Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Springtime for Ground Round and Bennigan's

I’m writing this post on the heels of the first warm day in March, which occurred, in my part of the world, this past Sunday, offering consolation for the missing hour of sleep the night before, courtesy of the start of daylight saving time. Though the vernal equinox is still a couple weeks out, I’m in a spring state of mind. I’m ready for grass to be green and the flowers to bloom. I’m counting the days until my local walk-up Dairy Queen opens for the season. All around me, both biological and retail life are being reborn, and the broken chains are no exception.

The state of Ohio has proven to be a deep well, which I’ve returned to more times than any other state in search of broken chain experiences. I attribute this mostly to the fact that Ohio’s population is spread evenly across several small to medium-sized cities, providing ideal conditions for broken chains to survive in every corner of the state, not to mention its close proximity since I live nearby in Southeast Michigan, a 45 minute drive from the Ohio state line. Even as I exhaust Ohio’s supply of broken chain sites, new ones have popped up, coming to life after their brands have long laid dormant like perennial flowers or hibernating woodland creatures do as winter gives way to spring. I spent my weekend visiting these newly-minted locations of chains that, by virtue of their recent, limited growth, are now a little less broken. Both the Perrysburg Ground Round (Opened February 2020) and the Steubenville Bennigan’s (Opened November 2018) are locations of two unrelated chains that opened long after a significant decline in their respective brands. In a tribute to the impending rebirth that comes with the spring season, I took a trip to visit both locations in one day.

Loyal readers may recall I’ve written about both Ground Round and Bennigan’s in the past, detailing their declines and assessing the current state of each brand in the present-day. I also made a few missteps in visiting each location that I hoped to correct when revisiting each brand, using the spring season as an excuse to approach each chain with a clean slate, but armed with the knowledge of past experiences. My mistake at Bennigan’s was dining by myself, so my life partner, Esmeralda Fitzmonster came with me on this trip. My blunder at Ground Round was arriving with an insufficient appetite, so Esmeralda and I skipped breakfast, and headed to Perrysburg for an early lunch.

Ground Round was originally a subsidiary of Howard Johnson, back when the name was as, if not more closely associated with restaurants as it was with hotels. As with the Howard Johnson restaurant brand, Ground Round passed between a series of corporate owners until it wound up in the ownership of a consortium of surviving franchisees. At the time of my visit to the Tomah, Wisconsin Ground Round last year, there were 17 locations in the chain, but the new location in Perrysburg is the eighteenth in a chain that once had 200 restaurants. The Perrysburg Ground Round is not only the sole location in Ohio, it’s also the only Ground Round between Milwaukee and Philadelphia, a lone outpost in the fragmented chain, housed in a location the Howard Johnson executives who developed the Ground Round concept would have never dreamed of. The Perrysburg Ground Round is located on the ground floor of a newly-constructed Holiday Inn, literally sharing space with a hotel belonging to its one-time corporate parent’s fiercest competitor. This arrangement is possible due to the dissolution of the official affiliation between the Ground Round and Howard Johnson brands decades ago, which occurred when Howard Johnson’s restaurant and hotel divisions were acquired by separate outside companies. 

The Perrysburg Ground Round shares space with its one-time rival.

Esmeralda and I arrived around 11 on a Saturday morning, parked in a lot still speckled with mud from construction equipment, and headed inside for an early lunch. A hostess was posted near the front door, and immediately seated us in a booth. We had the main dining area to ourselves, though a few patrons were present in the bar, which was housed in a separate room, as it was and is in most, if not all Ground Round locations. The brightly-lit dining room was the antithesis of its dim, windowless counterpart that I’d previously visited in Wisconsin. While that Ground Round location’s decor had nods to the history of Ground Round, none were present in Perrysburg. The vibe was not unlike that of a hotel room, clean and pleasant, if a bit generic. For better or worse, I was very aware I was adjacent to the lobby of a hotel for the duration of my meal.

Why are there booths in this hotel room?
Unlike my previous Ground Round, I ordered something that actually contained ground beef, a Clubhouse Burger, essentially a club sandwich with a ⅓ lb hamburger patty in place of turkey. I was hoping for a better outcome than when I had ordered a club sandwich at Bakers Square a few weeks prior. Esmeralda ordered a burger of her own, and our server arrived with them a few minutes later. While the quadrants of my burger/sandwich hybrid had been hacked into drastically different sizes, the cuts had at least been made at a proper 90 degree angle to the cutting surface, so my Clubhouse Burger was better in terms of construction than the Bakers Square club sandwich. The burger patty was a little on the dry side for a burger, but not unpleasantly so, and had a steaky flavor that made me suspect it had indeed been made with actual ground round rather than the fattier ground chuck that is more commonly used for burgers. Sadly, the top layer was missing the ham that the menu promised would be there, but I hardly missed it thanks to a generous portion of bacon. All was going swimmingly until our server asked how our meal was, and I replied, “So far, so good.” She used my reply as an opportunity to provide us with an unwanted, impromptu dissertation on the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. My reply to her seemingly provided a flimsy segue, as the film’s dialog apparently contained the very commonly spoken phase, “So far, so good.” She seemed to be a great fan of the movie, but I’d hesitate to go so far as to say it was her favorite, as she could only name two members of the cast, which, I’d wager contains at least five more actors.

I wish I could order all my food cut into quarters and impaled on fancy toothpicks.

Lager and bread, they say could raise the dead. It reminds me of the menu at the Holiday Inn.

A couple slices of ham and a server who is slightly less passionate about mediocre remakes of classic westerns would have made our meal at Ground Round perfect, but aside from these minor nits I’m picking, I have little to complain about. Indeed, there have been times when I’ve been holed up in hotels after a long day on the road wishing for a decent restaurant within walking distance so I wouldn’t have to get back in my car to find something to eat. On non-blog related trips, I’d gladly pay a few dollars more to stay at a hotel with an onsite restaurant so I could have the luxury of not having to leave the building for dinner. While the Ground Round dining room was empty shortly after opening time during our Saturday morning visit, I bet both the dining and bar areas will soon be packed with weary travelers and perhaps even a few locals during the dinner and cocktail hours, if they’re not already.

That afternoon, the story seemed similar on the opposite side of Ohio when we rolled up to the Bennigan’s in Steubenville, which is situated just a few steps from the front door of a Best Western that’s no more than a couple years old. Like the Perrysburg Ground Round, it appears this site was picked with the hotel crowd in mind. Unlike the Ground Round, however, the Steubenville Bennigan’s is a freestanding structure, and is one of three prototype locations in the chain. (The other two are in North Dakota and Texas.) This location opened while I was researching my post about visits to three separate Bennigan’s locations in Michigan, and since then, the Bennigan’s chain has actually gotten a little bit smaller, as two of those Michigan Bennigan’s have closed, leaving only the Mt. Pleasant location open. All told, Bennigan’s is down to 11 locations in the US, and 15 more scattered around Latin America and the Middle East. There were close to 300 of them prior to widespread closures during the Great Recession. The Steubenville Bennigan’s is the only Ohio location, and it’s barely in Ohio, as you can see across the river into West Virginia from the parking lot.

An unusual sign at the Steubenville Bennigan's makes a 90 degree bend. 
Despite the brand’s recent struggles, Bennigan’s parent company, Legendary Restaurant Brands LLC seems to be actively marketing the chain. Menus receive seasonal changes and limited time offers. Their website promises several new locations are soon to open, and judging by the appearance of the inside of the Steubenville Bennigan’s a significant amount of money was spent designing and constructing the new Bennigan’s building. The decor felt vaguely familiar with nods to the brand’s heritage, including a logo printed on a patch of the chain’s trademark hexagonal tile near the front door, yet completely different from any of the ‘80s and ‘90s built Bennigan’s locations I’d visited previously. Laminate flooring and subway tile made the dining room feel modern, but with more than a few nods to the past in the form of collages of Bennigan’s imagery printed on wallpaper and framed photos of beloved menu items adorning the walls.

My beloved hexagonal tile lives on. 
The hostess sat us near the door of a dining room that was nearly half full despite it being well before 5 PM. In addition to Bennigan’s, Legendary Restaurant Brands LLC also owns the rights to the Steak and Ale restaurant brand. While there are no Steak and Ale locations operating, you’ll find a few of their menu items on a special section of the menu at Bennigan’s, and the Bennigan’s website is actively marketing Steak and Ale franchises to anyone who might have the interest and means to open a Steak and Ale of their own. I decided Hawaiian chicken from the Steak and Ale menu sounded decent for dinner, and Esmeralda opted for Bennigan’s famous chicken tenders. Thankfully our server in Steubenville was less chatty than her counterpart back at Ground Round, but as we sat waiting for our meals to arrive, we noticed two things. First our drinking glasses were noticeably dirty, with mysterious spots and streaks on their outsides, and that the restaurant’s manager was making an apology tour of multiple tables near us, attempting to make amends for shortcomings in the food and service while comping various menu items from each table’s tab. When our waitress returned with our order, we asked for new drinks in clean glasses and examined our meals with newly tempered expectations.

My Hawaiian chicken made the cover of the menu. I'm somebody now!

Steak and Ale was known for its steak, ale, and to a lesser extent, Hawaiian chicken.
My meal was decent enough. The pineapple rings and sweet marinade made the grilled chicken breast perfectly pleasant. The rice mixed with vegetable chunks was full of bright and unique flavors, and while my broccoli seemed to have been microwaved, it was at least seasoned nicely. It renewed my desire for someone to open a new Steak and Ale somewhere, preferably in springtime. Esmeralda said her chicken tenders tasted like they had been sitting under a heat lamp for a little too long, but nothing we were served was bad enough that we felt the need to summon the manager so he could atone for the sins of his staff. The Steubenville Bennigan’s served its intended purpose for us, providing a halfway decent meal to folks who had completed a long day on the road. The only difference between us and the typical customer was that Bennigan’s was our destination, not simply an impromptu stop on the way to somewhere else.

Authentic faux-Irish pub decor. 

Like a hotel-adjacent chain restaurant, spring is thought of by many to be merely a stop on the way to summer, but because of the temperate weather and the optimism of new life after a bleak and dreary winter, spring is my destination season every year. You might gather from my ramblings here that I’m a fan of unconventional destinations, and you’d be correct in that assumption, but there is something magical about early efforts at a comeback, whether or not that comeback proves successful. A down, but not out restaurant chain attempting to recapture their former glory adorns a familiar concept with bright and fresh new trappings and a healthy dose of optimism is as magical as springtime to me. Regardless of if these attempted second acts lead to an endless summer of newfound prosperity or a ruthless winter of defeat, I’m happy to experience them in spring when familiar surroundings feel fresh, bright, born anew, and ready to revive a restaurant brand that has languished after far too long of a winter. 

1 comment:

  1. My advice to Bennigan's current corporate owners (besides the fact that customers will be even more fussy about cleaning standards when things get started up again post-coronavirus) is to pick one font and style for "Bennigan's" to appear in, and stick with it. There's three different wordmarks in use, not counting the "Steak and Ale" one. I'm partial to the classic one on the hexagonal tiles; the outdoor sign looks like a mall entrance, and the one on the menu and sign pinned to the bulletin board just looks bad.