RIP Krystal

I was a little surprised the other day when that home of that “fresh, square steamed bun” filed for reorganization.  Yes, the beloved (at least in the South) Krystal has filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy.


Judging by the reaction on social media and elsewhere it is obvious that our educational system has failed us. I have read a lot of posts crying over the fact that Krystal was going out of business.




Suck it up kids – they’re not.  If Krystal was going out of business they would file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which is liquidating everything.  It’s a surprise in an area with an inordinate amount of bankruptcy filings that even the most simplistic bumpkin doesn’t know their bankruptcy terms.  There is a good chance that one of you reading this has filed at some point in your life.


That being said, it is still very sad.  I’m sure some Chattanooga purists blame the new owners in Atlanta.  This is the second such filing for he little burger join that got its start at the corner of 7th and Cherry Streets during the heart of the Depression (1932, for you people keeping score at home).  The first was in the mid ‘90s.


I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Krystal my whole life since moving here from up north many years ago.  It’s more love than hate.  A lot of the hate was feigned.  Krystal was like a parent to a teenager.  We hate to admit it to our friends that we love it so we pretend we don’t, yet always in a pinch or need something to eat it is always there for us.


Some of my best times as a little boy involved going to Krystal.  I remember after church being taken there with my best friend’s family.  One of my best childhood memories was “boy’s night out” with my dad.  My dad would have me put on my best “Swinging ‘60s/’70s clothes and we would go off the mountain to the Krystal on South Broad.  We would then eat, drive back up the mountain and I would watch “This Is Tom Jones” and I would try to sing along dressed as if I was Jones with my bellbottom Kings Road double knit trousers that my mom picked out at Sears or JC Penney (in the “husky section”).  My guy time with my dad is still to this day my favorite memories of anything I have ever done.  An Saturday afternoons when I was out with my dad that was our go-to spot since it was close to home.


Back then going to Krystal or “The Krystal” as a lot of you call it wasn’t a daily thing.  It was a treat.    That’s hard to believe seeing we live in an era that has multiple fast food chains on every corner.  That’s kind of what has happened to Krystal – and I’ll explain later.


The fast food market has found itself oversaturated with a variety of choices over the past 25 years.  Like I said, it was a novelty or a treat and not meant to be a lifestyle choice.  Changing dietary habits of core customers and a younger generation that is more conscious to what they eat has caused the fast food industry and the fining industry as a whole to reexamine the way they do business.


Kids – now adults that grew up eating at Krystal or any other fast food change for that matter can no longer wolf down a bag of those small square burgers and wash them down with a shake or ice cold Coca Cola.  The Boomer generation was become the diabetes generation as well as being the Geritol crowd.  It’s a proven fact our bodies can no longer eat the way they did when they were younger.  It’s a sad but very true fact.  And while Krystal continues to wrest itself of the virtues of who they are – or once were, Americans no longer are.  There is no sure cure for what ails Krystal but like with every business one must adapt to the times and realize it’s no longer business as usual.


As I said earlier I have always had a love/hate relationship with Krystal.  It is my guilty pleasure.  Despite thinking of myself as a sophisticated gourmet with certain diet restrictions as I grow older, every time I drive past Krystal I have to fight the urge to pull into the parking lot.  It’s a little easier these days to resist.  During my prime time Krystal was open 24 hours, even during the holidays.  With the exception of Waffle House it was the only restaurant open 24 hours – and the only one with a drive-thru.  No longer.  Some have drive thrus that are open late – not 24 hours and they now close the dining room by nine or 10pm at the latest.


A Chattanoogan’s relationship with Krystal easily correlates with their age.  As kids every boy and girl loved Krystal.  The burgers are kid sized and to a pint size human that’s awesome.  Before “kid’s” and “Happy” meals there were the Krystal Kritters – a group of “animals” that were mascots for the franchise.  McDonald’s may have had Ronald McDonald, but Krystal had their Kritters that got into misadventures in the TV commercials and kids could even get stickers of the critters a lot of times.  The Kritters were like the chain’s version of Sesame Street characters – or H.R. Pufnstuf.  Krystal in the olden days used to have a lot of giveaways as I remember as a kid.  I remember heart shaped stickers with a smile on them given away during Valentine’s season, for example.



As a kid going to the Krystal was a treat.  After a football or basketball game depending on whose parent was driving us home after the game we would either stop at Golden Gallon for a small Icee or if we were really good or played exceptionally well we would be taken to Krystal for a few burgers, fries and a drink.  Sometimes after church parents might take us all out to eat at Krystal because it was easy to get seated and generally cheaper to feed a bunch of kids there than Shoney’s or anywhere else – and I knew of no kid that didn’t like hamburgers back in the day, or for that matter this day.


As you got older and into junior high and high school you tastes got a little bit more sophisticated.  Burgers for the most part were still king but now there were more choices as well as pizza and tacos to choose from.  If you went to Krystal too often you were considered cheap – and no high schooler wanted to be considered cheap or poor – even if you were. We still ate at Krystal often – especially on school trips because it was your basic burgers and fries and since the small burgers were so inexpensive anyone could afford it – even poor kids like me.  


When you got into college or post high school you went through denial.  We started referring to Krystals as “gut bombs”.   We swore up and down the only time we were there were after a party or when we were drunk.  Often the drive-thru at Krystal between 3 and 4am was quite the spectacle and a who’s who of frat boys, sorority girls, night clubbers and other creatures of the night.  Getting a to go order was nicknamed “gag a bag”.  We would always talk about how nasty or “gross” Krystal’s burgers were, yet in the next breath we were scarfing down those small square burgers on the steamed bun.  I’m sure the Krystal at 7th and Cherry Streets had a love/hate relationship with Yesterday’s.  After the popular club on Patten Parkway cleared out the dining room was packed with bar patrons in various states of inebriation doing only God knows what.  I witnessed food fights, saltshakers being thrown across the room and even the little mat at the entrance stolen.  Not long after Yesterday’s shut down in February of 1998, that particular Krystal saw sales dive and it eventually went out of business.


As a young adult when you start your first job fast food was the way most ate.  What was once a treat had all of a sudden become a dining lifestyle.  Still to this day at noon at just about every fat food chain in every town there is a long line at the drive thru.  When you don’t have time to go to a sit-down restaurant or don’t want to spend the money you would go to Krystal or any other place with a drive thru, often eating your lunch in the car on the way back to work.  


As you got older you started to fall in love with Krystal all over again.  Because our digestion was no longer as it once was, the visits became fewer, but we enjoyed going there because once again it was a treat – or as some put it – cheating on our newly restricted diet – be it doctor ordered or lifestyle dictated.


As people’s tastes changed unlike other fast food places, Krystal didn’t know how to adapt.  Originally appealing because of it’s low price, breakfast for example is hard to sell at a cheap price without serving a completely garbage product.  And if you really want a good breakfast are you going to go to a burger joint?  I doubt it unless you are looking for something on the run.  Even the “breakfast Krystal” or “Sunriser” is high priced for the size.


Price point is another thing that has been killing Krystal.  After the recession of 2008/9 you saw were every restaurant – not just fast food places drastically drop their prices or offer steep specials or menus.  McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell all have “Dollar Menu” items.  You can get a burger at these places for a dollar or just over that price point and combo meals for $5 or under.  Krystal’s flagship small, square burger priced at 79¢ is just over an ounce and a quarter of beef were the traditional McDonald’s burger is just north of two ounces – almost double in size for only a quarter more.  Add to that small fries and large drink are dollar menu items.


Krystal, once know for being the least expensive fast food joints is actually one of the more expensive ones.  And with changing tastes you have to do two things to stay abreast with these changes.  You have to adjust to the to the changes in eating habits or you become a niche place to eat.  With the latter you may lose some customers, but with menu limited to what you do best, you retain that cult status and become a go-to place or a “guilty pleasure” or diversion.  By doing so you should be able to make your prices more reasonable since by limiting your menu you are eliminating unneeded overhead and supplies and theoretically do what you do best


To succeed this way you have to market yourself.  When was the last Krystal campaign you can remember?  Yeah, me neither, I occasionally see coupons that come in the Sunday paper, but compared to the deals at the other chains they literally fall flat.

That being said Krystal is not known for their great advertising campaigns over the years.  The Krystal Kritters were cool.  It was a different era in America and the Kritters appealed to children.  Children are the reason people came to Krystal.  And maybe Krystal needs to rethink that and instead of being a dining restaurant remind everyone that a Krystal is an actual treat, unlike other burger joints.  


I remember “Cowboy Sid and Sheila The Wonder Horse” ad campaign.  It was quirky and weird.  Cowboy Sid was a cowboy like in one of those western serial of the old say and Sheila The Wonder Horse was a stick horse – something a lot of kids had back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  The commercials were quirky to say the least, but did develop a cult following.  Then there was the “Bob” the head with no body with the catchphrase “Head to Krystal”.   The really odd campaign lasted only three years and must have been developed after either sleep depravation or a lot of drugs and alcohol consumption.  It developed a cult following on college campuses because of its quirky nature that appealed college kids who watched “Night Flight” and David Letterman.


At the turn of the century Krystal joined the competitive eating craze that swept the nation.  Joey Chestnut, who won the Nathan’s hot dog eating championship in 2007, still holding the record, holds the record for consuming the most Krystals at 103.  With the world championship being hosted in Chattanooga the franchise sponsored local eating competitions usually featuring local media personalities.  The competitive eating fad lasted for Krystal from 2004 to 2009.  Since that time there has not been a credible or memorable marketing campaign outside of coupons.  Unlike its competition in the fast food world Krystal has little social media presence and no cyber presence.  There are no phone apps for Krystal unlike everyone from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, KFC – you get the picture.  What was the last commercial you remember seeing or hearing for Krystal? Exactly.


I am hoping this reorganization for Krystal is just a hiccup and not something terminal.  I feel as if I have a lot invested – money, experiences and calories.  I would hate to think Krystal would go the way of Godfather’s, Central Park or even Po’ Folks.  The powers that be need to look to their history and consider revisiting their old glory.  I’m not saying bring back the Kritters, since children today are much more sophisticated than even their parents and their parents before them.  I would hate to think of a world without Krystal.  Of course that would mean I’d have to road trip to Murfreesboro or Nashville for the next best thing – White Castle (sacrilegious, I know).


 – Wm. Alexander

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