Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Those pesky flashbacks

The industry is living through its own "Night at the Museum" this week, with bygone brands coming to life for one more star turn. No doubt you'll hear all about it tonight on Carson.

Or maybe you live in one of the Midwestern locales where you can ride the time warp for yourself. Just wheel your Rambler into one of the Hardee's units that's featuring the Big Shef, a name that no doubt divides you readers into two groups: The ones now thinking, "I've gotta clean my contacts. I could have sworn I read 'Big Shef.'" And the others, of a spryer vintage, shrugging and muttering, "What the hell is a Big Shef? Dumb name."

For you impertinent twits, the Big Shef was the Big Mac-like signature of Burger Chef, a fast-food chain that was once the also-ran to none but McDonald's. It was where you ate before places like Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, KFC or even McDonald's itself came to town.

And now a taste of it is back, courtesy of the brave but eccentric souls at Hardee's who hit on the idea of resurrecting a big-name burger that was sold by another chain. Burger Chef was particularly fondly remembered, apparently, in parts of Indiana and Dayton, Ohio. So Hardee's decided to bring back the Big Shef in those areas, something it can do because it apparently owns Burger Chef's old trademarks. A former parent of Hardee's, the Canadian tobacco company Imasco, bought what remained of Burger Chef from General Foods Corp. in 1982 and merged the chain into the surviving burger brand. The last Burger Chef, according to what I can discern from internet searches, stopped operating under that name in 1996.

But that's not the only heady dose of nostalgia being served up in the restaurant industry this week. This Saturday, according to a story posted today on the Kansas City Star's website, some 300 former employees of casual-dining pioneer Gilbert/Robinson will gather for a reunion—ironically, in Overland Park, Kan., the current hometown of Applebee's. Gilbert/Robinson was the parent of Houlihan's, once the Burger King to T.G.I. Friday's McDonald's in what was then called the fern-bar market. Houlihan's became a holding of W.R. Grace, the chemicals company, which later extended its stable of concepts with the addition of Applebee's.

Houlihan's of course still exists today, but not with the same stature it enjoyed back then. Gilbert/Robinson was known as an operations-focused concern, with menus that were regarded as innovative. This, after all, was the chain that claims to have given the mainstream the spinach salad.

G/R has been gone for more than a decade, but many of its alumni have stayed in the business. They include such prominent figures as Phil Hickey, the much-respected CEO of LongHorn Steakhouse parent Rare Hospitality; Fred Hipp, relatively recently of California Pizza Kitchen and now the head of the AMF Bowling operation; Paul Khoury, a principal of the Kansas City multi-concept group PB&J Restaurants; and Don Lamb, chief of the emerging The Egg & I breakfast chain.

This is just a guess, but they may be enjoying some margaritas at the reunion. They just have to be careful about asking each other what their sign is.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Laura SD said...

I love the idea of a comfy lounge where you can drink and relax - and the evenings enjoyment can go beyond the dining area.

April 25, 2007 at 2:45 PM  

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