Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Gilbert Giddyup & Speedy McGreedy

I may be a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but I'm sick of this whole big burger thing that's been sweeping the nation the last several years. And now Hardee's has announced some new big chicken sandwich to add to the onslaught of hugeness afflicting our times. I know I'm going against what the market demands, but how about a return to simpler times when Hardee's was just a regional chain that charbroiled their burgers. It's completely selfish of me, but that was when they were my favorite fast food chain.

When I was very little, they only had one restaurant in Murfreesboro and it was located at Mercury Plaza which boasted a Roses, Harveys, and a Cooper & Martin grocery store. This was all the way across town for us so a visit to Hardee's was a big treat. I loved the orange and brown decor. The smell of the burgers cooking over the open flames that would sometimes shoot up into the air like fireworks. Murfreesboro didn't have a Burger King in those days and unless you were grilling the burgers yourself Hardee's was the place to be. They had a catchy theme song that urged people to "hurry on down" to Hardee's.

They even had their own set of cartoon character mascots in order to keep up with McDonalds. The two that I can remember are Gilbert Giddyup, their good guy Ronald McDonald sort, and Speedy McGreedy who was a hamburger stealing misfit like the Hamburglar. I liked the Western motiff. It fit in well with cooking burgers over fire. I figured the McDonalds mascots wouldn't stand a chance if it came down to a cartoon brawl with the Hardee's bunch.

I also just plain liked the Hardee's burgers better. I usually would get a single hamburger, but sometimes I might get a Big Twin - the Hardee's version of a Big Mac. A McDonalds burger was bland in comparison to the smoky charbroiled goodness of Hardee's. The day I learned that a Hardee's was being built on my side of town was a very happy day.

It was built just off the corner of Broad and Lokey Street. It would be within walking distance during the times I lived in town. They had some land behind the restaurant for parking, outside dining, and even better; a playground which would contain the coolest thing I think I had ever seen. It was a robot that stood 3 stories tall with enclosed slides for arms. You had to climb into the robot which had a ladder running through the middle of it. The second level was where you could get into one of the slides. Since there were two slides you'd have to race your friends. When that got dull you could climb into the third level where you could jump around and cause the robot to shake.

There was also a swingset, a spiral slide shaped liked a rocket ship, and some other things. And the ground was covered in sand. Whenever I'd visit, I'd wolf my food down as quick as possible so I could hit the playground with a vengeance. At that point, it wouldn't have mattered if Hardee's food tasted like dirt since I was likely to end up inhaling plenty of sand before I left.

But there are other things in my memory besides the playground. My parents almost always worked at separate times when I was growing up. At this period my father worked a day shift and my mother worked nights. My father wasn't much on cooking so we'd usually stop off at a fast food place after he'd pick me up from the babysitter's house. Hardee's was very convenient so we went there at least twice a week; sometimes more.

Now my father hates the drive-thru. So we would always stop and go in and order our meals to go. When he figured out I could be trusted with the money and our order he would wait in the Ford Ranger while I went in and ordered. I always tried to go through the prettiest lady's line and soon I had made a friend of a young high school age girl. She was so cool she remembered what I'd order (we always got the same stuff every time) and when she saw me come in she would start ringing it up. I always got a plain burger so they'd have to cook it right then and if the place wasn't busy she'd have a conversation with me. I was only in the 5th grade, but I was smitten with her.

She wasn't there very long and I was sad when I didn't see her when I'd come in. Time passed and as is always the case; stuff happens. I recall a walk from Mitchell-Neilson Elementary School on a sunny spring day with my 6th grade class to have lunch at Hardee's. A car would crash through the dining area one morning, and while nobody was hurt, it did precipitate a dreadful remodeling job. I still liked to play
on the playground even though I wouldn't have admitted it once junior high school began. I used to walk over from my house and just hang out there. By the time 9th grade started it was a good place to go and smuggle a smoke in the top of the robot.

The once mighty charbroiled burgers didn't taste as good to me. The quality of the food was declining. Wendy's and Gatti's Pizza were the place to eat in high school. The cartoon mascot characters were long gone. About the only time I'd visit was when I needed to use the restroom. The summer after high school graduation I decided to wear a red bandanna on my head and the Hardee's manager saw me enter the restroom. The next thing I knew somebody was banging on the door. I figured it was my friends so I told them to bug off loudly and profanely. I was a bit surprised to find the manager staring at me when I opened the door. He gave the bathroom a good going over and once he figured out I had only used the place for its purpose he sort of apologized and that was it.

I know I had not been a loyal consumer, but the Wendy's on Church Street was clean, the service was better, and the Flurry topped Hardee's watery milkshakes; but then Hardee's had to really break my heart by doing away with charbroiling. They started cooking their burgers just like McDonalds. The only food I would eat at Hardee's would be breakfast food. Like many of the places where I spent time as a kid, the playground would be removed. The robot dismantled. The rocket ship crashed.

I sometimes gave in to my sentimental feelings and tried the new items Hardee's would offer. But it was always terrible. I tried one of those big Angus burgers not too long ago. It tasted like congealed sawdust mixed with rubber. There's no way they can get me to "hurry on down" these days. The chain now serves as an unlikely
metaphor of life to me now. Fun and innocence, corruption and dissolution, and now an over abundance and indulgence that can never satisfy. I need you Gilbert Giddyup.


Anonymous said...

I was always partial to the Burger Chef (and Jeff) on Broad. To the best of my memory, they had happy meals(I don't remember what they called them) before McD's and you could construct things from the boxed they came in. I miss the robot behind the Hardee's also. I wish that I could take my kids to play there, the robot holds a lot of fun memories for me. I feel the same way about Opryland, if it was still here, we would probably have season passes. I miss the old theme park.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old blog. Perhaps you don't even blog any more, I haven't checked yet. I happened across a Gilbert Giddyup frisbee when cleaning out an old box, so I'm looking for info to see if it's worth anything. I, too, was crazy about Hardee's when I was a kid. The first time I saw and entered the ocean, I was wearing my Gilbert Giddyup t-shirt. lol! Hardee's has gone through so many changes that any chance at customer loyalty was ruined. There's nothing to be loyal to, it's all gone.

Paul in Illinois

mark s said...

I still remember the foil wrap around the cheese burger, a golden yellow bee hive or honeycomb pattern and the roast beef was more of an orange color...good stuff~