It was Atari money behind what was touted as the first family-friendly destination to combine, food, entertainment and lots and lots of video games. Like I said, it was Atari. The maestro of all this was a rodent that Nolan Bushnell dreamed would one day be bigger than Mickey himself. But rodents and food are never a very pleasant pairing.
In the beginning, it really did have a theatre. Every hour, the show would start and Chuck E. himself (was he named after a Rickie Lee Jones song? Or the other way around? History does not record) would strike up his band of animatronic animals to perform a rousing medley of songs and jokes. I use the word animatronic loosely. Disney World had the marvel of long-deceased politicians shuffling around the stage of the Hall of Presidents. The Pizza Time Theatre had a bunch of immobile, herky-jerky “things” that looked like they had been slapped together by 5th graders for a science project. Think of the pathetic, beak-snapping birds of the Enchanted Tiki Room and you’re just about there.
Some locations actually sold beer and wine for the parents and this could lead to trouble when disputes between kids on the arcade floor escalated into full-out brawls between their supposed “guardians.” Sometimes weapons were drawn. To expire by bleeding to death on a filthy carpet in front of a Dig Dug machine while a bunch of cheap robots sing “Happy Birthday” is an ignoble end for sure. And yet it happened a few times each year. Also, to watch your drunken mom make out with the pimply teenager collecting skee-ball tickets was never going to promote the healthy mental development of your average 8 year-old.
Once the video game era came screeching to a halt, this place became a three-legged stool standing on two legs and both those legs were pretty weak. The pizza was shit and the floor show as captivating as watching automated garbage trucks lift and empty dumpsters. And yet Chuck E. Cheese still survives to this day, with something like five hundred stores tucked away in small-market strip malls all over America. Mice can be so hard to kill.
They took the first three letters of their signature dish, doubled it, added a hyphen, an apostrophe, the letter “s,” and presto, white-bread middle America had something incredibly exotic to explore.
Where I grew up, in bleak and isolated Northeast Ohio, the good citizens had to ease their way into the unique experience of consuming authentic South-of-the-Border vittles. There was distrust: “Was Mexican food taking away ‘American jobs’?” There was fear: “This building looks like the Alamo. It could be a trap.” There was a lifetime of rigid culinary habits that were nearly impossible to break: “I’d really, really like a baked potato on the side with this. And some ketchup.”
But Chi-Chi’s eventually won us over, no doubt aided by the inhibition-lowering giant Margaritas served in glasses with bowls as big as upside-down umbrellas. And huge piles of tortilla chips that were, gasp, free! At the peak of Chi-Chi’s popularity, waiting in the Cantina for a table to open up could take as many as four hours, and that meant a lot of playing the golf tee triangle game for sure. But it was worth it. It was so new and different. No sheltered Midwesterner can ever forget the first time they heard the sizzle of a tray of fajitas flying past their ear or the first time they were confronted with a healthy heaping of guacamole: “Mommy, this looks like the doggie’s throw-up!”
Celebrating a birthday at Chi-Chi’s was extra special as all servers were forced to immediately drop whatever they were doing to go circle the anointed one’s table and perform a special birthday ditty. To enhance the effect that guests were actually dining down in old Juárez and not some half-empty rust belt strip mall, of course the song was chanted in ENGLISH, with a token Spanish interjection tacked on at the end. Even better, a Polaroid picture of the birthday boy or girl wearing a lice-infested sombrero was provided “on the house.”
The chain managed to thrive for 20 or 30 years but the end came suddenly and swift. The entire company was laid low in 2003 after some tainted green onions slipped their way into the kitchen and nearly 40,000 people in western Pennsylvania died. It was so bad a Pittsburgh Steelers NFL football game was cancelled because of it. In less than a year every single restaurant had closed.
I, for one, miss the Fried Ice Cream. Dat shit was da bomb! It even looked like a bomb!
The question most fast food scholars ask is why name the chain “Red Barn” and not Red Caboose or Red Dwarf? Well, Red Barn was named for a valid reason and the buildings they occupied were built to look like barns for that very same reason. This was a pioneering food chain. They believed in utilizing only 100% organic, locally-produced ingredients, refusing to even countenance the boxes of mass market deep-frozen staples that were being trucked into their competitor’s loading docks from God knows where by Sysco Food Systems, Inc. and their ilk. This chain was a breed apart and the blue-ribbon breed always gets to live in the big Red Barn. Every farmer knows this.
But pioneers also have it rough and Red Barn was bit too far ahead of their time. Their cheapest basic meal started at $11.99 (remember this was 30+ years ago) and that was before adding a small 7.5 ounce bottle of the purest mineral water to wash it down with. People loved the food, but in the end it proved to be too dear for them. They had mortgages to pay and college tuition to save up for.
It is a cult of fond remembrance today. At its peak Red Barn had 400 or so restaurants in 19 states and every single one had its own unique sourcing in place to fulfill the basic menu of hamburgers, chicken and fish. We actually had a Red Barn in the tiny faux-Colonial village in which I was raised and it featured delectables no sane gourmand could refuse. Fish sandwiches crafted from the succulent inland freshwater cod hauled in daily from the sparkling Mahoning River, fried chicken delivered straight from the world-famous poultry farms of nearby Farrell, Pennsylvania, where birds would routinely grow to be the size of Verne Troyer, and of course the belly-busting 1/2 pound hamburger patties fashioned from exquisitely marbled beef that came straight from the cattle ranches of Campbell, Ohio, where the bovines were fattened up on a steady diet of the richest Greek yogurt.
Best of all were the mascots. Red Barn had no interest in nonsensical made-up names like Grimace or complex portmanteaus like Hamburgler. They kept it simple. Hamburger Hungry, Fried Chicken Hungry and Big Fish Hungry. They had a great song that they sang and “live” versions of these delightful characters were required to be on-site at every Red Barn during operating hours. The kids loved it. If only their parents had been willing to sacrifice just a tiny bit more, all of us might still be enjoying this unique dining experience even today.
Rax valiantly fought to be a national player in the “sliced roast beef” market for a very long time, but they never really managed to break out of the Midwest region. It was always a tough product to sell–“sliced roast beef” sandwiches have always been pretty far down the fast food pecking order, perpetually trailing behind cheeseburgers, pizzas, fried chicken, tacos and even foldable cardboard boxes filled with shrimp fried rice. Some people, in fact, shudder at the thought of a “sliced roast beef” sandwich. It just doesn’t appeal to them. I once even heard, and I’m extremely sorry to have to repeat this, some impolitic sexists refer to female private parts as “sliced roast beef.” Is that really the kind of thing a person wants to eat? Er, well, maybe some people…
In any case, “sliced roast beef” was a tiny market to begin with and when you have a tiny share of a tiny market, you’d damn well better have some brilliant management. Rax, apparently, did not. In the realm of “sliced roast beef,” Arby’s was always the king, Roy Rogers the presumptive prince, and Rax was just some dumb stable hand shoveling around horse dung all day.
That rather unappetizing image aside, I personally enjoyed the meals I had at Rax the few times I ate there, always on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh, back when that thoroughfare led the nation in number of adult bookstores per city block. It was always a convenient place to fuel up before walking down the street to visit the peep show booths, but that’s hardly the clientele a restaurant needs to draw from if they plan on one day rubbing elbows with McDonald’s and Subway. So Rax, and their take on the “sliced roast beef” sandwich, disappeared.