Let’s travel back to a time when the music was good and the smell of roast beef was in the air: Wheeling, W.Va., in 1989.
Place the tape in the deck and press play.
Track One: Guns N’ Roses – Patience
Here is the story of a regional food chain who’s motto was Fast Food With Style and whose Wheeling location was the heavily traveled intersection of National Road and Route 88. How can Rax Roast Beef not be a part of the Wheeling lexicon? Rax owned this location for a couple of decades, with its peak popularity hitting somewhere between the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s. Let’s set our time machine to 1989.
Track Two: Edie Brickell & New Bohemians – What I Am
What the heck was Rax? First, let’s be clear Rax still exists, holding on by a sesame seed, but still around apparently. They have a website, and according to Wikipedia there are currently eight locations open in Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio. Rax was founded in 1967 as “JAX” in Springfield, Ohio and by 1980 there were 504 locations in 38 states, Canada and Guatemala (that’s super random … just like Rax). Rax, whose main competitor is Arby’s, used unique “styling” to find its niche.
You can still try to open one, but seeing how they butchered the state of West Virginia in this map, (note there is no Northern Panhandle), you might want to think twice.
This line from the Wikipedia article says it all:
Rax began to transform its restaurants from basic restaurant architecture into designs containing wood elements and solariums, with the intention of becoming the “champagne of fast food”.
It seems the endless salad bar, taco bar, italian cuisine and fancy windows turned off its working class customers and is the reason of its ultimate demise.
The Wheeling location had the fancy windows but we aren’t sure if we liked them that much, as we occasionally crashed right through them.
Track Three: Young MC – Bust a Move
Rax played a crucial role in the evolution of “Nothing to Do in Wheeling”. Before there was driving from McDonald’s to Hardee’s, and before there was Sheetz, Rax broke the ice with a place to go for all loners, losers, skaters, dweebs, anarchists, jocks, dance dimensionists and cheerleaders. They roped us in as kids with the magnetic “Uncle Alligator”.
Then it became the post-party spot for soccer games at the Woods field, Linsly’s extravaganza, a Woodsdale Elementary carnival, and car washes at the bank. Parents would haul us there in wood-paneled station wagons through the up-hill drive-thru, and then confusingly making a right ending up lost on Linsly’s campus. It then became a place to hang – but not for long. Its proximity to the traffic light and its floor to ceiling windows privided a clear view to cops and parents searching for teenagers up to no good. Its final act was the ultimate place for hangover cures. A night of Zima and Icehouse at the Swing Club or Mac’s could only be cured by curly fries, melted cheese and a mushroom melt.
Track Four: Paula Abdul – Straight Up
Rax also provided a lot of us with our first experiences in the labor force.
From former Rax employee, Anonymous Wack:
Working at Rax sharpened my mental math skills (the register didn’t calculate change) , allowed me to have all of the free roast beef and curly fries my teenage limitless metabolism could fathom, gave me a clear view of my friends skateboarding at the bank, taught me the value of baking potatoes and then smothering them in BBC cheese, allowed me to rock the maroon polo shirt and navy blue visor while smelling like roast beef 24/7, made the most amazing chocolate chip milkshakes (goes great w/more curly fries)….and finally Rax allowed me to sharpen my sarcasm skills by providing me with the mentorship of Sue (she took no shit) in the amazingly demanding and complex role of manning the drive-through when families as large as the Wacks came through in vans.
Track Five: Rax Commercial
There was only one Rax. One could argue that its importance in Wheeling’s history rivals McCullough’s Leap and Betty Zane. Well maybe not in quite the same way … but in the way that it was one of the places that made us feel good in a time of dramatic decline. It was our living room on National Road. There’s a new Taco Bell just down the road from the Rax location and people seem to like it. Rax, with its quirky uniqueness and weird-as-hell name, would have been a better fit in this “New Wheeling”. But like most things in Wheeling today, let’s cherish the past and embrace the future. Maybe the Vagabond Chef will roll out a vintage BBC someday.