Gino's is the place to go ... again

Gino Marchetti, founder of the once-popular Gino's fast-food chain, enjoys the fare at Gino's-King of Prussia. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff)
Gino Marchetti, founder of the once-popular Gino's fast-food chain, enjoys the fare at Gino's-King of Prussia. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff)
Posted: January 17, 2012

THERE WAS a time when everybody went to Gino's, a time when a giant burger slathered in secret sauce left char-grilled imprints on the brains of a generation.

Gino's burgers were there by the bagful after Little League games, before David Bowie concerts, despite warnings from doctors to "cut back on the burgers." Then Gino's went away, slowly, like an aging hairline, and eventually, you could go there only in your mind.

"I don't know what it is. It's just something about Gino's," said John Flack Jr., of Marlton.

Flack has a website (ginoshamburgers.homestead.com) dedicated solely to Gino's, a "fondly remembered former East Coast regional fast-food chain." There are Facebook pages, too, both for fans and former employees, some of whom have taken a nostalgic route to Gino's, long after the last shop closed in Maryland in 1991.

You can't do much about balding, but yes, you can go back to Gino's. You can probably even meet Gino Marchetti, the NFL Hall of Famer who who helped launch the chain with fellow Baltimore Colt Alan Ameche and longtime friend Louis C. Fischer in Maryland in 1957.

"I'm here five days a week helping out with the cooking," said Marchetti, 85, from the Gino's on DeKalb Pike in King of Prussia, which was the first new Gino's to open, in fall 2010. "I like to work in the kitchen."

In August 2011, the former Baltimore Colt made a triumphant return to Maryland by opening a Gino's in Towson, his bacon-covered fries and milkshakes salve for those still wounded by the loss of their iconic team and beloved burger joints. The third Gino's opened in Bensalem a month later. Upper management says there soon could be dozens of Gino's franchises everywhere, including downtown Philadelphia.

"America has an undying love for the burger, and we were one of the first around," said Tom Romano, president and chief executive.

Romano spent nearly 20 years working for Gino's. He was there when Col. Sanders - yes, the real one - brokered a deal to sell his poultry at Gino's. Rustler, a steakhouse in which you could wear sweatpants, was also under the Gino's umbrella. At its height, there were more than 500 Gino's, based mostly in the Northeast and later headquartered in King of Prussia.

In 1982, Marriott bought Gino's for $48 million. The giant corporation was more interested in the real estate to usher in another chain, Roy Rogers.

Romano didn't stick around, saying that he couldn't be a part of the "destruction."

"It was a rude awakening," Romano said last week while eating a burger topped with a fried egg at the King of Prussia location. "We all know this, but don't want to admit it: Nothing stays the same."

Romano, a former CEO of Saladworks, found that America's love of burgers had evolved - from cheap, quick burgers you can get for $1 to burgers that people were willing to wait for, at locations such as Five Guys or Elevation Burger. He decided that it was time for the Gino's Giant to return. Marriott had let its rights to the Gino's name lapse, and he said that Marchetti was more than willing to help out again.

"His wife said this is the best thing that ever happened to him," Romano said.

Based on the fat envelopes stuffed with old newspaper clips in the Daily News' library, Gino's was a major player in Philadelphia. There were humorous pieces on failed concepts such as Gino's "Edsel," the rectangular "Heroburger"; dry business stories about stock prices; editorials about a supposed free-burger scandal for cops; a review by at least one fashion columnist of employees' uniforms.

In 1976, Gino's dropped its famous, multitiered Giant, denying that the decision had been driven by competition from Burger King's "Whopper." The Giant returned the next year, and it's back in King of Prussia and Bensalem, complete with secret sauce.

Marchetti, who has lived in West Chester since 1969, said that a die-hard Gino's Giant lover drove up from Baltimore when Gino's opened in King of Prussia in 2010.

"I still love the Giant," Marchetti, who still looks fit and imposing, said. "I don't know if I'd drive over 100 miles to get one, though."

Nostalgia can do that to a customer. But Gino's die-hards shouldn't expect the same experience they had in 1965. It's called "fast casual" now, not fast food, because it's going to take a little longer to prepare. Customers order, pay, then sit and wait a few minutes while their food is cooked. It's similar to Five Guys.

"You're going to wait about five minutes," said Peg Varani, director of marketing.

One former Gino's employee found that he couldn't relive the past at the new King of Prussia shop. Nostalgia, it turns out, also includes the flaws, the friends you met on the job, even the taste of frozen hamburger patties.

"It kind of tasted like the Giant, but it was like $5.49 or $5.69," said Ken Holak, 49, who worked at three Gino's. "I enjoyed it; it was a good burger. Do I get this big, happy feeling of nostalgia when I walk in the door? Not really."

Romano, of Valley Forge, is hoping that nostalgia gets people through the door, and if the burgers don't trigger Proustian flashbacks, he thinks that they'll at least prompt a second visit.

"We had a father and a son and a grandfather come in here," Romano said. "They might have had a different experience, but in the end, they just had a good burger."

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