Shakey's in Youngstown
If you’re wondering about the quality of the salad bar at the Youngstown, Ohio Shakey’s pizza parlor, I would ask you to wait a little while longer while I answer a more pressing question: who was “Shakey?”
Sherwood “Shakey” Johnson was born in 1925. He got his distinctive nickname in the Navy, after suffering a bout of malaria while serving in the Pacific. (No doubt the current Board of Directors would prefer its customers not think about malaria when dining at their restaurants, and a thorough examination of the Shakey’s we visited in Youngstown bore out this hypothesis. Nowhere in their literature or décor is malaria even mentioned. Hepatitis, on the other hand, is definitely hinted at, in a “read between the lines” kind of way.) Sherwood founded the first Shakey’s in 1954, and fifty years later it’s still going “strong.” I have to say “strong” in quotes because anybody who has been to a Shakey’s in the last forty seven of those fifty years knows that the franchise has fallen on some hard times. Some critics would say that it’s because Shakey’s restaurants are “disgusting,” but I think the answer lies deeper in the American psyche. Somewhere along the line, sometime between “I like Ike” and “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” Americans seem to have inexplicably lost their love for Dixieland themed pizza parlors. How and why this happened I can not say, but if attendance at Shakey’s the night we went is any indication, the trend may be irreversible.
The family and myself were certainly expecting a livelier crowd than the one that greeted us the night we went to Shakey’s. A sign outside read “Welcome Rodriguez Birthday.” “Feliz cumpleanos!,” I taught my son on the way in, expecting to find a raging pizza fiesta within. No such luck.
Either the Rodriguez party had already finished their merrymaking or was still at some distant, far-off time in Pizza Futureland. There was no birthday party when we arrived. Nor were there “customers” in any traditional sense of the word; yes, there were a few other people there, but none of them seemed to be eating any actual pizza. Two surly-looking teenage boys in XXL t-shirts bearing the visages of various professional wrestlers were sipping soda pop and saying things like, “He better not show his fucking face at school tomorrow.” Response: “Right?” Elsewhere in the restaurant, a young mother was rocking a baby to sleep in a car carrier. Why she was doing this in a Shakey’s was never explained to me, and I never thought to ask her, although perhaps the baby found the Ashlee Simpson song blaring from the jukebox soothing. (I know I did.) And then there was us. My kids were starving from our “walking tour of distressed properties” earlier in the day and were in no mood for dilly-dallying. The wanted their pizza and they wanted it NOW. As for the wife and me, we were in the mood for one of those quiet, romantic dinners that Youngstown, Ohio is famous for. Choosing Shakey’s was definitely win/win. The kids got what they wanted: lots and lots of pizza warmed under a heat lamp, while the wife and I also got what we wanted: candlelight, A.S. on the jukebox, and hand jobs under the table.
Shakey’s was a hit pretty much from the get-go. Only three years after opening the first Shakey’s in Sacramento, California, Mr. Johnson was already franchising his restaurant concept, and by the time he sold his interest in the company in 1967, there were 272 Shakey’s in the United States. Wow. Soon the company began expanding outside the US, first to Canada, and eventually throughout the Pacific Rim. Now Shakey’s is even more popular in Japan and the Phillipines than it is here! Don’t believe me? Check out http://www.rkfs.co.jp/shakeys.html. Perusing Shakey’s Japanese homepage, I noticed the following phrase: “Casual Pizza Viking.” What a wonderful word combination! Inexplicable, yes, but fantastic in a way that only Asian people can make our language. No wonder Shakey’s is so popular with our yellow friends. Who else but the Japanese would think to combine casual + pizza + Viking? Casual + pizza? Yes. Casual + Viking? Absolutely. But all three? That is some serious “out of the box” thinking. This is exactly why they are kicking our asses in math and science.
Also on their homepage, the caption “World’s Greatest Pizza” beneath a photo of a pizza garnished with tomatoes, onions, shrimp, and corn. Again, out of the box thinking paying big dividends. If you ever find wondering how the Prius came to be, I would simply refer you to that photograph of the world’s greatest pizza. What would Sherwood Johnson think about his restaurant serving Casual Pizza Viking to the very people he was trying to kill during the war? I choose to think he would be pleased because I choose to believe that anybody with the nickname Shakey would be a peace-loving man. I also choose to think that fighting for the American way included a belief in fighting for capitalism, which allowed this transnational experiment (an Italian food served to the Japanese by an American of Norwegian descent). Of course I cannot know Shakey’s feelings on the subject for sure because he died from a heart attack in 1998, and although I looked for past interviews with him I could not find any, presumably because nobody wanted to talk to him.
(There is, however, a book entitled “Shakey & Me,” by Burt Wilson a longtime friend of Johnson’s, which can be purchased by sending a $13.00 check to the author at: 10234 Daniel Way Rancho Cordova, CA 95670.)
Back to Youngstown, where I immediately noticed that our menu lacked the “world’s greatest pizza.” In fact, not only was the pizza I saw pictured on the Japanese homepage absent from my menu, but I couldn’t even construct my own, as neither shrimp nor corn appeared on the list of pizza toppings. Apparently, the “world’s greatest pizza” cannot be had in the world’s greatest country, the United States of America. What kind of bullshit is that? I asked my waitress Rhonda about why Japanese Shakey’s customers are treated so much better than their American counterparts. She claimed to be ignorant about anything regarding Shakey’s international operations. So be it; I was in the mood for salad, anyway. Which brings me to the answer of my opening question. For those of you wondering about the quality of the salad bar at the Youngstown, Ohio Shakey’s pizza parlor, I can answer with a single adjective: wilty.
The mistake I think they made was putting the salad under the same heat lamps as the pizza. Maybe this saves money on sneeze guards, since they are able to use fewer of guards if all the food is clustered in a single area, but what they are saving in sneeze guard costs, I think they are probably more than losing in wilty lettuce and warm Ranch dressing costs. Maybe they like their salad warm in Ohio, I don’t know. But I do know that Ranch dressing only keeps for so long under sustained heat, a lesson I learned the hard way that night and most of the following day.
My wife had better luck by abstaining from any food at all, taking a cue from Jeremy and Brian (the two surly teenagers who turned out to be very nice), and sticking with soft drinks. Again, this decision was win/win, as her not eating cut down on both my financial outlay and my wife’s caloric intake. (If you’ve seen my wife, you know why this is a good idea.) The kids were also content with their pizza, and didn’t even seem disappointed when I pointed out that they were missing out on the world’s greatest pizza due to the lack of crustaceans and corn. At the time, their shoulder shrugging was a source of relief, but as they get older, I hope they stop being such namby-pamby pushovers.
The Shakey’s pizza corporation has fallen on hard times on recent years. After a series of buyouts from various corporate entities, they have recently rolled out a “refreshed concept that embraces [Shakey’s] heritage while modernizing the aesthetics, service system and overall Shakey's experience to meet the needs of time–pressed busy families.” Visitors to Auburn, Alabama can check out this new concept firsthand. Fans of the popular game rooms at Shakey’s need not worry. According to the August 31, 2006 edition of “Pizza Marketplace” magazine, the revamped Shakey’s restaurants will preserve the game rooms, but will keep the area separated by a “glass wall.” This is EXACTLY the problem I have at Chuck E. Cheese’s. I love the pizza, but the noise from the games drives me crazy! I’m glad somebody finally got this right.
Fifty years after its humble beginnings, Sherwood Johnson’s fantastic creation lives on. Like any fifty-year-old, Shakey’s is experiencing growing pains, but I suspect that better days are ahead for this heralded pizza franchise. As for my family and myself, it is difficult to make the same prediction. Anybody who vacations in Youngstown, Ohio is by defintion, probably past the point of redemption.