It was twenty years ago that a little sitcom called Roseanne, in the middle of its nine-season run, introduced many Americans to the concept of the loose meat sandwich. In 1992, control of the venerable Maid-Rite restaurant chain -- the highest profile real-life counterpart to Roseanne Conner's fictional Lanford Lunch Box diner -- was in the hands of a judge following the death of its owner. Back then, loose meat sandwiches were, dare I say, topical.
For those not in the know, a loose meat sandwich is basically a non-pattied hamburger. Seasoned ground beef, crumbled and without sauce, is served on a hamburger bun with any combination of a limited number of toppings. You usually get a spoon to scoop up any ground beef that escapes; there's always a little.
Maid-Rite restaurants and the sandwiches they sell have become a rare breed around these parts; only one location remains in all of Wisconsin, in La Crosse. But in that magical year of 1992, when loose meat was on the lips of the nation, Dick and Connie Schrock rode the wave and opened their Maid-Rite franchise location on Odana Road. Its name changed to Nifty 50's Sandwich & Malt Shop nearly a decade ago, but the restaurant has persisted, otherwise largely unchanged -- though the sandwiches are now called Tastys rather than Maid-Rites.
That twenty year streak comes to an end on Memorial Day weekend, when the Schrocks will serve up their last ice cream shakes, cherry phosphates, and Cheese Tastys before heading into retirement. Isthmus sat down with them to find out what they'll miss, how they survived and distinguished themselves in a turbulent restaurant ecosystem, and whose idea was the free jukebox, anyway?
Isthmus: So. Twenty years. What are you feeling?
Dick: We've enjoyed it. It's been a good experience. Some days, it seems like it's been five years, but then when you get busy, it seems like 40. And we know the time is right. I'm 66 years old, and I don't want to blink and not have good health and not be able to travel.
We had my mother in law, Connie's mom, Lucille Miller -- she died a few months ago at 91, and she worked here from the day we opened. She made all our malts and shakes. So when she passed away, pretty suddenly, it left a void for us. That's not the reason we're retiring, but it's a factor. It's a huge factor. We just feel now's the time.
Did you have any restaurant experience prior to opening back in 1992?
Dick: Well, I flipped burgers when I was going to school.
Connie: That's the amazing part, to me -- and Dick's pretty humble about it -- to me it's pretty amazing that he never had any kind of experience opening up, and it was a lot to open up a restaurant, and he did a great job. He has business, you know, college, and all that kind of training, but I think he did an amazing job for a no-name restaurant, and to make it 20 years. I mean, we could have kept going.
Do you have any favorite "regulars" stories? Or, on the other side, people who have come in having no clue what kind of food you serve?
Connie: Every day we have new people.
Dick: It's pretty inclusive. But we've had some interesting people here through the years. Lot of nice people, lot of people pretty high up in the community, though the normal Joes are just as important to us. Governor Doyle used to come in when he was attorney general. We've had football players. But the stories you get are mainly from people around here that are just regular people, from Iowa and stuff like that.
And we've got the free juke box, and that helps. [Laughs] I'd like to say we did it so everybody could enjoy the music, but the real initial reasoning was I didn't want kids coming in here pestering their folks for quarters to play the juke box. So I said let's just do it free.
What's the story with the juke box? Was that yours already, or did you track it down somewhere?
Dick: There was a place in Mundelein, Illinois, called RJB's, and it was a '50s store. [Note: RJB stands for 'Ross the Jukebox Guy,' and he's still in business.] I wanted to get a jukebox, and the jukebox back in the '50s style was the Seeburg. We were down there and they had one. I just said, "I think I might like to have that one. I'll come back next week and pay you for it," and they said they'd cart it up here. We didn't shake on it or anything, but I came back the next week, and she said "Oh, sorry, we've sold it." And it ends up that the place that got it was the McDonald's out in Middleton that has the rock-n-roll thing, and it's still sitting out there.
Connie: Dick is the perfect person for a '50s restaurant, because he never changes --
Dick: She says I never left the '50s. I love the music, I love everything.
Connie: -- does not have a cell phone, does not want to use computers. He's stuck.
Dick: I'm not intimidated by computers, I'm just a dinosaur. And I'll probably now, in retirement --
Connie: -- I'm going to make him do these things. I don't think there's ever been a person to leave this restaurant that Dick doesn't thank. Ever. In 20 years.
Dick: Well, once in a while they'll get away because I'll see 'em, and I'm doing something, and I can't --
Connie: Rarely, Dick. Rarely. It really is, if you think about it, kind of a big thing. Where do you go in Madison that they really even care that you left, other than you paid your check.
Dick: And I'm going to miss that. But like I said, we know it's time, physically. Mentally, there's some to it, but physically, it's time to go.
Have you been approached by anybody to buy, or if you would sell even if you were?
Connie: I don't know. [To Dick] You didn't really want to.
Dick: We've put a lot of our time and our efforts into it. We didn't want it turned over to somebody -- and maybe they'd have done just fine, but maybe not -- and if it would have gone downhill, we didn't want that. We didn't want our name on it.
Connie: And you know how the name came from Maid-Rite to Nifty 50's. Because a lot of people have come now and said, "We didn't even think you were here anymore! You changed your name, we didn't know it."
Dick: Yeah, we were Maid-Rite from the beginning, and then about 8, 9 years ago, Maid-Rite -- and it was a very loosely run chain --
No pun intended.
Dick: -- right, there you go! I never thought of that. But they got new owners; five guys, they bought out Maid-Rite. And the guy came in here, the CEO, his name is Brad Burt. Very nice guy, great people. And he came in here, and first thing is he looked around, and he said, "Jeez, this is really nice. Do you mind if I take pictures?" And to make a long story short, we certainly didn't start the '50s, and I'm not claiming we did, but they're building new Maid-Rites now, and they've got a '50s [theme]. He decided to do that because he thought it looked good.
When he came here, he was going to make a lot of the Maid-Rites remodel, and a lot of Maid-Rites quit. And they came to us, and they said, "We want to cook the meat in a processing plant, and we want to ship it frozen to you and have you thaw it out and serve it." That's what they wanted to do with all the Maid-Rites. They wanted consistency. I just said, "We won't do that, we'll leave." And that's what we did.
Were they amenable to that? Did they get in your way?
Connie: It was a two-second decision. As soon as they said, 'You'll have to bake the buns in the morning,' I just said we're done.
Dick: Get that? Homemade baked buns, which I don't argue with, but [with] frozen meat?
Connie: It just doesn't make sense.
Dick: We try to do a good job. I won't say it's never happened, but I don't think we've ever taken food out that isn't hot. If things aren't right, we fix it. People always ask, "Why don't you get more things? If you try to do too many things, then you become very bad at it."
Where have you seen yourselves fitting into the Madison landscape of restaurants?
Connie: The [sandwich] keeps us different from anybody else. If we had everything on our menu -- some people will say, don't you just still have a burger? If we did that, we would be the same as everybody else, and we wouldn't have lasted 20 years. We've set ourselves apart. I think we're just a little nook.
Dick: Do we have a good location? No. It's a terrible location. It is.
You've got a lot of traffic going by pretty fast.
Dick: When we first opened, we were thinking of going somewhere off of State Street. But we didn't want to deal with the alcohol and problems like that, and we didn't know how kids would respond. As it turns out, university students, once they find us, they come out all the time, and I know it would have gone over big with the students.
Connie: And the surrounding high schools. Those kids love to come here. We had a bunch come [recently], and they're like, Oh when's your sale? We want to come buy stuff from out here for our dorms this fall!
So what's the plan for the big weekend, the closing weekend?
Dick: We're just going to do business as usual. We're just going to be here Saturday, and we're not going to throw a party. It's just two of us. Then what we're going to do is be open Sunday, Monday, and possibly Tuesday, from 10 until 4, so that people can come in, and they can buy stuff. We've sold about four of the 10 pictures with the neon in 'em already. We sold the jukebox. But there's some nice stuff that we need to sell, some nice clocks.
We've had some people very sad. One little girl, 11 or 12, she came with her mother and her sister, and I told them, and boy she bit her lip, and she almost started crying. One other guy said, This is unacceptable! We've just had so many good people.
If I look back, it's been very enjoyable. Physically, I know the time is right. Emotionally, I'm ready, because I know it's only going to get harder. We'll miss the people. And the kids. But it's time. And we're ready.
Connie: We're ready today!