On a recent Thursday, we stopped by Ricky’s Embers Family Restaurant, just off 694 in Fridley. We’d arrived for the last Cruise Night of the summer season, and the parking lot was full of cars from every era, some more interesting than others—like a souped-up ’58 Ford Custom 300 with stainless steel dice on the air filter, red ball fringe around the windows, and a kitschy plastic lady perched on the dash.
A Grandpa’s Ice Cream truck parked next to the restaurant’s rhubarb patch was handing out free ice cream. A group of regulars wearing Cruise Night T-shirts sat out front in lawn chairs they’d brought from home and talked cars. An older gent—Ricky, as it happens—opened the door for us, saying, “Come on in, Honda.”
Inside we were greeted by Joe Rickenbach, the owner of the restaurant and Ricky’s son. He found us a booth, and his son Sam brought the menu: a full eight pages ranging from breakfast skillets to mini pies. As we plowed through it, the tables around us filled up and a homey din took over the little A-frame, which increasingly felt more like a small neighborhood restaurant than a freeway stop-off.
Rickenbach wandered from table to table, chatting with the young families, older couples, and car folk. He seemed to know them all and to be completely in his element—running the last of the original Embers restaurants, a remnant of a once mighty Midwestern chain.
Birth of an empire
Embers founders Henry Kristal and Carl Birnberg met as five-year-old boys in St. Paul. They stayed close buddies all the way through school, and then joined the Navy together. Kristal was stationed in Virginia Beach, and Birnberg moved around a lot, but they wrote to one another—letters, as legend has it, about the terrible Navy rations and how much they missed their mothers’ home-cooking. Eventually, their yearnings turned into a plan to open a restaurant, a place where working-class folks could get a good meal at a low price.
The first Embers Restaurant opened on East Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis in 1956. Birnberg and Kristal hired a small staff and worked alternate shifts, pinch-hitting as cooks and servers and whatever role needed filling each day. The star of their menu was the quarter-pound Emberger—charbroiled and brushed with their proprietary barbecue sauce—that went for 45 cents (60 if you added fries). Six months later, they opened a second spot on Ford Parkway in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul, and the concept took off.
In 1958, Joseph “Ricky” Rickenbach was working at the Luden’s cough drop factory in Reading, Pennsylvania, when an old army buddy, Clyde, called to tell him about an exciting new restaurant chain in Minnesota. Embers was growing like gangbusters, there were loads of opportunities, and Clyde was a manager—Ricky should come out west and work for him.
What happened next reads like the American Dream: Ricky started out as janitor in the Highland Embers. He wanted to move up, and he was single—at least until he met and married Noreen, a waitress at the restaurant—so he spent all his off-duty hours training in the kitchen, learning to cook. “Embers needed people, and they did a ton of promoting from within,” says Joe Rickenbach. “So even though my dad didn’t have a college education, he moved up real quick, and by the time he left the company in ’86, he was a vice president.”
Rickenbach grew up following his dad around on service checks, eating out at different Embers around the state three or four nights a week. “I thought that was a normal thing for a kid,” he says. “In fact, I’d go to McDonald’s and order an Emberger—that’s just what burgers were called.”
When he was 15, Joe’s dad helped him get a job at the Northtown Embers in Blaine, where he too worked his way up the ladder. “I’d work all weekend long, even in high school,” Rickenbach says. “I just loved it. You remember Al’s in Dinkytown? It’s this little place, just eight stalls, and I always thought about it as I was cooking, how it would be so much fun to open a little restaurant.”
So he stuck with it. After high school, he got into the Ember’s management program and, eventually, became a general manager. “And, along the way, I did meet my wife,” he adds. “She was a waitress at the Anoka Embers—we’d see each other at the Ember’s bowling league.”
‘A scary decision’
If you mention Embers to a Minnesotan of a certain age, they’ll tell you a story about going there to eat pancakes after the bars closed, and then sing you the hook from the restaurant’s jingle, “Remember the Embers!” “As a teenager, I’d be drifting off on the couch at like 10 o’clock at night, probably right before Carson, when the TV ads came on,” says Adam Kristal, whose father was Henry Kristal. “They always opened with a bah, bAH, BAH, and it would startle me awake.”
Kristal joined the family business in the 1990s doing marketing, but he says the jingle and the other gonzo campaigns people remember happened before his time. A lot of it hinged on price—two of everything for 99 cents!—but there were also innovations. Henry claimed their Emberger Royal was the first bacon cheeseburger, and even made a 100-pound version for the opening of one of the Embers. (True story: A&W claims to have invented the thing in 1963, but we’ve seen it on a 1958 Embers menu.)
“They also did things like hang a billboard upside down,” he says. “Apparently, the billboard sales guy almost lost his job over that one—my dad had to call and say, ‘No, no, we did that on purpose, to get people’s attention.’”
It must have worked: By the late ’90s, Embers had 29 restaurants in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas. Birnberg retired and sold his stake to the Kristal family, and they took the restaurants in a new direction: Embers America, a franchising program. Folks could buy an existing Embers restaurant or, for a modest $15,000 franchise fee, they could apply the brand and its most popular recipes to their existing restaurant—much like the Ace Hardware model.
Joe Rickenbach was one of the first franchisers. He chose the Fridley Embers because he’d grown up and gone to high school and church in the area. Plus, he liked the little A-frame, which held a manageable 90-seats. “It was a scary decision,” says Rickenbach. “Denise and I had five kids—and the twins had just been born—but it was a great opportunity.”
From the beginning, it’s been a family business. Rickenbach called his restaurant Ricky’s Embers, after his father, who coached him through financing the business, and then stayed on as a kind of facilities manager. (He and Noreen also tend the flower boxes and the rhubarb, which goes in the restaurant’s rhubarb crisp.) “He’s like Mr. Embers, so he doesn’t leave this place without talking to about 15 people,” he adds. “He likes to play up how hard I work him, and the customers think it’s hilarious.”
Denise did the books for a while, and the kids have all bussed, served, and even cooked. “Joey, my oldest, was eight when we opened,” Rickenbach says, “but he wanted to be down here, so he’d come in and bus tables. He was a big hit, and obviously he was making a lot of tips, so he just loved it. And that’s how it got started—all the kids wanted to work.
“There have been some tough years,” he adds. “A few years where I was thinking, ‘Oh boy, I don’t know how this is going to go,’ but it has just been such a blessing for our family, especially the last 10 years, to be able to raise all the kids and have them all work here.”
If you ask Rickenbach why his restaurant has survived, he’ll tell you that deep roots in the Fridley community have helped, but it’s really been about nostalgia. “We’re the last one, so there’s this cult thing going on,” he says. “And I didn’t really change anything because Ember’s is the only thing I’ve ever known, and I think that’s had a big hand in it—I’ve kept a lot of the old faves, like the Emberger Royal, pancakes, skillets, and coffee cake.”
But lately, he says, more and more people are coming in who don’t have memories of the Embers of yesteryear. They just come because it’s their neighborhood joint.
They know our names
Ruth Stachowski says she’s been going to Embers with her husband and kids for 10 years or so, and now that they’re empty-nesters they go a couple times a week. While she’s pretty devoted to the crisp salads and the loaded mac and cheese ($9.29)—penne piled with Jack, cheddar, gouda, Havarti, mushrooms, peppers, and bacon—it’s the Rickenbachs that bring her back. “The best thing is how you feel when you go in there,” she says. “Joe’s awesome, and his kids are always there, and you get to know them—they know our names, and they always have my pop on the table when I get there.”
Aly Hofmann agrees: “It’s a good, homey place to be versus the hipster places in the North Loop, where you almost feel out of place. Joe has great prices and quality food, and you can’t go wrong with that.” She and her husband have made Embers a part of their Sunday Target runs for a couple years now. Her advice? Get there plenty early and try the French toast—the edges are always nice and crisp.
We’d also recommend the buttermilk pancakes with blueberries ($7.79), which are made with the old 1956 recipe: light, fluffy, and just the right amount of sweet.
From the dinner menu, we ordered the infamous Emberger Royal ($10.99), which is now twice as big as the original. Ours was a perfect medium rare, the meat tender and juicy with a hint of sweet smoke from the Embers sauce. It came on a nice, soft bun piled with American cheese, grilled onions, and a couple pieces of bacon—still a stand-up burger, even in a city full of them.
The banana cream mini pie ($2.99), made from scratch by Rickenbach’s second oldest, Sam, was also good. It had a wonderfully tender and flakey crust, and it was fairly heaping with banana custard pudding, whip cream, and sliced bananas.
On Cruise Night, we watched Sam move around the restaurant confidently—taking orders, delivering food, chatting up the customers—and wondered if he’d be the next generation of Embers. “Sam is basically a mini me,” Rickenbach says. “He won’t admit it, but he always says, ‘Dad, how many times are you going to tell that stupid joke?’ And then I hear him telling it.
“He’s kind of my right hand man right now. He’s not sure of his plans, but I’m grateful he’s here because he takes the pressure off me,” he adds. “I’m 55, I’ve probably got 10 years left in me, and if I make it, that’ll be 50 years at Embers—one job.”