Ricky’s Embers in Fridley permanently closed its doors Sunday, March 28.
Located at 4400 Central Ave. NE, it was the last Embers ever to close. The second-to-last location closed five years ago in Richfield.
Ricky’s Embers owner and operator Joe Rickenbach Jr. reported the restaurant was packed with people all of closing weekend. On Sunday, the restaurant had to stop taking names at 1 p.m. because there was a two-and-a-half-hour wait.
“It was out of control,” said Rickenbach, who also said it was nice to close on a high note.
Prior to the pandemic Rickenbach was working with Launch Properties to sell the restaurant so he and his wife, who are Andover residents, could retire. He held off on the sale until earlier this year and closed on the sale two weeks ago.
The Ricky’s Ember’s building will be torn down to make way for a Bank of America, he said.
The Fridley location opened as Embers in 1958. It was one of the last sites to open for the Embers corporation.
Embers was founded by Henry Kristal and Carl Birnberg, who had been close friends since childhood. They both joined the Navy, but were stationed at different posts. The friends exchanged letters sharing how they hated Navy food and wanted their mothers’ home cooking and greasy hamburgers.
Eventually Kristal and Birnberg created Embers together in 1956.
The 24-hour service restaurant chain was most known for its all-day breakfast and the Emberger, a quarter-pound burger with barbecue sauce that sold for 45 cents, and the Emberger Royal, a bacon cheeseburger that sold for 30 cents.
Embers was also known for its catchy jingle “Remember the Embers” that was played on local ads in the 1970s.
Ricky’s Embers was one of 20 locations in the Twin Cities metro area. Other locations were in Anoka, Blaine, Burnsville, Crystal, Edina, Falcon Heights, Hopkins, Maplewood, Minneapolis, Richfield, St. Paul, St. Louis Park and West St. Paul.
Embers had a total of 29 locations operating in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
The chain fell on hard times in the 1980s and 1990s as low prices were favored over quality food. New competitors, such as Applebees and TGI Fridays, affected business even further.
Birnberg retired and sold his interest to Henry Kristal and his son, David Kristal.
David Kristal proposed an initiative in the late 1990s to offer up inexpensive Embers franchises to established independent restaurants, provided they use the company’s most popular recipes. Embers had 60 franchised locations in Minnesota, all called Embers America.
Joe Rickenbach Jr. was one of the first people to franchise a location. In 1998, he and his wife, Denise, bought the Fridley location where he was working as a manager.
Rickenbach was perfect for the job, having worked for Embers 43 years. His father, Joseph “Ricky” Rickenbach Sr., who was vice-president of Embers, got his 15-year-old son a job at the Northtown Embers in Blaine sweeping and mopping up floors after school. Slowly, Rickenbach Jr. worked his way up and became a manager in 1985 and managed more than 10 locations, including in Fridley.
“I’m so used to managing and running an Embers I think it helped Ricky’s Embers be so successful,” Rickenbach Jr. said.
Rickenbach Jr.’s mother, Noreen, started working for Embers in 1956 as a waitress at the first location, at 3300 E. Lake St. in Minneapolis, and later moved to the Highland Embers at Ford Parkway and Cleveland Ave. S.
Joseph “Ricky” Rickenbach Sr., from Reading, Pennsylvania, heard about the exciting new restaurant chain, Embers, in 1958. He moved out to Minnesota and started as a janitor at the Highland Embers, where he met Noreen in March 1958.
Ricky wanted to work his way up in the company, so he spent his off-duty hours training in the kitchen. Eventually he became vice-president of the company.
Ricky and Noreen got married in 1959 and raised three children, including Joe, at a home in Fridley where they still live today.
“I kind of grew up in Embers,” Joe Rickenbach Jr. said. “It was a part of our family my whole life.”
After Rickenbach Jr. purchased the Fridley location in 1998, he renamed it in honor of his father and it became Ricky’s Embers. Joseph “Ricky” Rickenbach Sr. was a regular at the restaurant and would help out during retirement.
Ricky’s Embers’ menu remained relatively constant. At closing, the menu was about 70% the same as the original Embers menu.
“All I knew was Embers,” Rickenbach Jr. said. “I think keeping the menu the same was a big part of our success.”
Rickenbach Jr. said he has seen three types of customers over the years: “One is our regulars who have been supportive and strong over the years. Then as the other Embers closed I got to see a lot of people who were still surprised there was still another Embers left, so they came out to ours. And then we see a lot of young families who don’t really know what Embers was and they know us only as Ricky’s, their local breakfast place they love. A whole lot of different people.”
Rickenbach Jr. said Ricky’s Embers, and the Fridley site overall, has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It has been the site of numerous family meals, dates, proposals, teen gatherings, signings for homes and anniversaries.
Rickenbach Jr.’s favorite memory was every year, for decades, a couple would go to Embers on March 19. When the restaurant was closed on March 19, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple met in the parking lot and ate McDonald’s. Rickenbach Jr. decided to sneak the couple in so they could eat at their usual booth.
“I did not understand until two weeks until before we closed, how much not only Ricky’s Embers, but Embers across the Twin Cities, how much it has meant to people,” Rickenbach Jr. said. “So many people turned out [for the closing]. Yes our customers, our regulars and the people in our community, but also many people across the Twin Cities. It’s unbelievably heartwarming how many people we’ve touched.”
Closing weekend included a few big highlights. Nancy Nelson, who did the first Embers commercial in 1971, stopped by, along with a lot of former Ricky’s Embers and Embers employees who had worked with the Rickenbachs over the years.
Debbie Holmquist Severson, who was a waitress at the Fridley Embers 1971-1974, stopped by Ricky’s Embers Friday, March 26. Rickenbach Sr. had been her boss, and she described him as “such a great boss.”
“I fondly remember the graveyard shifts, lining people up for the strawberry pie, the Emberger Royal, ... and this booth where my boyfriend would wait for me until I was done with my shift,” Severson said. “It was fun working as a waitress here because I worked with some of my [Fridley High School] classmates. ... My sister worked with me, and her future husband wrote on a napkin, ‘Will you go out with me?’ ... It’s a really special place. I’m very sad it’s closing. ... It’s like the end of an era.”
Every time she’d visit Embers over the years, “it felt like coming home.”
Now that Rickenbach Jr. and his wife are retired, they’re excited to rest, relax and spend time with their five children — who all worked at Embers or Ricky’s Embers at some point and all turned out to help with the closing.
Rickenbach Jr. said he’s grateful for all the employees he has worked with over the years and the final staff members who all stayed until the restaurant closed, even though they knew it was being sold. “Not a single person left,” he said. “I’m so grateful to all my employees. Thank you.”
The Rickenbachs left a message online for all of Ricky’s Embers’ customers: “Thanks for all of your support over the years. Remember the Embers!”