An Ohio original and the best fish and chips in the area
By Ken Evans for TDS
Photos by Ken Evans
For the past two decades, the nightly news has regularly reported on national and regional chains closing their doors forever. Stores like WaldenBooks, KB Toys and Old Country Buffet are just a few of the many lost franchises that left a significant yet brief impact on the lives of their customers.
Every once in a while, though, a single franchise store can manage to hang on and even thrive without its corporate parents. In biology, the last living member of a species is known as an “endling.” These franchise endlings include places like the last Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon, and the last Howard Johnson Restaurant in Lake George, New York.
As national brands, these businesses were common, but now, as single stores, they have become destinations in and of themselves, serving not only the last of a loyal customer base but also those reaching for a small piece of nostalgia.
Joining this list is Cuyahoga Falls’s last Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips. Once a large national brand with 826 locations, the Arthur Treacher’s iconic yellow lantern now only shines at the corner of Sackett and State, kept alive by the energy of a man whose summer job became an unexpected career.
There can be only one
Biagio Vittoria, who goes by Ben, is the president and owner-operator of the last Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips. A sturdy-looking man with kind eyes and a friendly smile, Ben never expected that he would make a career out of fast food.
“In 1977, I had no idea that I would be involved in Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips. If someone looked into a crystal ball, I would have told them it was totally, totally wrong,” said Ben.
After graduating from Southern Connecticut State University, he was looking for a job to help him pay for graduate school. On a trip to apply for school, he drove past an Arthur Treacher’s looking to hire and train managers. Thinking it would be an easy six-month gig to make some money, Ben got off the highway and applied. “Well, six months from 1977 turned out to be over 40 plus years,” he notes.
Founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969, Arthur Treacher’s was one of many fish-focused fast food establishments that opened that year.
However, the founders sought to distinguish themselves as more than just a quick bite. They wanted to be an authentic English fish and chips restaurant. Adopting a British recipe, the company partnered with English actor Arthur Treacher to help give the franchise more legitimacy. Famous for his roles as the quintessential English butler, particularly his character Jeeves, Treacher represented all things British to the American public.
The company grew quickly from 1969 to 1979, and Ben ascended from store manager trainee to the corporate level, first serving as a regional director of an Ohio-based franchise group and then becoming that group’s vice president.
While the company was proving popular with customers, it also was bought and sold between corporate entities. The most infamous of these purchases was by Mrs. Paul’s Seafood. The company switched the fish offering from traditional cod to cheaper pollock due to increased cost after the “Cod Wars” between the United Kingdom and Iceland. Mrs. Paul’s also tried to introduce fish sticks to the Treacher’s menu, which many franchise owners refused to serve.
“They did not realize that Arthur Treacher’s franchisees were very successful, very strong, and they were not going to accept fish sticks in their operations. Litigation ensued, and for three years, it was nothing else but litigation,” Ben explained.
The franchisees would win their fight with Mrs. Paul’s, but this turbulent time saw half of the company’s locations close. Trading hands again, Arthur Treacher’s would weather two bankruptcies in the early 1980s but would slowly recover after a franchisee group formed a new corporate entity, Arthur Treacher’s, Inc., based in Youngstown, to manage the brand. Ben once again was promoted, this time becoming the company’s director of operations.
The company would see a brief revival in the late ‘80s, but corporate mismanagement at the highest levels would continue to plague Arthur Treacher’s.
After four years, Ben decided to leave the corporate world. The company was relocating its headquarters to Florida, and Ben had done enough moving in his life. Transitioning to an Arthur Treacher’s owner-operator, Ben bought the State Road location in 1988 and would come to own several others throughout Northeast Ohio.
The Arthur Treacher’s franchise continued to trade hands, eventually being bought by True Foods and Nathan’s Famous in the mid-2000s. Unfortunately, neither company is interested in new franchise locations, though Nathan’s Famous is developing a ghost kitchen concept that could see Arthur Treacher’s return as a delivery-only business.
As locations around the county closed, Ben soon became the only owner-operator left and would slowly begin closing his stores as well. In July 2021, due to the national labor shortage and a general desire to slow down, he closed his Garfield Heights location, leaving only his original franchise on State Road as the last operating Arthur Treacher’s.
Arthur Treacher’s Day
Despite all the corporate issues, Ben is proud of the work he has done with Arthur Treacher’s and is pleased to be helping the historic brand live on. Because of his 44 years of experience, he has retained vital knowledge about the franchise and the supply chains needed to ensure that the taste people remember is what his store sells.
“I think that I’m the keeper of, if not the secrets, at least some of the unique process,” says Ben. Even Nathan’s Famous has tapped Ben for product knowledge and brand information.
Over the years, a cult following has developed around Arthur Treacher’s, with customers coming from all over the United States. Some are just looking to try the brand before it’s gone, while others come to enjoy the memory of simpler times. Arthur Treacher’s Facebook page is full of pictures of out-of-state visitors and old regulars, some of whom have been eating the food since the store opened in the Falls in 1972. It is these customers that allow him to hang on.
“When you have regular, loyal customers, you establish a relationship,” Ben says with pride.
A small fish and chips chain may not seem like the most romantic place, yet Arthur Treacher’s manages to perfectly capture the feeling of the recent past, offering something to visitors that is unironically old fashioned, simple and delicious. In recognition of the store’s unique significance and long history, Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Walters declared June 30 as Arthur Treacher’s Day and encouraged residents to embrace the store as an important part of the community.
Ken Evans finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.
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