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Rax: Road Trip and Roast Beef Review

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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A year ago I somehow stumbled upon an article in the Ironton Tribune about the new owner of the Rax franchise who had impressively climbed the ladder from sandwich-maker to trademark owner. The article goes on to mention the possibility of new Rax restaurants opening throughout Ohio. I recently emailed owner Rich Donohue about the possibility of a store coming back to the Columbus area. Here’s what he had to say:

“The short term plan is to close the gap between the Ironton and Lancaster market. Long term plans are to have several locations in and around Columbus Ohio. If you should have any questions or know of anyone that wants to open a Rax please share my email address with them.”

I figured I should probably get ahead of the curve and make a special trip to Lancaster to visit the nearest Rax and give the place a quick review for the Columbus community. I wrangled up Jim and Matt, and we set out yesterday afternoon on a quest for roast beef.

For those who are unfamiliar, Rax is a fast food chain that specializes in Roast Beef sandwiches, not unlike Arby’s. After going through several name changes in the 70s, the first official Rax-branded restaurant was opened in the fast-food mecca known as Columbus, Ohio. The chain grew rapidly through the 80s and peaked with over 500 stores across the country. Multiple factors contributed to their decline, including a few failed conceptual changes, corporate restructuring, and a bankruptcy filing in 1992. Many stores were closed or sold off throughout the 90s. Only a few franchised locations remained, and the final Columbus location near 161 & Karl Road quietly closed about 3 years ago. There are currently only 13 stores open.

I feel as if I should give a bit of a personal disclaimer and mention that I grew up in the north-western Columbus exurb of Marysville. We had a Rax restaurant (that ironically is now an Arby’s) and I’ve got some fond childhood memories of the place. I tried my best not to let this raise my expectations too high though, as any chain restaurant that has declined from 500+ locations to a mere 13 has to have gone through a bit of a rough patch.

Anyway, the three of us headed off toward Lancaster around lunchtime yesterday. I joked before we left about enjoying the “beautiful countryside” on our way down there. We took a bit of a scenic drive down Livingston Avenue to Brice Road to Gender Road to get to 33 to head towards Lancaster. Much of the sprawl on the south east side of Columbus has seen better days, and it was a bit of a depressing exit from the city. But soon we were beyond all of that and into the brief patch of corn fields that still exist between the burbs of Columbus and the city of Lancaster.

Lancaster itself also contains quite a bit of sprawl, and I was surprised that Rax was not actually located on 33, as just about every other chain restaurant and store could be found in shopping centers and strip malls through here. We turned off on Main Street and drove through the quaint downtown area of Lancaster. Also to my surprise, most of the storefronts here were filled with small shops and businesses and a lot of the historic charm seems to have been well preserved. Would be worth a return visit to walk around here and check out some local shops and local eats.

Anyway, just on the other side of the downtown area we spotted the Rax sign and pulled into the parking lot. I hopped out of the car to take a photo and made Jim stand in front of the restaurant so that you can get a good idea of scale. Jim is approximately 30 feet tall.

The store was fairly empty at 1:30pm on a Saturday afternoon, so we had no wait in line and could take our time to peruse the menu. I think a lot of people would be pretty quick to compare it to Arby’s. A variety of Roast Beef sandwiches, a few chicken sandwiches, some sub-style sandwiches, lots of salads, baked potatoes, and sides that include curly fries and mozzarella sticks. I was thrilled to see that they still had a variety of milkshakes on the menu, as I recalled enjoying them as a kid.

We placed our orders and sat at a table in the lower-level portion in the front of the restaurant by the windows. The decor of this particular restaurant looked like it hasn’t really been updated much in the past 20 years and could probably use a revamp. The only real “decor” that existed outside of the tables and chairs were two small fake hanging basket plants near the front of the room. There was also no salad bar in this location, something that Rax was known for pioneering in the 80s. A few of the walls around where we sat appeared to be in the process of being repaired. Some exposed plywood seemed to be serving as a temporary fix for what looked like water damage.

Anyway… on to the food!

My tray: Regular Roast Beef, Mozzarella Sticks (4) with Marinara Tub, Curly Fries, Chocolate Chip Shake, and Ketchup Cups (6):

Jim’s Tray: Regular Roast Beef, Spicy Chicken Sandwich, Chili Bowl with Crackers, Regular Fries, Coke, Ketchup Cups (3), Salt Packets (too many to count):

Matt’s Tray: Regular Roast Beef (2), Chicken Sandwich, Curly Fries, Ketchup Tubs (3), Orange Drink, Fork (for what?):

All three of us tackled our roast beef sandwiches first, as they are the signature item at Rax. Jim noted that his was “a little soggy but not bad”, Matt thought it was “alright” but wasn’t a fan of the bbq sauce, and I really couldn’t tell a whole lot of difference between it and an Arby’s roast beef sandwich. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, but I’d like to think that a signature item should have a bit of uniqueness and character to it. Jim thought that perhaps some sort of additional seasoning to the beef could help with adding flavor to it instead of just letting people add ketchup or bbq or horseradish sauce at the condiment station.

We each tried out our sides. The fries all around weren’t bad. I enjoyed the spiced curly fries and would definitely swing toward them with the purchase of any combo meal at Rax. The mozzarella sticks were pretty lackluster, but in all fairness I’ve never been impressed by mozzarella sticks at any fast food establishment. They’re identical to what you can find in the frozen food section of any grocery store and heat up in your own oven at home. While I understand the convenience of eating fast food, I’ve never thought it was worth it to pay extra just to have someone take such a simple item from freezer to oven for you. Jim did not enjoy his chili at all, and while he didn’t give much of a reason why, I’d guess it was the least popular item between the three of us as it was the only thing that went unfinished. Jim actually moved it to Matt’s tray so that he wouldn’t have to look at it.

Roughly two minutes into my meal I realized that I had made a huge mistake by ordering a milkshake instead of a regular drink. The shake was thicker than I remember, and I actually had to eat it with a spoon because I could barely get it through the straw. And trying to wash down food with ice cream wasn’t really doing it for me. To top it off, the shake wasn’t quite as good as I remembered. Perhaps it was a recipe change, or perhaps it was the fact that I haven’t dined at a Rax in 15 years, but the flavor seemed to be one part soft-serve ice cream, one part corn syrup sweetness. I think that makes it sound worse than it was, but I’m not sure of any other way to describe it. I still finished the shake, but I don’t think it’s as much of an item that I would normally go out of my way for as I thought it was going to be.

Overall, I think all three of us had a feeling of quiet disappointment throughout the meal. We arrived with empty stomachs. We spent three hours of a Saturday afternoon to visit Rax. Again, while the food wasn’t that bad, it just didn’t feel worthwhile for the special trip to Lancaster and back for it.

That being said, I think that if Rich Donohue does bring the Rax concept back to Columbus, there is potential for it to do well here. I can see plenty of people eating there if it’s close by. I think the foundations of a solid fast food concept is there, but the brand feels like it lacks focus if the Lancaster location is any indication of what the rest of the brand is like. If I were in charge, I’d do the following:

  • Slim down the menu. Choices are good, but too many choices can be overwhelming and confusing.
  • Update to be current with some of the industry trends. I’m no restaurant professional, but it just seeing their sign out front with the slogan “Fast Food with Style” feels really out of date.
  • Give your signature dishes some signatures. Seek out the best roast beef sandwich you can find at a mom’n’pop shop. Look long and hard all across the US. And then replicate it. Make it a point to blow Arby’s out of the water.

If you live in Lancaster, or are passing through, Rax seems like an alright fast food option, no better or worse than most of your other fast food options.

If you’d like to visit:

Rax Roast Beef Lancaster
800 East Main Street
Lancaster Ohio 43130

Other locations here: www.RaxRoastBeef.com/Locations

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