Serving the poor

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Recently, in Colorado Springs, I ate lunch at Seeds, a “community restaurant” devoted to making meals affordable to all. Guests are invited to pay what they can and, if that is nothing, to volunteer for an hour. A few days later, I saw another similar enterprise, Café 180, located on Denver’s outdoor 16th Street Mall.

It might seem like a new phenomenon but it’s more of an old idea with a new twist. Sellers of cooked food ranging from vendors with a cart all the way up to deluxe restaurants have long given away food to the needy.

In 1820 a French restaurateur in the City of Washington (D.C.) informed the public that he would sell the beef left over after being boiled for his special bouillon, while “to persons unable to pay it will be given gratis.”

John W. Farmer, a wealthy plumber, opened a Free Dining Saloon in New York City during the financial panic of 1857. After the first six months he announced he had served nearly 231,000 meals composed of dishes such as soup, corned beef, pork, ham, fish, bread, potatoes, cabbage, and turnips. Though hailed by the poor, especially the Irish, the New York Tribune rebuked him for failing to distinguish the deserving poor from the drunks, reprobates, and other “vile” persons “who prefer the bread of idleness to that of industry.” He carried on for several years, then opened the Farmer Institute, a reading room and lecture hall where speakers promoted an economy based on cooperation. A Cooperative Building Association that was formed as a result was quite successful.

Many free and low-price dining rooms as well as restaurant breadlines have sprung up during panics and depressions (of which there have also been many). Some have been motivated by religion or a social cause. In the 1870s a bad economy combined with the temperance movement helped make Holly Tree Coffee Inns successful. They were designed by Christian groups as alternatives to saloons, pitting “Queen Mocha against King Alcohol.” In addition to serving coffee, the self-supporting coffee houses provided low-priced food for working-class men in Hartford, Chicago, New York City, Washington, Boston, and many smaller New England towns. Quaker Joshua L. Bailey created similar coffee houses in Philadelphia.

The severe depression of the 1870s inspired others to open cheap restaurants. Some had meals for 10 cents, some for 5 cents, and some sold dishes for as low as 1 cent apiece. In New York a restaurant proprietor described only as an “old lady” was popular with newsboys for bargains like “Plate of soup one cent” and “All kinds of meat one cent.” Despite her rock-bottom prices she claimed to make a good profit.

CharityFleischman'sbreadline1913

Louis Fleischmann earned a fine reputation for the breadline he started at his New York Vienna Bakery restaurant during the Depression of the 1890s. He kept it going until his death in 1904, whereupon his son continued it for several years [shown above]. Another New Yorker, the Bowery’s Mike Lyon was also well known for his beneficence. Every morning at 5:00 a.m. he handed out food left from the night before to hundreds of women and children who gathered at his back door.

Physical fitness advocate Bernarr Macfadden also fed New York’s poor, thereby introducing what he claimed was the city’s first vegetarian restaurant in 1902. He recreated a similar penny cafeteria in 1931, selling soup, codfish, beans, prunes, bread, and other dishes for 1 cent each. He charged more for coffee because he didn’t think it was a “vital” food. Similar restaurants could be found then in Detroit and Springfield MA and probably many other cities. Max Rosoff invited the poor to eat for free in his NY Times Square restaurant after 10 pm., while Harry Rapoport, operator of a Jewish dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side was called the “Mayor of Second Avenue” in recognition of his culinary charity, especially after feeding 300 capmakers during a 7-week strike during the 1930s Depression.

charityclifton's30centmealEqually impressive were the efforts of Clifford Clinton who not only ran a penny restaurant for about six months during the Depression but also made low-priced or nearly free meals a standard in his Los Angeles Clifton’s cafeterias. [30-cent meal shown, 1940s] Patrons were instructed they could pay what they wanted. He was patronized largely by the elderly who appreciated getting “A Tra-ful for a Tri-ful” at his odd but cheerfully upbeat cafeterias. Hot cereals ran about 8 cents while an egg was 9 cents. In 1954 he served a whopping 20,000 meals each day in his two cafeterias. During World War II he created a “Meals for Millions” foundation that funded scientists to develop an inexpensive soy-based meal distributed by wartime relief agencies to refugees throughout the world.

BTW, the lunch at Seeds was good as was the service. It’s a popular spot.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

10 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

10 responses to “Serving the poor

  1. Dawn Rubbert

    Jan, Did you know the St Louis Bread Company (Panera’s) in Clayton allows patrons to pay as they are able? Its been working for some years now and some folks actually pay more than the menu price to help subsidize the system.

  2. Thomas Evans

    The Clifton Restaurants directed the poor to the back door where they were served for free. There were two Cliftons, both were spacious. One had a forest scene with waterfalls and planters among the tables. It was like dining in a forest! The other had a South Seas Islands motif with life size palm trees, their fronds outlined in neon. The later restaurant employed wait staff that could sing and from time to time they would gather in a chorus and entertain the customers with a song or two.

    As if this was not enough to attract customers, a bus would pull in front of Clifton’s and give anyone a free ride to the outskirts of L.A., think of El Monte, either to an alligator farm or an ostrich farm. Clifton’s also had a hotel nearby and used the bus to take the occupants to one or the other of the restaurants. Those were wonderful days of the thirties and forties when California was isolated from the rest of the country and people just dreamed of going there. . .

  3. A tremendously stirring piece…thanks!

  4. I’ve been to a restaurant like that and the food was homemade and good.

  5. This is a great idea. Thanks for highlighting it in your blog post, Jan!

  6. Fab post! Love the survey of restaurant charity in early American history.

  7. Jen

    Very interesting. I think people will always step up if they are able to do so. Recently, Collector’s Weekly ran a big article about the Clifton’s cafeterias—it was just a joy to read.

  8. Thomas Byg

    Nicely designed…love to see the books and see how they do it…

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