Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Skakin' Up Pizza People

Since we long ago stopped subscribing to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I rarely get a chance to peruse the paper anymore. When I do, I usually quickly realize that there's little that I'm missing out on other than the angst and gnashing of teeth that accompanied reading most efforts from the editorial staff. Last week however, I happened to pick up the Strib whilst waiting for a medical appointment and found something well worth a read. It was a column from Mr. Lileks on What's shakin' in the suburbs?:

But buried in the notices was a magical name that made me feel 10 again, and desperate for root beer -- Shakey's.

Ping! If a little bell went off in your head at the name, you remember. It was a pizza chain that limped out of the Midwest a few years ago, a tired old concept thrashed by upstarts and local faves. The restaurants were dark, the tables long; they served root beer by the pitcher. Maxims boasting of the virtues of Shakey's hung on the wall, and there was often a stage where men wearing straw hats and red-and-white shirts would play Dixieland. The chain's founder apparently believed that pizza would be a passing fad unless it was inextricably tied to the sound of a banjo. They had a player piano, too, which frightened as many children as it fascinated: a disembodied ghost machine, banging out songs from beyond the grave.

The pizza? Salty! Cracker-crust and about three molecules of sauce, but that was how Shakey liked it. Yes, there was a Shakey: Sherwood Johnson, nicknamed Shakey because he suffered a nerve condition after he got malaria in World War II, thus making it the only national chain named after a physical infirmity. (There was Blinky's Burgers, but that was later determined to be a habit, not the result of defective tear ducts. As for Weak Bladder Pete's Pierogis, well, there's conflicting evidence.) Shakey died in 1998, but the chain continued -- 60 restaurants in America, 400 worldwide.

The entire piece in which Lileks talks about the oft overlooked history of suburban haunts like Shakey's is quite interesting. But the news of the return of Shakey's is undoubtedly the highlight. That little bell most certainly went off in my head and as I expect it did for many others. When we were kids, Shakey's was the go to place for birthdays, post-game gatherings, and just plain old family fun (in our case the one on Highway 7 in Minnetonka). I frankly don't remember too much about the pizza anymore, although I do have a rather concrete memory of my dog-like overeating and inevitable regurgitation of it while attending a neighbor's birthday party. That fact that I wolfed down so much pizza that I puked was embarrassing enough. That my neighbor's mother brought me into the WOMEN'S bathroom to clean up left an indelible stain on my brain.

But most of the memories I have of Shakey's are far fonder than that. As James notes, the d├ęcor was dark, the tables were long (and the chairs heavy), and the root beer flowed freely. I also recall hearing the straw-hatted Dixieland band and the player piano. And the numerous "ye olde notice" signs and the "pledge of allegiance" to Shakey's. One of our favorite things about Shakey's was the viewing area where you could actually watch them make the pizza. A truly fascinating thing for a kid to observe. I also remember that they used to show old Laurel and Hardy movies on the wall in a back area of the restaurant. At least I think I did. When I mentioned this to my dad last weekend he had no recollection. There's also a hazy memory of some sort of sing along where the words to "Puff the Magic Dragon" were projected on the wall.

Further research revealed that the news of Shakey's return was reported back in August in the City Pages:

After nearly a decade-long absence, a pizza chain that once operated 16 locations in the state will return to Minnesota, with five new restaurants slated to open in the metro area.

The franchise was launched by Sherwood "Shakey" Johnson in Sacramento, California, in 1954, and its first Minnesota restaurant arrived in Columbia Heights in 1966. (BTW, apparently Johnson got his nickname as a result of experiencing nerve damage after a bout of malaria he suffered during World War II--who knew?) The family-friendly pizza and beer joint incorporated a vague ragtime music theme, with banjos, player pianos, etc.

Here's what you can expect in its new incarnation.

Shakey's is hoping to reposition itself as a nostalgic fave during its comeback, which is planned for next summer. The decor at the new Minnesota restaurants will riff on Shakey's original look while also incorporating arcade games, big-screen TVs, and pop-culture memorabilia. The menu will offer both Shakey's original thin-crust pizza and fried chicken.

That story elicited 108 comments from readers, many sharing their own memories of Shakey's. I had forgotten about the personal birthday pizza with a marshmallow holding the candle. And the "Bunch of Lunch" buffet. And the "Love Meter" game. A couple of the comments also mention movies nights and the sing alongs so I feel better about my own Shakey recollections.

One of the things that I immediately noticed when I first traveled to Manila about six years ago was that they had Shakey's pizza. In fact, today there are more Shakey's in the Philippines than in the United States. I never had a chance to hit one of the Shakey's in Manila, although the temptation was always there.

Now, I'm excited to hear that Shakey's will be coming back to Minnesota and I hope they bring back as much as they can of what made the chain such a family favorite in the first place. With a decent beer selection. While I have great memories of their root beer, I think I'm gonna want to be quaffing the real stuff this time around. Revisiting Shakey's may indeed make me feel ten again, but it won't be root beer that I'm desperate for.