I missed my last opportunity to enjoy my favorite sandwich at my favorite restaurant chain; the last of the Z’Kota restaurants closed its doors over New Year’s weekend. Sad.
Z’Kota was a locally-owned chain of four restaurants; three in Sioux Falls and one in Brookings. Originally the stores were part of the Hardee’s franchise until the owner, Scott Fritz, broke off from the chain in 2002. His plan was to provide customers with a slightly more upscale fast-food experience and larger selection of menu choices that were a little out of the ordinary. I think it was a success.
For the last several years, Hardee’s had been looking to get back into the Sioux Falls market — as if Sioux Falls restaurant-goers needed yet another choice of national restaurant chains — and last year the four stores were purchased from Fritz by a Wisconsin-based Hardee’s franchisee.
On a work day I’ll often go home for lunch, but when time is short, I’ll sometimes hit a nearby McDonald’s or Burger King (and I’m a sucker for the $2.65 Pizza & Pop Combo at Sam’s Club!). If I’ve got a little more time and want to eat out, I prefer going to a locally-owned restaurant or diner, mostly to get away from the mass-produced plasticky food served by the bigger chains; the West 12th Street Z’Kota was a good place to go for me, just a quick run down I-29 away from work. Now though, I’ll have to work a little harder at that with Z’Kota gone. There is Rosie’s, Jono’s & Marlin’s, all within a ten-minute drive from work, but it seems most of the locally-owned restaurants are in the downtown area; a little too long a drive for a lunchtime outing.
The Z’Kota restaurants were a bit of a paradox; part of a chain, albeit a small one, but were put together very well and presented very professionally, more so than some of the bigger chains, yet far more polished than the average mom-n-pop local restaurant. Yet, even with the polished look, it still held something of the mom-n-pop charm that was very appealing.
The food though was where Z’Kota separated itself from the run-of-the-mill restaurant chain; fresh ingredients assembled after you placed your order, and seasoned perfectly — not too much and not too little. My favorite item on the Z’Kota menu was their Cajun Chicken Sandwich. For about $7 or so you got a char-grilled chicken breast on a bun with cajun seasoning & sauce on it, with cheese & lettuce, a helping of fries and a drink. It doesn’t sound like much, but the seasoning & sauce they used made it by far the tastiest thing on their menu, and the tastiest thing in town, fast-food-wise.
Another thing to like about Z’Kota is that on most warm Saturday evenings, the South Minnesota Avenue location hosted a loosely-organized street rodders’ car show. The boys & I would go there as often as we could to see what kind of cars were there… Because there was no organization, no entry fees and no visitor fees — pretty much a free-for-all — it was really a mixed bag of cars that would be there on any given Saturday. I’ve seen everything from brand new Ferraris to the rattiest rat rods to pro-street drag racers to restored Model T trucks to slightly modified tuner-style cars. That store converted over to Hardee’s last fall, right around the time the weather got too cold for hanging out in a parking lot all evening, so it’s unclear whether the show was exclusively a Z’Kota arrangement or if the new ownership will be as accommodating or not. It was rumored that the Z’Kota owner was a rodder himself, but I can’t say that I ever met him on a Saturday evening.
The West 12th Street store was within a quick lunch-hour drive for me, but even after that one converted to Hardee’s I would drive across town for one of their Cajun Chicken sandwiches. Mid-December was the last time I was there; the girl at the counter told me they were closing down in early January, so after the turn of the year I made the trip again. Unfortunately the only vehicles in the lot belonged to contractors working on converting the store and swapping the signage from Z’Kota to Hardees. It was a sad day for me. It’s been a while since I visited a Hardee’s restaurant; Deane says they’re not just another me-too food franchise so I’ll likely give them a try, but I’m thinking the bitterness I feel over the change will keep me away from Hardee’s restaurants for a while.
The Z’KotaGrille.com website went offline recently. Just for posterity’s sake, I pdf’ed the entire site; download it here if you like.