18 December 2005

THE SUNDAY 9: Chains that couldn't

You're watching GLECKNET, viewed by over 2 households in the greater Flyspeck area. Stay tuned for THE SUNDAY 9, next over most of this same blog.

Hi, I'm Talmadge, and TS9 is being brought to you this week by American Motors, makers of such babe-magnet vehicles as the Gremlin and -- for those who are exhibitionist in practice -- the Pacer: 1 part steel chassis, 9 parts glass. AMC, for those who like being made fun of.

I've been in a very reflective, nostalgic mood today, after a dream I had this morning involving my late grandfather -- he and I were making a trip somewhere, and we stopped at a Holiday Inn for the night ... a Holiday Inn as it looked circa 1971, with the neon masterpiece pulsating outside (the old Holiday Inn sign - which can be seen at the beginning of the "Murph & The Magic Tones" scene in The Blues Brothers - had a name: The Great Sign). I woke up as I was saying good night to "Big John." Talk about a melancholy way to wake up!

Tonight, inspired by that dream, as well as some recent thoughts and ponderings, I'd like to devote a little attention to nine (9) now-defunct chains. These are franchised and/or company-owned bidnesses who made honorable, and sometimes not-so-honorable, attempts at competing in various retail sectors: motels, restaurants, fast-food, etc.

There are many reasons for a business' demise, and not all are Darwinist. Sometimes a business can fall under the umbrella of a conglomerate that mismanages or neglects their newly-bought concern. Or another, more dominant, chain moves in next door with the express intent of running the good, established chain out of business ... less "may the better player win" and more "shoot out the legs of the runner in front of you."

Here goes:

1) BURGER CHEF
If you're over 35, this name should ring a bell; for much of the '60s and even into the '70s, Burger Chef was the second largest hamburger chain in America. But in 1968, the founder's company sold the corporation to General Foods. That company did very well for themselves selling packaged foods like Tang, Maxwell House, Post cereals, and many others. Unfortuately, that expertise did not extend to restaurant management. Burger Chef began wilting under GF mismanagement, giving Burger King and Wendy's an open road. Eventually the chain was sold to Hardee's, which gradually killed the name as it converted BC locations into Hardee's.

Burger Chef, I must add, was the first hamburger chain to begin offering kids' meals with the toy surprise. Theirs was called "The Funmeal", and it began around 1974, a good half-decade before Mickey D's launched the "Happy Meal."

2) BIFF-BURGER
Yes, that was the name of a hamburger chain, founded in the late '50s in Florida. There were eventually close to 1,000 (!) outlets by the early '60s. BIFF stood for (B)est (I)n (F)ast (F)ood, and their stock-in-trade was "Roto-Broiled Burgers." I stumbled on a fantastic tribute site a week or so ago. When I first saw it, it was quite the "OH WOW!" moment -- it answered a BIG question I'd had for years. There's an old, painted-over sign and building in Montgomery, Ala. I'd always wondered about. The architecture screamed "1960s hamburger joint!" Well, now I know.

3) HEAP BIG BEEF
What a name! And what a building! Another question answered; there's a building on the north side of Columbus, Ga. which bears a strong resemblence to the style of building featured in the 1967 advert (1960s chain architecture is a big fascination of mine). HBB tried to compete with Arby's and Roy Rogers in the roast beef sandwich category.

4) DANVER'S
Another Little-Roast-Beef-Chain-That-Couldn't. Used to boast hundreds of stores in the Mid-South region, but is now down to a handful, mostly in its former base of Memphis. There's still one going strong in Tupelo, Miss., and it's truly the best roast beef sandwich on this Earth. Makes Arby's look and taste like processed Oscar Mayer. So help me Danver's roast beef damn near melts in your mouth. Mmmmmmm..........................

5) LUM'S
More or less a "Ruby Tuesday's" of its day, it was a casual sit-down restaurant famous for its so-called "hot dogs steamed in beer." In its heyday, Lum's had hundreds of locations around the country. All but disappeared by the late '70s, but one remains on the Virginia side of suburban Washington D.C. Talk about a double-take when we passed that while on a trip up there in '03.

6) OLD COUNTRY BUFFET
I'm a sucker for all-you-can-eat restaurants. Especially AYCE outfits which have their own recipe of fried chicken, among the best I've had anywhere. OCB is based in Minnesota, and used to be all over the Southeast before bailing out in the late '90s. Today, there are a few in suburban Washington, and yes we ate there when Seraphim and I were visiting. Golden Corral can come close, ditto for Ryan's. None of 'em could beat OCB.

There used to be one in Charleston, S.C. as recently as 2003. A couple of times we made the trip just to eat there. It was gone as of early '05. I miss OCB.

7) CONGRESS INN
This was a somewhat sizeable motel chain in the 1960s and early 1970s. There was one on the main drag in Huntsville, Ala., where I lived early in life, as well as down the street from the motel we used to frequent on Summer trips to Sarasota, Fla. once upon a time. As a young'un, their sign intrigued me - a very patriotic and all-American motif, with the U.S. Capitol dome top center. The sign in Huntsville was H-U-G-E, too.

Today, the name lives on through several individually-owned properties. A specimen of the classic sign is here -- and prepare yourself for a sleepless night and/or an idle day if roadside Americana makes your heart skip beats as it does mine.

8) WAYFARA
I have no earthly idea what exactly this was (a motel and/or restaurant? A Stuckey's-like outfit?), but it was in Florida in the '60s and '70s, and at least every other exit on I-75 north of Tampa had one. What I remember are the huge, tall, orange bow-tie shaped signs they had. When I saw Wayfaras, I knew Sarasota wasn't much further!!

9) J. J. NEWBERRY COMPANY
Know what I miss more than anything else? The VARIETY STORE! Birmingham used to have a humongous Newberry's store downtown, and another good-sized operation in the near-abandoned Eastwood Mall. Both had lunch counters that could hold their own in the quick-service food category (ditto for the 'luncheonettes' found in most Woolworth and Kress stores -- now there are two more 'dead chain' names fer ya!). And you could find just about anything in these stores. Oh, and their toy departments outclassed that big-box conglomerate with the stupid-looking giraffe and backward "R."

Other so-called "dime stores" were Ben Franklin, McCrory's, TG&Y (Toys, Guns and Yo-Yos), W. T. Grant, V. J. Elmore, and many, many others. Heck, I'll bet the old Arkansas dime store chain Walton's 5-10 (the forerunner of Wal-Mart) was a fun place to go once upon a time.

Wal-Mart has taken the fun out of shopping. And the only remaining players in the 'variety' genre are Fred's and Dollar General, both as exciting as paying your water bill.

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And, on that note, I'm off to bed. It's been a long day!

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "A DeLorean and a flux capacitor, please" Gleck

1 comment:

agilitynut said...

Can you tell me where in Columbus, GA the possible former "Heap Big Beef" is? Any chance the ad you show can be rescanned so the bldg is not chopped off. THANKS!

Debra Jane
RoadsideArchitecture.com