Tag Archives: 1960s

Automation, part II: the disappearing kitchen

automatedJay'sdrive-in1966beltThe dream of a robotized restaurant is an old one, first focused on service, then on the kitchen. It culminated in a system that automated nearly the entire operation, both service and food preparation. Sounds futuristic, but the pinnacle of automation took place around 50 years ago.

If the first stage of automating the restaurant involved getting rid of servers, the second stage involved eliminating kitchen personnel while streamlining food preparation. Kitchen tasks were mechanized and geared toward producing predictable results with standardized portion sizes and speedy cooking.

The modern automated kitchens of the post-WWII period, were either (1) absent altogether in the case of machines vending frozen dinners, or (2) filled with equipment that needed only a few employees to trigger the slicing, mixing, pouring, and frying of a limited selection of burgers, fries, shakes, and sodas. Gathering steam, by the 1960s automation took giant leaps in a number of high-volume drive-ins, the restaurant type that foreshadowed the fast food restaurant.

A fully automated push-button kitchen was available for lease or purchase in 1964, a product of the American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF), a large diversified company that developed and produced, among many other things, bowling alley pin spotters, power boats, guided missiles, and nuclear reactors for Israel, Iran, and Pakistan.

automatedJay'sdrive-insept1966OrbisconsoleDespite all the effort that went into its development, the fully automatic restaurant proved to be a failure. It was ridiculously expensive compared to how cheaply workers could be hired. And it broke down regularly, necessitating a well-paid, full-time technician on staff.

That full automation did not succeed should not obscure the fact that many restaurants today are highly automated compared to how they operated in the early 20th century. Plus in many chain restaurants tasks are so routinized and scripted that the humans who perform them might be considered quasi-robotized. As plans move ahead to raise hourly wages for workers in chain restaurants, it’s possible that restaurant automation will once again come into focus.

A sampling of projects:

1931 – Inventor H. Russell Brand’s automatic pancake machine is used at a Childs restaurant on West 34th St., NYC. Guests push a button on their table to start an automatic pancake machine that produces a stack of three pancakes which are, however, delivered by waiters. Possibly the earliest case of the automation of food preparation, nonetheless Childs removed the machines in 1938.

1939 – Meant to grow into a chain, a Roboshef restaurant with an automated cooker opens in San Francisco with the slogan, “Quality Food Cooked by Controlled Temperature, Not Temperament.” One employee can produce 120 meals per hour, producing perfectly timed steaks, seafood, fried potatoes, and biscuits.


1948 – With the debut of the WWII spinoff radarange that cooks instantly by molecule-agitating sound waves, Popular Science magazine imagines a restaurant of the future in which customers push buttons at their table that send frozen dinners to microwave ovens and then on conveyor belts to their tables.

1949 – In San Francisco, Ott’s, billed as the world’s biggest drive-in, turns out meals in 6 minutes on average in its modern kitchen in which a machine molds 800 hamburger patties an hour while another slices 1,000 buns in the same time.

automatedPopMech19581958 – Popular Mechanics magazine proclaims that a revolution has taken place in restaurants, due to infrared ray grills, electronic ovens, timing devices, precision slicing and cutting machines, patty extruders [pictured], compression steamers, soft-drink mixers, and other wonders. Quoting a restaurant consultant, the magazine declares, “Food service has become an exact science.”

1959 – According to the Washington Post, the nation’s three largest hamburger chains – then McDonald’s, Burger Chef, and Golden Point – are set to revolutionize food vending through standardization, menu simplification, and “a good helping of automation.”

1961 – The increasing use of pre-portioned frozen food in restaurants heated with sophisticated high-speed fryers, pressure cookers, and electronic ovens shrinks preparation areas in kitchens even as freezers grow larger.


1961 – Stouffer’s opens two short-lived automated vending restaurants with frozen food. The roadside restaurants are paneled with recycled wood from old barns to avoid a sterile appearance. Customers are unexpectedly confused about how to heat their meals, requiring an attendant to help them. Schrafft’s [pictured] and White Tower’s Tower-O-Matic, NYC, also experiment with vending machine operations.

1962 – The first of Pat Boone’s Dine-O-Mats opens, with coin-operated vending machines stocked with frozen dinners prepared off-site that are to be microwaved. The chain fails.


1963 – The first fully automated kitchen is installed at the La Fiesta Drive-In, in Levittown NY. A test case for “AMFare,” the drive-in uses a computer-driven order and billing system that launches refrigerated items on a 4-minute journey to be cooked and trayed “without any handling whatsoever by restaurant personnel.” Alas, a live worker is needed for matching completed orders with checks [pictured]. The AMF system is installed secretly in the basement while a false kitchen in back is added “to satisfy customers.”

1966 – AMFare testing complete, Jay’s Brookdale Restaurant in Minneapolis MN becomes the first fully automated restaurant in the nation. Second is the Mustang Drive-In in Lexington KY.

By 1968, when the system is being tested by the Breese Terrace Cafeteria at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, it is employed by five restaurants. Then it seems to vanish.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


Filed under food, history, restaurants

Pepper mills

peppermill1964ILLEver wonder why restaurants make such a big to-do with pepper mills? Obviously many people like freshly ground pepper but it goes beyond that. It’s a grand gesture that suggests hospitality and attention to detail. Diners may reason that if a restaurant will bother with fresh ground pepper it must bring the same degree of attention to its cooking.

Throughout the 19th century, Americans were lukewarm to the idea of grinding their own pepper. The custom was mainly followed in restaurants run by German or Italian proprietors. Around 1900 some people questioned whether modern Americans wanted to grind peppercorns. So Old World! A story in the New York Sun in 1903 reflected this attitude: “Beginning with the little boxes on the table where you can grind your own pepper while you wait – imagine having time to grind your own pepper – everything in the Teutonic eating places is a protest against the American idea of life.”

peppermillminuetmanorILLSo pepper mills were un-American, at least for a while. But then, in the 1950s and early 1960s, competitive restaurateurs returned to the practice. For some reason – world travel? the rebirth of gourmet dining? – some guests had begun to carry around their own portable grinders. Restaurants may have felt a need to respond if they were to appear sophisticated. And so, along with Beef Wellington and large padded menus, the pepper grinder made its appearance. If it seemed European now, so much the better. Evidently pepper mills were quite the thing in Los Angeles around 1955 because there were at least two manufacturers there.

Trouble was, though, when small grinders were placed on tables initially patrons had a way of walking off with the cute little things. Early adopter Peter Canlis found that when he began supplying each table with 4-inch-tall mills at his Charcoal Broiler in Honolulu, they all disappeared in the first three days.


The solution: large, unpocketable grinders deployed only by the wait staff. How large? At the Town & Country restaurant in Dallas TX, which prided itself on Cuisine Français for discriminating diners, a special stand was required for propping a 9-foot pepper mill over the table. [pictured]

Beginning in the 1970s, pepper mills the size of fire plugs or in the shape of baseball bats became a source of humor and critique. Some also noted that pepper mills enabled servers to appear as though they were giving superior service in hopes of bigger tips. Mimi Sheraton objected to how restaurants pounced on diners with the pepper mill before they’d had a chance to even sample their food.

Now pepper mills have shrunken to a manageable size, criticism has died away, and it seems to be standard operation for restaurants of a certain price and service level to equip servers with them.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


Filed under restaurants, food, history

Heroism at lunch


Actually there was no lunch. But there was plenty of heroism when four college students sat at a Greensboro NC lunch counter in February 1960.

The students were told to go to the segregated snack bar in the back of the Woolworth 5 & 10 cent store, but they refused. And although the Woolworth staff would not serve them, the students also refused to leave until closing time and pledged to come back every day until they won the right to eat there.

greensborojosephmcneilIt was an honor to hear one of the organizers of the protest a few days ago at the 9th Annual Northeast Regional Fair Housing and Civil Rights conference in Springfield MA. Joseph McNeil told a room of 500 attendees how much had hung in the balance for him at the time. A first-year student at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, he feared that he could end up in jail and disastrously interrupt his college career. (Fortunately, his fears were not realized and he went on to graduate and eventually to become a major general in the U.S. Air Force.)

In the Q & A after his talk, a woman in the audience asked what his mother had thought about his decision to hold a sit-in at the lunch counter. He said she had been uneasy about it but had to agree that it was the right thing to do based on the values she and his father had taught him.

The Greensboro protest grew as students from area schools joined with the initial four, then more student protests erupted at Woolworth stores around the South. In July 1960 Woolworth reversed its policy which had been to let local managers decide whether or not to serve Black customers based on local customs.

McNeil described how the sit-down protests served as “a down payment on our manhood and womanhood” for him and his fellow students, both men and women. The action, he said, was driven by their belief in the “dignity of men” and “the moral order of the universe.”

How odd it is to read the following letter to the editor of the Greensboro Record published a few days after the 1960 sit-in began. Writer Ruby Coble’s reference to the protestors’ “lack of race pride and personal pride” is totally baffling today. However it represents a long-held idea of the majority of white Americans in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, that restaurants should only serve well-mannered people and that any Black people who demanded service in a white restaurant were clearly not well-mannered because they were barging in where they were not wanted.


Coble was right about one thing though. It was indeed much later than she thought.

McNeil received repeated standing ovations from conference goers last week. Everyone laughed when he said that he had always wanted to order coffee and apple pie at a Woolworth lunch counter but when he did, “The apple pie wasn’t very good.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


Filed under history, restaurants

Dining sky-side


Although a number of superior restaurants have opened in airports in the past several years, their run-of-the-mill food purveyors are often just passable. Customer comments reveal praise for certain restaurants, but opinions overall sound a negative note, rising to weak compliments such as “actually somewhat good” or “standard innocuous restaurant/hotel fare.”

In the beginning, there was no food at all. In the 1920s airports had no restaurant facilities. There were scarcely any commercial flights, facilities consisted mainly of fields and a hangar or two, and the few commercial passengers were lucky if they could get a cup of coffee.

By the mid-1930s more commercial flights were offered and airport conditions improved. The number of passengers multiplied more than 100 times between 1926 and 1935. To win greater traffic, bigger cities vied to create terminal facilities that could match those of their transportation rival, trains. Restaurants figured prominently among the amenities offered.

Most passengers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were businessmen or wealthy travelers who were unwilling to settle for bad food. Even though all air travel was essentially first-class then, passengers frequently rejected what was served on the plane and tried for something better in the terminal. Their demands, combined with the need to put airports in the black financially, brought about efforts to create first-rate airport eating places.

airportburbankskyroom (2)

The earliest image of an airport restaurant I’ve found is that of the Sky Room in Burbank CA’s Union Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport), in 1940, showing tables with white linens, goblets, and boudoir-style table lamps.

Airports were costly for cities and towns to build and run so income from concessions was needed badly. Managers expected income from non-aviation concessions at New York’s Idlewild airport to make up one third of revenues in 1949. Restaurants and coffee shops were the biggest single contributors of concession revenue in most airports.

But restaurants found it hard to operate profitably when serving only “captive customers,” particularly when their numbers were still relatively small. Beyond pleasing airline passengers, the solution for many airports was to reach out to customers living nearby. In 1947 the airport restaurant in Albuquerque NM went so far as to hire a chef who had studied with Escoffier and cooked for US presidents and royal families in Europe. His mission was to make the terminal restaurant one of the nation’s best known restaurants.

The early 1950s saw the debut of what might have been America’s premier airport restaurant, The Newarker in the Newark NJ terminal. With Joe Baum as manager and Albert Stockli as chef, it soon became famous, launching Restaurant Associates which owned many of NYC’s top dining establishments. Duncan Hines lauded The Newarker for its “flaming sword specialties, authentic East Indian curries, [and] regional Swiss specialties.”


Evidently the tactic of pulling in locals worked, partly because even through the 1960s people were thrilled to see planes take off and land. Dining rooms typically overlooked the airfield. In 1953 Fort Worth’s new terminal at Amon Carter Field was touted as “a wonderful, quiet spot to have a leisurely evening meal and then sit on the observation deck and look at the bright lights of booming Dallas nineteen miles away.” Now it may seem an odd idea to go to an airport restaurant to celebrate a birthday or, even stranger, a holiday such as Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve, yet these festivities did indeed take place [advertisements: Cleveland, 1965; Seattle, 1941].

airportClevelandshreiberrestaurantSome airport restaurants were operated by local restaurateurs. Among them was Marie Schreiber, who became a restaurant operator for Statler hotels after providing meals in Cleveland’s airport restaurant [pictured] as well as on-board meals for departing United Airlines flights. Food service operations of two Chicago departments stores, Marshall Field and Carson, Pirie & Scott, handled meals at O’Hare for years.

At the same time, chains that ran airport restaurants and prepared meals for service during flights developed rapidly. Some, such as Skychef restaurants, were operated by the airlines (in this case American Airlines), but existing chains such as Dobbs House and railroad caterers Fred Harvey and Interstate Hosts also migrated into airports. Dobbs House units in airports from Wichita to Miami also earned praise from Duncan Hines in 1959 for dishes such as pompano en papillote and Colorado mountain trout.

Southern airports were protest sites because of their discriminatory treatment of Black passengers. Until summer of 1961, Blacks were not served in Interstate Hosts’ main dining room or the coffee shop in New Orleans’ Moisant International airport, but only at the snack bar. After lawsuits, Black customers gained equal patronage at all airport restaurants in recognition that airports, like bus terminal facilities, were fundamental to interstate commerce.

In the 1980s theme restaurants – often flight-themed – began to locate in the vicinity of airports. But that’s a subject for a future post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under food, history, restaurants

Restaurant-ing as a civil right


Fifty years ago this summer President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title 2 of the Act discrimination by race, color, religion, or national origin was forbidden in eating places as well as hotels, motels, theaters, and stadiums.

Similar laws had been enacted by 18 northern states in the 1880s in response to the creation of “Jim Crow” laws in 20 southern states that had institutionalized segregation; however they were ineffective and rarely enforced. Racial segregation in eating places, affecting not just Blacks, but also Asian- and Mexican-Americans, was the norm in many restaurants throughout the country. Outside the South, Black diners typically were discouraged from patronizing white restaurants by hostile receptions, bad tables, and poor – or no — service.

Although President Johnson said he expected it, many people were surprised that the Civil Rights Act met with such a high degree of acceptance. American society as a whole had become convinced that unequal treatment was in conflict with the principles of democracy and that integration was inevitable. One year after passage of the Civil Rights Act an official at the Justice Department said compliance had exceeded expectations and was a “major national accomplishment.” By the early 1970s desegregation of restaurants and hotels was so uncontroversial that the question was dropped from public polls.

But change is not magical. Enforcement was required. From the start there were persistent violators who attempted to skirt the law by creating fake private clubs or by subjecting Black customers to higher prices, delayed service, and other indignities. While congratulating the nation, the Justice Department also vowed that violators would be prosecuted.

Because private clubs were exempt from the law a number of restaurants tried this route of avoidance. Some became legitimate private clubs but many were clubs in name only.

civilrightsprivateclubcrawfordsvilleThe sham restaurants-turned-clubs were identified by things such as failing to charge dues or having no membership criteria other than race. In the case of Dixie Diners Club of Enterprise MS which claimed to promote fraternity among “connoisseurs of discriminating taste and epicurean pleasures,” a court ruled nothing had changed since its days as plain-old Richberg’s Cafe. “The only material difference between the two is that physically the club is accessible only by the entrance at the door which was formerly for whites only,” it said. The ruling noted that the club held no meetings, established no committees, and served the same food as before. Bonner’s Private Club in Crawfordville GA had previously been known as the Liberty Café, which closed when Afro-Americans tried to integrate it and reopened as a private club.

CivilRightsOllie'sThe justification for federal authority over restaurants and hotels was that they engaged in interstate commerce. So, of course, some restaurants claimed an exemption because theirs were purely local businesses. Ollie McClung, of Ollie’s Barbecue, lost a lawsuit despite his belief his business was local. “We are not located on a highway and don’t cater to out-of-town travelers,” he insisted. But as the Washington Post reported, it was exceedingly difficult for a restaurant to prove it had no interstate ties: “It would have to serve locally grown food, no tea, coffee and probably no beer, and would have to have a prominent sign saying, in effect, ‘No Interstate Travelers Served Here’ with a monitor at the door to make certain no interstate interloper slipped in.”

Another tactic was devised by ardent segregationist Maurice Bessinger who was granted an exemption for his Piggie Park Drive-in chain in South Carolina on the grounds no food was consumed on the premises. The decision was, however, soon reversed and it became clear that drive-ins would not be exempt.

It’s hard to say just how many Afro-Americans actually took advantage of the opportunity to patronize what had been all-white restaurants. It seems there was not a flood of Black diners in the first few years. But the new law was valuable to the middle-class, especially Black travelers who no longer had to rely on guidebooks such as The Negro Motorist Green Book to plot out where they could safely stop to eat or stay overnight. The Green Book became irrelevant, just as its publisher hoped it would.

Despite real advances, white Americans often overestimate the degree to which racism has disappeared. As critical as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was in furthering equality, it did not put a complete end to racial discrimination in restaurants. Rather southern restaurants wanting to curb the number of Black diners learned to use tactics long practiced in the North. Nor have chains been free of bias. Cracker Barrel and Denny’s are among large chains hit by discrimination suits in the past couple of decades. And an academic study published in 2012 found that Black patrons continue to experience bad service based on waitstaffs’ belief that they are poor tippers. A study of 200 servers in North Carolina restaurants revealed that 38.5% discriminated against Black customers, sometimes playing a game called “pass the black table.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under history, restaurants

Champagne and roses

CoupleDining111Four years ago I wrote a Valentine’s Day post that’s really more interesting than this one, about how the thought of romance in a restaurant was a scandalous at least until after WWI. It’s one of my favorites.

This year I thought I’d explore pre-1980s restaurants that specifically advertised special dinners for Valentine’s Day. What kind of food did they typically feature, I wondered?

Turns out I found way fewer of them than I expected, especially before the 1970s, which seems to be the decade in which the idea of a going out to a restaurant for a Valentine’s dinner took off.


Most of the dishes I found in advertisements sound less than wonderful to me. Unless you like Chicken a la King on Crisp Noodles accompanied by a “molded cherry salad with creamed cheese and nut ball center.” That was from one of the earlier advertisements (1957) for Clark’s in Cleveland (pictured above). Call me unromantic, but I don’t picture myself sitting there eating jello.

shelterislandinnDitto for the Strawberry Gelatin Salad at the Shelter Island Inn in San Diego, 1972. Rare New York Strip steak, maybe, but no thanks to the Artichoke Bottoms filled with Petite Green Peas. Does that say Be My Valentine to you?

All the advertisements from the 1960s and 1970s seem to be addressing male readers. The Ohio Brown Derby chain, offered an $8.95 Champagne dinner for two in 1969, with a 20 oz. Napoleon steak “for you” and a 10 oz. Josephine steak “for her.”

ValentineRockfordIL1975But, console yourself. If you lived in Rockford IL in 1975 you might have been munching on a Perch Dinner accompanied by Complimentary Glass of Pink Champagne at Maggie’s (All You Can Eat, $2.25) or dining at Mr. Steak.

My favorite advertisement was the dinner at the Thai Pavilion in Springfield MA, 1976. No sign of Thai food whatsoever. Instead, the menu featured Baked Stuffed Shrimp, Prime Rib, or Filet Mignon with Tossed Salad, Baked Potato, and a Fudge Pecan Cake Ball. Dinner served from 5 pm to midnight, $21 per couple. Did I mention the Thai Pavilion was handily located in a motel?

Happy Valentine’s however you celebrate. No corsages, please.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under food, history, restaurants

Holiday greetings from Vesuvio Café


I wish I could explain the Vesuvio’s holiday cards, but I can’t. Maybe it’s enough to know that the Café was a beatnik gathering spot in San Francisco.

The café was founded in 1949 by Henry Lenoir, who wore a beret and undoubtedly preferred to spell his first name as Henri. I’m guessing he’s the aging cherub on the left on the 1956 postcard above. I couldn’t find much about him other than that he was born in Massachusetts around 1904. The son of a Swiss university professor, he was a college graduate at a time when that was fairly unusual. In 1940, before he opened the café, he worked as a salesman in a San Francisco department store that I like to think was the Emporium. He was an art lover who enjoyed the company of beats and hipsters.

I don’t know if the Vesuvio served much food. It seemed to be more of a drinking than an eating place back in the days when Henry presided behind the bar. A sign in the window advertised “booths for psychiatrists” and a “Gay ‘90s Color Television” flashed old photos of women clad in bloomers. In the late 1950s it was on the North Beach circuit for beatniks who made the rounds from the Vesuvio to the Coexistence Bagel Shop and a nameless bar called “the place.” No doubt they stopped in at the City Lights bookstore too; Henry lived upstairs.

XmasVesuvio1964It was the day of the Hungry I, the Purple Onion, and the Anxious Asp (where the restroom was papered with pages from the Kinsey Report). “The place” and the Coexistence, considered the birthplaces and headquarters of the San Francisco beats, were both gone by early 1961. But, although Henry sold the Vesuvio in 1970, it continues even today. Of course it isn’t the same. Given that Beatnik dens became tourist sites almost overnight, it already wasn’t the same in 1964 when the card with the 5 nude mannequins and one real woman modestly dressed in a long-sleeve leotard was produced.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under history, restaurants