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Tucson Weekly Not-So-Local Yokels

So You Think Big Chains Are Taking Over? Ha!

By Emil Franzi

MARCH 22, 1999:  THE BOOK MARK is history. So is the Haunted Bookshop and other local purveyors of a variety of merchandise, including Jeff's Classical Records and the Hot Bagel Bakery.

Supposedly, they were done in by the national chains with their greater buying power.

But take heart, fans of local business: The overall track record of many national outfits here isn't all that much better. For every long-term success there have been plenty of franchises and chains that hit town, burned out, or in some instances barely got off the ground. Reviewing the history of franchising and national chain operations here reveals a hefty catalog of losers.

Hot Bagel Bakery finally closed its doors after 25 years, surrounded by everything from Manhattan Bagel to, we suspect soon, Pedro Wong's Chinese/Mexican Bagel Wraps. Note that Manhattan Bagel has already gone under; it lasted about a year. How many of the others do you think will still be here in five, or even three, more years when the next fad--boiled calamari sticks, Lithuanian meat loaf, haggis, whatever--comes along?

Jeff's owners attributed their record shop's final closing to being surrounded by the four "Bs"--Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Blockbuster and Border's. Well, it's two years later and Blockbuster Music has folded into Wherehouse, Best Buy has given up all but the most rudimentary classical music selection, and Barnes & Noble's music room grows more anemic with every visit. Only Border's is left with a reasonable display.

NOTHING IS FOREVER, particularly when it comes to fast-food franchises. The pattern here is often to watch a national outlet splurge on a bunch of Tucson locations, only to see the chain fold and those usually tacky buildings fill up with local businesses.

The first national food franchise to really fall on its Tucson butt was Minnie Pearl Chicken, all the way back in 1970. The late Minnie was a well-known regular on Grand Old Opry, but she should have stuck to wearing the funny hats that were her trademark. Her chicken operation crashed in less than a year after five of them opened here in brand new quarters. The story of those five locations is typical:

• One now houses a Luke's on Ft. Lowell Road just east of Stone Avenue. (Luke's, like Lucky Wishbone, eegee's, Famous Sam's and Yokohama Rice Bowl, is a classic example of a successful local chain.)

• One on Grant Road now houses Jimmie Holliday's Bar & Grill after years of flying the local Beef & Barrel banner.

• The West Valencia store tells a story in itself, having contained in succession the following series of local Mexican fast-food outlets: El Taco, Don José, Sanchéz Burrito, and now Los Betos.

• The East Speedway location was a video store before its current occupant, Cathy's Vacuum Sales.

• And the South Sixth Avenue remnant housed--until it was recently closed--the notorious Shamrock Bar.

What went wrong with Minnie Pearl? If you ate there once, you know: lousy product. The Colonel had nothing to fear from Minnie.

An even bigger loser than Minnie was Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips. Treacher was the wooden English guy who emceed the old Merv Griffin Show. There were to be at least five of his outlets in the Hungry Pueblo, all trying to grab the late '70s fad for greasy fried fish and accompanying potatoes currently monopolized by Long John Silver. Only two got built, but neither opened. The Treacher's on Campbell Avenue now houses an eegee's, although it was a Chinese place for some time, and the other on 22nd Street is finally vacant after years of service as a sushi bar.

There were a lot more over the years. Try Straw Hat Pizza, originally promoted as an alternative to Shakey's. Four locations in the 1970s--gone after a brief stay. And Shakey's is down to one location, aced by other national outfits and a successful gang of locals from Mama's and Magpie's to Grandma Tony's and Picurro's to solo guys like Bianchi's and La Madrina, all of whom have outlasted not only Shakey's but Round Table, whose nine local franchises have also disappeared.

Meanwhile, locals like El Corral, Gus 'n' Andy's, Lil' Abner's, OK Corral, Pinnacle Peak, Silver Saddle and Webb's are still cooking steaks, while national franchises like Sizzler and Sirloin Stockade aren't. And Caruso's, Fiorito's and Mama Luisa's are still making tomato sauce after about a century between them, while the Great Impasta is somewhere in that great franchise colander in the sky.

We've also said bye-bye to Hardee's (still operational elsewhere after Carl's Jr. bought them out), Burger Chef, Winchell's, Bob's Big Boy, Sir George's, Po' Folks, King's Table, Love's, Sambo's and Kenny Roger's Chicken.

Part of Sambo's problem came from its national image, even after management converted their small, black child icon into some nebulous Asian kid in a turban. But charges of racism haven't seemed to slow their principle contender, Denny's. Nor did the national exposé of Cracker Barrel's anti-gay practices seem to keep patrons away from that operation. Maybe the fast-sliding JB's chain needs to find a minority group to offend. They could try changing their name to "Saddam's" and go for the anti-American crowd.

And Kenny, like his namesake Roy with the roast beef, never really got off the ground here or anywhere else. Occupying Kenny Rogers' one former local outlet is a brand-new local restaurant called Great American Cattle Company, offering a line of beef dishes.

The same pattern has held with discount stores and other retail outfits. No longer are we blessed--or cursed--with a Best, a Globe or a Silo.

Anybody remember Liquor Barn? They were going to eliminate all the local liquor stores. They had eight local outlets, most purchased from a local discounter under the original name of Super City, that lasted about five years. At least one now houses a locally owned liquor store again.

That's just a quick glance at some of the national franchise failures here. Which leads us to ask the question:

In five or 10 years, what do you suppose will occupy all those Starbuck's, bagel shops and Walgreen's that have clearly been over-built?

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