How a Fried-Chicken Slinging Convenience Store Conquered Baltimore

“Do you want me to sing it to you?” Asks chef John Shields of Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen. “Everyone in my neighborhood of Parkville had their insulated metal milk box up front. I can hear my mom now “- in a classic Bawlmer accent -” Has the milkman come ?! ”

Declining demand for door-to-door delivery would encourage the company to open its first storefront in 1959 – the predecessor of the modern convenience store – with Timonium’s “White Jug” locations in Halethorpe, selling “quick pick-up items” and a dairy. full line. (Pennsylvania-based Wood Brothers Dairy would follow a similar trajectory, opening what is now known as Wawa in 1964.)

It all came to a head in the late 1960s when Cloverland teamed up with the Royal Dunloggin Dairy, which had acquired another West Baltimore milkman with a familiar name several years earlier. “How has Royal Farms Dairy gone in three years from 30 liters of milk per day to 7,500 liters per day? »Asked a Sun advert in 1934. “The answer is in every bottle of Royal Farms milk, the answer is EXTRA RICHESSE.

In the 1970s, the “White Jug” stores would be supplanted by the brand new Royal Farms stores, open from 7 am to 11 pm seven days a week, with hot coffee, donuts, snowballs and frozen soda. in offer. It wasn’t until the next decade, however, with the end of the “Cokes and Smokes” era, that the company would add one new element that would change everything.

“Other stores had food, but it was fried 12 days ago and under a heat lamp – a scary thing you wouldn’t think of eating unless you were very drunk,” says Shields. “Royal Farms was a whole new ball game. It seemed like suddenly everyone was talking about it.

Maryland has long been a hub for poultry production, but the fried chicken was ironically inspired by a fryer vendor, with a borrowed recipe altered over time, initially using meat from the East Coast Purdue.

“In the years 1983 National Lampoon’s Vacation, Clark Griswold says, “I’m so hungry I could eat a sandwich at a gas station,” and at the time, that was the funniest line in the movie, “says Jeff Lenard of the National Association of Convenience Stores. “Now that has changed. Anthony Bourdain said, “Proximity to petroleum products is seldom a barrier to a good meal,” and a lot of people, especially in Baltimore, know that too. ”

Today, even with fresh food options like fruits and salads, it is undeniably the chicken that has earned the company its dedication to customers and interesting points, with praise from national taste makers. like Food and wine,
The Washington Post, and Garden & Gun.

“I would venture to say that Royal Farms fried chicken is better than that chain headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, or that other with ‘Louisiana Kitchen’ in its name,” wrote G&Gby Julia Bainbridge in reference to KFC and Popeyes.

Yet others opt for the dose of caffeine. “I drink their coffee every day,” says Xenos Kohilas, owner of Ikaros Restaurant, a Greektown mainstay located less than two miles from eight Royal Farms locations. “It’s always fresh. The product is compliant. They are never out of what you want. I get gasoline there and sometimes a newspaper. It’s a convenience.

This 24/7 service has even made it a haunt for local journalists. “Back then, before cellular communications, I used to go regularly to Royal Farms for public phones,” explains Sun columnist Dan Rodricks. “It was also a regular stop when my kids were playing ice hockey, and I was a man in a van. I have a RoFo reward card. I have been a RoFo Road Warrior for a long time. I haven’t met Justin Tucker there yet, however.

Perhaps it was then – when beloved Ravens players like Haloti Ngata and Justin Tucker became spokespersons for RoFo – that we finally realized how big the company had become. Of course, there was the sponsorship of Royal Farms Arena in 2014, and in 2010, the $ 1.95 million replacement for an iconic local monument.

“It broke my heart when they took over Burke’s restaurant,” Alvarez says of the 76-year-old bar that served oysters and martinis on Lombard and Light streets. “The death of downtown Baltimore and the way we did things could be marked by this moment. It is the homogenization of culture. They promised they were going to have the same onion rings they never have.

Likewise, Shields laments the loss of Holly’s Restaurant to Royal Farms. “It made me very sad, like ‘This is the neighborhood!'” He says of the East Coast staple he frequented on his way to Ocean City. “You can get too big for your panties, and maybe they’re a little pushy. They don’t have to be McDonald’s. But I’m also a realist. That’s the reason for business, and we live in a suburb, a car-driven society, and Royal Farms plays a role in that.

It was these gas pumps in part that inspired neighborhoods to add RoFo to the Not In My Backyard list, with boycotts from Annapolis to Towson, with Bengies Drive-In going so far as to sue for the neon nuisance. .

“Their ubiquity is a little unsettling,” says Alvarez. “It’s almost impossible not to be a Royal Farms customer in Baltimore. You do not have a choice.”

Yet even as stores get bigger, brighter and more must-see, adding bells and whistles like self-checkout and apps like UberEats, Royal Farms remains small compared to the competition. Pennsylvania is almost four times the size of Maryland, sure, but Wawa has 900 locations, Sheetz has 600, and 7-Eleven? A whopping 10,000.

These cookie-cutter convenience Coliseums will never replace the mom-and-pop corner stores of yesteryear, or all-night dinners or old dive bars full of colorful characters. They may represent the changing face of the city – the conundrum of the crossroads between Baltimore’s past and future – but they also undoubtedly tapped into an essence of this region: which we root for ourselves, what that it happens.

“This is where we started and it’s still where we call ourselves home,” says Breahna Brown, spokesperson for Royal Farms. “We are proud to be part of the Baltimore community. We have lived here, made friends here, been part of our community here, and have been fortunate to serve many of our neighbors.

RoFo now ranks 38th in the Top 100 Channels list by Convenience Store News, with 4,500 new employees to hire by the end of 2021 and more than 20,000 pounds of food donated to the Maryland Food Bank during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still family-run in their third generation and headquartered in Hampden, they to this day sell Baltimore-made Cow Tales and Berger cookies and Cloverland Dairy products.

“From when it was called Cloverland Dairy, the local has been at the forefront,” said veteran news anchor Marty Bass of WJZ. “Local victories [and] Royal Farms has not let the locals down. . . It was only in Charm City that what should be “RoFa” could become “RoFo” and be loved as such. It just screams hon-ness! ”

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