Monday, June 14, 2021

Biff Inquiry: Failed Fortunes

Hi Everybody! Zap here. Today's Broken Chains post was written by a guest author. My new pal Peter was nice enough to visit the last location of the old Biff-Burger chain that still uses the Biff-Burger name. His account of his visit is below:



No matter how long you park your carcass in a given locale, chances are pretty good there’s a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. It might be a patch of greenspace, a historical monument, a parking lot from where the sunsets are given an unreasonably pretty view. Having lived in the greater Tampa Bay area for longer than I’d like to admit, I find myself pleasantly surprised time and time again by something I’ve been overlooking until a chance encounter.

Thus, when I hear from Zap Actionsdower that a building I’ve passed by perhaps hundreds of times is one of the final remnants of a chain that’s been largely forgotten to the ravages of time and expanding multinational corporate dominance in fast food, I make a plan to find out what it’s all about. When I finally roll into the Biff-Burger in St. Petersburg (3939 49th St N) on an early Wednesday evening*, I have certain expectations. Logically, I know expectations are often impossible to meet, but I hold them anyway.


I can’t say with any certainty what this particular Biff-Burger was like when it first opened. A requisite archival search of the local papers doesn’t seem to note its establishment, though it’s hard to be surprised that a burger stand opening in an era where such fares were common wouldn’t have warranted even a passing mention. Given that the chain was founded locally and eventually covered perhaps hundreds of locations, it wouldn’t have been anything special then.

The beautiful, angular “Biff-Burger” sign, dated by the font every bit as much as its shape and complete with an old-style marquee, still peers out over 49th Ave N. The facade could probably use a good cleaning and a paint touchup, but even a newer, completely mismatched and haphazardly mounted sign beneath it (proclaiming a “World Famous Biff Burger” — where’s the dash between “Biff” and “Burger”?) fails to dampen its charm and splendor. There’s a feeling that it must have been meticulously maintained for quite some time, though possibly not recently (as hinted at by the vegetation growing out of it).

The original building (or, at least, what I believe must be the original building) is intact. The lovely red, white, and blue diamond-festooned gable is as inviting as any feature I can recall for a burger joint and it hints at what one must hope would be an era-appropriate interior. It’s underlined by a red and white metal awning. Judging by the pictures on the Biff-Burger.com website, the building appears to have once been Biff-Burger’s “Port-A-Unit” from the early 60’s, pretty heavily modified over time to create enclosed space. Looking rightward reveals the results of what must have felt like an inexorable march of long-term changes: an enclosed dining room (that is likely not actually part of the original building; I’m no architectural or interior design expert, but it feels different than the rest of the building); a covered porch dining area; a long, covered bar that incorporates a line of palm trees into the corrugated metal awning; and another small free-standing building that advertises the “other” dining feature: Buffy’s Bar-B-Que & Catering (topped with a kitschy-in-a-good-way replica of a “57 Chevy”). My interest in making this journey isn’t in the bar, the bar-b-que, or in the myriad of possibly interesting architectural tales and bespoke design decisions of the property, however. I’m after a straight-forward burger experience.



Immediately opposite the front door, the counter presents a variety of mixed visuals. The old-school menu board behind the counter is superseded and obscured by newer LCD menu boards. An assortment of awards and clippings from newspapers about the quality of their burgers is scattered about, taped on various windows or propped up on random surfaces; perhaps worryingly, none of these kudos seem to be any newer than about 5 years ago. Next to the door, making a surprise appearance, is an old-school cigarette vending machine, and I certainly cannot recall the last time I’ve seen that. Seen in the kitchen through the countertop windows is the usual assortment of implements: deep fryers, flat tops, etc. Unfortunately, the location of the “Roto-Broiler” that is considered to be Biff-Burger’s signature cooking apparatus isn’t immediately obvious. 


I have plenty of time to pursue the menu: There is a single person tending to the entirety of the kitchen and (as I eventually find out) two wait staff patrolling the bar. Although there are few patrons inside, a steady stream of drivers from food delivery services and the handful of people ordering outside at the bar mean I am left standing at the counter for at least 10 minutes before one of the wait staff is able to come in and take my order. Perhaps it would be easier for me to join the bar patrons as they eagerly engage in karaoke (to paraphrase from Citizen Kane: Their singing, happily, is no concern of this department), but avoiding groups has become my default over the last 16 months or so, and I am in no mood to change that this day.
The interior dining area appears to be enclosed from the once-open overhang of the building. The booths (and they’re all booths in this area) are a mixture of faux-wood veneer along with orange and yellow laminate that to me suggests they were installed somewhere in the late 70’s or early 80’s. The kitsch adorning the walls might be excessive in another setting, but seem rather natural given the already crowded environs. A number of the tabletops include signs requesting patrons not sit there, even though all mandatory COVID-related restrictions have been lifted by the state government. You could imagine that Biff-Burger’s management has decided to retain some of those for the sake of their customers, but given the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of the tables, I’d posit that it’s equally as likely they have forgotten that those signs are still there, or just can’t be bothered to take the time to remove them.


Looking to remain close to Biff-Burger’s roots, I order a “Cheese Biff Deluxe” (the “Deluxe” indicating the addition of lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, pickle, and onion), making it a platter with the addition of either fries or tots as well as a side of either beans or slaw (I choose the tots and the slaw, pretending for a moment that the inclusion of vegetables in the slaw somehow makes this entire endeavor slightly less unhealthy). I round this out with my usual beverage of choice: an unsweetened iced tea**. Several minutes later, I am summoned back to the counter to pick up my meal (table service appears to be reserved for patrons outside at the bar).


To say that I am underwhelmed by the presentation would be a mild rebuke, and I am willing to attribute that to the presence of only that single person tending the entirety of the food preparation line. It is possible, of course, that the taste might belie the lackluster appearance of the not-entirely-clean plastic serving tray and the handful of not-entirely-unsticky ketchup packets. After all, who among us hasn’t had something absolutely incredible from a greasy diner, or at least a better than expected sandwich from an otherwise unremarkable fast food joint? I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt.


Unfortunately, that’s where the graciousness allowed by the otherwise nostalgic or understandable deficiencies comes to an end. The food, simply put, is not good. The patty on the Cheese Biff is probably about 2 oz. of overcooked charcoal. The so-called “Biff Sauce” that such burgers are supposedly dipped in after cooking does nothing to restore any moistness. If I had to venture a reason for this, I’d guess it’s that the Roto-Broiler is calibrated to cook the bigger patties used in the larger, specialty burgers, and these smaller patties simply don’t stand a chance. The tater tots, while seemingly cooked for an appropriate amount of time (though I might prefer them to be a bit crispier) are cooked in oil that may be stretched out approximately three changes too long. The coleslaw is simply tasteless generic mayonnaise with cabbage for texture. It is among the most disappointing fast food experiences I can recall; that’s a low bar to hurdle, too. The BIFF (“Best in Fast Food”) in Biff-Burger, alas, turns out to be a DIFF.
However, just like there may be something to Jerry Lewis’ purported popularity in France, maybe there’s something here I’m simply missing. Biff-Burger hosts what seems to be regular bike nights and classic car shows, which I’m led to believe are quite popular. Their specialty burgers might be a step above, and these smaller, classic burgers may still be on the menu only for the sake of maintaining expectations; what’s Biff-Burger without a “Cheese Biff Deluxe”, after all? Perhaps that solitary employee running the kitchen all by themself is as stressed and overworked as so many of us, and just isn’t able to put their best effort forward on this particular day.

St. Petersburg is awash in high-end burger options among the multitude of great dining experiences — both high-end and low-brow — in the city’s relatively recent emergence as a food center. If you want buzzwords around your “sandwich consisting of one or more cooked patties of ground beef inside a sliced bread roll or bun” like “wagyu”, “prime”, “akaushi”, “artisanal”, I promise you don’t have to go far around here to get it. If you want recommendations, I’ll give you several within a 15-minute drive of Biff-Burger. At the same time, I want to give Biff-Burger another chance. In part, it’s because I desperately want to see classic and under-appreciated brands like this succeed. I believe there’s a place in this scene for a straight-forward, unpretentious burger joint. I am, however, going to wait for a time when they’re hopefully better-staffed and recovered from the pandemic-influenced stupor so many of us are only now starting to emerge from. Just to be safe, though, I think I’ll check their inspection record before I try the next time.


*Truth be told, I’ve actually been to Biff-Burger once before, in a possibly ill-advised intra-pandemic visit that was, frankly, unmemorable. Whether this is due to the stress and anxiety of the time or rather due to my own usual faulty memory, I cannot adequately express.

**Whereas carbonated soft drinks are largely uniform in flavor across establishments that serve the same products (e.g., a fountain Coca-Cola from Wendy’s should taste the same as one from McDonald’s, etc.), iced tea can actually tell a diner something about the restaurant: Is it over-brewed? Has it been sitting too long? Is it brewed on-site or is it an instant or fountain abomination like Nestea?


Thanks Peter! 

If you, the reader, liked this post, be sure to check out Peter's podcast, Diggin' With Peter, at this link or on your favorite podcatcher. -Zap

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Death Awaits Us All



One of my earliest fast food memories was sitting at a tiny table under an anthropomorphic fiberglass apple tree opposite the ball pit, chowing down on my McNugget Happy Meal at my local McDonald’s. Another is pulling a free lollipop out of the hollow midsection of a seemingly larger than life Shoney Bear standee that towered over me at Shoney’s. Before the flame of my childlike wonder was snuffed out by a cynical world, I was mystified by a group of Chi-Chi’s employees gathered around my family’s table singing “Hey it’s your birthday” to the tune of “La Cucaracha” when I turned four. Across the street from the Lexington, Kentucky Chi-Chi’s at Darryl’s, sitting in the booth situated in an antique birdcage style elevator car was, and still is one of the highlights of my childhood. These early memories instilled in me an appreciation for a touch of whimsy in a dining experience. Well into my young adulthood a favorite weekend destination was Lambert’s Cafe, where hot yeasty rolls were thrown by servers from across the expansive dining room and customers would attempt, often successfully, to catch them at their tables. Now as a paunchy restaurant blogger with a mortgage and a bald spot, I find my favorite experiences are at restaurants that make a sincere attempt to make the dining experience fun and memorable. I was therefore excited to revisit Friendly’s.

I discovered Friendly’s a decade or so ago on a trip to a large antique mall housed in a former Hills department store in Northwestern Ohio. The size of the store and the long duration of the modern day treasure hunt that took place there meant that my companions and I would need to eat two meals nearby, so naturally we had both breakfast and lunch at the Friendly’s situated in an outlot of the former Hills. It was my first experience with the Friendly’s brand, and I was instantly a fan. Everything about the place was specifically curated to exude an aura of fun. The whimsically styled Cape Cod style building, the brightly colored drums of ice cream on display as you walked in the door, and the imaginative menu items were all designed to signal to diners that they were in a fun, friendly place. I recall having a fairly conventional breakfast that day, but marveled at the images of stacks of pancakes topped with ice cream on the menu. When I returned later in the day, I found the lunch menu just as novel. Everything had a unique and memorable name. Shakes were called Fribbles. There was something called a Fishamajig. It was the first time I had seen a burger that used grilled cheese sandwiches for buns, and indeed, that was exactly what I ordered before concluding the meal with two scoops of maple nut ice cream in a waffle cone brought to my table in a metal holder designed to keep the cone upright. I felt as if I had discovered a magical place. 

What I didn’t know at the time was that Friendly’s was on the verge of bankruptcy, which they officially declared in 2011. All Ohio locations closed not much later along with many others. History repeated itself last year when Friendly’s declared its second Chapter 11 flavor bankruptcy in less than a decade, but the chain has its roots in tough times. In 1935 brothers Prestley and Curtis Blake opened the Friendly ice cream shop in Springfield, Massachusetts at the height of the Great Depression. One shop became two shortly thereafter, and following World War Two, Friendly became a full blown restaurant chain gaining an apostrophe and S in the process to keep branding in line with what locals called the place. The chain peaked at over 800 locations. The Blake Brothers would retire and sell the Friendly’s empire to Hershey Foods in 1979, but both would live long enough to see the company declare bankruptcy at least once after bouncing around different owners over the next four decades. Curtis Blake died at age 102 in 2019, and his brother Prestley died earlier this year at the age of 106, mere weeks after it was announced that the restaurant investment firm Amici Partners Group LLC would be purchasing Friendly’s out of bankruptcy and supporting the remaining 119 locations mostly located in the Northeast and Midatlantic regions. 

A friendly place under a foreboding sky

Circumstances were such last week that I had a chance to travel to Maryland, home to what are now the nearest Friendly’s locations to me in Metro Detroit. My schedule allowed for only one stop, but I was determined to make it count. I settled on the Friendly’s in the Perry Hall area on the outskirts of Baltimore because it was a vintage freestanding Cape Cod building. It was a little bit further away from me than the bland strip mall location in Hagerstown, but the architecture more than justified the additional drive time. It was an unseasonably cold, damp, dreary day in late May when I arrived for breakfast on a Saturday morning. I had risen at 4 AM that day and driven 5 hours through the dark and fog to be there after attending a funeral the day before. I was ready for some classic Friendly’s brand whimsy to lighten my mood which was as dreary as the gray sky that hung over the Charm City. 

A photo from back before Friendly's got all possessive 

An adequate breakfast, proficiently prepared, but where's the flair?

I walked past the deserted outdoor serving window which would have been jammed with customers ordering ice cream to go on a warmer day and into the front door of the little Cape Cod, where I was quickly shown to a booth and handed a menu by a personable hostess/waitress. I reviewed the breakfast offerings with dismay to find there were no ice cream-topped pancakes to be found. Nothing looked whimsical or over the top. It was just a regular breakfast menu with regular boring breakfast food. Mildly disappointed, I ordered the silliest sounding thing I could, the “Big-Two-Do” and surveyed my surroundings. They were pleasant enough with photos of vintage Friendly’s locations on one wall and a mural of a stylized Fribble on another. The place at least looked fun. 

Want an easy laugh? Read this in your best old time radio announcer voice. 

Delicious is not an overstatement. Fun is, unless you follow breakfast with ice cream. 

Concluding my perfectly adequate but in no way distinctive breakfast, I reviewed the ice cream menu on my phone with the help of a handy QR code at my table and found that like the ice cream topped pancakes, my beloved maple nut flavor was gone from the menu. When my server returned, I ordered two scoops of the butter crunch flavor after she assured me that it wasn’t overly weird to order ice cream after breakfast. I was there to have fun after all. The ice cream that arrived a short while later in an old fashioned metal dish was my favorite part of the meal. The sweet yellow buttery scoops interspersed with crunchy bits of toffee was simple as ice cream goes, but the flavor was solid. Butter and sugar are the basis of literally every delicious baked good, so why shouldn’t there be an ice cream flavor based entirely around the combination? It was the perfect blend of whimsical, old fashioned, and excessive that I associate with the Friendly’s brand, but just as I was finishing scoop one and moving onto the second, I heard two members of the staff discussing the recent death of their former longtime manager. The spectre of doom and gloom had nearly caught up to me once again. 

This is what fun looks like. 

I had managed to find a little bit of joy in the new, austere Friendly’s menu, toned down by a pair of bankruptcies that came amid the deaths of their founders whose longevity was all the more remarkable given how much time they likely spent making, and eating ice cream. The over the top menu items were gone. The ice cream flavor list was shortened. My drive time to the nearest location had increased by a factor of six thanks to widespread closures, but there was still fun to be had. The flavor and texture of the ice cream was just enough to drown out the depressing conversation I was overhearing, and I still managed to leave in a noticeably better mood than when I had arrived. I think that’s the magic of Friendly’s. Even in its diminished state on an unseasonably cold and gloomy day at what I hope is the tail end of a cold and gloomy era with reminders of inevitable death lurking around every corner, a decent breakfast and couple scoops of ice cream brought to my table by a server whose demeanor lived up to the name of the establishment were enough to elevate my mood. Having been founded in the Great Depression, Friendly’s was born into the darkness and shaped by it, and just as they managed to cheer up the down and out Massholes that darkened their doorway in those early desperate days, they had done the same for me, a bucktoothed Kentucky hillbilly transplanted to the stagnant potholes of Michigan. Perhaps thanks to their roots in the depression, they’ve seemingly weathered the various storms better than their direct competitors. 

Sound medical advice.  

The similarly Massachusetts-born Howard Johnson restaurant brand barely still exists, with only one sporadically open restaurant location still using the name, but bearing little resemblance to what most would associate with the HoJo brand. Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, a similar outfit that operated mostly on the west coast closed their last location a couple of years ago. If there’s a restaurant and ice cream parlor poised to defy death for an implausibly long time just as their founders did, it’s Friendly’s, and they’ll probably have fun doing it. After all, the feeling we call fun, at its core, is little more than a fleeting distraction from the fact that we are all going to die someday. We might as well enjoy a hearty meal, perhaps with a silly name, and some ice cream in a whimsically styled building while we wait out the inevitable.