R.I.P. Restaurants

The next time you dine out, take a good look at the menu options. You may find a few favorites missing thanks to COVID-19. Whether gaps in the supply chain or trims in the workforce, the virus-born experiment of modified operations has restaurants scrutinizing menus for what makes (fiscal) sense and what does not.

Examples: McDonald’s “all-day breakfast” – implemented in 2015 and an immediate success – retreated to morning hours shortly after the virus exploded. Drive-thru wait times promptly decreased – by an average of 25 seconds – so the change may be permanent. Outback Steakhouse axed its wedge salad and French onion soup, favoring fewer appetizers with faster production.  Before you know it Outback may offer steaks, potatoes, and nothing else.

Subtle menu changes like these got me thinking about restaurants closing their doors for good.  At some point all of them go to their graves.  Maybe this is the beginning of the end for McDonald’s and Outback.  Maybe ten years from now we’ll look back and wonder what brought on their respective demises.  I know I would, which brings me to the real topic of this post: what happened to the eateries of my youth and why are most of them now defunct?  Here then, a eulogy of my more memorable ones:

  • The All-American Burger – We had one of these red-white-and-blues in my hometown just a few blocks south of the church where I went to Sunday night youth group.  Mom supplied the cash while All-American supplied the fast-food dinner on those Sundays.  Not sure why AAB closed but they did have their fifteen minutes of fame in the 1982 classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
  • Chi-Chi’s – A super-size Mexican restaurant and one of the first dates for my wife and me in college.  Great food, but Chi-Chi’s U.S. downfall was a grand-scale outbreak of hepatitis-A in one of its Pennsylvania restaurants, in 2003.  You can still find them in Europe and the Middle East.
  • Farrell’s – An ice cream parlor and a great place for parties, since the birthday kid got a free sundae.  Farrell’s had an early-1900’s theme: straw-hatted waitstaff, player-pianos, and menus printed on newspaper.  My favorite Farrell’s memory: “The Zoo” – a giant bowl of ice cream intended for ten or more topped with a menagerie of colored plastic animals.
  • Hamburger Hamlet – “The Hamlet” also had a location in my hometown, and for a burger joint the menu and decor were decidedly upscale.  It was known as a Hollywood celeb hangout.  Curiously, I associate Hamburger Hamlet with O.J. Simpson more than other celebrities.  Simpson’s wife Nicole and friend Ronald Goldman were murdered at the Simpson house, in the residential neighborhood nearby our Hamlet.  Nicole Simpson had just been dining at Mezzaluna (the restaurant where Goldman worked), also just a couple of blocks up from The Hamlet.
  • Lyon’s – The quintessential 1980’s smoke-filled greasy-spoon diner.  There was nothing memorable about Lyon’s (nor healthy on the menu) except the rip-the-boss conversations my coworkers and I had over lunch.  Lyon’s filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and never recovered.  No surprise; none at all.
  • Naugles – My go-to choice in college, Naugles never skimped on their portions of Mexican food (so who cared about the taste?)  Whether it was the massive “Macho Burrito”, the messy “Naugleburger”, or the trash-can sized sodas, Naugles was my all-nighter study buddy. Del Taco took over most of the chain in the 1990’s.
  • Pup ‘N’ Taco – Hot dogs, Mexican food, and – pastrami sandwiches?  I remember Pup ‘N’ Taco more for the buildings than the food; obnoxious red, white, and yellow structures with steep-sloped roofs, similar to the look of the Der Wienerschnitzels of the time.  Taco Bell bought out Pup ‘N’ Taco in 1984, more for the locations than for the menu. Obviously.
  • Sambo’s – I can’t tell you why I remember Sambo’s; I just know my family and I had several meals here.  At its peak Sambo’s had over 1,000 locations in 47 states.  Fittingly the only remaining location changed its name this year, to disassociate with the children’s story The Little Black Sambo.  George Floyd and all, you know.
  • Victoria Station – Chain together several boxcars and a caboose, add kitchen, tables, and steak-and-shrimp menu, and you have a heckuva unique restaurant. Victoria Station ballooned to almost a hundred locations at its peak.  The railcar restaurant concept evolved from a joint graduate project at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. Victoria’s seemed like an upscale meal but maybe it was just the train car dining that made me feel upscale.

Someday soon (soon) we’ll be able to say we’re “post-pandemic” but by then it’s predicted thirty percent of our restaurants will have closed.  I’ll pray for those restaurants to R.I.P. as well, but not without another deserving eulogy.

Some content sourced from the 6/27/20 Wall Street Journal article, “Why the American Consumer Has Fewer Choices – Maybe for Good”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Not-So-Fast Food

If you’re like me, you’re prepping meals at home more often than you used to.  Your grocery lists are electronic or paper instead of in your head.  You may even be meal-planning and on your way to becoming America’s next gourmet chef.  But no matter the approach eventually you succumb to food out instead of food in.  “Taking away” meals these days means navigating an app, a website, a drive-thru, a phone call, or for the really daring, an unscheduled appearance at the front doors.  You never know which approach works until you try a couple.  Sometimes you simply give up.

Case in point.  Last Friday we took my wife’s truck for a service – scheduled just after sun-up. Leaving the house so early meant breakfast would be out instead of in.  My first thought?  McDonald’s.  An Egg McMuffin is still a pretty good on-the-go breakfast, and navigating McDonald’s hasn’t changed (drive thru, pay at the window, drive away, enjoy).  I also admit to a soft spot for the Golden Arches because I worked there in high school.

My wife had other ideas.  Since a breakfast sandwich was the order of the day she wanted Einstein Brothers Bagels, and with good reason.  Einstein’s offers a choice of five “classic” breakfast sandwiches and another seven “signature” specials: twelve different spins on bagels and eggs.  While Egg McMuffins are assembled from just four mass-produced ingredients, Einstein’s creations are made-to-order adventures with options like chorizo, avocado, spinach, and mushrooms.  If the choice is Einstein’s or McDonald’s it’s a no-brainer.  Except now.

“Save time?” I beg to differ.

Not knowing Einstein’s take-away approach during COVID, I parked in front of the restaurant while my wife went inside to place the order.  Nope.  Einstein’s allows two options: DoorDash or order from the app.  Well blast my bagels – DoorDash doesn’t even deliver to our neighborhood so it was either the app or go hungry.  Fine.  A quick download and I went in search of the “Order” button.  Nope.  Einstein’s wants an account first – phone number, email, birthday, credit card, and so on.  Fine.  At last we assembled our on-line order and I went in search of the “Pay” button.  Nope.  Einstein’s makes you bank a minimum balance first (and welcome to “Shmear Society Rewards”).  Really?  A cash reserve for a breakfast sandwich?  Once and for all, nope.  I X’d out of the app, deleted it from my phone, and left a skid mark or two as I accelerated away.

“McDelivery?” Not necessary.

McDonald’s was also on the way home, a couple miles up the road.  We didn’t have their app either but so what?  Order at the drive-thru, pay at the window, drive away with an Egg McMuffin, enjoy.  We even splurged on hash browns (and an order of breakfast sausage for the dog).  A McDonald’s breakfast for two people and a pet costs far less than a similar order at Einstein’s.  Was my Egg McMuffin forgettable?  Yes.  Did I consume my sandwich within minutes of leaving the restaurant?  Yes (today’s Egg McMuffin is smaller than your palm).  Did I wish I’d had a custom-made Einstein’s instead?  Of course.  But not if I must jump through a bunch of electronic hoops to get one.

I want to support restaurants through the COVID pandemic; I really do.  Our favorite Mexican place has nothing electronic, so you just place a phone order and take-away fifteen minutes later.  Our favorite coffeehouse is a converted bank, so it’s drive-thru, pay, and go, lickety-split.  That’s all I’m asking for: simple process, no hoops.

Einstein’s theory of relativity assumes accelerated motion (say, a car pulling away from a restaurant with an order of food).  Einstein’s Bagels requires decelerated motion (say, the unanticipated time to download, setup, and bank-load their app).  Take your pick: Einstein’s approach or Einstein Brothers’ approach?  For me, it’s Albert’s way every time.

The Senior Years

A human life has several stages, but exactly how many stages will probably cost you a Google search. Would you believe nine? Pregnancy, infancy, “the toddler years”, childhood, puberty, “the adolescent years”, adulthood, middle age, and “the senior years”. That’s a lot of stages (and I suddenly feel tired).  According to my age – 57 – I’ve battled Father Time through the first seven on the list and hover somewhere between the last two. And therein lies today’s question: What the heck defines “the senior years”?

In case I forget – as seniors are wont to do – allow me to wish you a very happy “Senior Citizens Day”!  No joke (and no Hallmark card – I checked), August 21st is the calendar date set aside “to increase awareness about the issues that face older adults”.  Well now, doesn’t that just call for a celebration?  No, it doesn’t.  In fact, my fingers feel a little more arthritic just typing about it.

Admittedly, I’ve been a senior before, back in a couple of those earlier life stages.  I was a senior in high school.  I was a senior in college.  In the Boy Scouts, I was a senior patrol leader.  If I’d thought to name one of my sons after myself, I could’ve been “Dave Sr.”.  Now however, wrestling with the idea of advanced middle age, I’m forced to confront the one, true definition of “senior”.  The word in that sense (especially senior citizen) – is a little daunting.  I prefer “older” or “more experienced”.  You know, the softer side of Sears.

Reagan

Blame former U.S. President Ronald Reagan if you’re looking for a scapegoat.  After all, he’s the one who – while in office – declared August 21st to be “National Senior Citizens Day” in America.  Reagan signed said proclamation in 1988 at the ripe (older) age of 77.  By all definitions, that made Reagan a senior citizen himself.  Isn’t that kind of like throwing yourself a party?

Speaking of definitions, for all my searches I can’t thumb a tack into the specific age one enters life’s final stage.  Consider the following takes on “senior citizen”:

  1. A polite expression for an old person.
  2. An older person, usually over the age of 60 or 65, esp. one who is no longer employed.
  3. The age at which one qualifies for certain government-sponsored benefits (i.e. Social Security, Medicare).
  4. The United Nations has agreed that 65+ may be usually denoted as “old age”.
  5. Being a senior citizen may be based on your age, but it is not a specific age (say what?)

The definitions get even vaguer, but you see the pattern.  No one – not the United Nations nor Merriam-Webster – wants to tag “senior citizen” with a specific age.  Well, I do.  I want my bedside clock to turn to midnight on the designated date, and instead of beeping the alarm it squawks, “Senior Citizen! Senior Citizen!”  I suppose, if someone held my aging feet to the fire and said, “Choose!”, I’d go with Definitions #2 and #4.  At least then I’m backing up my truck to “middle age”.

Perhaps your definition of senior citizen is more towards retail; as in, the age you start qualifying for discounts, freebies and such.  Sorry old man (old woman?), you’re just complicating the matter (and seniors don’t do “complicated”).  The shopping website DealNews just updated their article, “The 123 Best Senior Discounts to Use in 2019”.  That’s a lot of “bests”, DealNews.  But there’s even more homework for those nearsighted eyes.  You must also know which discount kicks in at what age.  Senior discounts ≠ senior citizen unless you need the following thirteen-year time frame to get used to the idea:

  • Hardee’s – age 52 (that’s me!)
  • McDonald’s – 55 (that’s me again!  But only for coffee and I don’t do McDonald’s coffee).
  • Applebee’s – 60 (may require “Golden Apple Card”.  Oooooooo)
  • Fazoli’s – 62 (and you get the “Club 62” discount menu.  Okay, that sounds cooler than a “Golden Apple Card”)
  • Taco Bell – 65 (plus free drink – ¡Olé!)
  • Wendy’s – “age and offer vary depending on restaurant location” (c’mon, Wendy’s!)

Atta boy, Norm!

Poets and playwrights try to soften the blow of “the senior years” with their eloquent quotes.  The Englishman Robert Browning said, “Grow old along with me!  The best is yet to be.”  The American Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “As we grow old… the beauty steals inward.”  Nice tries, noble poets, but I’ll go with positive thinker Norman Vincent Peale instead.  Norm simply said, “Live your life and forget your age”.  Take that, senior years!

Poultry Par Excellence

Among its endless and varied topics, Wikipedia includes a list of “notable chicken restaurants” (just about all of them U.S.-based). In the fast-food subcategory alone, you find over 75 fowl food-stops. I recognized about one in ten as I scanned the list, including Bojangles’, Bush’s, Church’s, El Pollo Loco, KFC, Popeye’s, Raising Cane’s, Wild Wings, and Zaxby’s. That’s a lot of drive-thru chicken. Yet put ’em all in the back seat, because I side with those clever Holstein dairy cows, begging me to “Eat Mor Chikin”.  And I do eat more – at Chick-fil-A.

As the kids morphed from teenagers to adults, fast food pretty much disappeared from our eating-out options.  Starbucks aside (because coffee is the elixir of life), we stopped navigating the circuitous drive-thru’s of McDonald’s and the like.  Our palates demanded better and healthier.  More appealing sit-down options beckoned on every street corner.  But Chick-fil-A stubbornly persisted in the mix, as if waving a banner with the words, “Exception To The Rule”.

Dwarf House – Hapeville, GA

No matter how you label it, there’s a lot to like about Chick-fil-A.  For one, it’s the great American success story.  Its origins trace back to founder S. Truett Cathy, and a 1960’s-era restaurant near Atlanta called Dwarf House.  Its popularity swelled through twenty years of growth in shopping mall food courts. Its first free-standing restaurant opened in 1986.  Today, you’ll find more than 2,400 Chick-fil-A’s scattered across the continent, including a prominent three-story location in mid-town Manhattan, and several in Toronto, Canada.

It’s all about the food, of course.  Chick-fil-A’s most-ordered entree – the classic chicken sandwich (breaded, with pickles and a butter-toasted bun) – is a recipe unchanged since its inception fifty years ago.  The signature waffle fries accompanying the entrees are the most popular item on the entire menu.  And Chick-fil-A’s lemonade and milkshakes have a devoted following all by themselves.  Some patrons cruise the drive-thru for nothing but the drinks.

The Chick-fil-A’ “classic”

There’s more to like about Chick-fil-A.  Their brand of customer service is exceptional.  Chick-fil-A is the only restaurant I know where you’ll hear the words “my pleasure” in exchange for your “thank you”.  Between your order, payment, and the window itself, you’ll probably get “my pleasure'” three times in a single drive-thru.  That kind of courtesy never gets old.

American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI)

How about the numbers?  Chick-fil-A is the third-biggest U.S. restaurant chain ranked by sales (behind only Starbucks and McDonald’s).  Their sales have quintupled in the last ten years, to over $10.2 billion.  Chick-fil-A’s market share among fast-food chicken restaurants hovers around 33%.  Their nearest competitor – KFC – is a distant 15.3%.

Here’s one more reason to love Chick-fil-A: they’re closed on Sundays (as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas).  In the company’s own words, “Our decision to close on Sunday was our way of honoring God and of directing our attention to things that mattered more than our business.”  No matter the faith angle, you have to respect a restaurant giving its entire workforce the day off once a week.  Not to mention, a closed Chick-fil-A just makes the heart grow fonder.

A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) profile on Chick-fil-A shows they don’t mess with success.  McDonald’s regularly tests its patrons with trendy offerings (“Bacon Smokehouse Burger”).  Burger King reinvents itself with its upcoming “Impossible” (veggie) Whopper.  Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A maintains a little-changed menu of what’s been selling for decades: responsibly sourced, domestically produced, no-filler-no-preservative chicken.

At the conclusion of the WSJ article, I found one hundred reader comments about Chick-fil-A.  I scanned half of them, and every last one was positive.  That’s a first for me.  In today’s cynical world, 100% positive feedback may be the most telling statistic of all.

Final factoid.  For all my allegiance to Chick-fil-A, I must admit I didn’t know the origin of the name – until now.  Go figure, it’s just a mash-up of “chicken fillet”.  And the “-A”?  “Grade A”, a subtle nod to the quality of the Chick-fil-A product.  No wonder those cows push you to lay off beef.  They’re offering chicken par excellence instead.

Some content sourced from the official website of Chick-fil-A.

Sham Sandwich

Back in my high-school burger-flipping days at McDonald’s, I worked countless shifts at the “quarter-pounder” grill, which involved a whole lot of beef. McDonald’s standard hamburger was a little brown disc – barely a tenth of a pound – and you could grill fifty at once like a big array of domino dots. The quarter-pounder, on the other hand, was a real burger. Those big boys required higher temperatures and more real estate; hence their own grill. Even the ever-popular Big Mac – a double-decker of the smaller ones – couldn’t tip the scales like the quarter-pounder patty. But no matter the weight, at least we were cooking up beef (and hooking an occasional Filet-O-Fish). On today’s fast-food menus, beef is getting a little scarcer; nudged aside by… well, the “impossible”.

McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder

“Veggie” burgers have been around in one form or another for the past forty years – mostly a quiet nondescript option at the bottom of the menu. Lately however, they’re starting to crowd the stage alongside beef. Maybe they’re just the same ol’ veggie burger, and today’s consumer is more tolerant because he/she is more health-conscious. But that can’t be true, can it, or I wouldn’t bother covering this topic today. Hey, when the New York Times makes a headline out of Burger King’s latest offering, it’s hard not to notice.

Impossible Foods (IF) is a small but rapidly-growing “burger” maker headquartered in Redwood City, CA. IF’s production takes place in a single factory across the bay in Oakland. After their latest contract, IF executives may be looking for more factory locations. They just signed a deal to add their product to the home of the Whopper. As you should figure by now, the IF burger is anything but meat. Not a “moo” to be heard anywhere in the building.

The Impossible

If we were only talking about Burger King – and only a handful of pilot stores in Missouri and Illinois at that – the “Impossible Whopper” wouldn’t be such a big deal. But here’s what makes me pause. “The Impossible” is also about to appear on every Red Robin restaurant menu in the U.S. (over 500 locations). White Castle already sells an Impossible Slider in all of its restaurants (380). And Carl’s Jr – albeit with a competitor of IF – offers a veggie burger in 1,000 of its restaurants. Every one of these chains prides itself on beef burgers. Yet if the Burger King pilot is a success, we’ll see the Impossible Whopper in over 7,200 locations. What the heck is going on?

A reasonable alternative, and demand from a health/environment-conscious consumer – that’s what’s going on. We finally have a tasty veggie-competitor to the all-beef patty. The Impossible (also a great country song by Joe Nichols, by the way), has the endorsement of not only fast-food chains and the media, but food critics as well. Apparently, one cannot distinguish said imposter from beef. You don’t need so much as a sprig of lettuce on this one, because you’re already getting plenty of “vegetable”.

I could list the ingredients, technology, and environmental benefits of the Impossible, but it’s more fun to watch the company’s informational video. See if you aren’t inspired after spending a couple of minutes with Impossible Foods:

IF puts a lot of science into “beef taste”, and the numbers don’t lie (see below). Less cholesterol and saturated fat. Far fewer calories. And, consuming one Impossible instead of one Whopper saves the equivalent of a ten-minute shower in water. It also saves eighteen combustion-engine miles of greenhouse gases. Look at you, eating fast food with an empathetic nod to Mother Earth.

The Impossible

To play devil’s advocate – despite the healthier ingredients and gentler impact on the environment – the success (or demise) of the Impossible will surely come down to taste. On that topic, I am not yet an expert. In fact, I am a skeptic. On one regrettable visit to Red Robin, I opted for their salmon burger over beef, thinking I was doing my body (and Earth) a favor. Mistake. Is it any wonder Red Robin no longer offers that sandwich?

I can’t use salmon burgers as an excuse not to try the Impossible. We have a couple of Red Robins in the neighborhood, and a local organic foods cafe already has one on the menu. No reason I can’t go down and give it a go. Also, “ground Impossible” will appear in grocery stores later this year (alongside the meats?), so I can even make my own patties. In other words, watch out McDonald’s. This veggie burger is no impossible dream.
Some content sourced from the New York Times article, “Behold the Beefless ‘Impossible Whopper’, and the Impossible Foods website.

Fallen Arches

We have a McDonald’s in the middle of our small Colorado town.  The restaurant has been expanded over the years, to include double wrap-around drive-thru lanes and a “PlayPlace” for the kids.  At some point in time, demand pushed the hours of operation to 7/24.  So imagine my surprise last Saturday night around 6:30pm, when I passed by and didn’t see a single car – not one! – in either of the drive-thru lanes.  Apparently my town is not “lovin’ it” so much these days.

44 - venerable

The truth is, the fast food times they are a-changin’ and McDonald’s is struggling to move on from its burger-n-fries roots.  It’s hard enough to compete with the Panera’s and Chipotle’s and other “healthy” alternatives.  In this game, McDonald’s is either venerable or outdated – take your pick.

Growing up in California, the go-to fast-food restaurants were McDonald’s, Jack-in-the-Box, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Not many weeks went by where my family didn’t make it to at least one of the three.  In high school, my brother and I worked in a McDonald’s that drew busloads of patrons from the nearby interstate, and hundreds more from the adjacent movie theater.  The lines to the counter would stretch into the seating area; a fury of a demand for fast-food.  But my how times have changed.  A few weeks ago I was shocked to discover another neighborhood McDonald’s had closed down completely.  That’s no one-off; McDonald’s is shutting down hundreds of restaurants across the globe as part of a renewed corporate strategy.

I never thought I’d see the day where I question the long-term future of McDonald’s.  Health magazine recently published a list of “America’s Top Ten Healthiest Fast Food Restaurants” – http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20435301,00.html – and McDonald’s lands comfortably at #8.  Dig deeper however and you’ll find the telling comment: “although McDonald’s made our list, this is still the land of supersizing and giant sodas.”

McDonald’s is trying new approaches to gain market share, and I’m not just talking new menu items (although “garlic fries” are fighting for a spot).  In several of its Texas restaurants, McDonald’s is testing “fresh beef” instead of the “flash frozen” it has used for decades.  McDonald’s also sponsored a nutrition push in schools, but their message of portion control couldn’t overcome their burger-and-fries stereotype, so they cancelled the program.  McDonald’s latest proposed slogan is “The Simpler the Better”, but that’s more about a streamlined menu and faster service.  It’s makeup instead of the face lift they really need.

I have a soft spot for McDonald’s because it was my first formal paycheck.  I worked the grill and dressed the burgers and wore the uniform with pride.  But I can’t tell you the last time I hit a McDonald’s drive-thru, let alone walked into the restaurant.  Even the recent “all-day breakfast” campaign isn’t bringing me back.  Yes, we all still “deserve a break today”, but it may be time to finally dim the lights on the golden arches.