In December 2016 it was brought to my attention that Rax still existed. Crack business reporter Dan Eaton was my source. However, he did not respond to my request for an interview (you know how the liberal Elite Media are). I also contacted the owner of most of the remaining Rax Restaurants and did not hear back from him.
As a Columbus native, I have vague memories of Rax from the 1980’s. I often confused the brand with Arby’s. Both focused on roast beef sandwiches but in that era Rax had shakes that my female friends obsessed about and they had a salad and food bar that exceeded the depth of Wendy’s had to offer. Columbus was a fast and casual food boom town in this era with the likes of Wendy’s, Damon’s, G.D. Ritzys, Cooker, Mark Pi’s, Max & Erma’s, Charlie’s Steakery, BW-3 (back when we called it that) and more expanding throughout the Midwest and the world. In the case of most – they grew too fast, got top-heavy with management and big-headed on the need to saturate the market. Most died out through the late 1980’s and 1990’s, were restructured / went bankrupt multiple times and scaled down to a few locations instead of several hundred or were never to be heard of again……
Or maybe not. Cooker had a rebirth (and died). There is one G.D. Ritzy’s in Huntington West Virginia. My beloved Zantigo (so much better than Taco Bell) still exists in Minneapolis. There is always hope.
For Rax, let’s pop into the Wayback Machine for a quick Rax refresher. The restaurant concept began in 1967 in Springfield Ohio as Jax. (Note Arby’s started in 1964 in Boardman Ohio). The concept was sold in 1969. It was then known as RIX. It rebranded as Rax and opened the first franchise under the Rax name in Columbus of course. By the late 1980’s there were over 500 locations in 38 states. The death spiral started shortly thereafter with Chapter 11 bankruptcy filed at the end of 1992. Wendy’s started to acquire some locations to transform them into Tim Horton’s.
My current research shows that eight to 10 Rax restaurants remain. Several are owned by one company with one rogue / independent operation in Bellefontaine. Over the last two months my travels took me near two Rax locations so I decided to investigate.
My first exploration took me to the Rax in Lancaster. The Rax location here is located a few miles east of Downtown. This may be an original location of from the glory days of the Rax empire. The phrase Endless Salad Bar which was a company slogan in the olden days is painted over on the sign. The furniture and carpet inside do look like they date to the 1980’s. The staff wear Rax uniforms. The cups also sport the Rax logo but everything else is generic – sauce packets, sandwich wrappers, etc. The menu seems to feature the core menu items of Rax of days of yore: baked potatoes, curly fries and shakes. There is also a special offered, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a bowl of chili. I ordered a regular Rax to test out the signature menu item. The roast beef was sliced paper-thin, has a light brown / gray color to it had a very specific smell and taste to it. My recollection of meals at Rax 30 years ago was that the key was to load up on sauces. I took that exact approach in the modern day, covering part of my sandwich in generic BBQ sauce, part in generic Horseradish sauce and I left a small section plain so I could fairly assess the sandwich.
I tried the twisty fries and a shake. All in all, OK.
Having not heard back from Dan Eaton or Rax World HQ, I decided I needed to try another Rax to see if I really would rather Rax.
Another opportunity presented itself on my way to Family Donut Shoppe and Wittich’s Chocolates. Traversing south on SR 23, I spied a bill board for a Rax in Circleville.
Pulling into the spot, I noted some indirect irony. I had to do some googling to confirm my suspicions. The original Rax location in Circleville was taken over by a Tim Hortons. The current Rax (circa 2011) replaced a former Wendy’s location.
This location (being newer) was little more upscale than the Lancaster location. It featured more furniture. The signage and branded items (shirts, cups, etc.) were exactly the same, right down to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich with bowl of chili special.
I tried a regular Rax here and a BBC (Beef, Bacon and Cheddar) which is reported to be the big seller in the chain. I’m glad I scouted out Rax but mainly as an homage to history, I think I would rather Arby’s instead.