Remembering Royal Castle Hamburgers

Food, History, Restaurants

Elsewhere in this blog I have discussed Mahalia Jackson’s Fried Chicken and its troubled parent company Performance Systems, owned by former Tennessee gubernatorial candidate John Jay Hooker, but one of the sadder stories is how Performance Systems brought down one of Miami’s most memorable fast food chains, Royal Castle. William Singer, a transplanted Ohioan, started the burger chain in Miami in 1938, seemingly patterning it after the Ohio-based White Castle chain, although anyone familiar with the two chains generally said that Royal Castle’s hand-pattied burgers were better. The company expanded throughout Florida, into Cleveland, Ohio and finally to New Orleans, Louisiana, where old-timers are just as nostalgic about it as Miamians.
Unfortunately, the spread of McDonalds, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other fast food chains led to a waning of Royal Castle’s fortunes, and when John Jay Hooker and Performance Systems came along offering to buy Royal Castle, William Singer readily agreed. After all, Performance Systems seemed to be riding high with Minnie Pearl’s and Mahalia Jackson’s chicken restaurants, Minnie Pearl’s Roast Beef restaurants, and they were expanding into child care centers and automobile repair centers. What Singer didn’t know is that Performance Systems was rapidly unraveling, and desperately looking for new sources of revenue, such as a 63-store burger chain that might be the most popular in South Florida. The problem was that Hooker’s company was reporting one-time, non-recurring franchise fees as revenue, which led to massive increases in the stock price, but of course, once the franchise rights in all 50 states had been sold, there was little way to generate continuing income, except by starting a new chain (hence the child care centers and car repair shops). Worse, even though PSI had sold franchise rights to the entire country, most of those restaurants had not been built, much less opened or generating revenue. Of the ones that did open, customers seemed less than thrilled with Minnie Pearl’s Fried Chicken. Royal Castle was troubled when purchased by Performance Systems, but probably could have survived. As it was, the failure of the parent company led to the total collapse of Royal Castle…well, almost. Two locations have survived in Miami, under separate owners. The one I took a picture of at 79th and NW 27th Avenue is the most interesting, as it is owned by an African-American who was one of the first ever to be hired by Royal Castle in the mid-1960’s (one of the uglier parts of Royal Castle history is that Black patrons were not allowed inside, nor were Blacks hired to work there until the Civil Rights Movement). It is somehow fitting that he went from being one of the first Black employees to owning one of the only two remaining Royal Castles in the world. Although I wanted to go inside and eat a breakfast (they’re open 24 hours a day), I had already had plenty to eat, so I headed back to my hotel instead.


Remembering Mahalia Jackson’s Fried Chicken in Tallahassee

Food, Gospel Music, Memphis, Restaurants, Tallahassee, Uncategorized

Also on Adams Street was this building that I immediately recognized as a former location of Mahalia Jackson’s Fried Chicken. Note the similarity to the former location in Orange Mound in Memphis, where the words “Orange Mound” have been spray-painted on the upward swing of the roof. Mahalia Jackson’s Chicken System Inc. was an African-American fast-food venture launched by a group of Memphis businessmen led by A. W. Willis and Ben Hooks. Mahalia Jackson contributed her name and at least a portion of the chicken recipe. Locations were opened in predominantly-Black neighborhoods across America, but unfortunately, the Memphis businessmen decided to partner with former Tennessee gubernatorial candidate John Jay Hooker, who was seeming to have great success with Minnie Pearl’s Fried Chicken. Hooker’s Performance Systems Inc. bought 50% of the Mahalia Jackson system, and found rough going when they ran out of regions of the country to sell franchises. Ultimately all of the Minnie Pearl’s and Mahalia Jackson’s locations closed except for the Nashville franchise. That store was eventually purchased by E. W. Mayo, and became more famous for fried pies than chicken. I have heard that it now has closed as well. But this Tallahassee location, which I didn’t know about, is remarkably well-preserved.