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.









3 comments:

  1. Perhaps your server was simply trying and failing to square your sammie according to brand standards. Also a good Deteoit based franchise to incorporate this chain is PiSquared. MS. Baker might not approve though.

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  2. Well the puns start coming and they don't stop coming/Fed to the room fresh out the pie oven

    All-star post.

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