It’s remarkable how people still pine for Frenchies of days gone by. Recipes for the most cherished of these, the Cheese Frenchie, a battered, deep fried cheese sandwich with a crunchy cornflake exterior, are all over the internet. It may have been modeled on the somewhat similar Croque Monsieur sandwich of France, explaining the name Frenchie.
Frenchies, sometimes spelled Frenchees, were the creation of King’s Food Host, a fast food chain catering to families and college students in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the chain’s units were located in the middle of the country, with headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, where there were once nine units. The first – King’s Drive-In – was started by James King and Larry Price in 1955, on North Cotner in Lincoln. I wonder if the first one had telephones at each table that patrons used to send their orders to the kitchen?
King soon dropped out of the partnership but Price stayed with it until 1972 when he gave up control of the company for around $3 million. It had reached its peak size then, with about 100 company-owned stores and 35 franchised units. Reportedly it had units in Winnipeg, Canada, and 20 states, but I’ve only been able to identify 18: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
In King’s younger days around 1966 when it had only 35 locations in 10 states, it focused on building near universities. King’s were handy for students at state universities in Nebraska (Lincoln), Iowa (Ames), Wisconsin (Madison), and Colorado (Boulder), with new units under construction in Norman, Oklahoma, and Lawrence, Kansas. [pictured: King's near South Dakota State University]
Larry Price, who graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan University, had been a football assistant there and served on the university’s board of trustees. His first food service foray was as a teenager in 1934 when he ran a hamburger stand at the 1934 Nebraska State Fair. He was very likely the motive force behind the chain’s advertised principles. The company would not sell cigarettes nor allow patrons to tip lest servers “compete with each other for the tip to the extent that they appear greedy.” Price was disgusted when King’s new corporate managers installed cigarette machines because he believed it would encourage minors to smoke.
The Frenchies may have disappeared from the chain at some point or maybe simply dropped out of favor. They were heavily promoted as part of a nostalgia campaign shortly after King’s went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1974. Apart from Cheese Frenchies, King’s offered Tuna Frenchies [pictured], Hot Dog Frenchies, and Pizza Frenchies. Never having seen an actual Frenchie myself, I can’t picture what the last two varieties looked like. Apparently the Pizza Frenchie, which “joined the Frenchie family” in the dark days of 1974, was not a big hit. Nor were the 30% soymeal burgers which Larry Price, coming out of retirement to offer advice, persuaded the new owners to scuttle shortly after they were introduced to manage high beef costs.
None of these moves, nor others — the adoption of chicken in a box, frequent discounts, or red, white & blue decorating schemes — could save the company. The chain’s troubles started just after it went public in 1969 and began a rapid expansion drive. In debt for millions, it could not work out a satisfactory deal with creditors and never emerged from bankruptcy. Stock shares which sold for $14 each in 1969 dropped to a low of 50 cents after bankruptcy was declared. In 1978 a couple of business men from Minnesota and Wisconsin bought the remaining King’s outlets, which by then numbered only 17.
© Jan Whitaker, 2011