The Cincinnati List: Frisch’s

Frisch's“It’s comforting to know that even you eat a Big Boy from time to time.”

Fine. So I have a reputation for eating, well, not at Frisch’s– not at hybrid quick service/fast casual restaurants in general.  It’s okay– I’m aware of that reputation.  That’s a choice I’ve actively made for several years, but recently I had the opportunity to chat with the Research and Development chef and the VP of Marketing for Frisch’s, and what can I say?  My mind has been changed a bit.

Full disclosure: my dear friend, Kate the Great, just started doing some PR work for Frisch’s.  I knew she’d pitch me, and I resisted.  Frisch’s isn’t my schtick.  Sure, I ate it as a kid, but I certainly don’t eat it as an adult.  It’s a bunch of pre-cooked, processed, preservative-filled, terrible-for-you stuff I should avoid, right?  I told her: she could pitch me, but I won’t guarantee I’ll write about it.  Sure, it’s a local chain like Skyline or Gold Star, but it’s not my speed.

Then I talked with Greg Grisanti, the director of Research and Development for Frisch’s corporate.  We talked about the importance of homemade food, of whole food, of avoiding high fructose corn syrup and trans fats.  How preservatives had no place in “real food”.  We talked about Michael Pollan, and taste memories from childhood.  Grisanti has changed a few things since he started as their head of R&D: no more trans-fat shortening in the pie crust; a more natural-looking strawberry filling in the pie.  Real whipped cream. A few healthier options on the menu, like salmon and chicken.  Still, he apparently didn’t have to change much– almost everything that goes into Frisch’s is made either in-house or in Frisch’s commissary.  Their meat is ground fresh, they make the bread, and the onion rings come from some special onion and are breaded in-store.

I had no idea. I assumed that Frisch’s was buying pre-prepared from a national distributor like every other chain seems to.   I’m guessing most Cincinnatians don’t know that, either.

Frisch'sLike many Cincinnatians, I grew up with Frisch’s.  My grandma’s standard order: a Brawny Lad and vegetable soup.  My dad’s? A Big Boy and French fries.  We went there for breakfast after church, and my cousin worked there as a hostess.  Once I didn’t have to go there, I didn’t want to go there.  And I didn’t.  In fact, aside from buying a Big Boy to take to my dad on occasion, I haven’t purchased anything for myself there in ten years.  I think many of us just assume that Frisch’s is like most chains: prepackaged and preservative-filled. A pleasant memory from childhood, or perhaps an easy place to take kids, but otherwise? Not on our radar.

Let’s go back a couple of weeks.  The Better Half told me that since he’d lived in Cincinnati for nine years, he hadn’t done a lot of “Cincinnati” things.  He’d never been to the Symphony (done).  He’s never been to the Freedom Center or the CAC (on the list).  He’d never had a Big Boy, either.  We decided to remedy that.  I texted Katy: “Fine.  I think I have an idea. I can’t guarantee he’ll like it, but we’ll go.”  We were going to get The Better Half a Big Boy and cross this Cincinnati “thing” off of his list.

I decided, actually, that he needed to try not just the Big Boy, but also the Brawny Lad (in honor of Grandma), and the fish sandwich.  Our poor trainee at the Bellevue location probably thought we were nuts, ordering three sandwiches for two people.  Oh, well.

The fish sandwich has an interesting story– or really, a competitor does.  The Filet-O-Fish from McDonald’s was created by a franchisee here because McDonald’s had nothing to compete with Frisch’s fish sandwich during Lent and they were losing a ton of business.  Unlike McDonald’s, though, the fish sandwich is made of cod and you can tell it is a filet instead of a pressed fish patty. It was, of the three sandwiches, The Better Half’s favorite. He deemed it “a damn good fish sandwich”– high praise from a guy who grew up on Southern fried fish.

The Big Boy is, of course, a classic:  two patties, double decker bun, American cheese, lettuce, pickles and a ton of tartar sauce.  It’s a classic, though not exactly unique to Cincinnati, as Big Boy was haphazardly franchised across the country in the 50s and 60s.  Frisch’s Big Boy is the only one with tartar sauce, while the other prominent Big Boy remaining, Bob’s, does a Thousand Island dressing “special sauce”.  Who needs a Big Mac when you can have a freshly ground patty?

Frisch'sFinally, we got the Brawny Lad, both of our least favorite (sorry, grandma). I got it for nostalgia: I remember many, many afternoons with my grandma at Frisch’s, with her and her Brawny Lad: a burger on a rye bun with a thick slice of onion. That’s it.  It’s really German (rye bread, onion), and really not to Terry’s taste (and honestly, a bit bland for mine).  It’s somehow comforting that it’s still on the menu– just like there are still beets on the salad bar (VP of Marketing Karen Maier is as sentimental about her grandmother as I am about mine, it seems– and she liked beets on her salad).

Frisch'sWe finished with a very Southern peanut butter pie, and their crust is a lot better than it used to be– flakier, tastier– not the cold, shortening-filled version of the past.  It’s a nice change.

I also, at a separate lunch, got a tasting of two new, Lenten items (available starting today, Ash Wednesday, through Easter): po boys made with either clam strips or shrimp, topped with lettuce and a surprisingly good remoulade.  The clam strips are breaded in cornmeal, like the onion rings are, and the shrimp are beer battered.  The clam strip version is the better of the two, reminiscent of clam strips I’ve had in New England (though the shrimp aren’t shabby).  If you’re observing lent and want an alternative to a fish sandwich, either are a good choice.

Frisch'sSo, will I add a Big Boy to my regular diet?  Probably not (though they are tasty).  I’ll feel better, certainly, when I get a craving, knowing that their food is locally produced (and not full of weird fillers like most fast food).  If I’m craving a childhood memory, I won’t hesitate to stop in for a bite of childhood that actually holds up. And maybe a bite of strawberry pie, too.

(Disclosure: the Po Boys were provided to me by Frisch’s as promotional items, but we paid for the other meal ourselves at a different location.)

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