Over the past year, Road Tips entries have been picked up by or linked to a handful of web sites or forums on the Internet. As I keep telling myself that I'd like to slow down a bit from the pace at which I write, the popularity of this blog has risen tremendously over the past few months. With that said, recently an entry was picked up by an Ottumwa High School alumni site for my original post on the Canteen Lunch (see that post here).
That entry was received by Ottumwans with much derision and scorn. Everything from my taste buds to my sanity was questioned in comments on Road Tips and e-mails that I received from Ottumwans who were upset that I dared to say that while the Canteen burger was good, I preferred the taste of the Newton Maid-Rite better.
Now, I've known a few Ottumwans in my life and one thing I'll say about people from Ottumwa is that they are highly defensive of their city. Ottumwa is a hard-scrabble river town that has fallen on hard economic times over the past few years. While it may have been an OK place to grow up, Ottumwa - like my hometown of Newton - is not the same town as it was 30 years ago. But people from the area seem to be overly protective of all things Ottumwa when it comes to discussions about their hometown. "Yes, Ottumwa is a dreary town," I can hear them say. "But it's OUR dreary town!"
You gotta love people like that. I view people from Ottumwa as being "glass half-full" kind of people. They're always looking on the bright side of life.
Most of the responses and comments I received after the original Canteen Lunch entry had to do with the difference between Maid-Rites and the Canteen burger - which are, basically, the same thing. The big difference is taste with many Maid-Rites versus the Canteen. And there seemed to be some confusion as to the "real" Maid-Rites and the "new" Maid-Rites that have popped up over the past 25 years. So, for the benefit of those who think all Maid-Rites are alike I'd like to give a little background on the original Maid-Rites and the "new" Maid-Rites that are out there.
The original Maid-Rite was founded in 1926 by Fred Angell in Muscatine, IA. Angell sold his first franchise to a lady in Newton in 1927 for $300. A year later, Clifford Taylor, a Newton resident, bought the rights to put a Maid-Rite in Marshalltown. The Muscatine location closed down in 1997, but the Newton (pictured at right) and Marshalltown (Taylor's Maid-Rite) locations are still going strong today.
In 1982, the Angell family sold the franchise rights to Clayton Blue and John Gillotti who had big plans to take the Maid-Rite chain nationwide. But nothing materialized as a court battle ensued after John Gillotti died in 1991. Blue - who had left Maid-Rite after defaulting on contract payments in partnership with Gillotti - said that he was the rightful owner of the Maid-Rite franchises. But the courts ruled against Blue's claim saying that the contract appeared to be tampered with.
In 2002, the Gillotti family sold the Maid-Rite franchise to Bradley Burt, a former banker and marketing manager who the Gillotti's had brought in years prior to help shore up the sagging Maid-Rite name which had dipped to under 100 locations in the Midwest. Burt immediately decided that all Maid-Rite franchises needed to have continuity and standardization. He began to pressure franchise owners over contract issues that were either not enforced or were loosely followed over the years. He also wanted all Maid-Rites to buy pre-cooked meat from the Des Moines headquarters so there would be a uniformed taste with all Maid-Rites.
A number of Maid-Rite franchises closed down, worried that they'd either have to move their operations to larger buildings or to buy new equipment to bring their restaurant up to new Maid-Rite standards. However, the Maid-Rite "outlaws" - including Dan Holtkamp's Maid-Rite in Newton and Taylor's Maid-Rite - continued to do their own "thing", including grinding and cooking their own meat. The original Maid-Rite locations were grandfathered in to non-existing standards allowing them to continue to operate as a independent franchises without paying royalties or franchise fees to Burt's corporation.
Now, I'm going to interject some opinion in this story at this point. The Maid-Rite franchises that follow the rules and contractual obligations of the Maid-Rite Corporation aren't very good. The pre-cooked meat is micro-waved and served as customers order and it's lifeless in taste. A number of Maid-Rite franchises have opened and closed within their first year. It is not the same Maid-Rite as many Iowans - or Midwesterners - have grown up with.
In 1982, Maid-Rite franchises began to pop up in the Quad Cities area. And even to my "questionable taste-buds" the ones in the Quad Cities aren't very good. They seem to be following the course put forth by the Maid-Rite corporation, but I believe they are still steaming their own meat. And the meat they use doesn't taste very good. The Maid-Rites in the Quad Cities are nowhere as close in taste and freshness as the ones in Newton and Marshalltown. (Ross' Restaurant in Bettendorf - which used to be a Maid-Rite location years ago - still makes the best Maid-Rite-style sandwiches in the Quad Cities. And I've come up with a recipe using chicken broth, cooked onions and some seasoning that comes damn close to the taste of Maid-Rites in Newton and Marshalltown. See that recipe here.)
One exception seems to be the Marion Maid-Rite, which opened in 1986. I've had a Maid-Rite there on a couple occassions and it tastes pretty darn good. It's probably the best of all the "franchise" Maid-Rite's I've eaten at. (And, to my knowledge, it's the only one that serves beer. I've never had a beer with a Maid-Rite and I'm not certain it would taste that good together.)
Burt put additional pressure on Taylor's Maid-Rite in 2006 by writing to the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals to say that Taylor's was not in compliance with state law with the way they prepare and hold their meat for serving. Taylor's holds cooked meat at one end of the steamer table while they put raw meat in the other end to begin the cooking process. The Newton Maid-Rite does the same thing, but uses a metal partition between the two sides that can be lifted out and moved across the steamer depending on how much cooked meat they have. The Canteen Lunch does the same thing in Ottumwa.
Burt wanted to know why Taylor's was allowed to continue to cook their meat that way, possibly introducing e-coli into the meat - and the Iowa D.I.A. decided that he was right. Taylor's had been in business since 1928, but there had never been a complaint about food poisoning from their restaurant.
Long story short - the Iowa legislature got involved and voted to strike down an amendment that would allow Taylor's to continue to cook the way they have for over 80 years. Taylor's Maid-Rite is still fighting in court.
If you can tell by now, I'm much more partial to places like the original Maid-Rites, the Canteen Lunch and Ross' in Bettendorf. They continue to do things the way they've done them for years - and they all taste better than any of the current Maid-Rite Corporation operations.
So, with that little bit of history out of the way, I had been back to the Canteen Lunch on a couple occasions since my original visit about 3 1/2 years ago. People from Ottumwa continued to rave about the Canteen burgers, but, once again, I didn't think they were any better than the ones in Newton. Don't get me wrong, they were very good. But they weren't the best loose-meat sandwich I've ever had.
After the Canteen Lunch entry was linked to the Ottumwa Alumni site, I told a couple people that I was going to go back and do a more in-depth feature on the place. I was driving home from Kansas City recently and I decided to go across Southern Iowa on Highway 34 which would put me in the Ottumwa area around 1:30 on afternoon.
The story of the Canteen Lunch starts back in the 1930's when the little eatery was opened in an alley between S. Court and S. Market, just off W. 2nd St. (see map). Actually, the original Canteen was a five seat diner in a different location before moving to their present location. In 1976, Earnest and Shirlee McBeth, Shirlee's sister and brother-in-law bought the Canteen. Shirlee was a hairdresser by trade, but took over the day-to-day operation of the Canteen. Shirley and Earnest eventually bought out her sister and brother-and-law and continues to run the business to this day.
The charm and history of the place was more than evident a number of years ago when the City of Ottumwa wanted to build a parking ramp on the spot where the Canteen Lunch stood. There was such an outcry from the locals that the city decided to build the parking ramp AROUND the small building. The power of the people!
The Canteen is very small - only about 12 to 15 seats around a semi-oval counter. In my previous entry, I noted that there were five ladies behind the counter, each of them were no younger than their mid-50's. I was criticized for that comment by a couple people, saying that there were younger ladies than that working behind the counter. On my recent visit, I will stand corrected. There appeared to be one lady who wasn't under the age of 45 while the others behind the counter had to be well into their 60's. However, one young lady - looked like she was in her 30's - came out from the backroom at one point. So, no, not everyone is old who works at the Canteen Lunch.
Lunch time can be pretty crazy at the Canteen, but since it was well past 1 p.m. when I got in I was able to find a seat at the counter. Now, I did this little faux pas last time I was in and didn't remember the procedure. I ordered two "Canteens" with cheese. The lady said, "We only serve one at a time. If you want another one after the first one, we'll get it for you." They keep 'em fresh that way. I immediately showed that I was not a regular in the place.
She brought the first one to me, wrapped and tucked in the wax paper. Like any Maid-Rite sandwich, the loose meat was falling off the sides of the bun. Now, before my first visit to the Canteen Lunch, I was told by a friend of mine from Ottumwa, John Stewart, who now lives in Florida, that I could easily eat three of these things. On my first visit, I had one (because I'd had one in Newton about an hour before and wanted to do a taste comparison with the Canteen burger), but I had two on my previous visits - which was more than enough for me. The "Canteen" was large and meaty, very flavorful. But, once again, quite honestly, it wasn't any better than what I've had at the Maid-Rite in Newton. They are both very good for what they are and definitely better than any of the Maid-Rite franchise locations.
A lady came in with a small box and ordered 20 canteens just after I got my first sandwich. With workman like efficiency, the ladies behind the counter formed an assembly line of buns, condiments, placing meat on the bun and wrapping the Canteens before placing them in the box. The lady was gone about 10 minutes after she entered the Canteen. Pretty impressive!
A couple came in and sat down across the counter with me. The lady ordered a Canteen "moist". The guy ordered a Canteen "Moist with extra salt." Wait a minute - these people may be on to something. The "moist" - yes. Not so much with the extra salt, however.
I ordered my second Canteen with cheese - moist. And it came to me with a better flavor than the first one. The taste sensation in the meat was heightened by just a little bit of the broth that was introduced on the sandwich. (When I make my homemade Maid-Rites, I throw a little bit of the chicken broth in with the meat when I store it in a bowl in the refrigerator. Letting it sit for a day or two and then warming it up really makes it taste better.) That was the knock out taste that Ottumwans have come to love over the years. It certainly helps to know the local secret when it comes to a place like the Canteen Lunch. Order them "moist".
While the decor at the Canteen Lunch isn't anything special or spiffy, I was sort of mystified to see pictures of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Kennedy on the east wall of the restaurant. On the west wall, there is a large map of the United States where people can put a pin in to signify their hometown. Nearly every state on the map - including Alaska and Hawaii - had a pin marked and there were a couple hundred pins all over the map. People do come from all over to enjoy a Canteen burger at the Canteen Lunch.
OK, so there, all you Ottumwans. Yes, the Canteen Lunch is very good, it's full of history and nostalgia for those of you who grew up there, but I can't say that the Canteen Burger is any better than a Maid-Rite that Dan Holtkamp makes in Newton or one that Don Short makes up in Marshalltown. They all have great flavor to them and but they're all a little different in taste. I'm sure it's something that you just grow to like and become accustomed to when you're growing up. The key to the Canteen burger is keeping it moist with the broth. And that's how I'll order it up on my next visit to the Canteen when I can get through the Ottumwa area again at some point.
Update March 2015 - Special thanks to my friend John Stewart, an Ottumwa native and a retired lawyer in Florida who sent along some information that Shirlee and Earnest McBeth have sold the business to Scott Pierce, the owner of Pierce Fence Co. in Ottumwa. The McBeth's decided that it was time to slow down and the couple would like to do some traveling. Keeping the Canteen in the family wouldn't work as the McBeth's sons do not live in the area, so finding the right owner to take over the iconic restaurant was of the utmost importance. They think they found that person in Pierce who is adamant that he will not change anything at the Canteen after he officially takes over.
(Newton Maid-Rite and Maid-Rite sandwich pictures courtesy of Roadfood.com)