He’s broad-shouldered, with a square jaw and steely gaze, and he’s bare-handing a burger the size of a doberman en route just for you. Yes, in crisp white shirt and trousers, black boots, and one enormous cowboy hat cocked just so, Big Sam, the resident burger-slinging cowboy/muffler man of The Cadet Restaurant is the waiter of your dreams…or maybe your nightmares.
At 30 feet tall (we’re taking the Cadet’s word on this–but it seems reasonable), Big Sam is, quite literally, head-and-shoulders above the peak of the Cadet Restaurant’s roof. In an era when the neighboring Sheetz signage (and every other modern highway adjunct) is visible from space, it doesn’t seem like Sam could possibly stand out from the other roadside noise. But he’s got a couple things all those other places can only dream of: class and style.
Though there’s absolutely nothing automobile-related about Big Sam (aside from the Cadet’s previous life as a drive-in) he falls into the broad category of giant “muffler men”. Roadside America has a great detailed repository of muffler man info, but the short version is that the original fiberglass mold was built in the early ’60s for a huge Paul Bunyan advertising a restaurant in Flagstaff, Arizona. The arms are positioned as so to hold the famous lumberjack’s big axe.
The same mold was repurposed over the next dozen years for generic working men, Indians, the “happy halfwit”, and, yes, cowboys. Many muffler shops took advantage of both the striking figure and the fixed hand shapes to cradle exhaust systems, hence the nickname.
Cadet’s history page tells us that Sam was purchased at the Chicago Restaurant Show for $3,900 in 1962 and details a great story of tragedy and redemption for the big guy:
One foggy morning on September 29, 1990, an unsuspecting Ford Bronco pulled into the path of a fully loaded coal truck traveling from Indiana. The Bronco was catapulted into Sam leaving him in shambles for years to come.
Despite many attempts, no one would take on the task of repair. We would find his hat or burger on top of a local school’s flagpole and other various locations. Luckily, we had our own team of students that were always kind enough to locate and extract the missing pieces.
It was over 12 years before our customers were able to help us finally piece him back together. Dave Bish, stepped up and asked if he could try, and try he did. What a beautiful job! He was back on his feet in 2002. It took a full day, a crane and many volunteers.
And what of the food at the Cadet? As diners go, it’s top-notch. The menu features the expected array of greasy breakfasts and burgers/sandwiches/deep-fried platters for lunch and dinner. A handmade sign on wall proclaims the “Poorboy burger” (a double patty with all the fixins) and roast beef as house specialties. This blogger’s only real quibble was a lack of Polish food on the menu [every Pittsburgh-area diner should have pierogies, haluski, and potato pancakes!]–but even Big Sam can’t provide everything.
The Orbit went all Craig Claiborne with repeat visits to the Cadet. On the way up, we had a fantastically Sam-sized blueberry pancake. It’s sort of the yin to Pamela’s crepe-style yang–thick as a book* and large as the plate, but hot, fluffy, and tasty. On the return trip, it was a thoroughly-satisfying chicken biscuit dinner for lunch with a mind-melting piece of rhubarb pie for dessert.
Needless to say, the Cadet is Orbit-approved and recommended. Stop by the next time you’re headed north and give ol’ Sam the hi-de-ho.
Getting there: Cadet Restaurant is on Route 422-East, just off Route 28 outside Kittanning. Note: you have to awkwardly go through the next-door Sheetz to get there, but you can’t miss it.
* Thick like a paperback novel–not, you know, the dictionary.