surviving location. I'll leave you with photos of the other six. They're a rag tag bunch of structures that reflect the actual poverty of the chain rather than the implied poverty. If you're part of the statistically insignificant group of nonagenarians who read blogs, they may just remind you of the Depression.

2001 34th Street North, St. Petersburg, FL, the last remaining purpose-built Po' Folks. This is what I remember the one in Ohio looking like, minus the palm tree. It's survival is truly a miracle on 34th Street North. I really want to stop in here if I ever find myself deep in the Sunshine State. 

2193 Florida Highway 71, Marianna FL, Shoney's has closed quite a few locations over the years, and they often get repurposed, including this one that's now a Po' Folks. 
650 Boll Weevil Circle, Enterprise, AL, Not to be confused with Western Sizzlin, or Lucky Steer, Western Steer is a mostly defunct steakhouse chain that had locaitons  all over the south. There are a couple still open today that I need to go check out, but this one closed and is now home to a Po' Folks. 

1170 East John Simms Parkway, Niceville, Florida, pretty clearly a former Long John Silvers. It's odd to see a full service restaurant in the shell of a fast food restaurant, but not unheard of.
339 North Tyndall Parkway, Panama City, Florida, Seen here with apparent hurricane damage, the Panama Cty Po' Folks is an odd little prefabricated building.

400 Ohio Avenue, Lynn Haven, Florida, Weirdest of all is this Po' Folks in what looks to be a converted residential house with a haphazard addition. 


  1. Aw, not you, Po Folks! No Mason jars, what's the point? We had Po Folks locally and they closed forever ago but one of the buildings remains, it still has its big front porch. Makes me nostalgic every time I drive past.

  2. I tried looking it up, but what is the difference between Po' Folks and Folks, which I thought Po' Folks became after a name change?

    1. Folks appears to be a chain of former Po' Folks locations mainly in Georgia. If I were to guess, I would suspect that a Po' Folks franchisee went independent with minimal changes to the menu and name, resulting in Folks. I'll have to find a Folks to check out the next time I'm in Georgia.

  3. The inside of your Po'Folks seems to have the same decorator as the "new" Captain D's in the central VA area. "Blue and bland" seems to be the theme.

  4. Like Erik, I thought all the Po' Folks became Folks. Good to know the original is still out there. I think the Georgia Folks operator also incorporated another small, similar chain called Black-Eyed Peas into their new Folks brand.

    Most of the Folks locations have slowly closed over time. We would occasionally visit one that used to stand on Sandy Plains Rd in Marietta GA from about 2004-2014. The building, and the oil change place that had been next door, were demolished to make room for a QuikTrip gas station in 2016. The other Folks in Marietta (41 and Windy Hill) is in the same building and design as the Po'Folks that opened there in the early 1980s.

  5. How did I miss this debut? I hear a Warren Zevon soundtrack: Po'Po'Pitiful Me.

  6. Is the title of this post a reference to Pulp's "Common People"?

  7. Actually, many of the surviving locations (all but the St. Pete's one) are owned by a former franchise out of Panama City, FL that has taken over the brand. In addition to the locations above, there was a large one on 15th Street in Panama City that sustained heavy damage from Hurricane Michael as well, it was their "flagship".

    Long before I moved down here, there was one in Stow, Ohio in a former Golden Corral that lasted a year or two. The PoFolks lasted a little longer, and closed in favor of a Mexican restaurant that's been there 25 years and counting! And oddly enough, Golden Corral returned RIGHT NEXT DOOR several years later, to close yet again after only 2 years!

    1. We also had a Golden Corral here in Easton, Maryland that had been in business for decades. It closed and was sold, later reopening as a "diner". Then about a year after the original Golden Corral closed, a brand new Golden Corral was built just a mile down the highway. It only lasted about a year and then the doors were padlocked and it closed. It still sits empty four years later.