The first time I went to New York, I revealed my Minnesota origins with one simple request.
It happened at Chock Full O’Nuts, a coffee shop on Herald Square. The waitress brought my coffee in the style of the town — lukewarm, adulterated with milk, the cup half full, the rest in the saucer. When I was finished I flagged down the waitress and asked for a refill.
She gave me a look that suggested I’d asked her for a piggyback ride to the Bronx. “A … refill? What? You think coffee grows on trees or something? You mean you want to buy another cup?”
The idea that refills weren’t automatically forthcoming was something I hadn’t expected, because I came from a place where they put the entire pot on the table. It was there in that hot, loud, sticky, cramped, unfriendly coffee shop that I realized I’d been spoiled — by Perkins.
To paraphrase Marc Antony at Caesar’s funeral: I come not to praise Perkins, but to Twinberry it.
You may have heard the news: Perkins has declared bankruptcy for a second time. It’s not super-duper lethal bankruptcy, where the restaurants are closed, everything’s sold, the stores razed, the ground salted, etc. But it can’t be good. First Embers, now this?
Let’s get some facts out of the way:
1. Everyone has been to Perkins, even if you don’t remember ever going. You went there when you were a kid after church, or you ended up there at 2 a.m. one night in college, had an omelet the size of your forearm, and debated whether the Twinberry syrup meant fraternal twins or identical, because if it was the latter, then it was just, you know, berry syrup? But which berry?
You had a great night. You probably undertipped.
2. We think Perkins is ours, that it’s a Minnesota thing, but it isn’t. It started in Cincinnati. The headquarters is in Memphis, of all places, due to a 1979 purchase by Holiday Inn.
But it is ours, in a way. A Minnesota franchisee, Wyman Nelson, revved up the brand in the late 1960s when he combined it with the Smitty’s pancake chain. (They somehow refrained from using the slogan “Man, That’s a Smitty Pancake.”)
Nelson called the chain Perkins Cake and Steak and it thrived. By 1998, the year of co-founder Ivan Perkins’ death, there were over 450 locations.
It has 342 locations today.
How many are in Minneapolis? Take a guess. Wrong.
There are zero Perkins in Minneapolis. The last one, over by Augsburg University, closed this summer. That was my Perkins. Everyone over 40 probably has a personal Perkins. When you went to a Perkins that wasn’t yours, it felt like visiting an aunt’s house.
3. The company’s actual name is Perkins & Marie Callender’s Inc., because they also own another chain. If you’re curious: There was a real Marie Callender, who made pies. She lived in a California trailer park with her husband, Cal. (Yes, Cal Callender. You wonder if he considered selling pasta strainers that told you the date. It’s the Cal Callender Colander Calendar.)
4. The menu is different every time you go. I swear. What began as a simple laminated bill of fare turned into a novel, with all sorts of fancy iterations on the basic burger. I usually had the patty melt, which was a hamburger on two pieces of rye bread fried to the point where they were indistinguishable from a fossil in a museum case. Delicious!
Then the menu had changed, and nowhere within its innumerable pages could I find the patty melt. Asked the waitress. She said it was gone, and by her tone and expression I could tell there had been some pretty aggravated customers — by which I mean pursed lips and averted eyes and other signs of Minnesota rage.
She leaned close and whispered: “They can make you one if you want.”
They can? What, the cooks formed some underground resistance force, stockpiling rye? Do I need a password? “No,” she said, adding, “I don’t know how long they’ll do it, though.”
I understood. You can’t fight the home office forever. Someone would slip up, rat out the partisan chefs to management. The rye supply would dry up. (Pretty dry to begin with, to be honest.)
The next time I went to my Perkins, I ordered a patty melt without preamble, and the waitress didn’t blink an eye. Maybe she didn’t know it was gone. Maybe the cooks didn’t know it was gone.
Maybe we won’t know Perkins is gone until one day someone suggests a visit (it’s been a while, right?) and your Perkins is closed. That might not happen. The company said visits are up. I hope they persevere, even though I only eat there twice a year. If my Perkins closed I’d feel somewhat responsible.
Eventually, though, it will go away — and I say that in the sense that the sun will eventually go dark. All things end, and we mourn some because they seem an immutable part of the landscape. We like to think there will always be a bright oval in the sky that promises pancakes and a bottomless cup. If you finish off one carafe they’ll bring another, a caffeine cornucopia that flows forever.
If Perkins can go away, then so can we. Life is a short stack.