I’m 5 years old, and I’m terrified. Everyone keeps encouraging me to just wiggle the tooth with my tongue until it falls out, but that’s about the last thing I want to happen. My preschooler mind is a flurry of paranoid thoughts: What if I swallow the tooth and it shreds my insides? What if the rest of my teeth fall out before this one grows back and I have to mash my food into a paste and gum it down? What if the tooth never grows back?
I’m soon pulled from my internal struggle when my father offers me the only thing a father can offer a 5-year-old to steer his mind from toothless death: French fries. As we make our way down Route 37, we pass a myriad of fast food chains — McDonalds, Burger King, White Castle. Today, none of these will suffice. Given my fragile mental state, my father brings out the big guns, urging our silver Volkswagen Rabbit up the slight hill on the southwest corner of 37 and Hooper Avenue, into the Roy Rogers parking lot.
Maybe it was the consistency of the freshly cooked ground beef. Maybe it was the butter-fried bun providing an added lubricant. But that day, I lost my first tooth biting into a Roy Rogers cheeseburger. And, as family lore would have it, every subsequent loose tooth was dealt with the same way.
That being said, you could imagine my reaction to the hostile takeover of the Roy Rogers Restaurant chain during the early 1990s. Granted I was only 8 or 9 at the time and didn’t fully understand the details of its absorption into the Hardee’s corporation. All I knew was that the building where I had lost so many teeth was now vacant, soon to be inhabited by the that still occupies the space today.
Now let me curtail any comments questioning why I simply don’t visit one of the Roy Rogers locations on the Turnpike or drive five miles into and get my fill at the last free-standing Roy Rogers Restaurant in the state. To answer the former, those Turnpike ones don’t count because they lack the requisite “fixin’s bar” that make Roy Rogers Roy Rogers. As for the latter, well I’ve been there about a thousand times. I even snuck out of every Tuesday night SAT prep course at Toms River South my junior year of high school to indulge in fried chicken and biscuits with my friends (Sorry, mom). But the point of this column isn’t about Roy Rogers per se. It’s about the underrated restaurant chains that used to call Toms River home.
How many of you have driven past T.G.I. Friday’s, Chili’s, Applebee’s, and all the other generic restaurant franchises in town wishing The Ground Round was still here? Sure, you can get a burger and a beer at any of those places, but can you get a burger and beer while sitting under a severed moose head, watching subversively racist/sexist 1930s cartoons, and throwing peanut shells on the floor? I didn’t think so. But back in the 1980s, The Ground Round across from the mall on Hooper Avenue was the only choice for this kind of casual family dining and not to mention the go-to place for children’s birthday parties. In fact, I believe my lifelong fear of clowns originated in the back room of that place when “Bingo,” The Ground Round’s resident merry-maker, accidentally popped a poorly wrought balloon animal inches from my face.
Other notable franchises that once called Toms River home include Bonanza Steakhouse and Fuddruckers. Ironically, they both occupied the same building on Route 37, the building currently housing Tiffany’s. While I only have vague memories of Bonanza, I can remember nearly everything about Fuddruckers — the ostrich and bison patties, spicy Cajun fries, and humorously labeled “mother Fuddruckers” condiments. Fans of Five Guys Burgers and Fries can thank Fuddruckers for blazing the build-your-own burger trail during a time when most fast food joints were devising new ways to prefab their food and expedite the ordering process.
I can imagine someone in some bog town off Route 70 reading this with an upturned eyebrow. How can I, a resident of a town home to nearly every national and regional food franchise, wax nostalgic for a collection of failed or waning restaurant chains? I should just be glad to have more options than Dairy Queen or Dairy Queen for my next date night with the wife. For the most part, I am satisfied. Living in Toms River does afford me a variety of dining choices, from eclectic local places to name-brand outfits. But every so often, as I’m sitting in a booth at Boston’s, I get a craving for a basket of stale popcorn, or I feel the urge to throw peanut shells on the floor. And every morning, as I brush my teeth, I wonder where I’d be without all those Roy Rogers cheeseburgers.