Rax Roast Beef: a peek inside one of the last locations of a once-mighty 80s chain.

Fast food with style.”  That’s the motto that I, coming of age in the late 80s and early 90s, associate the most with Rax Roast Beef.  But let’s face it: when this formerly thriving restaurant began floundering, the slogans shifted with the seasons.  Thirty years later, it’s hard to say which marketing campaign is the most memorable…because Rax Roast Beef itself has faded from the recollections of Boomers, Gen Xers, and older Millennials,  Meanwhile, it is a complete unknown for anyone younger, outside of those who live in close proximity to one of the surviving Rax locations, most of which are in southern Ohio.  So maybe those among my readers who remember Rax Roast Beef prefer one of the other catchphrases:

  • All the right stuff.
  • Gotta get back to Rax.
  • We know what you like.
  • Nobody stax up to Rax. 
  • I’d rather Rax. Wouldn’t you?  (Apparently the current one)
  • You can eat here.  (My favorite)

This exploration of Rax Roast Beef really just continues my tradition of covering formerly widespread businesses in precipitous decline.  I’ve featured way too many articles on Quiznos, the sub sandwich chain that threatened to unseat Subway in the 2000s, then tanked during the Great Recession and has receded to about one-twentieth its peak, mostly in the southwest.  And, of course, I chronicled Sears when it was a lingering under-performer, long before COVID pushed it to a wraith of its century-long dominance.  Sears only claims about a dozen locations in 2024.  And then there’s Tad’s Steak House, which made supper-club chic available to a blue-collar client base in the 1960s, and has only endured with one verifiable location in San Francisco for several years now.  And now I introduce Rax Roast Beef, a chain that seemed cutting-edge in the late 1970s, when they quickly developed a reputation for pioneering new concepts.  Then, due to its similarly speedy slump a decade later, the brand became a 1980s archetype.  At its peak, Rax boasted over 500 locations, mostly east of the Rockies; everyone in Indianapolis was aware of them when I grew up.  At one time, Rax appeared a viable threat to Arby’s, also Ohio-born and ascendent during the 1970s. But today Arby’s is a multi-national brand with over 3,000 locations; Rax Roast Beef has fewer locations than I have fingers.  And thumbs aren’t fingers.

Truth be told, though, Rax has enjoyed a mild spike in visibility these last few years, thanks more to Gen X nostalgia vloggers than anything else.  Among the highest profile of these was Pittsburgh Dad, who documented a three-hour drive to a surviving Rax location to rediscover a flavor from childhood.  Vintage clips abound on YouTube from the wildly morphing advertising campaign (mostly from the early 1980s up to around 1992).  The brand achieved considerable popularity, to the point that it was every bit as familiar as Arby’s or Wendy’s in the Midwest, and the commercials still demonstrate the financing levels of a large-scale campaign.  So why is Rax Roast Beef a novelty in 2024?

Rax Roast Beef

Perhaps it’s even more remarkable that Rax Roast Beef continues to exist at all.  But it lingers with somewhere between five and eight locations.  After visiting an operation in Lancaster, Ohio—the same one that Pittsburgh Dad patronized—I can surmise why a once prominent chain has diminished so heavily…and yet also why it continues to survive.  The business practices have always been unconventional, to say the least.

Even in the days of its inception, Rax couldn’t quite lock in on an identity.  Jack Roschman opened the first location in Springfield, Ohio in 1967 as “JAX Roast Beef”—a pun on his name—before quickly selling it to a spinoff of Post Cereals in 1967, whose leadership renamed the brand RIX Roast Beef.  RIX didn’t last long: it surged rapidly but couldn’t sustain growth, and all but a few locations closed by 1972.  That same year, ten surviving operations belonged to a single franchiser, J. Patrick Ross, who absorbed them into his parent company Restaurant Administration Corporation (RAC), which included franchises of Wendy’s (another Ohio-based fast food chain), as well as Burger Chef, a formerly ubiquitous competitor of McDonald’s from my hometown of Indianapolis that fizzled in the 1980s.  Back in Ohio, after RAC purchased RIX, Ross renamed it back to JAX, returned the emphasis on roast beef, then, as the restaurant count approached 100, eventually devised a franchising plan that included a final renaming to Rax Roast Beef in 1977.  Columbus appropriately served as the initial test market for the Rax brand.  Within a few years, Ross reorganized RAC to focus on his roast beef restaurants, changing the name to Rax Restaurants, Inc in 1982.

The company’s leadership throughout the 1980s demonstrated a thirst for innovation.  As new locations swept across Ohio’s neighboring states, the company introduced a salad bar (one of the first for fast food), baked potatoes, ham, turkey, fish, barbecued beef, soups, and sandwiches inspired by Philly cheesesteaks.  The company decorated its interiors with wood, and introduced solaria—the protruding sun-room that soon became a staple to fast food restaurants in the late 1980s.  A dessert bar soon accompanied the salad bar.  Then burgers. For a time, every table featured a vase with a flower.  This 1983 commercial captures the interior of a fast food chain not content to rest on its laurels, demonstrating boundless ambition.  But the company’s leadership understood that it couldn’t shoot the moon everywhere: in struggling Rust Belt communities, it retained a simple menu of roast beef, fries, and drinks.  Meanwhile, in fast-growing suburbs, the restaurants pioneered all of the above menu items, along with esoteric features like Alfredo sauce in the pasta bar, garbanzo beans in the salad bar, and a even a small Chinese sub-menu, partly in a response to a cultural push for lighter, “healthier” items in fast food restaurants.  (Yes, Chinese and pasta signaled healthy at that time.)  Rax leadership hired vocal celebs like Lorenzo Music, best known as Garfield the Cat from the 80s cartoons, then commissioned a jingle by Al Anderson, formerly of NRBQ.

In an attempt to become “the champagne of fast food”, the restaurant suffered a steady dilution of its original identity.  Roast beef sandwiches were blue-collar, and all those added features—though not in every location—were pivotal to the ad campaign attempting to offer something just about anyone would like.  But they also carried the whiff of likely higher prices.  Furthermore, at a certain point in the mid-1980s, Rax Roast Beef pantomimed the cliché: trying to be “something for everyone” and ended up appealing to nobody.  From a branding and image perspective, it’s hard to imagine a single place could offer Chinese food, Mexican potatoes, Roast beef, burgers, soups, and fish—and do all of them well.  How big was the menu, exactly?  From a logistical and management standpoint, it’s hard to imagine the practicality of delivering all of those niche ingredients, finding room to store them, and ensuring freshness when so many items would sit in display all day long on a blanket of kale and ice cubes.


Rax Roast Beef twisted itself in all directions, and at some point, these contortions registered in the consumers’ unconscious as acts of desperation.  Which, apparently, they were.  The mid-80s campaign still emphasized an upscale vibe, but amidst plastic utensils and paper cups.  But by the late 1980s in early 1990s, when the brand had clearly overextended itself, the commercials scaled down to a few featured menu items.  But they still revealed the leadership’s insatiable obsession with novelty: taco/meatball pockets, grilled chicken sandwiches (perhaps to challenge the emergent Chick-fil-A), and, as proven at the top of this article, an ever-changing array of slogans.  Meanwhile, fellow Ohio chain Wendy’s took notes on everything Rax was doing, mimicked the more successful items, but never lost focus on its burgers.  While Rax’s “endless salad bar” caused its profits to plummet, the Superbar at Wendy’s effectively conveyed “a more versatile McDonald’s” that turned the latter into a formidable competitor.  According to an interview with Bill Underhill, the President of Rax in the early 1990s (courtesy of vlogger #KBTime), this point in the decade witnessed a growth in affordable steakhouse chains, as well as new restaurants devoted exclusively to all-you-can-eat buffets.  These competitors—Ponderosa, Old Country Buffet, Golden Corral—deployed a bigger building footprint than the more compact fast food prototype, meaning they could expand their salad bar to almost limitless possibilities, while Rax salad bars faced spatial constraints.  And also dished out roast beef from the kitchen behind the counter.

The coup de grace came in 1992, when, after management bought out the company the previous year and closed hundreds of stores, the marketing team introduced the now notorious Mr. Delicious:

Screenshot

I took a screen shot from the full-length video by Vlogbrothers, who propelled this long-forgotten mascot into newfound infamy through their viral featurette.  I credit them for their analysis, though I think their byline was unfair: Mr. Delicious wasn’t what “killed a fast food chain”.  It was already in its death throes.  But Mr. Delicious was both outmoded and unbelievably prescient: a middle-aged, plaid-wearing, bespectacled, brief-cased man using cheap black-and-white animation that floated senselessly over live-action content, almost like a green screen.  Mr. Delicious disclosed, in a deadpan delivery, the “adult-sized delectables” at Rax Roast Beef while professing his mid-life crisis, poor prior career choices, his hangover from a recent bender, or the recovery from his vasectomy (or maybe hemorrhoids).  He began each commercial with “Well, hello” and ended with “Diggidydee.”  He’d reference the marketing team at Rax corporate, as well as how his marriage to Mrs. Delicious was on the rocks.  The campaign was edgy for being profoundly cynical; many of the vloggers who have covered Mr. Delicious speculate that it would have worked beautifully today.  But at the time it was little more than a middle finger to the company’s waning customer base; Rax Restaurants Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November that year, just three months after rolling out the Mr. Delicious campaign.  I don’t think Mr. Delicious killed Rax Roast Beef, but it sure didn’t stave the decline.

Mergers and acquisitions caused many surviving Rax Roast Beef locations to convert to Hardees.  Wendy’s entertained a hostile takeover in 1996, prompting more flailing and venture capital purchases of a dwindling brand.  By the mid-2000s, virtually all of the surviving two-dozen locations were franchises, mostly scattered along a lateral belt with Ohio at the center.  In late 2007, a Rax franchise owner got tired of paying license costs and decided to purchase the brand, crafting it as Rich’s Inc and shifting the headquarters to Ironton, Ohio.  At that time, about 30 stores survived, but they continued their retreat, closing all locations in Indiana, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.  At this time, the Rax Roast Beef website shows eight locations, but two are likely gone, a new one is potentially in the works, and aside from its Ohio base, one location operates in Kentucky and one in Illinois.

I followed Pittsburgh Dad’s footsteps and visited Lancaster, a small city about 25 miles southeast of Columbus, increasingly showing evidence that it operates within a suburban orbit, even though cow pastures surround it.

The appearance of this Rax absolutely evokes the 1980s.  The solarium is still present, and the exterior design reflects architectural tropes fashionable before bigger names like Wendy’s and McDonald’s and Arby’s went post-modern.  Cost-saving measures are evident too: just rocks where landscaping normally would be, and barely visible on the taupe vinyl siding is the space that used to service a big illuminated sign.

Notice the wires sticking out on the portion on the right side of the photo.  As for the one surviving major sign—

—the “Endless Salad Bar” got painted over with a deep green.  The surrounding neighborhood is older and still fairly urban, walkable.  This building has stood here for a very long time.

Catty-corner from the Rax is a Donato’s Pizza, a somewhat higher-profile Ohio-based fast food chain, looking a bit more modern in its approach.

I’m loathe to write extensively in a manner that ultimately looks like “kicking a man while he’s down”, but it’s impossible not to ignore all the evidence of what remains of this chain, judging from the appearance a bit after peak lunch hours.

Rax Roast Beef interior

This Rax in Lancaster definitely hasn’t received an interior upgrade since the 1990s.  What’s striking is how few tables it offers.  Is there a strategy there?  By offering fewer places to sit, does it make the place feel less empty?  Or did the owner simply not replace old tables and chairs when they break down?  Both?  The solarium isn’t any different.

Rax Roast Beef solarium

But the saddest feature of all is the order menu.  It looks like something that survives from the 1990s, with only the prices pasted over to reflect ruthless inflation.  New price stickers atop old ones, over and over and over.

Rax Roast Beef ordering sign at counter

The menu is much more simplified than the 1980s—just about twenty items.  No more garbanzo beans.  And no one was behind the counter; the three or four employees were shooting the breeze back in the kitchen.  I felt like I needed to ding a bell to get their attention.  In the meantime, it’s hard not to notice the second panel from the right, hanging on at a 15-degree angle.  Thirty seconds later, it fell.

Rax Roast Beef ordering sign at counter

To be fair, I ordered.  I had the first sandwich at Rax since I was in the single digits.  I don’t have a basis of comparison, but it was good enough with horseradish sauce.

And I don’t think this location is really struggling to find customers.  I deliberately positioned my camera to avoid capturing many people.  At least three couples were eating while I was there after peak lunch hour, and the drive-thru had customers as well.

The drive-thru uses the same crude, analog signage.  Looks like a mom-and-pop.  Which, in many respects, it is.

Rax Roast beef drive-thru

And a few subtle details reveal the extreme effort at keeping expenses down.

The stickers showing Visa and Mastercard themselves look old.  But what about Amex and Discover?  Do these stickers predate the time when either became widespread?  The cashier accepted my Discover Card, but why no reference?  The printed paper with operating hours also suggests a strategy that allows them to shift times whenever necessary, without spending as much for a permanent sign.  My final observation is a bit predictable but still speaks volumes:

The brand still has enough capital for its own insignia on napkins, cups, bags, and aluminum foil for the sandwiches.  But not enough for trademarked condiments.  Arby’s has its own “Horsey Sauce”.  Taco Bell has its branded hot sauces.  Rax merely purchases its ketchup and mustard and horseradish from Heinz.

The Rax website has received minimal updates over the years and looks like something from 2003: a bit of Flash animation, some multiple choice menu items.  But the coupons on the site expired in December 2022.  And two locations on the map are closed, while it appears a new one opened in Carlisle, Ohio, north of Dayton.  (Or, as it appears, an older family-run roast beef operation decided to reimagine itself under the Rax brand, shifting to a franchise.)  Far be it from me to criticize a small business doing what it can to survive during high inflationary conditions.  It wouldn’t surprise me if this Lancaster location gets bang-up business at select times of day, given that it has survived all these years.

More than anything, the rise and fall and perpetuation of Rax Roast Beef demonstrates how important capital is to bolstering a brand.  It looked like Rax had hit the big-time in 1985, when it featured celeb endorsements, flashy commercials, and all-you-can-eat salads.  Flush with investment cash, which stimulated a plethora of new ideas.  (And by “plethora”, I do mean “excess”.)  Rax genuinely competed with Arby’s in terms of the popularity of its roast beef sandwiches, but it couldn’t let well enough alone.  Eventually, even the normie customer base gets wise to a company’s zeal to find new ways to please.  Now, held together by a local franchise owner, the brand relies on Velcro to keep the display signs mounted.  But since these components supplement the product, does all that other stuff really matter?  Who cares if the interior looks like 1995?  With the right marketing campaign, the decor could trigger Gen X nostalgia in a major way.  Fundamentally, only one thing at a restaurant achieves full commodification, and to that, amidst the numerous missteps at Rax Roast Beef, even Mr. Delicious would attest: you can eat here.  Diggidydee.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

9 thoughts on “Rax Roast Beef: a peek inside one of the last locations of a once-mighty 80s chain.

  1. Chris B

    Several former Rax locations around our hometown were snapped up by Fazoli’s, another chain that seems to have run out of gas. [Or possibly the local franchisee merely converted them.] My recollection is that this happened in 1995-2005 period.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      That seems credible. Hardee’s really seemed to sweep in during the late 80s and 90s, and I know they replaced Burger Chef, for which I have no memory. Fazoli’s did indeed seem to enter the scene about the same time that Rax left, and yes, Fazoli’s is probably treading water these days–though it never grew as quickly or receded as badly. From what I can tell, Fazoli’s peaked with a little over 300 locations and now has about 200.

      Also, from what I can tell, Fazoli’s emphasizes deep penetration in markets–huge representation in a few states (its home turf of Indiana and Kentucky) a very little elsewhere. Chicagoans I know had never heard of the chain. Meanwhile, Rax was spread thinly over nearly 40 states at its peak.

      At the very least, Rax forced a few bigger chains (Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King) to improve the interior decor of their restaurants so that it didn’t look a customer was walking into a giant Happy Meal.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Yes, Hardees bought Burger Chef from its prior owner, and through the 80s many Hardees in Indiana were recognizable as ex-Burger Chef locations. Franchisees were given the option of converting to something else, remaining Burger Chef for a time, or converting to Hardees.

        From Wikipedia: “Burger Chef was an American fast-food restaurant chain. It began operating in 1954 in Indianapolis, Indiana,
        [It] spread across the United States, following a strategy of opening outlets in smaller towns.

        “In 1968, General Foods Corporation purchased [Burger Chef] and continued its rapid expansion. At the time of the purchase by General Foods, Burger Chef had 600 locations in 39 states. By 1972, its number of locations (1,200) was surpassed only by McDonald’s (1,600).

        “In 1982… General Foods…divested itself of the restaurant chain, gradually selling to the owners of Hardee’s. The final restaurant to carry the Burger Chef name closed in 1996.”

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          I definitely remember when Hardee’s broke onto the scene (before it began to encroach on Rax). If I have a vague memory of a Burger Chef sign, I definitely don’t recall going into one. Fast food was a pretty rare special occasion growing up. I’d say I was more familiar with the Burger Chef murders in Speedway than any menu items–though apparently they were the first company to popularize the equivalent of a Happy Meal.

          General Foods is the “spinoff of Post Corporation” that I reference in the article. With such a track record in handling both Rax and Burger Chef, it’s hard not to wonder if they were the Grim Reaper of the fast food industry.

          Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I think Mr. D preferred the gentler speed bumps at the Rax drive-thru, because they were a bit easier on his “rather sensitive recent surgery”. Diggidydee.

      Reply
  2. Carl Ford

    I was just in Lancaster on Monday. If I had known about the Rax I might have stopped in for nostalgia’s sake.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      If you spend a lot of time traveling the I-70 corridor, you’re in luck: there’s now one even closer to the highway than Lancaster. Aside from the outlier location in Joliet, IL, the only Rax north of I-70 is in New Carlisle OH, between Dayton and Springfield. Just a mile or so off Exit 41. In fairness, though, I think it was a longstanding local roast beef restaurant (Ranchers), and the family who owned it decided to adapt their business model to the Rax franchise about a year ago.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are not required to sign in. Anonymous posting is just fine.

Verified by MonsterInsights