Going home for the holidays often means returning to the favorite haunts that buoyed us in previous lives -- the places that were with us through long nights of homework, that welcomed us on first dates or maybe gave us our first jobs. These businesses remind us of where we're from and show us what it means to be more than a successful brand but also a vital community member and a symbol of home.
Below, a few of us at Inc. pay tribute to the cherished hometown establishments we make it a point to visit when we're homeward bound -- for coffee that's smoother, service that's brighter, movies that are more special, or fast food that is more mouth-watering than what we've found anywhere else in the country.
Colectivo Coffee (Milwaukee, WI)
Colectivo is a Wisconsin roaster and coffee chain that makes gorgeous lattes, roasts delicious beans, carries amazing baked goods like peanut butter-chocolate chip-banana muffins, and whips up delicious pesto breakfast burritos. They're not from my home state, but my adopted home state by marriage. Whenever I visit my in-laws in Milwaukee or my sister in Madison, my husband knows our first stop is always Colectivo. This Brooklyn-based coffee snob has access to a plethora of local roasters in her neighborhood--yet still orders a five-pound bag of beans from Colectivo once a month to brew at home .
Earlier this year, Colectivo expanded to Chicago and announced a cafe in Evanston, the first suburb outside of the Windy City--which works out well for me, because my brother lives there!
- Danielle Sacks, Senior Editor
Del's (Cranston, RI)
For such a small state, Rhode Island has a lot of weird food: New York System wieners, Johnnycakes, and our official state drink, coffee milk. But my personal favorite is Del's Lemonade. It's not some sloppy gas station slushie; it is the perfect Rhode Island lemonade made with real lemon pieces. In my youth, the realest vendors knew to sell you a salty pretzel rod to complement the not-too-sweet flavor. It's the first thing I look for when I visit Rhode Island in the summer. The business is still family run. For adult non-Rhode Islanders who can't handle the real thing, I suggest the widely available Del's Shandy, a mix of lemonade and Narragansett Beer.
- Ernie Monteiro, Photo Editor
In-N-Out Burger (San Jose, CA)
If you've never been fortunate enough to eat an In-N-Out burger, it's easy to dismiss it as a West Coast fad. But since I moved to New York seven years ago, In-N-Out has always been my first stop off the plane coming home to California. The lines are never short, but good things come to those who wait: 10 minutes in exchange for paradise in a bun. The meat is fresher, the fries are hand-cut, and the tomatoes taste like tomatoes. True love is living thousands of miles away from home and still never forgetting what a perfect In-N-Out order looks like: a Double-Double burger (coronary thrombosis on a gently toasted bun), Animal Fries (caramelized onions drenched in melted American cheese), and a chocolate shake (it's made of real ice cream!).
- Vanna Le, Senior Editor
iPic (Boca Raton, FL)
Life in my hometown of Boca Raton, Florida, is an ongoing exercise in luxury and pampering, and nightlife revolves around eating out and going to the movies. I don't suppose any other town could have given rise to iPic, the gold standard in movie-going indulgence. The pop-art interiors and Vegas-y bar rooms are a bright contrast to the grungy dowdiness of traditional cineplexes. In the overly spacious theater, an attendant brings you complimentary popcorn as you cozy up with a blanket and pillow on a leather recliner nestled into a privacy pod. Once ensconced there, a call button rings a waiter at any time throughout the movie to fill your order from the full bar or bistro kitchen. It feels like home, but better. iPic now has 16 locations nationwide, from Westwood to Westchester, but the Boca location is still my favorite--in part for the peacocking mise-en-scene that includes six-figure cars valeted conspicuously in front of the theater. But mostly because, when I'm home, it's where my entire family can share at least one movie night together, and no one has to jockey for the good seat on the couch.
- Marli Guzzetta, Research Director
Kopp's Frozen Custard (Milwaukee, WI)
I don't get back to Milwaukee much, but when I do, I try to make it to Kopp's Frozen Custard, and so does pretty much everyone I know. It's not the only place in town you can get a proper Wisconsin butter burger, with a big fat pat of butter melted on top of the patty. A lot of people prefer the one from Solly's, in fact. But Kopp's custard is worth the trip in its own right. (Whatever you do, don't waste your time with Culver's!) Even if you've ever been to Milwaukee, Kopp's might feel familiar. Garry Marshall modeled some of Arnold's Drive-In from Happy Days after the exterior of Kopp's.
- Jeff Bercovici, San Francisco Bureau Chief
Publix (Lakeland, FL)
Florida is a relatively new state, and many of us who grew up in South Florida in the Eighties and Nineties were used to seeing scrub brush or old farmland razed and reborn as shopping centers and tract housing almost overnight. Reactions to this development were mixed, but just about everyone was happy to see the bright green, art deco logo for a Publix supermarket--a torch in the wilderness that meant your daily comings-and-goings had just gotten much easier. Clean, beautifully organized, bright and welcoming, Publix was everything Florida promised its Northeastern transplants that the Sunshine State would be.
Even though Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Fresh Market have started moving into those strip malls, Publix is still the grocery store where I shop when I'm back home. To me, Publix is the delicious glazed chocolate-and-vanilla bundt cakes from the bakery that my grandmother always kept in the microwave, or the buy-one-get-one-free bunches of the brightest gladiolus that I would bring her from the store's florist on weekends. It's the famous deli subs--packed to the brim with ingredients that seem a little a fresher, a little better than they do anywhere else--that we'd eat while watching Dan Marino play at Joe Robbie Stadium. It's the cheap, sweet, fresh cut pineapple that my brother and I ate by the pound after coming home from school or sports. Most importantly, Publix is the kind, hard-working people of every stripe who go out of their way to make shopping there a pleasure, as its motto goes.
Tastee Diner (Bethesda, Maryland)
When I return to Bethesda, Maryland, I barely recognize the place. Phalanxes of soulless glass skyscrapers have supplanted the streetscape of mom-and-pop shops I'd grown up with. But there on a side street, Tastee Diner hangs on.
The Bethesda location was the first of three to open in 1935 in a metal dining car with six booths and a counter. I remember the wind-up toys kids like me could play with while we waited for our food; my favorite was a three-piece band featuring Alvin and the Chipmunks. When I was a little older, I learned to drink coffee here from thick white mugs during breaks from pasting up my high school newspaper at a nearby print shop. Years later, I would bring my own children. The waitress would read the table correctly and offer them double orders of fries instead of a second veg.
The Tastee web site lists celebrities that visited over the years: Julie Louis Dreyfus, Julia Child, Annie Leibovitz, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Bessette-Kennedy. Suburban Maryland is almost as politics-drenched as neighboring D.C., so Tastee also fed Chelsea Clinton, Josh Bolten and John Roberts.
I've never seen any of those people. But the web site also says today's lunch special is meat loaf: $8.95. I know just how it will taste.
- Leigh Buchanan, Editor-at-Large
The Varsity (Atlanta, GA)
All Atlantans know "What'll ya have!" is an exclamation and not a question, slung at you from behind a gleaming silver counter by folks in red and white paper hats. They speak a different language behind the double doors of The Varsity, an Atlanta icon since 1928.
My order: two chili cheese slaw dogs, ring one, and an F.O. Translation: two chili dogs topped with mustard and coleslaw, an order of onion rings and a creamy orange milkshake.
The Varsity was surprisingly ahead of the curve: drive-through service while cars were still young, a focus on youth culture thanks to its location near Georgia Tech's campus, and fast, cheap food before "fast food" was ubiquitous. Over time, it developed its own culture and lingo--and when the rest of the world modernized, The Varsity's culture remained "ours."
That's part of the charm: It's the same atmosphere now as when I was a kid. Or when my dad was a kid. Or his dad. Some say the food is greasy and expensive. But those heavenly onion rings? I have to experience them at least once per year.
- Cameron Albert-Deitch, Assistant Editor
Wawa (Wawa, PA)
Wawa sold me my first coffee-flavored gateway drug. The chain's frothy, sugary, French Vanilla cappuccinos bore little resemblance to either Italian espresso or the carefully curated third-wave pour-overs so popular today; but as a coffee-averse teenager with a lot of AP Calc homework, the Wawa two blocks away from my childhood home in suburban Philadelphia got me through a lot of (delicious) late nights.
Ask anyone who grew up with Wawa, and they'll likely have their own Proustian recollections of their favorite products. Wawa, of course, is the greatest American convenience store ever, as anyone from Philly or most of the non-New York mid-Atlantic can (and eagerly will) tell you. New York bodegas have their charming individuality. 7-Elevens have, well, that pervasive weird chemical smell of warm-ish hot dogs. But Wawas have it all: deli counters for handmade hoagies, convenience-store aisles of unhealthy snacks, and a crazy cheap coffee bar full of magical concoctions that put Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts to shame.
It's also a private, family-and-employee-owned business that opened its first store in 1964. Half a century later, Wawa has more than 30,000 employees, an estimated $9 billion in annual sales and 750 locations stretching from Florida to New Jersey. As I look forward to spending the holidays with my own family down the road from company headquarters in Wawa, Pennsylvania, I can already taste the French Vanilla.
- Maria Aspan, Senior Editor
Wegmans (Rochester, NY)
Every Western New Yorker knows how lucky enough they are to have a local Wegmans. The warehouse super-store has the feel and charm of a Trader Joe's with the product range of a Whole Foods. Inside you'll find a bakery, deli, pizzeria, French patisserie, organic/natural food section, cheese shop, butcher, sushi counter, coffee shop, florist, pharmacy, sit-down restaurant, home goods store, and of course a couple dozen aisles of groceries.
In many communities, including my hometown of Canandaigua, New York, Wegmans is where you greet neighbors, catch up with old elementary school teachers, and meet up with a friend for some late-night grub. On Thursday nights, the parking lot is cleared for antique car shows. On Fridays in the summer, you'll find jazz and cocktails on the back patio, and on Saturday's, Costco-style sampling stations fill the store. Many of my high school friends had Wegmans was their first job, and with the company's scholarship program, it was a means for them to attend college. For shoppers, Wegmans is an extension of their home.
- Brit Morse, Editorial Intern
Waffle House (Norcross, GA)
Everyone in the South has their favorite Waffle House menu item. Mine's the hash browns. I get them smothered, covered, chunked, and diced (which means with sautéed onions, cheese, ham, and tomatoes). But WaHo's allure doesn't come from its extremely cheap and greasy food. No, it comes from the 24/7 breakfast chain's sheer reliability. Need a quick bite before work? It's there. Drunk at 3 a.m.? It's there. Meeting up with friends? There's no better spot.
The Georgia-based chain puts a premium on crafting identical experiences across more than 2,100 locations in 25 states, from the food to the restaurant facades and layouts. It's ironic, then, that I love Waffle House for its absurdity. Anything can happen at a Waffle House: From the heartwarming (a group of customers stepped up to help staff an Alpharetta, Georgia Waffle House during the 2014 Snowpocalypse) to the downright strange (someone attempted to rob a Waffle House with a pitchfork earlier that same year).
No matter what happens, one thing's certain: Waffle House employees will always greet you with a smile.