Retro restaurant photos of Manatee help reporter connect to community

cschelle@bradenton.comJuly 31, 2013 

Wagon Ho Restaurant opened in Bradenton featuring a wagon-shaped restaurant exterior, a large Paul Bunyon-looking fellow, and an electronic over-broiler, according to a Nov. 2, 1969, Herald archive photo. What do you remember about this restaurant?


As much as I think I'm hip and current for a 29-year-old, I'm constantly reminded how much I live in the past.

Get a conversation going about how the way things were -- like a talking tree at a McDonald's inside a mall in my Maryland hometown -- how many Mickey D's had that? Maybe a few, but people at least were familiar with the fast food joint.

The only time I get a blank stare is if I catch myself talking about something only the locals would know, like which Freddie's Subs location was the best.

Those "Do You Remember When" and "If You Grew Up In This Town" Facebook groups serve as a good access road to nostalgia, uniting people who have moved away to greener pastures and getting a dose of homesickness.

I have a bit of a reverse problem where unlike a lot of people in Bradenton, I don't remember when because I didn't grow up in this town. That's where working at a newspaper can help resolve some of those issues.

The Bradenton Herald has a large photo and microfilm archive showing off history's first draft, and naturally nosy, I wanted to see what this town looked like 15, 20, 30 years ago. I only have so much time to go through the archives as they're being donated to the Manatee County Historical Records Library as part of the move to our new digs at the Riverview Center on Third Avenue.

So I'm using this space as a way to kick off a feature of old restaurant photos of Manatee County. Let's call it the Retro Restaurant Repository.

I decided to focus on interesting restaurant photos. Restaurants are a place of great conversation not only between friends, but within the community. People get excited when a new restaurant opens, or is poised to make a rebirth like R.J. Gator's on Cortez Road, and mourn when their favorite joint shuts down.

Others might have had notorious health code issues that get passed through the grapevine, even if they managed to pass an inspection. I don't know the whole back story of these restaurants, as a lot of the photos lack detailed information with them in the file, so I'm relying on readers to enlighten me if these places were any good and what memories they have of the place.

I've sifted through the files and found some doozies. Most by architectural choices, others showing how a longtime restaurant has changed and others that could be nominated for Awkward Family Restaurant Photos.

The first photo I have comes with some tidbits. It's the Wagon Ho Restaurant. And ho boy, that building makes a statement, but I just have a feeling that inside didn't look as cool as it did outside. I mean, wouldn't it be awesome as a 10-year-old, climbing up through those wagon walls and hanging out in a loft? Yeah, probably didn't happen.

According to a Nov. 2, 1969 Herald brief, Wagon Ho opened its fifth restaurant on the Florida Gulf in Bradenton. The restaurant's service was speedy "due to an electronic over-broiler, developed and patented by Wagon Ho for rapid cooking," according to the caption. The description reminds me a bit of the defunct chain Burger Chef, which was a childhood favorite. The local Wagon Ho was owned by Walter Hines and stood at 4723 N. Tamiami Trail near Cortez Plaza. Today, it's a lot for Bob Boast Volkswagen.

Does anyone have any information on this restaurant chain, the type of food, décor and its ultimate fate? Visit the photo at to leave your memories. If you have a restaurant in mind that you'd like me to find in the archives, leave a comment on the blog.

This Wagon Ho photo is just an appetizer, so keep checking the blog for a healthy serving of nostalgia.

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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