Hobo Joe – Buckeye, Arizona - Gastro Obscura
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Gastro Obscura

Hobo Joe

Buckeye, Arizona

A giant mascot, a car bomb, and the mafia mingle in the history of a defunct restaurant chain. 

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Herb Applegate moved to Phoenix from Detroit in the 1960s. With a successful background in restaurant management, he quickly found investors in his newest venture: an affordable, family-friendly coffee shop and restaurant.

Hobo Joe’s Coffee Shops were represented by an eponymous mascot who was meant to be a mixture of urbane sophistication and lovable tramp. Described in ad copy as a “World Traveler, Philosopher, and Connoisseur of Good Food,” he was meant to evoke refined taste and thriftiness. Although he wore dilapidated shoes and a rope belt he also carried a copy of the Wall Street Journal and a key denoting membership in the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. One Hobo Joe’s Coffee Shop featured a 22-foot-tall statue of Hobo Joe, whereas other locations had smaller versions.

Hobo Joe’s Coffee Shops took off quickly in the Phoenix area. In only a few years, there were at least half a dozen locations with further regional expansions planned. But despite this apparent success, there were deep problems behind the scenes. According to local reporters, Herb Applegate apparently lived a double-life, embezzling over a million dollars out of the business to fund an extravagant lifestyle that included a mansion with a light-up waterfall and mistresses. Additionally, he was unofficially suspected of involvement in a deadly shooting in Las Vegas.

Applegate sold Hobo Joe’s in the early 1970s and the chain died out by the 1980s. Applegate himself passed away in 1974. By that point, investigative reporter Don Bolles had begun digging into political and financial corruption in Arizona and had suspicions about Hobo Joe’s, its founder, and its possible connections to organized crime. Bolles had uncovered personal and financial ties between Herb Applegate and members of the Detroit mafia. Unfortunately, on June 2, 1976, Bolles was murdered via a remote-controlled bomb attached to his car, hindering his many investigations into corruption across Arizona.

The story of Hobo Joe’s is filled with mystery, and the statue that stands in Buckeye, Arizona, is no different. Applegate’s widow swears this giant statue is not an authentic Hobo Joe’s mascot. In an article on AZ Central, writer David Madrid presents several theories, including one that suggests the statue was created for a Hobo Joe’s branch that never came to fruition. According to this theory, the artist was never paid for his work and kept the massive mascot for himself, eventually gifting it to a friend who erected it outside a slaughterhouse in Buckeye.

Authentic or not, the giant Hobo Joe stood outside the slaughterhouse for several decades, becoming a local icon long after the original Hobo Joe restaurant brand had mostly been forgotten. When the statue had become worn and faded, a local campaign raised enough money to fund the statue’s refurbishment and move to a more central location in town. In 2020, that project was completed and the restored Hobo Joe now stands on a pedestal, surveying the downtown area.

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