Forty years ago today, Alva Greene and his sons-in-law Don Moss and Wayne Chamberlain opened the doors to their new cafeteria at 745 E. 400 South. Bankers predicted it wouldn't last five years, but Chuck-A-Rama today, with 10 locations from St. George to Boise, has firmly entrenched itself in Utah culture.
"Not many restaurants make it to that 40-year-mark," noted Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association. "Other similar restaurants have tried to make a go of it and haven't been able to overcome this market. They have done a great job in providing a quality product for the right price for this community."
The name, which endures its share of jokes, came from Don Moss, said his son, Duane Moss, the company's current chief executive officer. "Chuck" came from the "chuckwagon" used for cooking on Old West cattle drives. "Dad combined it with something that was dear to his heart the Scout-O-Rama."
Today the name defines a predictable and plentiful serve-yourself buffet where customers heap their plates for a hearty econo-meal. It even caters to Utah's food quirks with green Jell-O, fry sauce, Dutch oven cooking and deep-fried scones. Some items are old family recipes. For instance, the bread pudding came from the mother of company president Mike Johanson.
And when they advertise, "The choice is yours," they aren't kidding. Rene Schuurman, operating officer in charge of food, boasts that Chuck-A-Rama is the only sit-down restaurant in the western United States serving both Coke and Pepsi products. He tells of going to the mat with the two soft-drink giants, who both routinely insist on exclusive contracts. "But I told them, some of our customers only want Pepsi, and others just want Coke, and we need to give them what they want. Pepsi finally stuck out their necks and agreed to do it."
Although it's assumed that most people come in for hearty things such as fried chicken and mashed potatoes, Schuurman said, "It doesn't matter what kind of diet you're on, you can still get an awesome meal."
He noted that the two salad bars are very popular. One has potato, pasta and other prepared salads and fruit. "The other has what we call our 'yuppie mix' with things like little fresh lettuces, blue cheese crumbles, golden raisins and sunflower sprouts. Also, all our frying is done in canola oil, which is trans-fat free. And our dessert bar has no-sugar-added pie, pudding and Jell-O."
Schuurman spearheaded the move to create a whole food island devoted to Dutch-oven cooking about three years ago. The epiphany came during a camping trip, where he tried cooking a boneless turkey roast in a Dutch oven. It got rave reviews from his camping pals.
"This Kettle Roast Turkey is one of our most popular hot items," he said. "A lot of people think they're eating beef."
About 18 years ago, the long cafeteria was revamped into what Moss calls a "scatter system," with different themed food stations spread around the room.
"That really turbo-charged our company, and we doubled our sales easily," Moss said.
One food station is devoted to a day-of-the-week theme. For instance, Tuesday is Chinese Day. On Friday you'll find Mexican favorites, and Saturday is Italian day.
The three top-volume locations are at 400 South, St. George and Boise, Moss said. "This one (400 South) is our golden child, it's our big producer because it's downtown, and we get a lot of tour buses," Moss said of the 400 South store. "St. George takes over during the winter months because of the 'snowbirds.' The Boise location is in a movie-theater complex, and the volume depends on what box-office hits are playing."
He added that each location has its own quirks. "Utah Valley has the milk-drinkers. We go through more dairy products there than any other location. In Draper, dinner is crazy but lunches haven't caught on yet."
To keep prices low ($7.99 for lunch and $9.99 for dinner), officials watch costs. Schuurman said when the buffalo chicken wing craze drove the prices for wings "through the roof," they decided to use the cheaper but more meaty chicken legs instead. They're called "hot legs."
Who are typical Chuck-A-Rama customers? "We go after families, number one, but senior citizens are a strong second," Moss said. "But we get a lot of the work force out for lunch, especially at (the 400 South) location."
The "senior card" underscores the popularity with the older generation. A little over three years ago, the chain gave senior citizen centers discount punch cards to sell. Centers kept the $1 per card price as a charitable donation to their programs. The cards give senior citizens 15 percent off each meal, and after 10 meals they get a free meal. As of last spring, the discount card had earned more than $98,378 in charitable funds for senior centers. More than 78,753 complimentary meals had been redeemed.
Moss said many customers won't admit they like to go to Chuck-A-Rama; they use their kids or elderly parents as their excuse. That spawned the chain's "Just Admit It" advertising campaign.
His brother, Evan Moss, is Chuck-A-Rama's chief operating officer. Company president Johanson started as a dishwasher in 1969 and moved up through the ranks. Schuurman noted that he's been with the company more than 30 years; his mother, a cashier at the Fashion Place restaurant, has been with the company 34 years.
"She has a friend who has been there 30 years, and her daughter and granddaughter both work there, too," Schuurman said. "We have a lot of employee longevity."
The chain has weathered storms during its 40 years. In November 2002, the Highland Drive location was closed after guests and workers were sickened by a Norwalk-like virus a common cause of gastrointestinal illness that has also plagued several cruise ships in recent years. Moss said through the local health department, Centers for Disease Control and its own investigations, the company concluded it was spread by a sick customer who ate in a certain banquet room. The company ended up selling the building.
"That was like cutting off an arm," said Moss, who suspects that the stress contributed to his heart attack soon afterward.
In April 2004, Chuck-A-Rama made worldwide news when a West Valley couple on the Atkins diet threatened a lawsuit after a manager told them they'd had enough roast beef from the carving station. (The husband reportedly had 12 slices, the wife six.) They wanted their money back and were refused. When they wouldn't leave, police escorted them from the premises.
"But we didn't kick them out for eating too much roast beef, as a lot of the news reported," Moss said. "We told them they couldn't eat any more of it but offered them all the chicken and ham and turkey that they wanted."
"It takes all day and all night to cook one of our beef roasts," Schuurman added. "We can cook a lot of the other things quickly, but if they had already eaten half of a beef, they needed to leave some for the other customers."
By the numbers:
40: Number of years Chuck-A-Rama has been in business; it opened on Sept. 6, 1966
10: Number of locations from Boise to St. George
3 million: Number of meals served annually among the 10 locations
1,260: Number of pounds of mashed potatoes used daily companywide. The company uses red potatoes, mashed with cream and butter, and then adds dried potato "buds" so they hold up better on the buffet line.
500: Pounds of roast beef used daily companywide
4 million: Pounds of chicken used a year companywide
1,000: Pounds of iceberg lettuce used daily companywide
5,000: Number of rolls baked in-house daily (3,000 white and 2,000 wheat)
44: Number of beverages offered (Chuck-A-Rama is the only sit-down restaurant that offers both Coke and Pepsi products)
2,000: Pounds of fruit for used for the salad bar daily companywide
17: Number of desserts offered
1,300: Pounds of turkey used a month companywide
Four: The minimum number of entrees on the buffet
100-plus: Number of items on the salad bar
100,000-plus: Number of "senior discount cards" sold at senior centers in the past three years, at $1 each.
Three highest-volume locations: 400 South in Salt Lake City, St. George and Boise
Top milk-drinking location: Utah Valley
3 1/4 cups shredded carrots
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
3/4 cup raisins
1/3 cup oil
Peel carrots and shred using a 1/16-inch shredder hole size. Place next seven ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix by hand.
Add all remaining ingredients and mix by hand until well blended.
Place mix into a greased round 9-inch cake pan and bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, or until done.
Cream Cheese Frosting:
1 pound cream cheese
1/2 pound margarine
1 3/4 pounds powdered sugar
4 3/4 cups milk
1/2 pound butter
1 2/3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 cups milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 quarts bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/3 cup raisins
Place the 4 3/4 cups milk, butter, sugar and spices on stove and heat to 200 degrees. Immediately remove from heat. (Do not overheat! Do not boil!)
Let cool for 5 minutes. In another bowl combine the 1 1/2 cups milk, eggs and vanilla. Hand whip for 30 seconds.
Combine the two mixtures and mix with a hand whip for another 30 seconds. Place 3 quarts of bread, loosely packed, in a 3-quart casserole dish or pan. Evenly pour the milk mixture over the bread.
Sprinkle raisins over the bread-and-milk mixture. Use a spatula to make sure bread is completely soaked. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, or until it reaches a consistency of Jell-O.
1 1/4 cups cornstarch
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 quart boiling water
1/4 cup vanilla