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He Could’ve Been a Colonel

The hamburgers at Ollie’s Trolley are among the best in the world. With all that flavor, why aren’t there Trolleys all over the South — all over the nation, even? Maybe the world wasn’t ready for a guy like Ollie Gleichenhaus.


Story by Keith Pandolfi | Photographs by Helen Rosner


 
 

During the lunchtime rush at Ollie’s Trolley in Louisville, Kentucky, I sit in the parking lot, listening to the radio, waiting for the rain to die down, so I can make a run for it.

Through the sheets of water flowing down my windshield, I see a skinny white kid smoking a cigarette out front of the place, not giving a damn about the rain, it seems. Three highway workers come roaring into the lot in a GMC pickup, its bed full of orange barrels and cones. One gets out and rushes toward the door, but courteously holds it open for a sharp-dressed senior citizen in a baby-blue blazer who’s on his way out. In one hand, he’s holding a grease-stained paper bag, in the other, a big cup of soda.

That bag reminds me just how hungry I am. I turn off the ignition, pull the brim of my Reds cap down tight, and run like hell.

If you’ve never been to Ollie’s Trolley, it’s a curious thing to stumble across. Yes, it looks like a trolley — albeit one marooned on a sea of asphalt and  cinder blocks since it opened 45 years ago. It’s painted red and yellow. Its interior, to venture a guess, could not be more than 250 square feet in size. Every time I come here, it reminds me of the trolley from “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” And while it can’t get you to the Land of Make Believe, it delivers something even better — one of the best hamburgers in the world. At least, that’s what I think.

Inside, shaking the water from my cap, I notice there’s enough room in the kitchen for the five women working that day to perform their duties in relative harmony. One shares an update about a sick friend as she fries burgers on the flat-top, while another listens as she tends a basket of fries sunken in hissing, hot oil. All in all, it seems like the platonic ideal of a family-owned restaurant, all “how you doin’, honey?” and “please come back soon.” I don’t bother looking at the menu before telling the smiling woman behind the register my order, because I always know what I want. An Ollieburger, Olliefries, and a Coke, please.  Five minutes later, she hands me a grease-stained bag of my own, and I dash back to my car to eat it. Given that Ollie’s has no seating inside, there’s no other option.

 
 
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Eating an Ollieburger is like having a McCormick spice warehouse explode in your mouth. There’s a magic mingling of oregano and garlic, cumin, rosemary, and Old Bay — an Italian pot roast and a Maryland crab boil all in one. There are other flavors in there, too — some I recognize, like onion powder, paprika, and cayenne, and others I don’t. The same seasoning coats both the fries and the burger. And the more I eat, the more my taste buds re-acclimate themselves to those flavors, and the more convinced I am that the Ollieburger is the most underappreciated burger in America.

Part of the reason for its low profile is that Ollie’s Trolley in Louisville is little more than a remnant of what it was four decades ago — a full-blooded nationwide chain of restaurants dreamed up by the fast-food restaurant entrepreneur John Y. Brown.

Yes, that John Y. Brown — the same guy who helped transform Kentucky Fried Chicken from a fledgling, regional chicken joint into one of the most iconic fast-food franchises in the world. Ollie’s Trolley arose from Brown’s partnership with a cigar-chomping, straw-hatted grouch named Ollie Gleichenhaus. Today, only three Ollie’s Trolley locations survive — this one in Kentucky, one in Cincinnati, and the other in Washington, D.C.

But if Brown and Gleichenhaus had it their way, Ollie’s Trolleys — thousands of them — would still be thriving.

 
 
 
 
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Our nation’s most famous burgers have good stories to tell. Stories like the time in 1937 when members of the Glendale High School Orchestra stopped by Bob’s Pantry, a modest little diner in Glendale, California. They asked owner Bob Wian — a man who in high school had been voted “Least Likely to Succeed” — for “something different.” Seeing as the kids were all regular customers, Wian decided to indulge them by adding an extra patty to his single mainstay burger, slapping on a few toppings, and inadvertently creating what would become the heart of a billion-dollar restaurant empire — Bob’s Big Boy.

Three decades later, to goose sales at his fledgling McDonald’s franchise in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, a former Bob’s Big Boy employee named Jim Delligatti created a variation of that sandwich. Delligatti piled two beef patties, some “special sauce,” lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame-seed bun. He christened the burger “The Aristocrat,” but when he realized how difficult a time his customers had pronouncing the name, he came up with a new one — the Big Mac.

But those origin stories pale in comparison to the grandiose ambitions of Ollie Gleichenhaus, who professed an almost erotic connection to the burger he created.

“I started out to make the best hamburger,” he once told the Palm Beach Post. “It satisfies me … it turns me on.”

 
 
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The Ollie's Trolley in Cincinnati, Ohio, sits beneath a huge mural of President Barack Obama.

 
 

Gleichenhaus was born in New York City near the turn of the 20th century but migrated to Miami, where in the 1930s he and his wife opened Ollie’s Sandwich Shop in South Beach. The place was small, just seven stools and a couple of booths, but it quickly became a hit among tourists, locals, and some celebrities, too, including Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Rodney Dangerfield, and Don Rickles.

“The biggest people in the country ate in my place,” Ollie once boasted to the Palm Beach Post. “If you didn’t go to Ollie’s, you didn’t know nobody.”

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Most of the old newspaper reports about the Sandwich Shop make it clear that what drew those celebrities wasn’t just the burgers, but Ollie himself, whose caustic demeanor both entertained and, if what Gleichenhaus says is true, inspired them.

“Rodney Dangerfield used to write material in my place,” Ollie told the Post.

“He got all his material from me,” Ollie said of Rickles.

Maybe Ollie wanted to be a comic himself. Maybe he dreamed of stand-up gigs in smoky nightclubs and TV studio sets, a life far away from slinging burgers. No matter. Those burgers were his ticket to glory. It took him more than three decades to perfect the recipe, adding a new spice here, a different type of cheese there. He’d change up the bun, or grind up a new cut of beef. He used his customers as guinea pigs until he finally felt he’d nailed it. And once he nailed it, he was happy with himself, just frying up burgers and basking in the Florida limelight.

That is, until John Y. Brown came along.

 
 
 
 
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John Y. Brown was just 37 years old in 1971, the year he and Gleichenhaus first crossed paths. But he’d already achieved what amounted to a lifetime of experience in the fast-food business. In 1964, along with his business partner, Jack Massey, Brown acquired Colonel Harland Sanders’ fledgling Kentucky Fried Chicken company for $2 million. By the time he sold it to Connecticut-based Heublein Inc. for $284 million seven years later, it was a multibillion-dollar business with more than 3,500 locations.

Along with scoring Sanders’ secret recipe for what’s now America’s most iconic fried chicken, Brown’s genius was turning Sanders (who’d been given the mostly symbolic title of Kentucky Colonel by the Commonwealth itself) into not just a mascot, but also a goodwill ambassador. Brown would send him on tours around the country where he evoked images of country cooking and Old South charm.

“The Colonel wasn’t merely the face of the company; he was the company,” Brown once told the late writer Josh Ozersky. “I used to tell people inside the company; there’s two reasons we’re all rich — because the Colonel came up with a good product, and because he looked good on that sign.”

 
 
 
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John Y. Brown and Col. Harland Sanders visited the New York Stock Exchange in 1969.

 
 
 

Part of the reason Brown sold KFC was because he wanted to run as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate. But after a favorite Republican candidate received his party’s nomination, he thought it might be best to wait a while. To bide his time, Brown used part of the profits from the sale of KFC and bought a fledgling Florida chain called Lum’s, known mainly for its beer-braised hot dogs. Brown knew he couldn’t rely on the masses to flock to Lum’s for hot dogs alone, so he decided to add something else, namely a burger that would be the beef-patty equivalent of Sanders Original Recipe chicken. And so, according to Time magazine, he “recruited a platoon of young executives and told them to scour the country until they found the perfect hamburger.”

Around the same time his troops were deployed to find a burger for Lum’s, Brown and his family traveled to Aspen, Colorado, for a ski trip. As they took a lift to the top of the mountain, Brown told me in an interview last year, he spotted a small trolley down below, selling popcorn. That trolley, he said, triggered something: a memory of the trolleys that used to navigate the streets of his hometown of Louisville when he was a child.

“Well, it was just sort of cute,” he said.

He decided that, along with selling burgers at Lum’s, he’d also sell them from small, replica trolley cars. There’d be no seating inside, only takeout, just like the popcorn stand. He figured it could be the kind of place men pop by at lunchtime for a sack of burgers to take back to the factory, a place moms pull in to grab dinner for the kids.

Not long after, Brown’s platoon reached South Beach, found Ollie’s Sandwich Shop, and declared their mission accomplished. They said Gleichenhaus’s burger—a third of a pound of lean beef seasoned with a blend of 32 spices — seemed destined to be a sure-fire hit, not unlike the Colonel’s spicy chicken. After hearing about the Ollieburger, Brown flew to Miami to try one himself and knew right away it was the one. In fact, when we spoke, he remembered eating four of them in one sitting. That the man who’d created them had a name that rhymed with “trolley” was almost too much, serendipity verging on the miraculous.

But there was a catch. Gleichenhaus was irascible. According to Ozersky’s book “Colonel Sanders and the American Dream,” Gleichenhaus called Brown a “slick-talking sonofabitch” when he first broached the idea of buying him out. After Brown offered Gleichenhaus $1 million for his recipe, suggesting that he could turn him into the next Colonel Sanders, the burger-maker was unimpressed. According to a 1976 story in the Appleton, Wisconsin, Post-Crescent, his response was resolute.

“I told him we was doing just fine,” Gleichenhaus said, “and he could get the hell outta my store.”

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“He had an infectious personality, for sure,” Brown told me. “He swore like a sailor and had quite a routine; if anyone came into his restaurant and asked for ketchup, he’d say, ‘Get the fuck out of here!’” Ollie wanted nothing to do with this rich man and his vision of an America dotted with trolleys. “He was seen as sort of a hero down in South Beach,” Brown said, and part of that heroism was his bravado, an arrogance that could sometimes spill out into a destructively big head.

Still, given the success he’d had with the almost-as-petulant Sanders, Brown kept hounding Ollie, calling him several times each week with the same offer, but the exchange was almost always the same.  “You’ll be the next Colonel Sanders.” No dice. “You’ll be the next Colonel Sanders.” Not interested. “You’ll be the next Colonel Sanders….” And then — “He finally got to me,” Ollie told the Post-Crescent. “With all the talk about the fun I’d have and the traveling, and how my name would be up in lights. Yeah, that fed my ego.”

 
 
 
 
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With Ollie on board, Brown’s first step was to send him to Texas, where he trained the cooks at Lum’s on how to make his burger. In the meantime, Brown got to work on the trolley concept, asking his old friend Ronald Dukes, an artist, to come up with the design. When the burgers received rave reviews during their test marketing in Lum’s Ohio restaurants, Brown knew he had a hit on his hands and got to work promoting it.

“Brown intends to go nationwide with Ollieburgers within a year,” Time reported, “and has prepared 63 television commercials featuring Ollie in ‘an Archie Bunker kind of approach.’ The rest may someday be history.”

The first Ollie’s Trolley, the one I visited on that rainy Thursday afternoon, opened in Louisville around 1973, selling Ollieburgers, Olliefries, and a simple menu of hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, and milkshakes. Shortly after, there were openings in Memphis, Nashville, and Atlanta. For each grand opening, Brown would send Gleichenhaus out to perform, selling not just the burgers, but also his grouchy, old-school, Archie Bunker-like persona (a wise move, since at the time, “All in the Family” was among the most popular TV shows in America). Gleichenhaus always delivered, showing up with a cigar clamped between his lips and an endlessly entertaining scowl. The reporters sent to cover the openings ate it up, especially because he always gave them a great sound bite or two.

 
 
 
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By 1976, there were almost 100 Ollie’s Trolleys nationwide, most of them east of the Mississippi River. But despite its rapid growth, the place had yet to find its footing among customers. Transitioning the Ollie Burger from the open grill Ollie used in Miami to the clamshell versions employed because of the trolleys’ tight kitchen space “compromised the experience,” according to Brown. “It was better when you could put it over an open grill,” he told me. “You had the aroma and the smoke coming out.” But it wasn’t just that.

Despite the positive feedback during test markets in Ohio, many Americans, whose collective idea of an ideal burger was focused more on ketchup and mustard than thyme and oregano, found Ollieburgers a challenge to their taste buds. And as each new location opened, Brown heard more and more discouraging feedback from customers who complained the Ollieburger was too spicy and too salty. While Americans were quick to embrace spicy fried chicken, spicy hamburgers were something else entirely.

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Even Gleichenhaus admitted to several reporters his exuberantly spiced burgers weren’t for everyone, but predicted more customers would come around in due time.

“When ya get hooked on an Ollieburger, it’s like dope,” he said. “Ya need it.”

People weren’t crazy about the trolley’s take-out-only concept, either, especially since other burger joints were starting to introduce drive-thrus, where you didn’t have to get out of your car to order your food. In other words, things weren’t looking good, and Brown was already thinking of pulling up stakes.

 
 
 
 
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It’s hard to say when Gleichenhaus first realized Brown’s plan wasn’t working out — that he would never be the next Colonel. In researching this story, I came across a 1975 photograph of him taken in Atlanta during a July 4th “Salute to America” parade that also featured Flip Wilson, Alex Trebek, and Frankie Avalon. When I scrolled down to the picture of Gleichenhaus, he was riding on the back of a convertible wearing a red velvet blazer, a flat top hat, and a red hanky tie. His sideburns were salt-and-pepper; his black-rimmed glasses pure Nixon. He had a cigar in one hand, a can of Coca-Cola in the other. He was flanked by two young women — the sort your grandfather might call “nice looking gals” — each wearing Styrofoam boater hats with bands that read “Ollieburger.”

 
 
 
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Oliver Gleichenhaus, founder of Ollie's Trolley

 
 
 

Staring at that photo, I tried to read the expression on Ollie’s face and glean something from it. His mouth curls into something resembling a frown. His eyes cast downward. I couldn’t but help but think that he knew where the whole Trolley thing was going and that it wasn’t going far. And he was right. In 1978, Brown sold Lum’s to a Swiss holding company and pulled the plug on Ollie’s, too. Most of the trolleys were demolished over the next few years, though Brown sold a few — some to private owners who kept them running as burger shops, others to people who repurposed the little restaurants for other clientele. One morphed into a Bolivian restaurant. Another became a tiny tavern. On Columbia Pike in Washington, D.C., you can still find one since converted into a burrito stand called Pedro and Vinny’s.

And so we are left with three ghosts of Trolleys past. The Cincinnati location is known more for its soul-food selections of barbecued ribs and collards than for its Ollieburger (though it serves a damn fine version of it if you want one). The D.C. location isn’t even a trolley at all; it was one of the rare locations that eschewed the architectural gimmick. But it continues to sell an exceptional Ollieburger (now elevated with 100 percent locally sourced Angus beef). In a recent article in the Washington Post, writer Sadie Dingfelder wrote a story headlined “Ollie’s Trolley: On Par with Shake Shack?” Other than the burger and fries, however, the menu is comprised of very un-Ollie-like dishes such as pastrami sandwiches and hot smokes. Only the Louisville location maintains the original menu — the one Ollie, if he were still alive, would still recognize.

 
 
 
 
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For Brown, Ollie’s Trolley was little more than a bump in the road. In 1976, he bought the NBA’s Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers). In 1978, he purchased the Boston Celtics. And in 1979, Brown ran as a Democrat and won the governorship of Kentucky, a post he held until 1983. And he couldn’t shake the restaurant bug, launching other, more successful restaurant chains after he sold off Ollie’s, including Kenny Rogers Roasters and Roadhouse Grill.

 
 
 
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Brown’s life history is vivid and public, but I had a hard time finding what became of Gleichenhaus after Lum’s and the trolleys closed. When I asked Brown, he said he didn’t know. No one seemed to have any idea. Through Facebook, I tracked down two of Ollie’s cousins, but neither of them seemed to know much about their briefly famous relative. In fact, the only thing I could find about post-Ollie’s Ollie was his New York Times obituary, from 1991. The headline read: “Oliver Gleichenhaus - Burger Maker, 79.”

The obituary is brief, just four short paragraphs: The sandwich shop, the million-dollar payday, the Ollieburger and the restaurants that sold it: “a new chain called Ollie’s and mobile restaurants called Ollie’s Trolleys.” It’s true the restaurants were trolleys, complete with wheels, but the Times makes it sound like they rolled around town, a red-and-yellow precursor to the food trucks and pop-ups that would take the country by storm a generation later. But that’s not how it was; the trolleys stayed in one place, anchored to the ground by solid foundations and water pipes and gas lines, real restaurants — if tiny ones.

They weren’t meant to move; they were meant to stick around.


Keith Pandolfi is a James Beard Foundation Food Journalism Award-winning writer and editor. His work can be found in publications including The Wall Street Journal, Saveur, Cooking Light, and The New York Times Magazine. 

Helen Rosner, now a contributing writer to The New Yorker, is the former executive editor of Eater.com. The Bitter Southerner is grateful to her for moonlighting as a photographer on this story.