Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The Saddest Little Brownie in Pennsylvania

So a couple of years ago, I had exhausted most of my supply of unexplored broken chains as well as most of my interest in visiting and writing about them. My visits to surviving locations of Western Steer, Gino's, and K&W Cafeteria were left undocumented here due to that lack of interest (You can see pictures of them on my Instagram though.) After that final chain breaking trip through the Carolinas, I decided to go shopping for some new hobbies. 

After an attempt at buying, refurbishing, and selling used cars for fun and profit yielded little of either, I decided to follow whatever interested me even slightly to see if anything would stick. Earlier, my exploration of broken chains had led me to a newfound appreciation for cafeteria-style restaurants, which led me to the northeastern Ohio River Valley to check out two independent cafeterias, Mehlman’s in St. Clairsville, and Bricker’s in East Liverpool. Astute readers of Broken Chains and of maps of Eastern Ohio might recall I have family roots in the Steubenville area, which coincidentally is roughly halfway between the area’s two cafeterias. 

Dining at cafeterias in the part of Ohio where Appalachian economic devastation meets Rust Belt economic devastation naturally led me to bumming around Steubenville and the surrounding communities retracing the steps of my ancestors. Seeing a 3 speed bicycle for sale in an antique store in a converted prewar department store building in downtown Steubenville, plus an 11 mile paved bike trail running through nearby Scio, Ohio (Scio rhymes with Ohio.) led me to collecting, refurbishing and riding mostly 3 speed bicycles from the 1970s and 1980s. (You can hear more about them on my other Instagram.) Consequently, the majority of my hobby resources have been devoted to hanging out in what used to be Ohio’s steel country and hoarding, fixing, breaking, re-fixing, and riding cast-off obsolete bicycles.  

I was on a side trip to Butler, PA to ride my trusty 1978 Schwinn Speedster on a nearby rail trail, and I had learned of a broken chain in the Pittsburgh area. Kings Family restaurants, a chain initially and confusingly named Kings Country Shops when it’s first location opened in 1967 would later change its name to Kings Family Restaurants to better indicate the type of business a visitor to a Kings location might expect. The chain peaked with 34 locations in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio around 2006, but the 2008 recession and mismanagement by subsequent owners of the chain were not kind to those locations, as only four Kings remain open today. 

I made two efforts to visit Kings locations on that trip. The first of which, in Kittanning, PA was unsuccessful, as local student athletes were posted outside the door to the restaurant soliciting donations from passersby in exchange for holding the door. I had a raging case of social anxiety at the time, and indeed, it was raging during essentially the entire time I was regularly updating this blog. As a result, I wasn’t up for dealing with people beyond ordering lunch, so I gave up on eating Kings in Pennsylvania and  headed toward Ohio where I’d be spending the night near the state’s only surviving King’s location in Wintersville, just outside my beloved Steubenville. It was at the Wintersville Kings where I visited the restroom upon my arrival to find a man in a line cook’s uniform unclogging a terlet and failing to wash his hands once the task was completed. I took that as a sign that I probably shouldn’t eat at the Wintersville Kings, so no Kings meals were had on that trip. 

A year went by. I was back in Eastern Ohio for what had become a quarterly visit for hiking, mall walking, cycling, and eating too much Steubenville-style pizza, and I was not terribly surprised to learn that the Wintersville, Ohio Kings had gone out of business. I also found the road to a hiking trail I planned to visit closed, leaving me with some free time and a strong appetite thanks to a 23 mile ride on an antiquated folding bike that same day. I had also taken my anti-anxiety medication that morning, and was sufficiently prepared to casually converse with anyone who might cross my path. A quick look at Google Maps told me the nearest operating King’s was still open less than an hour away just outside Pittsburgh in Canonsburg, PA, and it seemed like as good a time as any to see if I could still have fun experiencing a broken chain. 

I've previously introduced you to the Empress of Alexandria. Now meet the Kings of Canonsburg. 

I hopped in the car and drove from the eastern edge of Ohio, across the narrowest part of West Virginia’s northern panhandle, and into Pennsylvania where I found the Canonsburg Kings situated at a nondescript intersection. I walked from my car to the entrance, noting a leaky looking 1980s Rax/Wendy’s style solarium on one side of the building and loose siding hanging off the exterior wall near the entrance. The modern red and yellow sign out front failed to manage the heavy lifting of making the rest of the place seem inviting. 

A dated, but clean interior

Once inside I was greeted with a bakery case full of pies and King’s signature “Frownie Brownies,” literally brownies with frowny faces of icing piped on as a rebuttal to Pittsburgh-area competitor, Eat ‘n Park’s “Smiley Cookies.” A manager could be heard to one side of me profusely apologizing to a table of less than pleased diners, presumably for sub par food and/or service. My presence attracted the attention of a teenage host who showed me to a booth far from the solarium where seemingly no one was seated. Before I had a chance to look at my menu, the same manager had found his way to yet another table of dissatisfied customers and offered them the same carefully worded apology. It was around then that a server who exuded an overwhelmed aura came to take my drink order. 

Frownie Brownies

I asked her for a diet brown soda and listened to the man a couple tables away who had just received an apology from the manager muse to his indifferent wife, mortified teenage son, and oblivious father in law in the booth with him that he had never heard of Brendan Fraser until this year. His wife quickly changed the subject about the poor level of service they had received, and when the same overwhelmed server came by to drop off my drink and their check, they complained to her and again asked to speak to the manager who reappeared and again apologized, and the server could be heard to remark that it was only her second day on the job, and there were only two servers working that day. The manager seemingly comped their check, as the group left without paying. 

Environmental concerns aside, I really enjoy a good bendy straw. 

You know what else I’ve gotten into lately? The cartoon, Bluey. I am a 37 year old man with no children of my own, no niblings, literally no one under the age of 30 with whom I interact regularly, but I’ve found an appreciation for the unique animation style, witty writing, and wholesome vibe of an Australian show for preschoolers about a family of cartoon dogs. There’s a recurring gag on Bluey where the titular character and her sister Bingo, both preschool-aged dogs, don silly glasses and wrap themselves with blankets and pretend to be grannies named Janet and Rita. When in character as The Grannies, Bluey and Bingo do stereotypical granny things like driving their toy car recklessly, needlessly delaying others on public transportation, and slipping and falling on cans of beans. I only bring all of this up, because as the disgruntled family whose patriarch was unaware of films like Encino Man, George of the Jungle, and Blast from the Past, were leaving, the real life Janet and Rita walked in. They were live action, human women, of course, but they had big “I slipped on mah beans!” energy. 

A very good vegetable soup with questionable presentation. 

The same host seated them at a booth directly opposite me, as I was ordering my preferred dinner, beef vegetable soup, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw. The same overwhelmed server took their drink orders, visibly agitated after taking my dinner order. After she sulked into the kitchen, the more talkative of the two grannies asked me if they used real or deli turkey for the turkey plate. It was my first time at King’s, so of course I had no idea, and that’s what I told her. Overwhelmed waitress returned with my cup of soup, setting the soup spoon down directly on the tabletop which was of dubious cleanliness.

I decided it wasn’t worth complaining about given my server’s seemingly fragile emotional state, so I elected to test my immune system by eating the soup with the questionable spoon. I’m writing this a few days later, and I’m happy to report I’ve seemingly suffered no adverse effects, and the vegetable soup, clearly made from scratch, was very good. 

Turkey and such. The stuffing is under there somewhere. 

I was blowing on my second spoonful of soup when a presumably more experienced and noticeably less harried waitress came with my turkey plate. Despite the apparent lack of staffing, my food arrived quickly. I sensed the talkative granny at the next table eyeing my plate and I picked it up so that she could thoroughly inspect the turkey. She declared it looked like lunchmeat, and she wasn’t wrong. It was one broad, thin slice of turkey breast that covered a little mound of stuffing like a blanket. Tasting it made it clear it hadn’t been carved off of a whole turkey breast in the kitchen, but it had been cooked and sliced elsewhere, likely days or weeks earlier. It was at least a real slice of turkey breast however, not a uniform shaped slice of compressed turkey trimmings like you’d find in a package of cheap sandwich meat or an old fashioned TV dinner. The flavorful gravy and stuffing were definitely the stars of the show, as they so often are with turkey dinners. Unsurprisingly, the coleslaw was unremarkable, as coleslaw often is.

The visibly distraught waitress returned around this time to take the grannies’ order, and in true wholesome Australian cartoon dog fashion, they paused to ask her what was bothering her and to offer a pep talk. She again said it was only her second day of work and they were understaffed, that her boyfriend had broken up with her before the start of her shift, and that multiple tables had not been tipping her and/or been complaining to the manager. I felt a little guilty ordering dessert when she clearly just wanted to give me my bill, though the grannies’ “Don’t let the general public get you down.” speech did seem to perk her up a bit. 

She returned, some time later, with my order, apple pie garnished with King’s signature pink cinnamon ice cream. The latter was delicious. It’s hard to find cinnamon ice cream, let alone good cinnamon ice cream that has just a hint of background heat, like a red hot candy but isn’t overly sweet. That’s exactly what King’s ice cream was. The pie, on the other hand, was stone cold. It had clearly been taken out of a cooler, and my poor server hadn’t thought to warm it up. She also completely forgot the Frownie Brownie wrapped up to go that I had asked for twice. 

I would make a Smokey and the Bandit style Detroit-Pittsburgh run with a cooler full of dry ice if Kings sold this ice cream in half gallon containers. It's that good. 

She was very clearly having a pretty terrible day, and while the old unmedicated me might have bemoaned her lack of professionalism, the new, medicated Zap Actionsdower can offer her my empathy and/or sympathy, (I always forget which is which. They’re the Bill Paxton/Bill Pullman of emotions.) 

I’m sorry to say the hit or miss food, and service that I can charitably call memorable did not renew my interest in chain breaking, but as I saw tray after tray of frowny brownies at the front counter as I was settling my bill and leaving a pity tip that I could not think of a better representation of the remnant of King’s Family Restaurant. The dimly lit, dated interior, the so-so food, and the clearly unhappy staff were all perfectly represented by that frowning brownie conceived to mock a competitor, which seems to be faring noticeably better than King’s, as I left with a similar expression on my face, feeling no desire to return or to visit other locations and with my already diminished desire toward chain braking diminished just a little bit more. Maybe I’ll track down another broken chain in a year or two, but don’t expect new blog posts after this one anytime soon, which isn’t to say I’m done writing. I have a couple ideas for non-Broken Chains content on the back burner, but for now, I mostly just want to hang out in Steubenville, ride bikes, and watch Bluey.