Day 180: A Tribute To Those Slingers Of Grub Who Are No More

originally published June 28, 2012

If it weren’t for restaurant chains, I’d have almost no place to eat in this city. Edmonton is packed to its big-box-store borders with Gardens of Olive, Lobsters of Redness, and whatever the hell wordplay you can make with Chili’s.

Don’t get me wrong – every chain has its specialties, and I can usually track down something on the menu with some flavor, or at least some bacon. But we suffer from a relative shortage of outstanding mom-and-pop gustatory gardens of glory, which has led me to become somewhat cynical about the seemingly infinite roster of generic chain spots. And thus I am fascinated when a restaurant chain fails.

In 1995, Francesco and Tommaso Buti came up with a brilliant idea. With the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood hauling in trough-fuls of money, why not cash in on the public’s love of high fashion and sexy, leggy supermodels? Why not grab a quartet of well-known photo-shoot vets and make them owners, adding the runway-cred you’d need to match the box-office-cred of Planet Hollywood owners Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Because that’s stupid, that’s why.

First of all, everyone likes movies, so seeing a montage of great space battles while you snarf potato skins can be kind of fun. Everyone likes music, so dining beside a Hendrix guitar will probably make your pulled-pork sandwich taste better if you’re a fan. But not everybody gives two-fifths of a crap about fashion. Also, while they may have hoped to lure guys into drooling over the models on the walls (if not the food), presenting women with photos like this:

…then expecting them to ravenously wolf down a plate of Dolce & Gabbanachos isn’t realistic.

Still, Elle Macpherson, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington bought in, and the restaurant opened its New York location in Rockefeller Center, followed by another in London. The lifespan of the Fashion Café was about three years. Claudia Schiffer withdrew because of a falling-out between her and Campbell. Then Campbell and Macpherson accused Tommaso Buti of scamming $25 million from the arrangement. The restaurant chain folded, and the founders were charged with conspiracy, fraud and money laundering.

Yet somehow the public found a way to carry on and keep eating.

Remember this place? I don’t know if Chi-Chi’s was known for quality Mexican food or crapchilladas; I visited one once, but my gauge for identifying quality Mexican food from mediocre Mexican food is not properly honed. At one time Chi-Chi’s was one of the premier Tex-Mex chains in America with 210 locations. Its flaw was not in its conception; everyone likes a good taco. Their celebrity backer from the start was former Green Bay Packer (and possessor of two Super Bowl rings) Max McGee, who felt it was a good idea to enter the restaurant game in 1975. But what thwarted Chi-Chi’s was its ownership a few decades later.

Prandium, Inc. owned the chain in 2003. They had a storied history: Prandium had filed for bankruptcy several times, dating back to 1993. In November of 2003 they did it again. The Chi-Chi’s empire had dwindled down to 65 locations, none of which were safe from the bad publicity when the worst Hepatitis-A outbreak in American history occurred, all thanks to a bad batch of green onions at their Monaca, Pennsylvania location. Four people died and over six hundred others were seriously ill.

The lawsuits were settled in July, 2004. The following month, Outback Steakhouse made a move and bought every Chi-Chi’s property, though not the name. All 65 locations shut down at once.

In 1991, country singer Kenny Rogers decided to gamble (Hey! That’s a joke!) on the chicken business, opening up his wood-fired rotisserie joint along with John Y. Brown, former owner of KFC. Within five years they had expanded to over 350 locations. That’s a lot of islands in their stream. (Hey! Another joke!)

Their proudest moment was probably when Seinfeld immortalized Kenny’s yumminess in “The Chicken Roaster” episode in November, 1996. Still, as the real-life Soup Nazi will attest, appearing on a popular sitcom does not guarantee restaurant success. Kenny’s Roasters filed for bankruptcy and the franchise was sold to Nathan’s, the hot dog people, in March of 1998. The last location shut down just last December. I guess even Lucille couldn’t help Kenny keep this boat afloat. (Hey! Stop it! I don’t know any more Kenny Rogers songs!)

I’m sorry, but what, specifically, the fuck?

That’s right, a pair of entrepreneurs opened up the Coon Chicken Inn in Salt Lake City in 1925. The popularity of this lovable, yet horrifically racist and inappropriate restaurant led to locations in Seattle and Portland, Oregon. They carried on this madness until the late 1950s, when the owners decided it was time to retire before society evolved to find out just how monkey-shit insane this franchise was. The chain folded along with the owners’ retirement.

Pup ‘n’ Taco was a fast-food chain throughout Southern California. They were bought out by Taco Bell in 1984 because the more dominant chain sometimes just wins, and also you should never name your restaurant in such a way that might suggest you are using domestic animal meat in the food. I would have thought the lesson taught by the New Orleans-based “Kitten Gumbo” chain would have been clear.

If you find yourself in Aiea, Hawaii (which would be a great Wheel Of Fortune puzzle) or Cucamonga, California, you can still visit a Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour. Otherwise, this chain that once boasted 120 locations is virtually extinct.

Probably because planes kept flying into them.

Wow, I wish I was making this up. On September 24, 1972, an F-86 fighter jet failed to take off at a Sacramento air show, crashed through a fence, across the street, and into a Farrell’s. A packed Farrell’s. A packed Farrell’s where a local little league football team was celebrating.

Twenty-two people (including twelve kids, a couple in a car on the street, and another lady who ran onto the road to avoid the accident and was run over) were killed. It was horrible. Then ten years later, another plane flew into another Farrell’s – this time a private plane, and this time the only loss of life were the pilot and copilot. But this was an alarming trend. I don’t know how often a plane flies into a restaurant – it’s not a common occurrence around here – but these odds have to be pretty spectacular.

Whether the public took notice and started avoiding Farrell’s, or whether the Californian appetite for ice cream served up by 1890s-ish people simply waned, it’s hard to tell. But Farrell’s is on the verge of being old news.

I suppose there’s comfort and familiarity in a chain restaurant, though even that isn’t enough to let them all survive. I’d still rather our city be bursting with original ideas and delicious local fare. This is the part where I drop in a plug for DaDeO, my own local getaway for good eats. I’ll take their blackened catfish po’boy over a Bloomin’ Onion or Big Mouth Burger any day of the week.

And I’m pretty sure they’ll be around when I drop in this weekend.

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