Lifelong friends Carl Birnberg and Henry Kristal seemingly did everything together.
They grew up in St. Paul and graduated from Central High School. They signed up for four-year tours of duty in the U.S. Navy. They attended the University of Minnesota. And when they decided to go into business together and open a restaurant, they did their research.
"We felt there was a vast middle ground of potential restaurant goers that wasn't being served by the expensive restaurants and the greasy spoons that existed then," Birnberg later recounted to the Minneapolis Tribune. "Our objective was to serve this middle ground with quality food at low prices."
Their Embers Broiler — later shortened to Embers — carved out a new niche in the local dining scene. When the restaurant opened on Minneapolis' E. Lake Street in October 1956, its tightly focused menu featured pancakes and eggs, sandwiches, charbroiled steaks and burgers.
As Embers spread like wildfire, Birnberg and Kristal, at ages 25 and 24, were among the region's most influential restaurateurs. By 1961, Embers was doing brisk business at eight locations, from Richfield to Anoka, Fridley to Crystal, St. Louis Park to Highland Park.
Ups and downs
The 1960s, '70s and '80s were the company's golden years. By 1972, Embers was hitting $6 million in sales. That's $36 million in 2021 dollars.
Along with approachable prices and 24-hour convenience, the restaurants stood out, literally, thanks to eye-catching architecture. Ski-slope rooflines and wide-open walls of glass grabbed the attention of passing motorists.
Those early Embers outlets would fit right into the midcentury modern mecca that is Palm Springs, Calif., but one example of this striking format has been preserved in Richfield. The 60-year-old building remains an effective calling card, luring diners into Andale Taqueria, a busy Mexican restaurant and market.
By the late 1970s, the design template had evolved but remained distinctive, and the buildings' outlines were as much an Embers signature as the Emberger Royal, the menu's famous bacon cheeseburger.
Upside-down billboards, an earworm of a jingle that encouraged everyone to "remember the Embers" and other quirky advertising strategies also deeply ingrained the chain into the dining-out habits of Twin Cities diners.
"On a 24-hour basis, we provide food that's good and wholesome and at a low price," Kristal told the Star Tribune in 1987. "This is a meeting place for a lot of people."
How many? In 1989, Kristal reported that the company's 28 restaurants in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas were serving 5 million customers a year.
But by 1997, Embers was losing money and market share. Birnberg retired and sold his interest in the company to Kristal, who teamed up with his son David in an effort to "rekindle the Embers."
They doubled down on training, refurbished worn-out facilities, boosted the advertising budget, tweaked the menu, shuttered underperforming locations and embarked on a franchising plan under a newly rebranded Embers America umbrella. Several dozen franchise operators signed on.
One of them was Joe Rickenbach, who bought a franchise in 1998.
Could there be a more quintessential Embers guy? He was 15 when he got his first Embers job, and met his future wife, Denise, in the mid-1980s when both were working at the Anoka Embers. The couple's five kids all labored in the family's Fridley franchise. Heck, Rickenbach's parents met while they were both on the Embers payroll.
"Marriages that start at Embers last a long time," Rickenbach said with a laugh. "Embers is all I know."
Ricky's Embers (the "Ricky" is his father's nickname) took over an existing Embers operation, and although Rickenbach eventually dropped the round-the-clock hours, the restaurant remained true to the company's ethos, Emberger Royals and all.
"Seventy percent of the menu was the same as it was 20 years ago," said Rickenbach.
Eventually, the Embers America reboot began to lose momentum, and one location after another called it quits. Rickenbach's popular franchise outlasted them all.
Ricky's Embers served its final Blockbuster Breakfast late last month. The building, a Central Avenue destination since 1965, is being replaced by a Bank of America branch, and Rickenbach, a familiar presence to his legions of devoted customers, is now looking forward to a well-earned retirement.
The place went out with a bang, inundated by a tsunami of nostalgia-hungry well-wishers. That's unusual devotion for a chain, but Ricky's Embers was carefully threaded with memorable touches that couldn't be found in a franchise handbook.
One example: Rickenbach cultivated rhubarb — transplanted, years ago, from a family member's South Dakota farm — on the edge of the parking lot. It was channeled into a popular crisp, a tribute to the single-serving pies that were an Embers specialty going back to the late 1950s.
"People loved it," he said. "They'd ask, 'Where did you get the rhubarb?' And we'd say, 'Right here.' "