Where'd your family go this summer? My son and I went to Showmars.
Let me rephrase that: We went to every Showmars family restaurant – all 27 locations. From Mooresville to Rock Hill, from Shelby to Mint Hill. We drove 500 miles.
A blend of fast-food and full-service restaurant, at Showmars you order at a counter, but are served in a booth. A million times a year, the chain estimates, a family spills into a Showmars, and rolls out 45 minutes later.
Everybody full? Good.
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How much did you spend, Mom or Dad? About six bucks each for everybody? Hey, that's not too bad.
Since the first restaurant opened on Independence Boulevard near Idlewild Road in 1982, Showmars has served its fish sandwiches and Greek salads and Super C burgers to a hungry Charlotte, while the city has grown like a lanky adolescent.
A teenage Susan Kamin started going to that first Showmars soon after it opened, and she has never left. “It was a good place to hang out with my girlfriends after sports practice,” she says. Today the girlfriends Kamin hangs out with in a booth are her teenage daughters. She's still smacking on Greek salads and sipping sweet iced tea, just like she did 25 years ago.
“It's nice to have something we grew up with,” she says. “As Charlotte has grown, more national chains have come in. But this is more our own.”
As the city has filled out, Showmars locations have become more sophisticated. Each Showmars is like a snapshot of an evolving Charlotte, a patchwork of different neighborhoods. There are quaint little urban diners tucked into older parts of the city, and bright, sprawling locations in the high-growth areas north and south of town.
George Couchell, the likable Showmars founder, is our own Ray Kroc or Harland Sanders. But his empire is distinctly Charlotte. An East Meck High and Duke grad, the cheery Greek American is a local gyro. His restaurants mark the city's growth from minor league city to booming metropolis, like the rings of a tree – except they're onion rings.
If Couchell has gradually built a chain of mix-and-match links, it wasn't by design.
“The national chains will just knock down a building and start over,” he says. “We couldn't afford to do that. So we built into areas and reflected the surroundings. Then that became the standard, and we like it. That's why there is no such thing as a cookie-cutter Showmars.”
In the Hearst Tower uptown, the art deco Tryon Street skyscraper, there's a Showmars just upstairs from the City Tavern. A marble-floored hallway leads you to this Showmars' burgundy booths. Techno music plinks away and framed modern art poses stylishly on the walls. But swing a few miles down South Boulevard and you'll find a Showmars on Emerywood Drive that's a squat little place with a curious walk-up window inviting you in from the gritty street.
There are no golden arches menacingly straddling these two distinctly different places, squeezing them into a corporate uniformity. Other than what's on the menu, these two places have little in common. And even the menu varies from Showmars to Showmars.
But that won't be true for long. Next year, the company plans to visit each location, and modernize a bit. The signs will all be standardized. Some of the quirkiness will be unquirked. Couchell is passing the baton to CEO Konstantine Zitsos. “Koko is wonderful,” Couchell says. “He will take us into the future.”
So this is the last summer for a real old-school Showmars road trip, to take in the sights and sounds – and tastes – of a Charlotte original.
Climb in. My son, Toby, 15, called “shotgun” and got the front seat, but there's room in the back seat. What's that? Why, yes, actually. We will be stopping for food.
2004 E. Seventh St.
Welcome to Showmars! Look up there, above the friendly staff behind the counter. See the fake wooden crates of plastic veggies nestled perfectly into artificial straw? Bell peppers, tomatoes, onions. This is classic Showmars décor. So are the framed, larger-than-life photos of food that's on the menu. (Wow, the pita bread in that photo is the size of a catcher's mitt.)
You order up front, yet a waitress brings your food, and refills your tea. So, do you tip? A classic Showmars conundrum. The answer is: Not usually. Only if the waitress is really nice. At some places, you tip 15 percent of the bill. At Showmars you tip 15 percent of the time.
A dozen restaurants are nearby this place – from the funky Philosopher's Stone to the chain Jersey Mike's Subs. So how does this place compete? For one thing, this location is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner – unlike the nearby competitors. Showmars is nothing if not relentless.
A bunch of hard hats slouch wearily at a table in the back, awaiting their lunches, then attack their burgers. No salads here.
1600 East Blvd.
Next we slip into this curiously cramped location, which has an odd little bar serving beer and wine – or rather, not serving beer and wine, for it always seems to be empty. Maybe no one expects it. You can't get a drink at many Showmars – the land of iced tea and lemonade. There are two dozen people – young and old, white and black and Hispanic – jammed close in connecting booths. A neighborhood restaurant. Toby orders the flounder dinner – a Showmars specialty – and I ask for a large Greek salad with chicken. The plates smack the table moments later.
10612-A Providence Road
Next we head toward Ballantyne. There's a fireplace, and a patio beneath a soaring roof held up by arches. Toby and I sit on the patio at tables covered with checkered tablecloths. We slurp milkshakes with crumbled Oreos in them and glance out at a stand of pine trees. In the parking lot is a Lexus and BMW. I've never sat in a family restaurant before and felt poor.
115 McCullough Drive
On a corner in the University City area, this place duels with other chains for lunch business, each new and imprinted with its own corporate identity. We eat the first of 500 onion rings. Toby and I both like onion rings. He has always been a joy to feed – and especially now, the way he's growing. You can hear his jaws jackhammer through food.
SouthPark Mall food court
At this Showmars kiosk, they hand you a thing you put on your table that buzzes when your food is ready. Trendy teens stand around the counter. (It is SouthPark mall, after all.) The sautéed veggies are really good.
Loud and stark, this is a place for working parents to take their kids. This neighborhood near Central Avenue has some rough pockets, but there are unexpected scenes of real sweetness in here:
A guy in a T-shirt, apparently bushed after a long day's work, laughs as his two little girls climb all over him in a booth, chattering at him in Spanish.
A mom runs into an old friend and proudly introduces her two sons: “This is Marvin Jr., and this is Jamaal.” The boys smile shyly.
1317 Emerywood Drive
Toby and I order lemonades and onion rings from a walk-up window. I lean in and ask the manager, “Hey, where did the name Showmars come from?”
“Mr. C named the chain after a bookkeeper,” he says. Can that possibly be true? Yes.
2301 Dave Lyle Blvd., Rock Hill
We drive 30 miles to get to a food court kiosk in the Rock Hill Galleria mall. Then we drive back.
9783 Charlotte Highway, Fort Mill, S.C.
Wow, this is one classy Showmars. It's got flat-screen TVs, a patio, big booths and cool modern art on the walls. Dean Peroulas, a bright friendly guy in his 40s, is watching over the place. It turns out he's a managing partner of the chain, and this is the new prototype: The Showmars of the future. Like the swanky location in Denver, N.C., the emphasis here is on bright, spacious, modern design. Showmars strives to make the food the constant in its varied locations. “We serve quality food fast,” Couchell tells me.
9925 Park Cedar Drive, Pineville
A tiny girl climbs into a booth by herself: It's her job to pick out where her family will sit. She sits all alone, puts her face in her hands, plays a quick game of peek-a-boo with no one. Then her siblings and parents pile in around her.
6850 Matthews-Mint Hill Road, Matthews
We eat delicious roast chicken and laugh at what is spectacularly bad piped-in music. Spectacularly bad. Fake jazzy numbers that proclaim undying love at an unignorable volume. And you know what? We kind of enjoy the music.
2216 Arrowood Road
On a wide, open street in industrial southwest Charlotte, this freestanding building caters to a lunch crowd. Toby and I get lemonades and onion rings, the official fare of this road trip.
Hearst Tower, 214 N. Tryon St.
If you want to eat in “The Batman Building,” but can't afford Luce or The City Tavern, this is the place. There are five Showmars in the uptown area, evidence that man cannot live by steak alone. Hey, bankers need fish sandwiches, too. But aren't five a little overkill? The fact is, Showmars is a fallback option for Charlotteans of all stripes – even pinstripes.
101 N. Tryon St.
This place in the Independence Center is a dark, cramped galley with purple, red and white stools.
130 W. Third St.
“Toby, look: A real lunch counter!” I erupt. “With little stools!”
He doesn't actually murmur the official mantra of 15-year-olds: “What-ever.” But his lazily arched eyebrow is unmistakable.
This place might be my favorite in the whole city.
There are heavy white coffee cups set out on the tables with – I can't believe this – saucers! Don't you love it? Saucers! The waitress behind the counter, Natasha Lewis, calls me “Hon.”
There is one of those long rectangular windows to the kitchen, where the cooks hand waitresses carb-loaded plates. Beneath the window: A little print of “The Last Supper.”
9704 E. Independence Blvd.
Some Showmars are quirky, but this one is Fellini-esque. Spanish mission-style walls soar up in the middle of the restaurant, like the battle of the Alamo has suddenly broken out. Nearby is a gum machine in a phony, 7-foot antique gas pump. Were they pumping gas at the Alamo? Am I missing a connection here?
Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.
For sale up front: newspapers, chips and soda. They could film a “Law & Order” in here, there are so many cops and attorneys in the booths. The cops eat more; the lawyers are too busy talking.
Charlotte Plaza, 201 S. College St.
There are floor-to-ceiling windows, the bright, sleek architecture of uptown Charlotte.
2398 W. Roosevelt Blvd., Monroe
Other chains might claim to be family-friendly, but this place has a taped-up, Xeroxed sign happily informing you that on Tuesday night, they have “Magic & Balloons.”
2601 Freedom Drive
On one wall is a mural celebrating the neighborhood's African American culture. Couchell explains: “We believed in this area, and wanted to celebrate the neighborhood. So we put in the mural, and it's been a great location.” Toby and I get a lemonade, and a towering kid working behind the counter takes our picture.
1415 E. Franklin Blvd., Gastonia
There's a cool Showmars van out front, about the size of a UPS truck. Once it was used for deliveries, but now it's just another Showmars knickknack. OK, a two-ton knickknack.
2540 Little Rock Road
This place has nice columns out front and a classy décor. A blond mom and daughter sit side by side in a booth facing us. The girl is probably about 5. She suddenly turns her little face up to her mom and asks an urgent question. Her mom looks down and patiently answers, then taps the girl's plate: “Now finish your lunch.”
OK, parents, raise your hands if you have said that very thing.
1500 E. Dixon Blvd., Shelby
Just down the road from Bridge's – maybe the best barbecue in the state – this location pulls in a diverse crowd, and then plays them Shania Twain on the sound system – just in case you forgot where you were.
129 Gateway Blvd., Mooresville
We get lost on the way to this clean and modern restaurant, and an employee talks us in. Showmars employees are friendly, almost without exception.
9605 Sherrill Estates Road, Huntersville
At this modern strip mall, the Showmars seems run-of-the-mill, yet a sign suddenly offers a special of broiled tilapia. When you least expect it, Showmars will surprise you. You don't get that at a Subway or KFC.
7260 N.C. 73, Denver
A swanky and modern outpost in one of greater Charlotte's fastest-growing areas, this might be the most stylish location of them all. It is so Lake Norman, sprawling and modern.
Outside is a long patio beneath a mustard-colored tarp roof. This patio has heaters for the winter, ceiling fans, flat-screen TVs, and a tasteful fountain. On weekend nights the patio is filled with upscale families. If this location's customers are recent transplants from New York State or Atlanta, who have never been to another Showmars, they might be amazed to see the gritty little Emerywood restaurant, or the cramped one on East Boulevard.
End of the road. In this busy mall, we limp in from the heat, consult the mall map, get a lemonade, take a picture, and shout, “Thank God!” Don't get me wrong, I like Showmars very much. I really do. But it might be a little while before I go back.
Toby and I spent $180.12 at the 27 Showmars. We burned through about $150 in gas. My pants fit a little tighter, and my 15-year-old son appears to have grown a little, thanks to all the lemonade and onion rings.
But wait: We didn't get a souvenir! Ah, that's OK. Tommy Merritt did it for us. A while back Showmars remodeled his favorite location, on Park Cedar Drive in Pineville. So the retiree snagged himself a booth. It's set up in his basement game room, and he and his wife, Peggy, sip coffee in it and hang out there with the grandkids.
“We spent a good deal of time in that booth,” he says. “I always liked it.” So the Merritts' game room is Showmars' secret 28th location. The ultimate family restaurant.
“More than anything else, we want Showmars to be a place for families,” George Couchell tells me.
After the road trip, I speak with him on the phone. He's staying at his brother's beach house in his family's homeland of Greece.
“I took my boy with me to your restaurants,” I tell Couchell.
“That's wonderful,” he says. “I'm so glad you did that with your son.”
And then, Couchell tells me a story.
When he was a kid, his immigrant family ran Johnny's Grill, which used to be at Wendover and Monroe. His brother was the manager, at age 16. His parents, who didn't speak English, worked in the kitchen. Couchell, 12, worked as a car hop, hustling burgers out to customers.
His brother joined the Army and Couchell went off to college. When his father landed in the hospital, his mom was left running the place all by herself. She was quickly overwhelmed. “We were going to lose the business,” Couchell says.
But word got out, around the neighborhood: That Greek family is in trouble. Suddenly, customers poured in. Many helped out around the place.
“That's why we're a family restaurant,” he says. “Because, when we were in trouble, they saved us. The other families.”