Thursday, February 27, 2020

I Hate Sundays

Sunday is my least favorite day of the week. Even though the vast majority of Sundays I’ve experienced have been free of school and work obligations, my brain won’t let me enjoy a Sunday for what it is. The prospect of the workweek, soon to begin anew looms over a Sunday, casting a shadow of unavoidable dread that constantly nags at me and eats away at my enjoyment of whatever Sunday activity in which I’m attempting to partake.

Since I spend my entire Sunday dreading it, one might contend that the day I really hate the most is Monday, not unlike a certain lazy cartoon cat, or an eponymous U.S. president who was assassinated on a Monday. However, once Monday rolls around, I’ve accepted my fate. I quickly settle into the routine of my workweek and make peace with the fact that the only way to the next weekend is through the coming week. With a week’s worth of menial tasks to distract me, it will be Friday evening again before I know it, and I’ll have a whole Saturday of carefree fun ahead of me.
Garfield's! You know, the place by the massage chairs!

After a weekend full of broken chain visits, I had one final stop to make before I headed home on a melancholy Sunday afternoon. St. Clairsville, Ohio is home to the Ohio Valley Mall, which itself is the refuge of a few notable businesses, not the least of which is a Garfield’s Restaurant and Pub, one of six surviving locations spread from northeast Pennsylvania to southwest Missouri. It’s a restaurant chain that was seemingly founded partially out of spite.

After a lifetime of making it a point to accomplish things he was told he couldn’t do, Vincent Orza opened Garfield's, his first restaurant. in Oklahoma City in 1984. In an interview, Orza claimed he opened the first Garfield’s to ensure those who said his restaurant wouldn’t be a success would be proven wrong, and seemingly, they were, at least for a couple of decades. During the casual dining craze of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the restaurant with its early 20th century spin on the “nail a bunch of random crap to the walls” style of decor and eclectic menu was a modest success, peaking with around 50 company-owned and franchised locations in 26 states, mostly attached to or near indoor shopping malls. The restaurant took its name not from a Monday-loathing head of state or comic strip feline, but from a fictional character devised by the fledgling restaurant’s marketing team. Casey Garfield, a restaurant mascot whose picture I cannot find anywhere on the internet, seemingly traveled the world to experience different cuisines to add them to the menu of his restaurant, which, in its heyday, boasted Tex-Mex, Italian, and Chinese-influenced offerings in addition to traditional American fare. 

I have yet to cease being surprised at what still exists. 

Downfall came for Garfield’s with the decline of the American mall, as it did for other mall-reliant chains like York Steak House and Morrison’s Cafeteria, and as malls lost stores and foot traffic declined, a growing list of Garfield’s locations became empty mall storefronts in ailing malls. But, like its surviving Garfield’s location, Ohio Valley Mall is an anomaly. I arrived there a few minutes before their Garfield’s opened and went for a mall walk to kill time ease my Sunday blues. I was both surprised and pleased to find a nicely maintained vibrant, reasonably healthy mall. Five of its six anchor store slots were occupied, which was impressive considering that the mall had lost three anchor stores, Sears, Kmart, and Elder-Beerman, in the past five years. All but the vacant Sears, which closed last summer, are now occupied by new tenants. There was even a Sam Goody still open for business in the mall, one of only two remaining US stores, and a broken chain location in its own right. I would have sworn that the now-closed Sam Goody in the now nearly vacant Horton Plaza Mall in San Diego was the last one, but true to the title of my very first Broken Chains post, which featured a picture of the Horton Plaza Sam Goody, you’d be surprised at what still exists. I know I was. 

Essentially the entire physical media selection at Sam Goody

I of course took a lap of Sam Goody, whose floor space was 80% T shirts, Funko Pops, and other inoffensive novelties, with the other 20% occupied by physical media, mostly movies on DVD and Blu-ray, with a few new LP records tucked in the back. Who would have guessed that vinyl would outlive all other physical audio formats? I pondered the holdout Sam Goody’s status as a PG-rated Spencer’s Gifts as I navigated the mall’s corridors to Garfield’s, now open for the day. I was among the first customers in the door late on that Sunday morning, and the hostess seated me in a booth that overlooked some gumball machines and the hibachi restaurant across the corridor.

The view out the window by my booth

The place felt modern, if a little bland

And there's a bar if that's the kind of thing you're into. 

This Garfield’s appeared to have shed its random junk on the walls decor, if it ever had it at all. The dining room was dimly lit, with mostly bare walls, few windows, and black drop ceiling that made the room feel darker than it actually was. A few framed posters of generic-looking food hung on the walls. Only one had a Garfield’s logo on it to remind me of where I was. The bar area was adorned only with the obligatory smattering of wall-mounted televisions, playing infomercials and sporting events, all without sound. My drab surroundings did little to ease my Sunday malaise. If Purgatory had a casual dining restaurant, it would look a lot like the St. Clairsville Garfield’s. Suddenly, someone fired up some ambient music to cut through the monotony. “Bastille Day,” a Rush deep cut from the oft-overlooked B side of their album, 2112, began to play, reminding me of the lunch I’d had at Spageddie’s on another gloomy Sunday at the tail end of a weekend road trip. I had just started to wonder if Sam Goody had any Rush LPs in stock when a server appeared to take my drink order. When she returned a few moments later with my Diet Pepsi, I ordered a Fire Strings Burger from a menu I suspected had been truncated, perhaps as the result of the fictional Casey Garfield suspending his fictional voyages around the world to learn more recipes. Maybe he mailed himself to Abu Dhabi, and never came back. Before returning to the kitchen, my server asked my preferred doneness by inquiring if I preferred my burger to have “Some pink or no pink.” I opted for some pink. There’s nothing worse than an overcooked burger. 

The entirety of the menu. No, lasagna wasn't an option. At least it was nicely printed.
A burger worth waiting for? 

It looked good, and tasted slightly worse. 

It took close to half an hour for my burger and fries to show up, despite a mostly empty dining room. Maybe a line cook or two had called in with cases of the Sunday blues. When it did arrie, the burger topped with what Garfield’s calls “Fire Strings,” breaded and deep fried bits of onion and jalapeƱos was hot off the grill, and the Fire Strings were straight out of the fryer. It was a great looking burger, but despite the presentation, it was disappointing. Even though the third pound-ish patty was cooked to a near-perfect medium, it tasted dry. I suspect the meat used to form the patty was extremely lean, which is unfortunate, because a little more fat in the meat would have transformed what was, at best, a so-so burger into a pretty good one. 

If you’re stuck at the mall on a Sunday, Garfield’s is probably a decent enough place to have a burger and a beer or two while the shopaholic in your life goes on a bender through their favorite mall stores, but it falls short of being a destination. There’s little, if anything to set Garfield’s apart from a Chili’s or Applebee’s. As malls began to fall out of favor, it would have been easy enough to ditch the part of the Garfield’s brand strategy that dictates locations be attached to malls, and attempt to open some freestanding restaurants, but I doubt the endeavor would have been successful without serious reinvention of the Garfield’s experience to set it apart in what is already a crowded, and increasingly unpopular field of casual dining restaurants. Whoever owns the Garfield’s brand these days apparently saw things the same way, as all six surviving Garfield’s are mall locations whose days are likely numbered. 

I don't think I've ever bought anything from a Macy's, and I was able to maintain that streak after walking through this one, despite the liquidation discounts. 

Malls that are healthy enough to support a medium-priced restaurant are a dying breed. Remember that mall-based Max and Erma’s I visited last Summer? It’s since closed, and I suspect the six remaining Garfield’s will do the same sooner rather than later as the malls that house them become less viable. In the case of the Ohio Valley Mall, its Macy’s is set to close in a few weeks, leaving a second empty anchor store, and if the two empty anchors aren’t rented out soon, reduced foot traffic could cause a domino effect that will bring about an ever-growing list of store closures that would threaten both Garfield’s and Sam Goody along with every other Ohio Valley Mall tenant. It’s a tale that’s as old as the internet, played out in dead and dying malls across the country to the point that a relatively healthy mall feels like a rarity. Any mall that is still remotely viable in the year 2020 is experiencing a metaphorical Sunday afternoon; while in a relatively comfortable position, things are sure to get worse for most malls in the short term before they get better. Anyone who owns or manages a mall in this position is sure to live in a state of dread five to seven days a week, which makes my one day per week of dread seem almost attractive by comparison.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Sweet Love

When I describe my hobby of visiting locations of near-defunct restaurant chains to various friends and well-wishers, I’m frequently asked if I’ve written about chains that are currently in decline. Steak ‘n Shake is the one I’m asked about most frequently. My typical reply is that I prefer to seek out the forgotten, survivors of chains that seemingly met their collective demise years, if not decades ago. I’ll get around to writing a Steak ‘n Shake post eventually, but I plan on letting the dust settle on their decline first.

There are instances, however, where I make exceptions to this guideline and visit locations of a chain that is presently in rapid decline for fear that they may soon disappear completely, just as Don Pablo’s and Lone Star Steakhouse did shortly after I wrote about them. It is for this reason that I visited two Bakers Square locations just a couple weeks after their parent company, American Blue Ribbon Holdings, who also own Village Inn, filed for bankruptcy and closed 33 of the two chains' 129 restaurants leaving 84 Village Inns and 22 Bakers Squares in business, down from a peak somewhere over 400 locations total. It seems as likely as not that the more widespread Village Inn restaurant brand will survive a while longer, but the smaller Bakers Square chain seems more vulnerable in the face of bankruptcy and the decline of family restaurants in general.

Few restaurant chains have endured more name changes than Bakers Square, which was called Mrs. C’s when the first location opened in Des Moines, Iowa in 1969. Mrs. C’s was quickly acquired by Pillsbury, who on a restaurant chain shopping spree had purchased Burger King just a few years before. Under Pillsbury, Mrs. C’s became Poppin’ Fresh Pies and grew quickly with a doughy infusion of Pillsbury money and brand image. VICORP, owners of Village Inn, purchased Poppin' Fresh Pies from Pillsbury in 1983, and re-dubbed it Bakers Square, presumably after considering names like “Butchers Isosceles Triangle” and “Candlestick Makers Rhombus.” VICORP filed for bankruptcy in 2008, a year when corporate bankruptcies were commonplace, if not fashionable, and was purchased out of bankruptcy by American Blue Ribbon Holdings, who now, themselves have a bankruptcy to call their own. 

Bakers Square appears to have peaked at somewhere north of 200 locations in the early VICORP years, and once had a presence on the west coast, but the 22 locations that survive today are scattered around six midwestern states with more than a third of their locations in and around Chicago. My recent exploration of the last two Spudnut Shops in Ohio took me to Cleveland, and I took the opportunity to visit the last two Ohio Bakers Squares that are coincidentally also located in the Cleveland suburbs.

Bakers Square once had a presence in the area of Metro Detroit I’ve called home off and on for the past 12 years, but I originally moved to the area in the midst of the 2008 VICORP bankruptcy, and all the nearby locations had already closed, leaving faux-Prairie School style buildings with distinctive hip roofs behind. Leo’s Coney Island, a local Detroit chain moved into a couple of the old Bakers Squares near me, making only minimal changes to the buildings, so both the exterior and interior of the Parma Heights, Ohio Bakers Square were familiar to me upon my arrival there. 

Cleveland is beautiful in February when the snow starts to melt and show the cracked asphalt.
The puns start coming...
...and they don't stop coming
This whole flippy thing was lousy with pie puns. 

I found the parking lot and dining room crowded at lunchtime on a Saturday, but I was quickly shown to one of the few open booths after walking in. I explored an extensive menu, settling on a club sandwich when the server came for my order. I flipped through a thick selection of cards on a small stand at my table while I waited for the arrival of my sandwich. Bakers Square is, perhaps best known for its pies, and each of the cards showed a different variety of pie and a Bob’s Burgers Burger of the Day-level pun about each one. I had decided to order a slice of “Happy to have the blues” blueberry pie to complete my meal when my server arrived with a club sandwich that was laughably constructed. 

See how some of the bread is huge and some is tiny? It was maddening!

I should pause for a moment here to describe what a club sandwich should look like for the benefit of those of you who are not members of the club. A club sandwich is constructed of three pieces of bread, usually toasted. The space between the bottom two pieces usually contains turkey, while the space between the top two pieces contains ham and/or bacon. Lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise are usually in their somewhere too. The sandwich is then cut diagonally twice to create four roughly equally sized triangular quadrants, each of which is held together by a single extra long toothpick. 

The sandwich quickly devolved into chaos. 

The club sandwich I received at Bakers Square had all the prerequisite ingredients, and even included both bacon and ham, but things went wrong in the kitchen when it was time to make those two all-important diagonal cuts. Two separate problems in the cutting process rendered my sandwich a ridiculous mess. For one, the cuts, which should have been made corner to corner, converging somewhere in the neighborhood of the center point of the bread were made incorrectly, so that the intersection of the two cuts was way off to one side. Additionally, the cuts, which should have been made perpendicular to the cutting surface were made at an angle, so that the face of the cross-section of each mini sandwich sloped gradually from top to bottom. The end result of this slapdash sandwich surgery was that none of the twelve triangles of bread were anywhere near the same size, and even with structural toothpicks, the sandwich was clumsy to eat, and no single bite contained all of the sandwich fillings. To make matters worse, the ham had been shredded into narrow strips, and would have been more at home in a chef’s salad than on a sandwich, and the little bits of porcine confetti tended to fall out of you breathed in the vague direction of the sandwich. I gave up and ate my crumbling pile of bread and meat with a fork, and told myself that the pie would be better. 

It was really good pie. 

A card on the table informed me that Bakers Square’s pies had won over 300 blue ribbons from an organization known as the American Pie Council. I took this as a good sign regarding the pie. How could a pie-related organization, which for all I knew, could be a subsidiary of Bakers Square’s parent company mislead me about the quality of pie? I ordered my slice of blueberry pie with a scoop of ice cream when my server returned to clear the remnants of my botched sandwich, and she soon returned once more with a plate of redemption. The blueberry pie was no less messy than the sandwich, but unlike the geometric, orderly club sandwich, a blueberry pie is meant to be an oozing, stain-inducing puddle of delicious chaos, and delicious it was. The crust even tasted as if it had been made from scratch and was enough to make the good slice of pie a great one. 

I would drive back to Cleveland for this pie right now with only the slightest suggestion. 

With a stomach full of the extremes of culinary ineptitude and excellence, I surveyed my surroundings while awaiting the arrival of my bill. The interior of the restaurant had clearly been remodeled in this century, but likely sometime before the 2008 bankruptcy, as the booths and carpet were beginning to show their age. A trip to the restroom revealed the true age of the building however, as the tile on the floors and walls appeared to date from sometime before 1980. It was clear from the age of the building and average age of the crowd filling the dining room that this Bakers Square had been a local favorite for a long time, and was popular enough to be among the last in business. 

2006 dining room

1976 bathroom

The same seemed to be the case at the second Bakers Square I visited, this time across town in Mentor, Ohio. I found the dining room no less busy at 3 PM the same day after finding my way inside. Curiously, though this location’s dining room was roughly the same size as its sibling in Parma Heights, it’s kitchen appeared much larger from the outside. It even had its own small loading dock. I suspect that this location is used as a commissary, perhaps to supply pies and other prepared foods to both it and the other nearby location and likely originally additional Cleveland-area Bakers Squares that have since closed. 
This one is a little prettier than the last.

If you don't look at the loading dock around back.

I don't know about best, but they're right up there. 

This time around, I ordered breakfast, which is served all day. Per Broken Chains tradition, I ordered a pile of potatoes, eggs, cheese, and meat known as a skillet. I was pleased when my server asked how I wanted my eggs, which puts Bakers Square ahead of both Country Kitchen and Lucky Steer, and she soon returned with a breakfast skillet that was of above average quality, but unremarkable other than the fact that the bacon and sausage were whole and not chopped up and mixed in with everything else. Because no meal, including a 3 PM breakfast, is complete at Bakers Square without pie, I ordered up a slice of banana cream, which, like the blueberry I’d had earlier in the day, had a great homemade taste, though I found myself wishing I’d ordered another slice of blueberry. 

Breakfast skillet and biscuits for early dinner. 
That blueberry pie in particular makes the decline, and seemingly inevitable demise of Bakers Square feel like more of a loss than that of other doomed family restaurant chains. Even in the face of bankruptcy and incompetent sandwich preparation, Bakers Square pies remain a high quality, sought-after product. When I was paying my tab at both restaurants, seemingly half the people in line with me were only there to pick up whole pies to go. They also seemed to skew younger than the people sitting and eating in the dining room. Given the aging dine-in customer base, It seems doubtful that Bakers Square has much of a future as a full service restaurant, but hopefully at least the pie business survives bankruptcy.

Banana cream pie, decent, but made me wish for more blueberry. 
I could envision a future in which smaller Bakers Square-branded fast casual locations open low-overhead in strip mall slots, selling whole pies, slices, and maybe a limited menu of more carefully prepared sandwiches. Pies could be baked in-store, or supplied by a central commissary in markets where locations with in-house production facilities, like the one in Mentor still exist. In my experience the pie is the main draw, so why not get rid of the outdated family restaurant business model and focus on Bakers Square's main strength, the award-winning pies? The appeal would reach beyond the current, rapidly aging crowd, and attract a younger clientele, who typically have less free time and less disposable income to spend on a full-service meal at a sit-down restaurant, but who still value high quality goods. A reinvention of the brand to appeal to a new generation of customers would at least give the Bakers Square brand a fighting chance at surviving, and perhaps even thriving. 

I'd buy pie from Anita Baker, and so should you. 

Longtime Broken Chains readers will recall that when I suggest a restaurant chain reinvent itself, I suggest they hire a celebrity spokesperson like Rollie Fingers or Geddy Lee whose name can be used to create a pun on the restaurant’s name. For Bakers Square, a chain whose marketing seems to regularly employ pun-based humor, I considered both Huey Lewis, who’d perform a pie-based parody of “Hip to be Square” in Bakers Square commercials, before I briefly moved on to MST3K fan favorite character actor Joe Don Baker, until I settled on singer-songwriter Anita Baker, who would proclaim in commercials, “Anita (I need a) Bakers Square pie!” or that Bakers Square gives you, the customer the best that they’ve got. The ad copy writes itself, really. According to Wikipedia, Anita Baker lives in the Detroit suburbs, so maybe I’ll suggest all of this to her if I ever run into her at Meijer. As for Bakers Square, I can only hope that some Blue Ribbon Holdings executive stumbles upon my blog, and sees my pun-based suggestion for reinventing Bakers Square. For all I know the future of the brand may depend on it.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

...I Wrote About the Donuts!

This is the second part in my two-part series on broken donut shop chains. Before you read on, I suggest you go read the first one if you haven’t already.

A good many restaurant brands founded in the US have departed that market entirely. For instance, the last operating US Chi-Chi’s closed in 2011, but there are still Chi-Chi’s locations open for business in Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The last Kenny Rogers Roasters in the US closed around the same time as the last Chi-Chi’s, but there are locations still open all over Southeast Asia, where I can only imagine The Gambler doesn’t have much of a fan following. It’s tough to visit a Kenny Rogers Roasters or Chi-Chi’s without boarding an international flight, and a trip to Luxembourg or Indonesia for a broken chain meal or two is something I’ve not yet mentally prepared myself for. However, I did recently experience a chain that is all but forgotten in the US, but is huge in Asia, and the most exotic lands I visited in the process were Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Even with its recent shift in focus and name away from donuts, Dunkin is the most successful survivor of the decline of the American donut shop, but Dunkin had a rebellious child named Mister Donut. Mister Donut was founded by Harry Winokur, the business partner and brother in law, William Rosenburg, founder of Dunkin Donuts. Winokur exited the partnership in 1956, and borrowing his brother in law’s idea, opened the first Mister Donut, soon franchising and growing the brand rapidly. Mister Donut was acquired by International Multifoods Corporation in 1970, and the first Mister Donut in Japan opened a year later. The Mister Donut chain peaked at around 550 North American locations in the International Multifoods years, but the beginning of the end came in 1989 when the British conglomerate Allied-Lyons acquired both Dunkin Donuts and Mister Donut. The new corporate overlords forced Dunkin Donuts to metaphorically eat its own young, as US Mister Donut operations were merged into the Dunkin Donut chain, and most surviving US Mister Donut locations were converted to the Dunkin Donuts brand. Mister Donut would continue in the East Asian market where it thrives today with locations in Japan, The Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, and Indonesia, but only a single Mister Donut location remains open today on the North American continent.

The Godfrey, Illinois Mister Donut is one of a good many franchised locations that was either unwilling to convert to a Dunkin Donuts location or unable due to proximity to an existing Dunkin Donuts. These locations operated more or less independently and all but one would eventually change their names or simply close. I had a chance to stop in for breakfast on a recent trip in order to save myself the cost of a trip across the Pacific to see what Mister Donut was all about. 

I had spent the night previous in Springfield following dinner at the local Hen House restaurant, and left early the following morning, as I had a long run to the El Dorado, Arkansas Minute Man. the Godfrey Mister Donut was on the way. I arrived there before sunup and was greeted by the faded orange glow of a 1970s era Mister Donut sign complete with the Multifoods logo. The donut shop occupied the end slot of a small strip mall, and was brightly lit, serving as a beacon for passersby early on what was a cold December morning. I found my way across the parking lot and in the front door where the bright lighting continued along with brighter decor. Swaths of brilliant orange and harvest gold assaulted my eyes accustomed to the dark following an antithetical 90 minute early morning drive in the dark. Nearly every element of the decor of the dining area seemed to be straight from 1977, and a gaggle of regulars, men in their seventies rattling the pages of unfurled newspapers and harumphing as they offered their opinions on matters mighty and minute to anyone within earshot appeared as if they’d been coming there every morning since the place opened. As with the Mentor, Ohio Spudunt shop, there wasn’t much of anything new here in terms of decor, donuts, or customers, though multiple tabletop signs were advertising breakfast sandwiches that had been recently added to the menu. I didn’t bother with a breakfast sandwich. I was there to feed on the obsolete, not newly-conceived piles of bread, greasy pork and round, pale yellow egg patties whose constituent ingredients may or may not have come out of a chicken at some point. I ordered three donuts whose composition I wagered hadn’t changed much since “Disco Duck” was topping the charts, and a bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper. (I never developed a taste for coffee.) I then selected a booth near the door to assess my order and surroundings. 

Just look at this visual spectacle! You don't last long in the donut business if your food presentation game isn't on point. 
The first donut out of the bag was a honey dip, and while, like many donuts with the word “honey” in their name, it didn’t have much in the way of honey flavor, it was a perfectly serviceable glazed donut. A cherry cake donut came next, cracked around the edges and shimmering with a thick, crunchy glaze. Its flavor was sweet enough to take down an army of Wilford Brimleys, but the overwhelming sweetness carried with it only a hint of maraschino cherry fighting its way through the deluge of sucrose. Donut the third was the one I had looked forward to most, a cream filled chocolate long john, which despite the lack of maple icing, I hoped would come close to my beloved childhood donut from the Steubenville Big Bear. While the rich flavor dark chocolate glaze was a welcome surprise, the long john fell well short of the vague childhood memory I’ve been building up in my mind for the past 30 years. It was a little light on cream filling for my taste, with a wide, bready mass in the middle between two small cream pockets on the ends. 

"Honey" dip


l o n g b o i

Despite the mediocrity of the donuts, I couldn’t help but think that I was in a special place, a place unaltered by modern food trends and marketing. Thanks to my habit of tracking down surviving locations of diminished and near defunct restaurant chains, I encounter these stuck in time places a couple of times per month on average, but two years in, I haven’t tired of finding these modern shrines to fast food history. On the contrary, each rock I uncover to find a place like Mister Donut underneath makes me want to turn over more rocks, and that’s exactly what I did. 

I came here to eat donuts and gawk at dated decor, and I'm all out of donuts. 

I left Mister Donut feeling like I hadn’t quite had the entire experience, because just as Mister Donut was the troubled, rebellious child of Dunkin Donuts, Mister Donuts had wayward offspring of its own in the form of Donut Connection, a chain formed by owners of franchised Mister Donut locations that were unwilling or unable to convert to the Dunkin Donuts brand in the early nineties. Following my recent Donut tour of the Cleveland suburbs, I traveled east into Pennsylvania to experience, Donut Connection, the other half of the Mister Donut story. 

Dunkin' Donuts begat Mister Donut, and Mister Donut begat Donut Connection, so it is written in the Book of Fermentations.

I’m unsure if Donut Connection itself is a broken chain, but I’m inclined to say it is based simply on the fact that it splintered from another larger chain the way Halo Burger and the various Big Boy chains did. I have no idea how many were open at the peak of the brand, or how many are open today, because half of the locations shown on the Donut Connection website show up as permanently closed when Googled. In general, the largest concentration of Donut Connections seems to be in the New York City area, with a few more strewn around Pennsylvania. There are a handful of surviving outposts as well, as far west as Minnesota and as far south as Florida. 

I found my way to the Butler, Pennsylvania Donut Connection on a Sunday morning. I had stayed nearby in Wexford, Pennsylvania the night before, and while I made the drive shorter and later in the day, it was no less grueling than the drive from Springfield to Godfrey, Illinois I’d made a few weeks before, thanks to the route of icy roads through the mountainous terrain north of Pittsburgh. The narrow roads with endless undulations and inclines and the smell of steel mill pollution in the air served to remind me of those childhood visits to my grandparents in Steubenville, which actually wasn’t terribly far away. I took it as a sign that I was in the right part of the country to have a shot at recapturing my beloved childhood donut memory. 

Look at that big green roof! There's gotta be a zigzag hiding under there, and I want to see it!
I arrived in Butler, in a part of town that looked like so many places in Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, and that weird skinny part of West Virginia that’s wedged between the two. Tucked in the streets lined with old homes built on impossibly steep hills and alternatingly thriving and empty storefronts was Donut Connection, sitting on a small lot carved out of the hillside, which extended sharply up behind it. The building sported a curious gabled roof that extended implausibly high above what would be the ceiling of the dining room. I surmised the building may have once sported the signature Mister Donut zigzag roof before the Donut Connection days as I walked through the door. 

This was a popular place on a Sunday morning. I got there before 9:00 and they were already running low. 

The selection of donuts sat on shelves behind the order counter below a decades-old menu board with faded pictures of donuts and handwritten strips of paper showing menu items and prices. I procured three donuts, a cup of milk, and another of coffee which I had no intention of drinking, so I’d end up with a Donut Connection cup for my own collection and another for Carl Poncherello’s. I placed my various donuts and beverages on a small pink tray from the pile on the counter and proceeded to a corner booth where I surveyed my surroundings. Donut Connection’s turquoise and pink color palette dominated the decor in place of Mister Donut’s orange and gold. The decor had a slightly more modern aesthetic, smacking of the early nineties rather than the late seventies, although seemingly the same group of opinionated, retired men I’d encountered in Illinois were seated at the counter of this donut shop in Pennsylvania, though they’d shed their plain Midwestern accents for Pittsburgh ones peppered with odd words like “yinz” and “deeshwarsher.”

The view from my table. Turquoise everywhere. 

The first donut on deck was a maple glazed, which to my delight was as mapley as my beloved childhood donut, though of course, the hole in the middle meant it lacked any of the cream filling crucial to recreating my childhood memory. It was succeeded by a blueberry cake donut that actually tasted like blueberries, which was refreshing given the promises that had recently been made to me and broken by its allegedly cherry flavored cousin at Mister Donut. I giggled to myself as I had the thought that Donut Connection was the William Wonka of donut shops, and if snozberries actually existed, a sonzberry donut from Donut Connection would indeed taste like snozberries. 

Bag o' donuts

A decent maple, but it needs filling. 

A blueberry donut fit for Violet Beauregard
Nostalgic, magical mystery donut.
My next donut found me in a world of pure nostalgia rather than one of pure imagination. A cream filled, chocolate iced, yeast donut was my final selection, and while its icing was in no way maple-related, the composition of its vanilla buttercream filling, and the ratio of the filing to its greasy, glutenous surroundings was perfect. I was instantly transported to the shag carpeted rumpus room of my grandparents’ Stuebenville home, watching a fuzzy broadcast Garfield and Friends on the old RCA cabinet TV while I munched a maple long john from Big Bear. At last, I’d recaptured my childhood donut! I had to fight back the urge to hop up from my booth and dance as if my grandson had just won a tour of a chocolate factory.

♬I never thought that what I ate, 
In a donut shop in the Keystone State,
Could begin to even replicate, 
What I’d eaten in ‘88!

‘Cause I’ve got my childhood donut!
I’ve got a childlike twinkle in my eye!

I never thought that I could drive,
Over the hills of Pennsylvain’, 
But now to my surprise I find, 
An end to my donut campaign!

‘Cause I’ve got my childhood donut!
I’ve got the cream filled treat to make my day!♬

The next few hours were a blur of donut-fueled euphoria, and I honestly don’t remember much that transpired after I’d finished that donut. I was on my way home on I-75 south of Toledo when I suddenly regained my senses. It occurred to me then and there that I didn’t remember what that magical donut was called. Sure enough, in my pictures, the label below the tray of those donuts wasn't visible. Furthermore, the locations map on the Donut Connection website doesn’t show a Donut Connection in Butler, Pennsylvania, so all I have to prove that the whole thing wasn’t a dream were the pictures I took and a couple of Donut Connection cups rolling around in the back of my car. Still, I can’t help but be suspicious that should I return to that same spot, I might only find a vacant Pennsylvania hillside with no sign of a Donut Connection ever being there at all. In a way, it's fitting that the donut experience I’ve chased off and on since one of my earliest childhood memories remains fleeting. That makes it all the more special when I do find a donut that lives up to the one I had all those years ago. At the very least, I can take solace in the fact that this experience taught me that the flavor of the donut’s icing doesn’t matter and it’s what on the inside that counts. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Time to Write About the Donuts...

In the years I was growing up there, Central Kentucky did not have much of a donut culture. The people of Lexington had few, if any donut shops, and little access to donuts that didn’t come from the Kroger bakery. I was in high school when Krispy Kreme came to town and the decades of donut starvation led to massive, ravenous crowds of grease and sugar-deprived Lexingtonians overwhelming the store on opening day and several weeks thereafter. The same thing happened a few years later when a Dunkin opened up across town, but with the recent growth of North Lime Coffee and Donuts, a small, well-regarded Lexington-based chain that popped up in the past 10 years, the small city I grew up in finally has donut culture all its own, but that wasn’t the case when I was a kid in the ‘90s. 

The North Lime donuts that are ubiquitous at every one of my family’s holiday, birthday, and even funeral gatherings, were nowhere to be found during my youth, and I always relished an encounter with donuts as a kid. My favorite childhood donut memory comes from a visit to my maternal grandparents in Steubenville, Ohio during my preschool years. It was then that I developed a taste for the cream filled maple long johns that my grandmother would buy at the local Big Bear supermarket. The blend of maple icing and vanilla buttercream filling paired with an elongated rectangle of fried dough was my idea of culinary perfection during my early childhood, and I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since. Every time I encounter a new maple long john in my travels, I am compelled, by nostalgia, to try one in hopes it helps me recapture a piece of my childhood innocence. The closest facsimile to the donuts sold at the long defunct Big Bear I’ve encountered came from the self serve donut case at a Kwik Trip gas station in rural Minnesota. I couldn’t tell you the name of the town it was in or ever hope to find it again, and donuts from other Kwik Trips just don’t taste the same. Sure, I could retrace the steps of my last Minnesota road trip and visit every Kwik Trip along the way, but sadly, my time and resources are finite. As a result, the perfect maple long John remains elusive. 

I’ve had donuts on my mind a lot recently, as I’ve just finished a tour to locations of three broken donut chains, two related to one another and one unrelated. The experiences are too numerous to cram into a single post, so this and the next post will focus on my donut tour.

In my coverage of Dawn Donuts last year I remarked on the decline of the American donut shop, and my preferred spelling of the word “donut,” so I’ll spare you the repetition of those details. Just know that donuts are not as popular as they once were, and the decline of the donut shop has left a gaggle of broken chains in its wake, including Spudnut Shop. 

In an attempt to recreate the potato donuts they had encountered in Germany, brothers Al and Bob Pelton of Salt Lake City, Utah, developed a potato flour based donut mix and opened the first donut shop selling their patented “Spudnuts” in 1940. They began franchising Spudnut Shops in 1946, and by the mid fifties, there were over 300 Spudnut Shops in the US alone, each represented by Mr. Spudnut, a top hat wearing anthropomorphic donut, who seemed to be based on the recently overhyped Mr. Peanut. The Pelton brothers retired and sold the business in 1968, and the Spudnut brand would bounce around between owners until 1979, when a series of poor investments made by Spudnut’s then parent company, Dakota Bake N Serve, brought about the company’s demise, and with it any corporate support for the Spudnut brand. Franchisees who wished to continue selling Spudnuts reverse engineered the recipe for the proprietary donut mix that they had previously been receiving from corporate, and soldiered on. Wikipedia claims there are 35 independent Spudnut locations open today, but after some Googling, I count only 16 locations in the US, plus weirdly, one in Vietnam, still using the Spudnut name. 

It's nice to see a little neon on a modern sign. 
I had long planned to visit a Spudnut location or two in my travels after learning of their existence from a reader. (Thanks Art!) I thought my trip to the El Dorado, Arkansas Minute Man would provide me with an opportunity to also visit Arkansas’ last Spudnut Shop, also in El Dorado, but some unforeseen circumstances necessitated an early departure from El Dorado which came before I had a chance at an Arkansas Spudnut run. Weeks later, I opted to visit the last two Ohio Spudnut shops, located in suburbs on opposite sides of Cleveland. I expected the two locations of the same broken chain in close proximity to look and operate similarly, but figured I might as well visit both while I was in the area. 

All aboard the Spudnut train! Toot toot!

Is this an attempt at a pun? Do donuts have a crust?
The Mentor Spudnut Shop was my first stop of the day. A neon sign in front of the train depot-like building proclaimed “FRESH SPUDNUTS NOW” I parked and found my way through the entryway which was adorned with a woven rubber mat emblazoned with the slogan “Spudnuts the upper crust of the donut world!” Few things are more inviting on a frigid Northern Ohio Saturday morning than a glass case of fresh donuts, and the Spudnut order counter didn’t disappoint. In terms of variety and sheer visual spectacle. The case had every variety of yeast and cake donut that a donut shop that's stuck in 1978 could be expected to make. The recipes, along with the decor, all seemed to be straight out of the 1970s making the interior of the Mentor Spudnut Shop a near perfect timewarp. I ordered two donuts, a plain glazed Spudnut and an obligatory maple long john along with some cold milk, which to my delight came in a Solo Jazz cup, the first I recall seeing in recent memory. I walked past the countertop with built in stools and sat at a vintage Spudnut-branded table underneath a large Spudnut sign on the wall and began my first breakfast of the day. 

You've gotta love this presentation. 

Classic interior in Valentine's Day regalia

I ordered the plain glazed donut, mainly to experience what was likely the original Spudnut configuration. I found it to be very lightly glazed, not overly sweet, and surprisingly dense. In the wake of the cronut craze, the Mentor, Ohio interpretation of the Spudnut could easily be remarketed as a bagel/donut hybrid. That’s not to say it wasn’t a tasty donut, which it absolutely was, but it was the unconventional antithesis to a light and airy heavily glazed Krispy Kreme. I moved on to the maple long john, which was made from I enjoyed even more than the plain glazed Spudnut, even if it didn’t measure up to the virtually unachievable goal of being as good a maple long john as the ones sold at Eastern Ohio Big Bear supermarkets in the late 1980s.

A table of anachronisms

I walked to my car, concluding that the Mentor, Ohio Spudnut shop is a rare treasure, a classic American donut shop stuck in time, untouched by modern donut fads. You’d never see a donut topped with bacon or salted caramel here. It’s a working donut museum, an exhibit showing patrons what a Spudnut Shop would have looked like more than 40 years ago. With this experience on my mind, I proceeded southwest to Berea, to Ohio’s only other surviving Spudnut Shop to test my hypothesis that another Spudnut Shop less than an hour away would offer more of the same. 

When you saw one set of footprints, it was then that I went on a donut run. 

The Mentor Spudnut was delightful enough that more of the same would have been welcome, but aside from the Spudnut name, the Berea Spudnut Shop could not be more different than its estranged crosstown sibling. Its building bore no resemblance to a train depot. Its blue and white color scheme made it look almost nautical. Upon my entry to the building, I was immediately greeted by the order counter and donut case. In fact, there was no more than four feet between the door and counter. The footprint of the store was much smaller, and there was maybe a quarter of the seating in Berea compared to the Mentor Spudnut Shop. This location was clearly set up for to-go business. The donuts in the case were just as numerous, but appeared more modern than those I’d just experienced. There was a maple bacon donut here, plus a butter pecan that looked interesting. I’ve experienced enough maple bacon donuts to last a lifetime, so I opted for a butter pecan and a plain glazed Spudnut, and took them, and a bottle of chocolate milk to one of the stools at the far end of the narrow dining room. 

All aboard the Spudnut boat. Toot toot!

Even the Spudnut glazed donut itself had myriad differences in comparison to the Spudnuts in Mentor. The Berea Spudnut is hexagonal, whereas the the Mentor Spudnut is round. The Berea Spudnut is slightly smaller in both diameter and thickness, and it has much more glaze that forms a thin hard shell around the outside of the donut. For all its differences, its texture is virtually identical to that of the Mentor Spudnut. I guess the top secret Spudnut donut mix wasn’t terribly difficult for either franchisee to reverse engineer back in ‘79, or at least both Ohio Spudnut owners made the same mistakes and ended up with an identical dough basis for their very different donuts. 

Spudnuts for the modern person on the go. 
The butter pecan donut was a unique and pleasant experience. The same Spudnut dough was filled with a butter pecan-flavored cream and topped with lightly salted pecan pieces. It was a modern donut from the Ohio Spudnut Shop that chose to evolve its offerings. You'd never see a donut topped with an ingredient as costly as pecans or filled with a bespoke flavored creme filling more than 15 years ago. While almost certainly not an authentic pre-1979 product, the butter pecan was a perfectly good donut from a perfectly good donut shop, which has only a tenuous connection to a historic chain. 

This was 90% of the dining room at the Berea Spudnut Shop.

The two Ohio Spudnut shops represent diverging paths taken by newly independent franchisees. One chose to do things they always did and another opted to change with the times. Neither is inherently better or worse than the other, and both are great places to pick up some donuts. However, with only 17 surviving locations spread from Cleveland to Ho Chi Minh City, its tough to not feel a bit more partial to the Mentor Spudnut Shop that offers a glimpse of what was. Of course, I’m approaching this as someone with an interest in chain restaurant history. Someone who simply wants a good donut or two might prefer the Berea Spudnut Shop that arguably, shows something akin to what Spudnut might have become had its parent company survived another four decades. Its tough to say if one is objectively better than the other. Even though both locations represent the same brand and are close in proximity, comparing them is an apples and oranges proposition. Given the short drive between the two Ohio Spudnut Shops, I found this to be surprising, but it's little surprises like this that keep me looking for broken chains after two solid years travelling regularly to track down the remnants of broken chains.