First was Nathan's. Everyone here in the tri-state area knows Nathan's hot dogs of Coney Island. To truly enjoy Nathan's you should visit the original Coney Island location. Now, it's not quite the same as it was 40+ years ago but there is still something about the original location that simply can't be transformed into an airport or mall food court. The original location has a certain ambiance that remains regardless of the deterioration of the surrounding neighborhood. The look of the original boardwalk location coupled with the unforgettable smells wafting from the deep fryers and griddles simply can't be reproduced. You need to be in Coney Island to appreciate it in it's intended state. The smell of the air off the water puts you in a different mindset that perhaps transforms you back to simple childhood days visiting the beach. The frys are always piping hot and much crisper than the franchise locations as well as the hot dogs having that crisp texture that almost snap when you bite into them. Slathering on the mustard from the original tap is also a small perk that adds to the experience.
While flying home from Miami a few months ago my son and I arrived at the airport, and with only a short time before boarding and decided to grab some fast food. I saw Nathan's and figured we would have a few dogs before getting on the plane. What a mistake! The dogs were rubbery, the chili was thick like glue and the fries were oil soaked and limp. This has never been my experience at the original location. Why is it that something I remember as being so good was so bad? The answer is that people simply don't understand that you can't always replicate, in vast numbers, quality, atmosphere and memorable food. Institutions are meant to be stand alone locations. Sometimes, in busy metropolitan areas such as NYC, multiple locations can work but as soon as they are franchised out to other areas the quality starts to diminish.
Here's another example; Papaya King. My kids called it 50 cent hot dogs. Whenever my son and I would go into NYC we would go for 50 cent hot dogs. Of course we were going to Papaya King. There are many spread out in NYC. Most of them are OK but visit one outside the city and you have a completely different experience. Again the dogs are rubbery, the chili was thick like glue and the fries never as good as the NYC locations.After these two experiences I had to rush back to Journal Square, in Jersey City, to visit Boulevard Drinks, next to the Lowe's Theater, to suck down 4 chili dogs, a hand pumped orangeade and a container of chili to go. Still the same as I remember as a kid when my Dad's friend owned it. The only difference is that these days I have to pay. Years ago we never paid.
Here's something else to think about, Italian ice. We all know the Rita's Italian Ice franchise. Is it ever as good as Kaye's nut shop was on Central Avenue in Jersey City, or how about DiCosimo's in Elizabeth or the original Grillo's when it was in Plainfield and not to forget Mimi's in Roselle? If you have ever been to any of these places the answer is, not in a million years.
We need more little businesses that become institutions instead of franchises that pretend to have character. Pay a visit to your local favorite before someone gets the bright idea to try and franchise them. Patronize your favorite local eating establishments or they will go away only to be replaced by production line substandard places that are simply not memorable.