Monday, May 20, 2019

Broken Chain: Bonanza Steakhouse, Tupelo, MS

Today's post highlights Lee County, MS, retail.

Hi everyone - welcome to the first Mid-South Retail Blog post of summer 2019! (Well... close to it, anyway. Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start to the season, is still a few days away, but hey, it never hurts to get a head start!)

You'll note that today's post again falls under the Lost Histories of Mid-South Retail banner, but if you look closely at my graphic, you'll see a new component: this post is labeled specifically as "Broken Chains Edition." The term "broken chain" comes from the Broken Chains Blog, operated by Zap Actionsdower, a super talented author as well as a connoisseur of meals from restaurants that meet the namesake definition. Zap first articulated this definition, incidentally, in a post describing the history of Bonanza and Ponderosa (the former of which will be our subject today):

A business which, at some point in its history, had multiple, similarly-functioning, physical locations where a customer could purchase goods and/or services, and which presently has a significantly diminished presence and/or value as a brand compared to the same brand in its heyday.

This definition need not apply exclusively to restaurants, of course. But it does seem that restaurants are the more prevalent retail subcategory to meet the definition of a broken chain, and where restaurants are indeed concerned, very commonly if the chain in question is "broken" enough, there is very little corporate oversight (if a "corporate" even remains at all!). This, in turn, means that the local operators are left to run their restaurants as they see fit, which can result in varying menu items, food qualities, and general atmospheres - sometimes to high degrees - at locations that otherwise bear the same name. If the remaining outposts are far enough apart, locals may not even realize that other restaurants which bear the same name actually exist... but if they do ever happen to encounter one such additional "link" in the broken chain (as it were), they would likely be in for a surprise at all the differences they would experience!

If you're not yet familiar with the Broken Chains Blog, I highly recommend you subscribe to it and regularly check out Zap's posts. Like, seriously. If you could only fit one more blog into your reading schedule, I'd tell you to choose his over mine. It's that good.

...That said, I of course hope you've got enough room to read both of our blogs (!), and to that end I would like to mention that I do have a handful more of these "Broken Chains Edition" Lost Histories posts up my sleeve for future entries. I'm using the term with permission from Zap, who told me, "I'd be into the term 'broken chain' entering the vernacular to refer to the types of places I like to visit and write about." (Since that time, he has gone on to create an online store featuring fancy merchandise capitalizing on the blog's name, so I hope he's still good with that decision!) For those of you who are already familiar with Zap's blog and have been for a good while now, perhaps you'll recognize that my use of a styrofoam cup in my new graphic above is an homage to the previous Broken Chains Blog header image, before Zap adopted a new, dedicated logo.

The image of the Tupelo Bonanza that was used on the official Bonanza website's store locator page. Courtesy Bonanza Steakhouse

With all that out of the way, let's now move into today's subject: the final Bonanza Steakhouse to be located south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Owner John Mason opened the Tupelo, Mississippi, Bonanza Steakhouse in 1973, one of twelve locations he would ultimately operate at one time. Mason in 1989 even became an area developer for the brand, but over the years sold his other restaurants, leaving the Tupelo location his last. The Bonanza brand, founded in 1963 and boasting around 600 locations at its peak, similarly expanded and contracted in the decades that followed (and experienced several ownership changes and a Chapter 11 reorganization to boot; for more on the chain's history, reference Zap's post linked earlier), and by 2016 the Tupelo restaurant was one of only twelve left nationwide. Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal writer Dennis Seid ran a profile on the restaurant at this time:

The Bonanza brand - now officially called Bonanza Steak & BBQ - is owned by Homestyle Dining, based in Plano, Texas. [In 2017, after Seid's article was written, ownership changed hands to FAT Brands - ed.] But the company's reach only comes so far. 
"We've basically been on our own," said owner John Mason, who was once the largest Bonanza franchise owner in the country. 
"They don't give a whole lot of direction, but they'll argue with you," Mason said with a laugh, referring to Homestyle. "But they do supply us with some things through their purchasing program, including being on a national meat contract."
But because of the distance between Tupelo and Texas, as well as the other remaining locations, Mason's 160-seat store has pretty much been allowed to run almost autonomously. 
"We still pay our royalty check every month: in fact, we've never missed a payment; we've never not paid a bill," Mason said. "I'm pretty proud of that."

Obviously, then, it is clear that the Tupelo Bonanza serves as a prime example of a broken chain: the parent company gave little oversight, remaining locations were few and far between, and each individual restaurant had a fair amount of leeway in how they ran things. The fact that they were able to operate for so long, with increasingly diminishing corporate support, indicates that Mason and his Tupelo cohort - including general manager Marshall Cotton, who had been there for 41 years; steak chef Albert Fears, who had been there since the very beginning in 1973; head prep cook Gaye Edwards, who had been there for 35 years; and more - had found the recipes, literally and figuratively, for success. This leeway and comfort with their longtime, popular approach is further demonstrated in the restaurant's response to a potential challenge which arose in 2015 when Homestyle Dining "announced a 'new era' for Bonanza with a menu that offered more southern-style barbecue offerings in addition to its famous steaks" and sought to "'transform [Bonanza] into a modern, full-service concept' built around a butcher house theme." As Seid reported, the Tupelo Bonanza was unfazed:

Mason and Cotton didn't blink. They know their customers and what they expect and haven't adopted all the changes. ... Diners still walk through a line at the Tupelo Bonanza, where they pick up a tray and silverware, order off the big menu board and pay at the end of the line. Their orders are brought out to them not long after they come off the grill. 
"People are used to that," Cotton said. "We've stuck with what has gotten us here. I guess you could call us mavericks."

The article also notes that "Mason leaves the day-to-day operations up to Cotton," saying, "This is his as long as he wants it. If there ever comes a time we can't pay the bills, it'll be time to close."

I'm not sure if the time where they couldn't pay the bills ever came. But the time to close did nevertheless.

Courtesy Dennis Seid

On August 22, 2018, accompanied by the above photo of the restaurant's exterior, Seid posted to his BizBuzz blog the news that "After 45 years, Bonanza Steakhouse in Tupelo is winding down." By this point, Bonanza had whittled down to only ten locations in the continental US, and following Tupelo's closure as well as one in Lincoln, Illinois, in the same timeframe, would wind up with just eight present-day. Here is an excerpt from Seid's report explaining the decision to close:

Owner John Mason confirmed that the building is under contract to be sold to Dollar General Corp., which has filed plans to build a store on the property at 550 N. Gloster St. in Tupelo. 
"It's not a done deal, but it's all but finished," said Mason, who opened the restaurant in 1973. "We've been working on it since about January, and they'll have to tear the building down." 
Plans have been filed with the city's planning department by Dollar General, which estimates construction cost of around $900,000. 
[Mason] admits the concept has gotten old, and diners' tastes and habits have changed. 
"It's time to go," he said. "It really is bittersweet. This has been a great store for us." 
Employees have been told of the impending closure, but Mason said most have taken it well and have remained on the job. There's no timeline as to when the restaurant will close and when Dollar General will take over the site.

As it happens, that time would arrive just one month later, when on September 24, 2018, the Tupelo Bonanza posted to its Facebook page, "This is our final week." (Unfortunately, the Facebook page has since been disabled, but their Twitter post remains intact.) Wrote Seid, "The restaurant plans to close Sunday [September 30, 2018] but could shut down earlier if the remaining inventory runs out."

Screengrab from a news report on Bonanza's closure. Courtesy WTVA

Roadside sign at the Tupelo Bonanza, as seen in 2014. Courtesy SomePhotosTakenByMe on flickr

The news of Bonanza's closure was so big, evidently, that it even made it into an Associated Press article. A further, final article by Seid serves as one last profile of the restaurant and, in particular, its loyal employees and customers, as well as the relationships that had developed among them all. I won't quote much from this piece - besides to say that Mason elaborated "It's a good decision, especially with my health, and I'm 84" - but I do encourage you to read it for yourself here. Perhaps the final lines of that article serve as the best summary of the bittersweet nature of the closure:

"I've even taken Albert fishing," [longtime customer Johnny Bevels] said. "I got his phone number so I could take him again." 
It's that kind of friendship and loyalty that the folks at Bonanza have long fostered and appreciated, which makes closing the restaurant that much more difficult. 
"You try to find words, but you don't know what to say," Cotton said. "We all realize it's time ... I hate we have to do what we have to do, but it's really hard. All good things come to an end."


I first encountered the Tupelo Bonanza in the summer of 2016, snapping the above drive-by photo as I passed the restaurant. I was immersed enough in the retail scene at this point to understand that Bonanza - and its sister brand, Ponderosa - was (were) becoming increasingly rare, but I was not familiar with the significance of the Tupelo location specifically (it being the last remaining Bonanza south of the Mason-Dixon Line), nor was I aware that the number of Bonanza restaurants totaled in at a mere twelve (at that time) within the continental US. Two years later, upon learning of the Tupelo location's impending closure - and having become more well-versed in the magnitude of the situation - I made sure to travel down to Tupelo on September 7, 2018, to visit the restaurant. My photos follow.

These first images are some views from the road as we approached the restaurant. I visited here with my parents for a nice family meal - that seemed in line with the atmosphere of Bonanza as I had heard it described in those articles I'd read beforehand. We had been putting off the visit for a little while, given that there was no sense of urgency (after all, up to this point the only news was that they'd be closing eventually, with no timetable put in place yet and an assurance that "It's going to be business as usual until we hear otherwise"). I'm very grateful we went when we did, as it would be mere weeks later that the restaurant would close for good, with relatively short notice (at least, as it applies to an out-of-towner who only has the weekends free for such a trip!).

The side of the restaurant is rather nondescript compared to the front. Parking could be found on either side of the building, but was limited in front, as the building was placed extremely close to the street. Whether this was always the case or if the road had simply expanded in width over the years, inching closer to the building, I'm not sure.

Some views of the front of the building show how close the road sign is to the storefront, and the proximity of the street as well. This building is clearly done up in a recognizable barn style commonly used by Bonanza restaurants around the country, although I doubt this is the only style ever used by the chain. Does anyone know if this is the original style, or if the first buildings bore a different design? Given that this building opened ten years after the chain's founding, I feel it could go either way on that front.


Entering the restaurant, you are herded into a small vestibule. The exit door opens into the vestibule on the left, so the only other option is to hang a right. Doing so takes you down a defined corridor around the front right corner all the way to the back right corner, where the order counter is located. Along the way you pass the specials board (the second image above). At the order counter itself, the true menu board can be found (the third image), as well as a fun "Welcome Pardners" sign, to go with the Western motif. (Bonanza, of course, is based on the TV show of the same name.)

These are some (attempted) views from the corridor/order line into the main dining area. It's rather difficult to describe this restaurant's layout in full, but I'll try my best... Imagine a smaller square within a larger square: the smaller square comprises the hot food bar, salad bar, and a limited selection of seating, while the outer ring (as it were) formed by the larger square is the pathway from the entrance, to the order counter, to the exit (moving counterclockwise). Additional seating could be found in separate "rooms" located in offshoots from this main area, but I unfortunately did not explore those thoroughly, as we chose to sit in this central area in order to be close to the food bars (which are what we had chosen and paid for as our meals).

Speaking of payment, that took place at the end of the order counter, in the back left corner of the "squares" I described above. The progression went from placing your order, to filling your drinks and picking up a tray, to paying at the register, running from right to left along the rear wall. Sadly, my image here came out thoroughly blurred, but I thought it was interesting to see the "newer" Bonanza logo present here, since so much of the restaurant's décor seemed to still be stuck in the 1970s!

On that note, here are some views from within the "inner square," showing the salad bar as well as some of the cool, unique décor, surely dating back to the restaurant's opening day. This includes two awesome stained glass panels engraved with the brand's first initial, as well as a large BONANZA logo placed on that overhang above the order counter. Oh - and wood paneling. Lots and lots of wood paneling.

We took our seat in the very back right booth available, affording me a good overview of the central dining area and food bars, as well as that logo'd overhang if I twisted around to take a look at it. I won't lie - the lighting inside this place was dim enough to interfere with the quality of my photos. But regardless, I think all in all they turned out fairly well. I definitely wanted to be sure to document as much of this place as I could, with both this location closing and the brand in general being a dying breed.

Courtesy Google Maps

Image source unknown

Since they of course are the stars of the show food-wise, here are some views of the hot food bar and the salad bar. (Sadly, I did not get any good pictures of the dessert bar, which was placed right next to the hot food bar.) They all were pretty immaculate, and well-stocked insofar as none of the food containers seemed empty. I also thought the "Country Charm" buffet unit used for the hot food bar was interesting, the way the food containers were simply placed within the open space rather than into specific, defined compartments, as in the salad bar.

I'm no Instagrammer, but I thought I'd be remiss if I didn't share with y'all some pics of the delicious food I enjoyed while I was here! I realized halfway through my first plate from the buffet that I forgot to take a picture of it beforehand, so I was forced to go back for a second plate in order to get the top photo... oh darn :P  Of course, by the time I finished that plate I was pretty full, but I still didn't want to pass up the dessert opportunities, so I went ahead and got the plate you see in the bottom photo, but as I recall I didn't wind up finishing much of it. And I didn't try the salad bar at all, but according to my mom who did, it was pretty good as well.

The hot food bar was unique in that, at a place like this, you would normally expect fried chicken - in various cuts - to be a staple... but at Bonanza, it's chicken wings and chicken wings only. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of chicken wings, but let me tell you - these were great! In Dennis Seid's words, these wings "have a thick, tasty batter that even a certain Kentucky colonel would likely envy." That said, at any place that serves meat and veggie plates like this I've always been inclined to like the veggies better, and Bonanza was no exception. I can't describe my meals in as great a detail as Zap is known to do, but the green beans, corn, mashed potatoes and gravy, pinto beans (I think they were), and cabbage were all wonderful. The only thing I remember not liking as much was that odd potato thing on the left (I don't even know what to call it, sorry!). And as for the little bit I sampled of those three desserts - apple cobbler, banana pudding, and peach cobbler - they were all delectable, too.

A comment card was placed on our table, as is common at some restaurants out there. What's not quite as common is to see the card filled out! A customer who had evidently sat at this table before us (whose name I blurred out) left a kind note asking the Tupelo Bonanza, "Please don't go!!" I guess the staff isn't used to seeing these cards actually filled out, as it was still sitting on our table some length of time later...

This is literally the same image, just edited four different ways :P  I had some fun playing around with my photo editor to see how all the different effects looked once they were applied to these images. In this particular view - looking from our booth toward the food bars - the wood paneling, stained glass piece, and natural light coming in from the front windows all added some interesting elements to the image.


These three views from my seat take a look at the other seats around me, including those to my right and those straight in front of me. I'm particularly happy with how the bottom image turned out - there's just something about the way that that light reflects off the wood paneling :)

You'll note that my images are people-free for the most part, but that's because I selected these ones specifically; some others I captured did indeed have other customers in them (and in fact, I had to wait to take the two photos looking straight out from my booth until a party seated in another booth in my camera's line of sight finished their meals and left). That said, though, the restaurant did indeed feel like it had a rather light crowd at the time of my visit. I chalk that up to visiting at an odd time, the 3:00 hour on a Friday afternoon. (If my experience at the now-former Spaghetti Warehouse in Memphis is any indication, I'm sure business here picked up substantially once the final week announcement was made!)

Once again glancing from my seat back toward the menu board and the Bonanza logo overhang, as well as one shot up toward the ceiling, just because. The ceiling tiles, I believe, were all painted black, although they somehow seem to have come out with a red hue in my images. (Like I said, the lighting here sort of messed with my photos.) You can also somewhat make out the shape of the barn-style roof, but the dip down above the food bars in the center diminishes the effect.

At the same time I was capturing these close-ups of one of the stained glass pieces, and playing around with the effects on my photo editor... dad had wandered off to find the restroom, and happened upon this large offshoot dining room somewhere near the back of the building! He kindly captured these photos for me (and, by extension, you readers :) ). Almost certainly this is where customers come to sit during peak hours, when the crowds are high. This room also has a somewhat more modern feel than the parts of the restaurant I saw, given the higher ceiling and better lighting, although I don't have any reason to believe it's not original to the building. In fact, judging by that roofline, I'd say it's smack in the middle beneath that barn roof!

Another, narrower offshoot dining room was located along the left wall of the building, near the exit. I was hoping to get a photo of the length of the room, but some customers were seated in here eating, and I didn't want them to think I was taking a photo of them. But there was no way I was leaving without first capturing a shot of this awesome Bonanza logo mirror! This is a super cool piece that I would have loved to own, had I been given the chance. It's also one of two identical pieces, placed on either end of this particular dining room. Owner John Mason can be seen in front of the other mirror in this image.

Placed right beside the exit, echoing the fun sentiment seen at the order counter with the "Welcome Pardners" sign, was this sign, telling customers "Thanks A Heap" for visiting the Tupelo Bonanza. No - thank you! It was our pleasure :)

Headed back outside, here are some more shots of the building, including both close-ups and some scenes captured from the sidewalk out front, as far away from the storefront as I could get (I told you the building was placed super close to the street!). Of note, some of the same wood paneling and corrugated metal as we saw on the interior seems to be mirrored on the façade here!

Some final, parting wide views of the building, as we drove past it again at the start of our journey back home. Like I said, we made a special trip out here to visit this place, unsure if it would last long enough to still be alive and kicking on our next visit to Tupelo, which usually takes place each summer. As it turned out, we were very fortunate to visit when we did, with the restaurant closing down for good just weeks later, Sunday, September 30, 2018, slated to be the final day. Although I heard nothing about it (it would have been cool to try and stop by once again, had I known!), it appears an auction took place not long after that on Thursday, October 11, conducted by Taggart Auction & Real Estate, Inc. Then, on Wednesday, January 9, 2019, the former Tupelo Bonanza Steakhouse restaurant was demolished.

Courtesy WTVA

Courtesy @djournalnow on Twitter

Courtesy @djournalnow on Twitter
The bottom two images of the building's demolition come from the Daily Journal, which did not run a full article on the event but did post the pictures to its Twitter account. The top image, meanwhile, is a still from a WTVA report on the demolition. The full video from that report, which features more imagery of the demolition, can be viewed here. Word of the demolition even spread to such outlets as Do You Remember? and MeTV.

Soon after the demolition, Dollar General commenced construction on their new building at the site. I'm unsure when exactly that work began, or when it wrapped up and the store held its grand opening, but it appears to be open today - according to the Dollar General store locator, 550 N. Gloster St. in Tupelo is Dollar General #20273. (Despite this, the store does not yet have an official Google Maps location page.) After some digging, I was finally able to come across the above two images - which, if I'm not mistaken, appear to be screenshots from Snapchat - posted to the former Bonanza's "place" page on Facebook by a local user. The left image bears a date of March 12, 2019, while the right image was taken April 21. Regardless of the exact opening date, as of this writing, the new Dollar General must be less than a month old - a far cry from the 45 years the site was occupied by Tupelo's beloved Bonanza.


With that, I'll wrap up this post. I hope you enjoyed this look back at the now-former Tupelo Bonanza, one of the final outposts of a restaurant brand which was once much more prevalent. "Thanks A Heap" for reading, and please let me know in the comments what you think of this new Lost Histories - Broken Chains Edition series. I hope to have more of these posts coming your way in the future, as well as plenty more content over the course of this summer as well. Until next time, then, and as always... have fun exploring the retail world wherever you are!

Retail Retell