Cafe Society

Survival of the Fittest

Imagine the last dinosaur, its heavy, lumbering body unable to find enough sustenance to meet its vast energy requirements, all of its kind gone, nothing to do but hang around until the environment ultimately becomes so unfriendly that it finally dies a slow, painful death that's torture to watch for all the more efficient, more highly evolved creatures around.

Welcome to Round the Corner.

Two decades ago, imminent extinction seemed impossible for the mighty four-state chain that had started in Boulder in 1968 and grown to thirty stores at its height. Good, inexpensive food and a fun, lively diner atmosphere -- with phones at every booth so that customers could call their orders in to the kitchen -- made Round the Corner a regular stop for two generations' worth of Coloradans eager to chow down on fancy-schmancy burgers with funky toppings.

But the Round the Corner restaurants began to fade in popularity as concept eateries moved into the newer malls. Although by and large the Round the Corners were located in lower-traffic suburban shopping centers rather than high-end malls, their rents were still going up, and as a result, they faced the prospect of raising their prices or closing their doors. The parent company was focusing most of its efforts on a second venture, Good Times, a chain of drive-up burger joints that had eclipsed Round the Corner's early success. After a last-ditch effort by a stalwart group of Round the Corner managers failed to save the chain, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and one by one, the stores gave up. By last year, only a solitary Round the Corner remained.

Situated to the side of Buckingham Square in Aurora, this last gasp of an eatery still brings in folks who couldn't care less about nearby shopping possibilities and instead are looking to browse through the culinary past. "I'd say anyone from about 30 to 65 who's lived in this region for any length of time recognizes the name," says Rod Brubacher, a former executive with the Round the Corner parent company who bought this final outpost in February 1999. "I've thought about changing the name, but we get so many calls all the time from people wondering if Round the Corner is still around. So I hate to give up on that."

Still, being the sole surviving Round the Corner is no guarantee of an overflowing cash register. Not only does Brubacher have to deal with the labor shortage that every metro restaurateur wrestles with these days, but he lost an obvious customer base when Lowry Air Force Base closed several years ago. "I'd say this spot had a dramatic decrease in business almost as soon as Lowry was gone," Brubacher says. "It sucked 30,000 people out of this area, and we've really never recovered."

To keep the name out there and drum up new customers, Brubacher has tried several promotions, but business remains sporadic. "New malls are going in around here, and I keep thinking maybe we should move," he says. "But I don't want to run the risk of doing what the other stores did by taking on a rent we can't handle, so I'm not sure what to do."

Well, to begin with, he could start turning out a decent meal. I'd have called the kitchen to complain about the lousy food coming out of it, but Round the Corner got rid of the tableside phones a few years ago because they made the kitchen chaotic, according to Brubacher. This was about the same time the kitchen was installing its new, wood-fired pizza oven: Although the sign outside proclaims "Gourmet Pizza, Our Newest Success," the pies were actually added in 1993. "Fooled ya!" Brubacher says gleefully.

Hardly. Beneath the char on several burned dishes (the kitchen apparently hasn't gotten the hang of that pizza oven yet), there was no mistaking the fact that Round the Corner uses cheap ingredients -- and sometimes spoiled cheap ingredients, at that. And while the service staff occasionally attempts to overcome its teenage angst, most of the time the servers shuffle around like they're in a daze, leaving dirty dishes piled all over the table.

Those dirty dishes, of course, simply remind you of all the bad food that arrived on them. For example, there was the sickeningly sweet, jellylike dipping sauce -- or was it pie filling? -- that came with the jalapeño screamers ($4.25), a dozen tiny peppers stuffed with a pasteurized, processed cheese substance that had semi-melted into something resembling partially dried glue (the screamers obviously hadn't been cooked long enough). We'd paired the alleged poppers with cheese sticks ($4.95), another previously frozen product that, like the peppers, was billed on the table tents as coming from Brew City, a respectable purveyor. But then, the photos of the cheese sticks made it look as though actual cheese would spill out of the sticks in a molten string -- and since this starter hadn't been cooked long enough, either, it was more like string cheese wrapped in wet cardboard.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner