Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Big Shef According to Peter

During the pandemic, the list of places to which I could safely travel shrank drastically, as it did for most responsible people. I largely limited my adventures to Southeastern Michigan, and my meals to drive thrus. I’d take at least one long drive just about every weekend, exploring roads and towns that I had never seen before despite them being so close to the area I’ve called home off and on for nearly a decade. I also quickly developed favorite local locations of fast food chains during my localized adventures. For instance, my favorite Dairy Queen is the one in Hamburg, Michigan because it’s one of the few Grill and Chill locations in the area, and driving there on surface streets is an adventure through the gradual transition of the urban sprawl of Metro Detroit to sparsely populated countryside. The same Eight Mile road made famous by Marshall Mathers is paved in mud and gravel and lined with dense trees in the last couple of miles before it reaches the outskirts of Hamburg. My favorite Jimmy John’s in Dundee was a little more straightforward. It’s location at the confluence of US 23 and M-50 made it convenient to routes I’d often find myself on during my aimless weekend drives, and unlike most Jimmy John’s locations in the area, it had a drive thru, meaning that I could satiate my occasional craving for a Vito, or Club Lulu without having to go inside and breathe the same air as other humans. But after a long year of exploring my backyard and drive thru meals, I was vaccinated, and suddenly, my world was again near the size it was before things got weird. I took full advantage and quickly took the multistate road trip that I’ve been writing about in dribs and drabs for the past few weeks, and thanks to that road trip, I can happily report that I have a new favorite Burger Chef.

I say that with acute awareness of how ludicrous it would have sounded a few short years ago. I adhered to the conventional wisdom that Burger Chef, once the second largest fast food chain in the US behind McDonald’s, was dead. The last restaurant to use the name ceased doing so in 1996 when its franchise agreement, the final Burger Chef franchise agreement, expired. The 2015 closure of Schroeder’s Drive-In, a Burger Chef in all but name in Danville, Illinois, thought by many to be the last Burger Chef was widely lamented, but a 1,000+ unit restaurant chain doesn’t go down that easily, even nearly 40 years after Burger Chef’s fate was ostensibly sealed with its acquisition by what was then Hardee’s parent company, there are still thinly disguised Burger Chefs hanging on. Research and reader tips have led me to two surviving bootleg Burger Chefs that are still in operation today, first Suzi’s Hamburgers in South Charleston, West Virginia, and later, The Chef in Cleveland, Tennessee, and I’m no less astounded to have tracked down a third surviving Burger Chef by a different moniker, Pete’s Burgers and More in Reidsville, North Carolina.

Pete's still retains the distinctive Burger Chef covered drive thru. 

Pete’s had been on my to-visit list since a planned trip to the Carolinas had to be called off in the spring of 2020 for obvious reasons. I was therefore eager to experience it for myself, perhaps a little too eager, as I arrived in Reidsville nearly an hour before Pete’s 10 AM open time. I occupied myself with a side quest to a nearby Food Lion where I picked up a couple of 12 packs of Cheerwine, a regionally-available cherry soda that’s abundant in North Carolina but elusive back home in Michigan. Even with an impromptu grocery run, I had to sit in Pete’s parking lot watching the clock in my car and the open sign on the door as a throng of uniformed employees walked across the lot in front of me and into the building to make preparations to open for the day. The building itself retained the formal facade that many Burger Chefs adopted in the 1970s while they were owned by General Foods, eschewing the funky birdhouse look of the 1950s and ‘60s, and adding a distinctive covered drive thru lane that makes Burger Chef buildings from this era easily identifiable. Just as my pondering of Burger Chef architecture and history was beginning to distract me from my eagerness to eat at Pete’s, an employee unlocked the front door, my signal that they were open for business.

Pete's has a decidedly modern order counter. 

Ordering at a bootleg Burger Chef is always an exercise in code breaking. Unable to use copyrighted names for Burger Chef menu items like the Big Shef, Super Shef, and Chicken Club, restaurant owners must give these sandwiches new, but still recognizable names, much the same way they changed the names of their restaurants, and often little else, when their final Burger Chef franchise agreements expired. In this case, the code was easy to decipher, at least in the case of the Big Shef and Super Shef, which at Pete’s were called the Big Burger and Super Burger. I ordered one of each and two apple pies in hopes they’d resemble the Burger Chef apple pies which apparently had cinnamon on top and frosting on the bottom. As I waited for my order, I examined my surroundings in search of any other vestigial signs of the Burger Chef brand.

A 1970s era Burger Chef Works Bar, still in service at Pete's
An up close view of the toppings; I might add onions and jalapeƱos to my next Big Shef

I didn’t have to look far, as at one corner of the dining room was an original Burger Chef self-serve works bar where picky eaters could dress their own sandwiches after ordering them plain. (Roy Rogers adopted a similar setup around the same time and still uses it today, though I’m unsure who did it first.) The addition of coleslaw, which is treated as a condiment as well as a side dish in the Carolinas was the only apparent deviation from General Foods era Burger Chef standards. Furthermore, I was able to date the building thanks to a couple of oddly slanted pillars just in front of the order counter that described the outline of the distinctive pentagonal window on the building’s original facade before it was expanded forward sometime in the 1970s to expand the dining room. This meant that the building was built to be a Burger Chef. I also noticed a large, prominently displayed sign advertising a birthday club for kids. This may be a tenuous connection, but it reminded me of the innovation of the Burger Chef brand, as Burger Chef was the first fast food chain to offer a kids’ meal, and even once (unsuccessfully) sued McDonald’s for ripping off the innovation. Burger Chef also pioneered the combo meal with their “Triple Treat,” and while they didn’t invent the double deck hamburger, they at least had the idea to rip off Big Boy with their own Big Shef before McDonald’s did the same and introduced the Big Mac.

...and this...

...would have once had windows between them and looked something like this former Burger Chef in Northern Indiana.

I was again snapped out of my Burger Chef-history induced trance when my order number was called, and I returned to my table with my newly acquired historically significant fast food. I’ve now been to enough Burger Chefs that I can comment on the various common and diverging attributes of each locations’ modern interpretation of the Big Shef. Even when Burger Chef was a going concern, their offerings were not terribly consistent. Depending on when and where you walked into a Burger Chef and ordered a Big Shef, you’d receive a two-patty burger with a single slice of cheese on a three piece bun dressed with shredded lettuce and a Miracle Whip-based tartar sauce, but the bun may or may not have had sesame seeds on it, and the patties may have been flame broiled or simply cooked on a electric flat top griddle. Unsurprisingly, the modern Burger Chef holdouts that have been operating independently since the early 1980s, are no more consistent than their forebears. For instance, Suzi’s version of the Big Shef is cooked on a flattop and has a seeded bun, while at The Chef, the Big Shef is flame broiled and on a seedless bun. Both buns are split into the distinctive three slices known as the crown (top) club (center) and heel (bottom). Pete’s version the Big Shef offers a third, heretofore unseen iteration of a modern Big Shef. Its bun is seeded but lacks the club center layer. Its patties are flame broiled but have an extra slice of American cheese, but the special sauce retains the tangy zip of Miracle Whip that makes it a recognizable Big Shef.

That's a good Shef!

At this point, I’ve thrown around the term “flame broiled” enough that you’re probably wondering if Burger Chef was an imitator of Burger King or vice versa. There was a stronger connection than simple imitation. Burger Chef’s parent company was a manufacturer of restaurant supplies before they launched the Burger Chef restaurant brand in the mid 1950s. They produced a device known as the Insta Broiler that they both supplied to Burger King and used in Burger Chef locations in a time when the Miami-based Insta Burger King as they were then known and the Indianapolis-based Burger Chef were fledgling chains and not direct competitors in the same geographical territory.

I'd join the Pete's Birthday Club in second if I were 25 years younger. 

When discussing Burger Chef with my fellow millennials who have not experienced it firsthand, I often describe it as a better version of Burger King, and that description rang true when I tasted Pete’s version of the Super Shef, a quarter pound flame broiled burger dressed with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, ketchup, and mustard. It tasted like a Whopper as Super Shefs tend to do, but this one in particular tasted like a Whopper prepared at an especially well-run Burger King. I was born too late to experience Burger Chef in their heyday, but in my idealized version of the past, I like to think that Super Shefs were always as well executed as the one I had at Pete’s Burgers and More.

Super Shef: like a Whopper, but good

The fried apple pies sadly lacked the frosting on the bottom, but I suspect that The Chef in Tennessee may offer a pie that’s closer to the original Burger Chef formulation. I’ve long had plans to make a return trip there to investigate further. Still there was one menu item at Pete’s that I hadn’t ordered that intrigued me. After finishing my initial order, I returned to the order counter and asked what was on a “Chicken Sandwich Deluxe.” the guy working the counter informed me that it came with lettuce, tomato, mayo, and most importantly, bacon. It was a renamed Burger Chef chicken club. I ordered one to go, and unable to contain my excitement of finding another Burger Chef menu item, I outed myself as a weirdo and told a few semi-interested folks working the counter about my odd hobby of visiting surviving locations of mostly defunct restaurant chains, this very blog that describes my adventures, and that I had driven from Michigan to eat there. I rewarded their mild interest with Broken Chains stickers (Available for sale here!) and profuse thanks as I took my chicken club to the parking lot for examination and consumption, washing it down with a warm can of Cheerwine from the back of my car.

My Chicken Club came in what appeared to be a wrapper from Doc Hopper's. 

I felt an exuberant fulfillment. I had finally made it to the bootleg Burger Chef of Reidsville, North Carolina, and it seemed to offer a good many of Burger Chef’s greatest hits, combining the flame broiling of the ‘50s and ‘60s with the works bar of the 1970s as well as the semi-obscure Chicken Club. There’s also a fish sandwich on the menu, that I suspect bears a meaningful resemblance to Burger Chef’s Fishermans’ Fillet, which I’ll have to try and order on a return trip, which I’m currently preparing to make.

This Burger Chef logo may look vaguely familiar to Broken Chains readers. 

I encourage anyone reading this to visit any of the three holdout Burger Chefs I’ve mentioned here, but if you can only go to one, I’d recommend Pete’s. They’ve seemingly distilled everything that was good about Burger Chef into a package that feels modern, yet distinctive. I’ve previously posited that The Chef offers a glimpse into what Burger Chef was like in the ‘60s and Suzi’s feels more like Burger Chef in the ‘70s. But perhaps most intriguingly, Pete’s Burgers and More feels like alternative history. With its collection of positive attributes from varying points in the brand’s history it has the feel of what Burger Chef could have been, and maybe what Burger Chef would have been like if the brand had survived mismanagement in the ‘70s and the sale to Hardee’s in the ‘80s to survive today. 

If you’re a Burger Chef fan and/or a fast food history geek like I am, be sure to check out my new pal Darren’s Burger Chef Podcast in which he delves into the history of the Burger Chef brand and has intriguing interviews with people connected to the Burger Chef brand. 

Monday, July 5, 2021

Another Tray, Another Post

Another Tray, another post
The Thoroughblades, are now just ghosts. 
The chain is broken, The Mask says, "Smokin!"
To Macon Whoopee

I have little interest in sports, but I can appreciate a cleverly-named team as much as I can ironically enjoy a not so cleverly named team, which is to say, a nontrivial amount in either case. I feel roughly equal amounts of delight at the names of two minor league hockey teams that similarly popped up in small southern cities in the ‘90s, but for different reasons, as their respective names occupy opposite ends of the cleverness spectrum. 

The seemingly carelessly named Lexington Thoroughblades were the new local hockey team during my youth in Central Kentucky. They played downtown in Rupp Arena, named for the University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp (born 1901). The Thoroughblades’ name was seemingly a portmanteau of “Thoroughbred,” a nod to the thoroughbred racehorses that are raised in the rolling verdant pastures on the outskirts of Lexington, and “Blades,” which are the sharp metal dealies on the bottoms of ice skates. During my middle school years Thoroughblades games at Rupp Arena were heavily marketed, and at most, moderately attended by Lexington’s tens of hockey fans. Somewhat fittingly, the Thouroughblades had something in common with Adolph Rupp starting in his mid 30s, an unfortunate name. The general consensus among my peers at the time was that “Thoroughblades” was a stupid, contrived name, and my opinion hasn’t changed in the two odd decades since. The clunky half-pun of a team name evoking the incongruous image of a horse precariously balanced on two pairs of ice skates, one hip check away from a broken leg and a bullet between its big brown eyes did little to interest Lexingtonians, myself included, in hockey, but a clever team name does not a successful hockey team make. 

It's the bee. You know, from nature. 

A day’s drive down I-75 in Macon, Georgia, however, another minor league hockey team came into existence in 1996, the same year as the Thoroughblades, but unlike their Lexington counterpart, Macon’s hockey team had the best name for a sports team I’ve ever heard. Their mascot was a whooping crane, and they were known as The Macon Whoopee. (Get it?) Furthermore, their team insignia featured both a whooping crane and a bee, evoking “The birds and the bees” in a second punny nod to 1970s game show-friendly sexual euphemisms. Despite an infinitely more clever and endearing name, the Macon Whoopee folded in 2001, along with the Thoroghblades, almost as if there are other, more complex factors beyond a name that make a successful hockey team. 

This of course isn’t a blog about extinct hockey teams. There’s a whole subreddit for that, but I had the Macon Whoopee and their contemporary nomenclatural antithesis on my mind a few weeks back when I was in not Macon, nor Lexington, but another small, southern city,  Knoxville, Tennessee, where I ate at a surviving S&S Cafeteria location. S&S Cafeteria’s corporate offices, like the Whoopee are based in Macon, Georgia, and like Adolph Rupp, namesake of the one-time home ice of the Thoroughblades, have a name that was innocuous at their inception, but became unfortunate at around the same time and for the same reasons. 

Smitty Somebody (He was #1.)

J.A. “Smitty” Smith Junior opened the first S&S Cafeteria in Columbus, Georgia in 1936. S&S stands for “Smith and Sons,” and fittingly, Smitty’s descendents are still involved with the company today. Near as I can tell, the small, regional chain peaked at somewhere north of 20 locations in the mid 1980s, and six survive today, qualifying it as a broken chain. After visiting surviving Sign of the Beefcarver, Morrison’s, Piccadilly, and MCL locations, I’ve come to appreciate old fashioned cafeteria dining experiences, that are increasingly difficult to find, as cafeterias, and the malls they are often attached to, fall out of favor. 

I arrived at the Knoxville S&S for an early dinner on a Sunday afternoon. The exterior of the inconspicuous building with neocolonial touches had the familiar funeral home aesthetic that is common to cafeterias. Just as I was nearing the front door, a grandmother with all of her young grandchildren, and all of her young grandchildrens’ best friends piled out of the Chevy HHR into which they had been implausibly crammed. Not wanting to be stuck in the cafeteria line behind a large group of children who were likely to be both unruly and picky about the food they received in the serving line, I took a moment to appreciate the dated aesthetic of the weathered, but still eye catching signage outside, taking a leisurely course through the parking lot, lobby, and into the serving line where I was afforded a buffer of several adult customers separating me from the throng of kids supervised by a lone matriarch. As I worked my way through the labyrinthine path of brown tile flanked by painted brick and wallpaper, I took the time to appreciate the displays in the bay windows along the way that featured both a patriotic themed tableau and another created in tribute to the local (non hockey) sports team. 

Some context: It was Memorial Day weekend when I visited. 

The Ut Vols are my favorite squadron. 

I hate to overuse the word, "Kubrickian," but how else would one describe this corridor?

The day's menu offerings

It was in between peak meal hours, and the line was both short and fast-moving, and in no time at all, I was greeted by a stack of vivid blue-green cafeteria trays that looked roughly as modern as the sign on the building. I picked one up along with some matching blue Jello, and some deviled eggs as I shuffled down the serving line. I selected chicken Tampico as my entree after deciding against the turkey and dressing, as the white cream sauce in which it was floating looked questionable, and bore little resemblance to turkey gravy. The real-life equivalent of the Squeaky-Voiced Teen on The Simpsons was working the entrees portion of the serving line, and asked if I wanted some of that same sauce on top of my chicken. I wasn’t sure it belonged on the chicken, but my curiosity was both piqued and morbid, so I asked for it on the side. Some baked squash and mac and cheese found their way onto my tray when the guy working the sides portion of the line, who incidentally had the appearance and bearing of an actor portraying a rascally southern senator in some forgotten political thriller, asked what he could serve me in a Foghorn Leghornish Tennessee drawl. 

Various cold salads

Apps and 'zerts
Various Entrees

Corn won't grow at all at S&S. Parking lot's too rocky by far. That's why all the folks at S&S get their corn from a jar. 

I made those selections after noting a good many of the vegetables on display had the pallid, overcooked appearance of something that had spent time sealed in a large, industrial-sized can, and not prepared fresh in the manner of the various cafeterias I had visited in the past. I selected foods that required preparation beyond opening a can and adding heat in hopes of finding side dishes greater than the sum of their respective parts. 

My tray, fully loaded

As I was patting myself on the back for choosing my side dishes wisely, a slice of pecan pie somehow materialized on my plate, and I reached the end of the serving line. When someone I took to be a cashier printed out a ticket with my selections and a total price, I reached for my wallet, but she informed me that I was expected to pay at the epilogue of my meal, not at the end of the table of contents where I was standing. Making a mental note of this to prevent another inadvertent dine and dash faux pas like the one I had after enjoying a succulent steakhouse meal at Western Sizzlin, I thanked her, and informed her it was my first time there. In response, she produced a soggy flyer from her apron with a detachable punch card on the end and told me I’d get a free meal once the card had reached a sufficiently swiss cheese-like state. I thanked her and proceeded onward. 

A soggy souvenir. 

I walked, with my loaded tray, to the dining room, which was adorned with large artificial trees scraping the top of the high drop ceiling just above the railings of a seemingly inaccessible mezzanine. I’m not sure of the aesthetic they were attempting to evoke with this decor package, but it felt both distinctive and anachronistic. I doubt it had changed much in half a century, give or take a decade, and I’m glad that it hadn’t. I found a table far from the aforementioned grandma and her throng of grandchildren, both biological and honorary, and my server quickly appeared and introduced herself, returning with some butter for the roll that had apparently also materialized on my tray. 

It felt a little like a Mark Twainian riverboat, if riverboats had trees.

With one notable exception, the food was inoffensive. The chicken Tampico, unlike most iterations of the dish that are doused in a cheesy sauce, was simply topped with jalapenos and melted cheese. The addition of the questionable cream sauce lent it a more conventional texture however, and the pickled pimentos floating in the sauce echoed the flavor of the Jalapenos. The deviled eggs and blue Jello were an adequate appetizer and palate cleanser, respectively, and the pecan pie, while not the best I’ve ever had, was far from the worst. The baked squash casserole lived up to my low to moderate squashy expectations, but it was the macaroni and cheese that was the real standout. 

Longtime Broken Chains readers may recall that I always get macaroni and cheese at cafeterias hoping that what I find will come close to the perfection that is the macaroni and cheese at Morrison’s cafeteria, and so far, not one cafeteria’s mac and cheese has even come close to being a contender for Morrison’s title. If Morrison’s mac and cheese were a minor league hockey team name, it would be the Macon Whoopee. Sadly, the mac and cheese at S&S was more of a Lexington Thoroughblades situation. What should have been a creamy cheese sauce had separated into lumpy curds and grease separating dry, chewy noodles. Not to be outdone by the texture, the flavor was unpleasantly pungent and salty. My findings were confirmed by the woman sitting two tables over who flagged down her server to ask to exchange her mac and cheese for another side. Unsure of which canned vegetable I’d select to replace my mac and cheese, I declined to follow suit. 

They cater!

And they know what they're about.

As a frequenter of cafeterias and a sucker for the subtle marketing of food presentation, I rarely find myself leaving a cafeteria less than $25 poorer. When I concluded my meal and paid the actual cashier situated in a little booth by the exit door, I was pleased to find that my meal had come to $16 and change. (I was also amused when the cashier tried, and failed, to punch a hole in my newly acquired and still-moist punch card.) It was then I understood the appeal of S&S. The food is passable, just, and there are certainly better places to eat, but S&S knows what it is and sets its prices accordingly. Had I skipped dessert and drank water instead of Diet Pepsi, I could have been out the door for ten bucks before tip. I don’t know that I’d go out of my way to eat at S&S again, but I’m glad I experienced it once. The charmingly antiquated atmosphere made the meal memorable, if not overly palatable. I think that’s the magic of S&S. Like so many of the places I visit, it’s a time portal back to when people cared less about fresh food, and a couple of oversized artificial trees and a fake atrium were all that was needed to make a meal of canned vegetables and dolled up chicken breast feel premium. If this is all you go in expecting, you won’t be disappointed, and it’s worth experiencing at least once, likely the way a Thoroughblades or Macon Whoopee game would have been back in the late ‘90s. I suspect that S&S is getting by on the nostalgia of people who grew up eating there, which won’t last forever, so it’s well worth experiencing while you can.