Sunday, July 28, 2019

Hamburger Pavilion

No portion of the American fast food landscape is as crowded as the burger segment, and it seems that regardless of how novel or superior of a product a chain offers, its cachet will always fall short of the iconic status enjoyed by chains represented by a clown, a king, and a girl with pitgtails. Meanwhile, Yum! Brands, the company spun off from PepsiCo's restaurant division in 1997, controls the remainder of fast food chains that enjoy icon status but don't serve burgers. Try as they might though, the owners of the KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut brands have never managed to make it into the burger game, and their attempts have left brands like Hot 'n Now and the American iteration of A&W reeling as Yum! proceeded to rapidly acquire, expand, and mismanage them before casting them aside to focus on their more successful and profitable brands. Seemingly, every burger brand Pepsico/Yum! touches seems to fall apart, and the same can be said for Back Yard Burgers, even though they had only the briefest of flings with Yum!

Like Hot 'n Now and Central Park, Back Yard Burgers was a product of the second wave, low overhead, drive thru only, burger fad of the 1980's. The first location was opened by the seemingly backward-named Lattimore Michael in Cleveland, Mississippi in 1987. The chain spread across the south, adding inside dining rooms along the way, and in the early 2000s, briefly had a deal with Yum! to operate co-branded locations with KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut. While the chain peaked at around 150 locations a decade ago, they quickly fell prey to the Yum! burger curse. A series of ownership changes and a boardroom brawl that precipitated a CEO's dismissal took Back Yard Burgers past the Cici's Point to Broken Chain status. Today, there are 45 Back Yard Burgers locations still in operation spread across nine states. Two thirds of those locations are in Missisippi and Tennessee, showing Back Yard Burgers has receded to its home market leaving only a few isolated stragglers behind as far away as North Carolina and Illinois.

Until a few weeks ago, I had never eaten at a Back Yard Burgers, though I had a vaguely positive opinion of them. My middle school years in Central Kentucky's Bluegrass region were marked by a debate that, from my perspective, was waged exclusively using passive-aggressive bumper stickers. It was during those years of the late 1990s that Lexington was expanding outward, most notably on its far east side where the grounds of the historic Hamburg Place Stud Farm had been sold to developers who were rapidly turning the area into Hamburg Pavilion, a sprawling shopping center that would permanently alter Lexington's retail landscape. Proponents of the new development and the economic prosperity it would bring plastered the posteriors of their vehicles with bumper stickers proclaiming "Growth is good!" While the vehicles of the opposition, enraged by the loss of a historic thoroughbred horse farm wore decals that countered with, "Growth destroys the Bluegrass forever." I didn't have much of an opinion on the matter at the time, but I did love the newly built Hamburg Pavilion when it opened. The new shopping center brought new and exciting brands with it. Hamburg Pavilion was the first place I ever saw a Meijer store and a Steak 'n Shake. The Regal Cinema at Hamburg was the first theater with stadium seating I ever visited. All of these places were immensely exciting for me to visit as an adolescent raised on McDonald's and Walmart. Hamburg was also home to Lexington's first Back Yard Burgers location, and while I never managed to eat there before it closed, my high regard for the brand was by virtue of that location's proximity to the shiny new businesses I found so exciting in my younger years.

The menu board and bizarre tile-less drop ceiling gave the place an early 2000s vibe.

Recently, I happened to be in Lexington visiting family and found myself with an afternoon free of familial obligations. I found myself traveling down US 27 toward Somerset, Kentucky home to one of Kentucky's three surviving Backyard Burgers locations to see if the brand could live up to the positive associations I had developed 80 miles north at Hamburg Pavilion. I'd had an early start that morning, and had been enjoying some other retail sites in town. As a result, I was ready for lunch when I walked into Back Yard Burgers a few minutes past their 10:30 AM open time. My initial impressions of the place were positive. Despite the brand's decline, the owners of the Somerset location seemed to have kept up the building well. The dining room felt clean, if not modern, and the parking lot had been repaved recently. After briefly surveying the menu board, I ordered up a 1/3 Bacon Cheddar Burger combo, and upgraded my side to garlic Parmesan waffle fries thanks to a helpful sign on the counter that advertised that option. As soon as I had selected a booth near the window that looked out on the bright yellow outside tables where a lone employee was raising each table's umbrella, my order was ready.

Generic-feeling supplemental signs on the counter advertised limited time menu offerings. 

With its premium bun and single leaf of wilted romaine, the burger bore a stronger resemblance to something I'd encounter in a sit-down restaurant than in a fast food setting. The flavor lived up to the chain's name, as it tasted as if it had been cooked on a grill in a suburban back yard, and judging from the open propane grill in the kitchen, the flavor was genuine, but the more of it I ate, the more it reminded me of a Hardee's burger, which itself is still an above average product, but the lack of distinctiveness of the Back Yard Burger made for a slight let down. Regardless, it was still far superior to any allegedly flame-broiled item I've ever had at Burger King, whose hamburger patties I suspect are constructed of pressed animal trimmings, artificial beef flavor, and chemical flame broiling agents. The Parmesan garlic fries were decidedly heavy on Parmesan and light on garlic. The hearty waffle fries had been sprinkled liberally with Parmesan powder that I most often associate with shaking out of a green can onto a plate of spaghetti. The mounds of dry cheese powder on the fries overwhelmed any garlic flavor that may or may not have been added, and made the fries difficult to eat without aspirating cheese dust in the process.

A fun-looking outside dining area.

I had noted another helpful sign on the order counter advertising blackberry and apple cobblers, and I couldn't resist the temptation of sampling such a unique and novel fast food dessert item. The employee with whom I placed my dessert order seemed genuinely surprised that I wanted to conduct a second transaction after ordering a burger and fries, but obliged my request for an order of the blackberry cobbler and a scoop of ice cream. She served the former out of a large warming tray of cobbler, placing a scoop of the runny pie into a small Styrofoam bowl. She then produced an identical bowl containing a single scoop of vanilla ice cream from a small freezer behind the counter before placing both items on a small tray and handing them to me. This presented a problem back at my table. Each bowl was too small to contain both ice cream and cobbler, and my attempt to transfer one to the other resulted in the cobbler bowl overflowing. I suppose the tray's main purpose in this instance was to contain cobbler runoff. It became more manageable to eat after the first few bites made room for more ice cream and made overflows less of an issue, but my desire to finish the dessert was not strong.

Above average burger and unique, if disappointing fries

I don't make a habit of eating blackberry cobbler. I don't remember the last time I had tasted it before this adventure, so I don't have much of a frame of reference for what good blackberry cobbler should taste like. I found the Backyard Burgers iteration to be insufficiently sweet and possessing an unpleasant medicinal flavor. If Blackberry flavored NyQuil were a thing, I'm pretty sure it would taste like Back Yard Burgers blackberry cobbler, but I suspect this flavor is inherent to some extent in all blackberry cobbler and blackberry products in general. In short, I think the problem is not that Back Yard Burgers makes bad blackberry cobbler, but that I simply don't like blackberry cobbler.

Too much cobbler, not enough bowls

After a few years in the spotlight, expanding rapidly, Back Yard Burgers is soldering on as a broken chain both in the Mississippi River Delta and in a handful of far-flung outposts. Thanks to an above average burger and a well-maintained building in Somerset, Kentucky, my perception of the brand remains as it was when a Back Yard Burger was only an intangible idea projected into my brain at Hamburg Pavilion. I feel the same generally positive vibe but without excessive fervor or excitement for Back Yard Burgers having eaten there that I did when it was just a building that I'd pass on the way to Meijer. I'd gladly eat there again, but it doesn't elicit the same excitement I feel for other broken chains I've encountered and experienced for the first time.

Mr. Zap Actionsdower in a dessert mess, yeah yeah yeah yeah. 

That slight let-down compelled me to drive another 110 miles to Harlan, Kentucky, straight from Somerset, for a meal at my favorite Rax, which never disappoints. Speaking of, if you happen to be anywhere near the Harlan, Kentucky Rax on Friday November 29, 2019, you can join me in observance of the broken chain holiday of Raxgiving. There will be copious sandwiches, twisty fries, baked potatoes, and the signature Rax Endless Salad Bar. I'm working on some Raxgiving-exclusive giveaways too. You can find more details about the event here. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Frostop Revisited

Well, Zap Actionsdower looked for a spinning mug.
Midwestern Frostops wouldn’t give him anything to chug.
He asked the Google, "Where can I go?"
Google said, "There's only two places, ya know."
Zap said, "I've seen the one down in Huntington."
Well, Google's list was down to just one.
And Zap took off down Highway 61.

The Huntington, West Virginia area is a broken chain hot spot. In addition to a Frostop and a G.D. Ritzy’s that are a block apart, there’s a Rax half an hour northwest in Ironton, Ohio, and Suzi’s, a Burger Chef holdout, an hour in east in South Charleston, West Virginia. There’s also a Jolly Pirate Donuts in town, that I really should write about at some point, but I’m not here to talk about Jolly Pirate Donuts today.

Those that read my first Frostop post last year, will remember my regret in failing to create a perfectly looping .gif of the giant spinning root beer mug on the roof of the Huntington Frostop. That failure led to more disappointment at the next two Frostops I visited in Indiana and Illinois, as neither location had a spinning mug of its own. I kept meaning to get back to Huntington to have another Frostop experience, but higher priority trips, and life in general have prevented me from making it there since I wrote my previous Frostop post.

Fortunately my recent trip to New Orleans with Esmeralda Fitzmonster took me to the heart of Frostop country. While there were once 350 Frostop locations across the US, only 13 survive today, six of which are in Louisiana. Some Google Street View research led me to deduce that the Frostop locations in New Orleans and nearby Metairie did not have spinning mug signs, and Houston Historic Retail pointed out that the Baton Rouge Frostop’s mug was also stationary. That left the LaPlace, Louisiana Frostop, located 33 miles west of New Orleans on Highway 61 as the nearest spinning mug location.

Ever since writing about Frostop last summer and discovering the blog run by the owners of the LaPlace location, as well as their Facebook page which regularly features pictures and videos of their spinning mug, I’ve wanted to visit the LaPlace Frostop. The owners of that location show an appreciation for the brand’s history in their social media presence that was missing from the Frostop locations I visited in Indiana and Illinois. After a few days of exploring several gulf coast broken chain locations and generally being insufferable tourists, Esmeralda and I found our way up US 61 to LaPlace.

The building stands, as it has for the past 61 years, on the east side of town, next to the highway. It initially looked very much like its counterpart in Huntington, West Virginia with a sloping roof extending past the walls of the building to form a canopy, but a some point, an interior dining room was added. The mug was moved from the roof to a pole next to the building at some point as well. Esmeralda and I walked past the original exterior order windows and inside to order and eat in the building, something that it was not possible to do at any of the three other Frostops I had been to previously.

We studied the printed menu on the order counter and placed our orders, ensuring we both ordered large root beers which came with reusable souvenir cups. I was so happy to be there, I didn’t even mind when the cashier inadvertently short changed me by two dollars. We took a seat at the back corner of the dining room, and chatted while I observed our surroundings and took some discreet pictures. Based on the decor in the dining room, it appears that the dining room has not had any significant updates since in the early ‘90s, though indicates the addition itself was built in the 1960s.

The view from our table

Most of the artwork on the wall had this general aesthetic.

It was the mid afternoon lull on a weekday, and our order came up quickly. My chili dogs tasted as if they were right off the grill. The chili sauce appeared to have been made from scratch, and while they weren't my favorite chili dogs, (Mr. Quick's dogs have that honor.) they were well above average. Esmeralda ordered a Lot-O-Burger, an item that dates back to a time when Frostop was supported by a corporate entity. Thanks to 30 or so years of the remaining Frostop locations operating independently, there is wild variation in menus between locations, and this was my first time encountering a Lot-O-Burger. It turned out to be a fairly standard quarter pound burger with all the normal toppings. Esmeralda let me have a bite, and while it wasn't terribly distinctive, it was at least a decent burger, a notch or two above its analogs from one of the big fast food chains. While there wasn't anything terribly exciting about her burger, a taste of the hand-breaded onion rings Esmeralda had ordered made me regret ordering fries. It's tough to find good made from scratch onion rings, and that's exactly what these were. I'm happy to report the root beer appeared to be the authentic Frostop formula, further reinforcing my theory that the Chrisman, Illinois Frostop that serves Barq's Root Beer is the outlier.

My meal, decent dogs, forgettable fries, collectible cup

Esmeralda's meal, and the onion rings I regret not ordering for myself. 

On my way out, I ordered a specialty that seemed to be unique to the LaPlace Frostop, the wedding Cake Shake. I expected a flavor akin to the various birthday cake flavored products that have become trendy in the past few years that taste of cake batter, buttercream, and food dye, but the Wedding Cake Shake was distinctive in flavor and appearance. Topped with whipped cream and silver sprinkles, the shake nailed the appearance of a wedding cake as much as a milkshake can, and its flavor with strong hints of amaretto and vanilla is evocative of a cake one might find at an upscale bakery that churns out cakes to support the Wedding Industrial Complex.

Wedding cake shake (top view)

The best part of the entire experience at the LaPlace Frostop, however, was finally getting enough video footage of the spinning mug sign to make a .gif that loops decently. It's far from perfect, but it's as good as I can hope for it to be for a .gif that was captured and edited on my phone. Of course, I noticed too late that the mug had neon lettering on it, unlike it's Huntington counterpart. I guess that means I'll have to come back at night in order to make a .gif of it spinning with the neon lit up in order to feel truly fulfilled as a human being.

I wouldn't mind taking a trip back to the LaPlace Frostop, though. The midwestern Frostops I visited have let their brand identities languish over the years. Thanks to their isolation from other Frostop locations, I suspect that the majority of their customers don't realize that their local Frostop is part of a broken chain. That's not the case with the Frostop in LaPlace, however. Thanks to their online presence, loving restoration and maintenance of their Frostop mug, and the presence of original items on the menu, the LaPlace Frostop stands as a monument to the Frostop brand. With its indoor dining room and thoughtful menu additions it also shines as an example of what the Frostop chain might look like today had it not been abandoned by its corporate parent. As Frostops go, it's a good one. May its mug spin forever.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Mixed Caliber Luncheon

I often describe myself as a hermit, a recluse, and generally asocial, but it was recently pointed out to me that for a hermit, I seem to have a lot of friends. This was an accurate observation, but it fails to take dosage into account. I have a good many friends and well-wishers, but I don’t see many of the people in my life often. I see my extended family roughly as often as I eat at G.D. Ritzy’s, which is quarterly. Most people whom I consider friends I may see one or two times per year. Even my partner Esmeralda Fitzmonster only sees me a couple days per week, despite her living with me, thanks to our nearly complete opposite work schedules. All this is more or less by design, because I’m exceedingly okay with being by myself and have a decidedly finite tolerance for social interaction. On the relatively rare occasions when I do spend time with friends, I go big before my depleted social battery forces me to go home.

Many longtime readers of Broken Chains are familiar with my second hobby, which involves working on and road tripping my trusty Ford Festiva. These trips usually involve meeting up with friends from the Festiva community and visiting a broken chain or two along the way. An annual observance on the Festiva calendar is Ohiostiva, a convergence of Festivas and the people who love them in Columbus, Ohio. I attended Ohiostiva 2019 a few weeks ago. My brother, who those same longtime readers will surely recall is also a Festiva enthusiast, was also there, and brought along a mutual friend of ours who has little interest in Festivas, but a healthy interest in broken chains.

Matty-Mark Matlock tagged along to Ohiostiva with my brother, seeking not Festiva hijinks, but general adventure and to observe Festiva enthusiasts in a manner not dissimilar from Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees. When I first met Matty-Mark shortly after Raxgiving last year, we quickly bonded over a mutual love of Rax, cafeteria dining, and broken chains in general. His presence at Ohiostiva meant that I’d have an excuse to break from the crowd when the party atmosphere became overwhelming and share an experience with him at one of the many broken chain locations in the Columbus area. I’m happy to report we had excellent experiences at both the last operating York Steak House and the world’s newest Ritzy’s, which has greatly improved its bebop since my initial visit last fall. We also got to experience a previously undiscovered broken chain while we were in town.

Despite her name suggesting otherwise, regular Broken Chains commenter Prog Girl had little to say about my proposal to rebrand Spageddie’s using Rush frontman Geddy Lee as a spokesperson. Maybe she’s more of a Yes fan. But she did give me a valuable lead prior to my Festiva journey to Columbus when she mentioned MCL cafeterias. A quick Google search led me to a 14 unit cafeteria chain operating primarily in Indiana with a handful of locations in Illinois and Ohio, including one near Columbus in Whitehall, Ohio. A quick look at their Wikipedia page confirmed that they had crossed the Cici’s Point into broken chain territory, as the Wikipedia article contained a long list of former locations and a shorter list of operating ones.

The first MCL was opened by Charles McGaughey and George Laughner. The name, “MCL” is an abbreviation of their surnames. Like Morrison’s and York, decline for MCL due in part to them opening locations in or near malls, a losing strategy that caused many locations to close as mall shopping declined in popularity. Their official name has been MCL Restaurant and Bakery for over a decade, perhaps to distance themselves from the unfashionable image of the cafeteria.

I don't always drive a Festiva, but when I do, I prefer it to be aqua. 

Matty-Mark, who grew up eating at Luby’s and S&S Cafeterias and myself, seeking to recapture the transcendent experience I’d recently had at the last operating Morrison’s Cafeteria were eager to peel ourselves away from the herd of Festivas and have an early lunch at MCL. We drove straight to the Whitehall location after excusing ourselves early from a morning expedition to an automotive salvage yard with my brother and a few other Festiva people. Had we not been explicitly looking for the Whitehall MCL, we would have likely driven past without noticing its existence. 

Visitation will be on Saturday 11 to 3 at MCL Funeral Home
From the exterior, it’s tough to determine what kind of business the building that houses MCL could be, even the signage is vague with three meaty initials floating in a broth of fine print. The restrained, vaguely colonial architecture blends into its surroundings, and the building could just as easily be a dentist’s office or a funeral home. Matty-Mark, to my mild surprise and medium delight, was just as excited to be there as I was, and we occupied our first few minutes on the property taking pictures of the building and signage. Once we were sure we had sufficient documentation of our expedition, we headed inside, where we were greeted first by an almost classroom-sized chalkboard containing the day’s specials, then official corporate signage explaining the order process and advertising more specials, and finally, by Mr. MCL himself. 

I will not forget to post the Chef Special.
I will not forget to post the Chef Special.
I will not forget to post the Chef Special. 

Sorry to be a stickler, guys, but shouldn't the plate be blue? 

Near as I can tell, MCL does not have an official mascot in the vein of G.D. Ritzy, Uncle Alligator, or Queenie Bee, but should they ever see fit to include one in their marketing, the manager of the Whitehall, Ohio location would be a near ideal basis. Clad in a dress shirt and tie, the affable man in his early fifties bid Matty-Mark and myself a warm welcome as if we were not strangers, but long-awaited friends. As we browsed the vast panorama of food before us along the serving line, he provided descriptions of each entree, all of which had been made from scratch. Perhaps sensing our excitement and curiosity of our surroundings, he told us he had worked for MCL since 1995, beaming with pride all the while. He went on to share his passion for poultry with us pointing to the pan of stuffed roasted chicken breasts, and proclaiming them his favorite, and mentioning that he often sneaks a piece or two of fried chicken with him to the back office while he’s working on the schedule and payroll. Ordinarily, I find restaurant employees who are overly chatty during the ordering process to be unprofessional and off-putting, but Mr. MCL’s charisma and passion for his work shone through without inspiring even a crumb of curmudgeonly annoyance on my part. 

Food presentation...

...was impressive.... it should be.

Matty-Mark and I worked our way down the serving line as Mr. MCL encouraged us onward. The food looked fresh and vibrant, and we ate with our eyes first, loading up our trays with everything that looked good. As I paid my bill at the end of the line, I was surprised to find I had picked up $25 worth of food off the serving line, and so had Matty-Mark. The marketing strategy of putting all the food in view of the customer had worked perfectly on us, as it has for generations of cafeteria patrons, but we didn’t mind. We were there to sample a wide swath of the menu. As with most broken chain visits, it was more about the experience than the food.

My tray

Matty-Mark's tray

Once we were seated out of sight from the serving line the interior of the MCL didn’t look much less like a funeral home than it did from the outside. The decor was tasteful and had an understated elegance that seemed designed to facilitate a healthy grieving process. The stuffed chicken breast I had selected based on Mr. MCL’s encouragement, however, inspired little grief. Perhaps due to a savory stuffing spiked with chicken stock, and a chicken gravy on top, it was the most chickeny piece of chicken I recall having within recent memory, easily the best chicken I’ve had at a broken chain since my trip to Maryland Fried Chicken last fall. In keeping with the fowl theme, the deviled eggs were also a pleasant experience, and reminded me of childhood Easter dinners. The remainder of the side dishes were hit or miss. The macaroni and cheese lacked the nostalgic magic that its counterpart at Morrison’s had. The cranberry salad was decent. Matty-Mark reported that his mashed potatoes tasted like they had been made with instant flakes. He had also picked up a so-so chopped steak and some above average fried chicken, which made me think the entrees Mr. MCL had recommended to us were not just his favorites, but objectively the best they had to offer. 

"It was a lovely service, and he looked so peaceful."

Considering the place had “Bakery” in its official name, I had high hopes for the baked goods, but despite us being there shortly after opening time, my cornbread was cold, and tasted like it had been prepared the night before. Matty-Mark had similar complaints about the big yeasty roll he’d picked out for himself. The butter provided with these baked goods was cold, and only marginally spreadable. If I’m buying baked goods from a place that calls itself a bakery, I expect them to be freshly baked that morning, and if they’re served with hot food, I expect them to be hot. Even Cracker Barrel, a chain with ever diminishing quality of food and service still manages to crank out hot biscuits and cornbread all day every day. The cold day-old cornbread wasn’t the greatest carbohydrate calamity I’ve encountered, (That honor goes to the microwaved biscuit I had at the last operating Horne’s.) but I had much higher hopes for a chain that markets itself as offering high quality food.

I was a couple of bites into a slice of pecan pie that had an unpleasantly marshmallowy texture when Matty-Mark’s phone rang. It was my brother stranded at the salvage yard. For reasons that still have not yet been adequately explained to me, Matty-Mark had been carrying my brother’s car keys when we left the salvage yard to have lunch. We quickly got to-go boxes for our desserts and bid MCL a hasty goodbye. Despite the disappointing bakery items and questionable side dishes, I left with a generally positive opinion about MCL. The chicken was unique and tasty enough that I couldn’t help but overlook the less pleasant items on my tray. I’d like to explore other MCL locations the next time I’m in their territory, but when I do, I’ll be a little more judicious about the side dishes I pick up.

Matty-Mark and I had a memorable experience at MCL and the other broken chains we visited around Columbus that weekend, but all the interaction with the throngs of Festiva people gave me my fill of socializing. I’ll probably resume my nominal hermetic lifestyle until at least autumn. Speaking of autumn, if you’re a fan of Broken Chains and you’ll be within a reasonable driving distance of Harlan, Kentucky on the day after Thanksgiving this year, (Friday November 29, 2019) then consider joining me at the Harlan Rax in observance of Raxgiving 2019. You’ll get to celebrate Raxgiving in style by dining at one of only two surviving Rax locations that still operates an Endless Salad Bar. I’ll be there to feast and have awkward conversations with any Broken Chains fans who turn up.