I spend more time defending Arby’s to people I know than anybody should. Defending Arby’s at all would constitute too much time, but I dutifully do it anyway, because I love fast food roast beef. That love was transferred wholly and unconditionally to Arby’s following an earlier childhood filled with trips to another prominent Ohio roast beef chain. The chain I’m referring to is called Rax.
If you didn’t grow up in Ohio, Indiana, or Kentucky, there’s a very good chance you’ve never heard of Rax. Rax Roast Beef was born in 1967 in Springfield, OH, three years after the first Arby’s location opened in Ironton, Ohio. The franchise began its life under the name Jax Roast Beef, named after its founder, Jack Roschman. After only two years of operating it, Roschman sold the chain to General Foods, which went on to rename the restaurant chain Rix and nearly shut it down entirely in the nine years it had control over it, before selling Rix to the Restaurant Administration Corporation (RAC), headed by J. Patrick Ross. Rix changed the brand name to Rax, opened the first Rax branded restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, and began rapidly expanding the brand. By 1984 the restaurant chain had 300 locations, and it peaked in the mid 1980s with more than 500 stores across the United States, with two restaurants in Canada and two in Guatemala.
I grew up near two Rax locations, one in Oberlin near Oberlin College, where we often went after swim lessons and I went with my friend CJ and his parents, and one in Amherst, Ohio, next to the McDonald’s and now in a space that houses a Wendy’s, which has been there since Rax shuttered. The Amherst Rax was where I discovered the joy of filling out customer comment cards, something I started doing around age 8 and kept up with for 2 years.
A Rax innovation, and one that I remember with mixed feelings, was the introduction of an all you can eat salad bar and a food bar. Restaurants such as Wendy’s quickly followed suit, offering their own salad bars. I grew up with a dislike for vegetables that bordered on blood feud, and on many of the Rax lunch trips I took with my childhood friend CJ, his parents would get us salad bar plates. I don’t remember clearly what I would fill that plate with, but I have a feeling it was mostly chocolate pudding and possibly cucumbers. There’s no way anything else green was hitting that plate, and definitely nothing resembling a tomato was invited to the party.
Our post swim lessons Rax lunches usually consisted of Kids Meals. Rax’s mascot was a cartoon gator imaginatively named “Uncle Alligator,” and the kids meal branding heavily featured him. If I remember correctly, Rax Kids Meals didn’t really do toys, or on occasions when they did they were of the generic variety. They did feature a chocolate chip cookie, and there was a promotion where you could get an alligator shaped sippy cup. We definitely had a handful of those floating around.
I dug the roast beef sandwiches with barbecue sauce, but the real draw for me was the french fries. Like Arby’s, you had the option of regular or curly fries, a choice that should be mandatory in the fast food world. If we’re being honest, in this pre “we have the meats” era, Rax and Arby’s were basically the same restaurant, just with alligators vs. big cowboy hats.
Eventually the Amherst Rax closed, and the Oberlin one went later. Currently there are only 8 Rax locations left. Six are in southern Ohio, one is in Kentucky, and there’s the Illinois location mentioned above. The remaining ones are run by franchisees, and according to my cousin who stopped at one on the way to a wedding recently (and picked up those Rax cups in the image at the top for me), quality control appears to be nonexistent. The food at his looked to be sourced from Sysco, and apart from the branding, it isn’t really Rax anymore.
All of this explains why I’m such a stan for Arby’s. Arby’s is Rax. Rax is Arby’s. Finkel is Einhorn. If you disparage Arby’s, and I’m compelled to defend it, I’m really just sticking up for an old friend.
Have you ever been to Rax? Do you love Arby’s? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.
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