Tag Archives: careers

Restaurant-ing with “royalty”

Perhaps he wasn’t the only “sociopath” ever to become a restaurateur, but Michael Romanoff was very likely the most flamboyant. He was clever, spoke with a British accent, and dressed impeccably. His sense of style never left him. Imprisoned in NYC’s Tombs in the 1920s, he reportedly made quite an impression by strolling in the exercise yard with a walking stick. This story could be false, though, because not only did he twist the facts perpetually but so did some of the journalists who covered his bizarre 30-year career as a con-man.

He came to the attention of the press in 1910 when he presented himself as the grandson of England’s premier Gladstone in order to obtain two cameras on credit. He was unmasked as a former juvenile delinquent named Gilbert E. Gerguson. By the early 1930s he had used at least 17 aliases, including his favorite, Prince Michael Romanoff, younger brother of the former czar of Russia, Nicholas II. Although his “real” name is widely accepted as Harry F. Gerguson, I suspect it was actually Michael Romanoff, from Brooklyn. U.S. immigration authorities, however, were convinced he had been born outside this country and deported him every chance they got, about 10 times.

He claimed to have spent seven years of his life in jail. At times, when not sponging off rich patrons, stowing away on luxury ocean liners, or successfully passing bad checks, he was penniless and went hungry. He may have spent time in a mental hospital and attempted suicide at least once. Although he was sometimes described as a former pants presser, oil field worker, and buttonhole maker, it was not his style to hold a regular job although he once managed a farm in Virginia for over a year, possibly his longest gig.

He never apologized for his lifestyle. Quite the contrary. In 1933 he declared, “For years I have been supplying adventure, by proxy, to those who have desired it. I have given more enjoyment, I think, than I have received.” By then everyone knew he was no prince, but he defended himself by saying, “At least I have the attitude of a prince – I have lived courageously and have, I think, put up the stock of princes.” Well, the stock of princes wasn’t terribly high in the 1930s and, courageous or not, he engaged in some shady activities.

His life improved immensely when he became a frankly fake prince rather than a fraudster trying to pass for Russian royalty. And where better to be what he called a “real phony” than Hollywood? He opened a restaurant there around 1940 which quickly became one of Hollywood’s famous haunts. By then he was 47 or 50 years old, depending upon which birthdate you accept. According to various newspaper stories, the restaurant’s capital was put up by director Darryl Zanuck, writer Robert Benchley, and others. In 1951 it moved to South Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and somewhat later spread into San Francisco and Palm Springs.

The Hollywood Romanoff’s was a celebrity den where Mike entertained his guests — sometimes by snubbing them. How much time he spent supervising staff or bothering himself with mundane chores such as buying provisions or going over the books is unclear, as is the quality of the cuisine. By one account it was so-so but was upgraded to “above-average” in the late 1950s. An undated menu shows numerous dishes with Stroganoff and Romanoff suffixes. He made a good income, but by December 1962 business had fallen off to such a degree that the Beverly Hills Romanoff’s closed. I have not been able to determine the fate of the other two locations.

Mike’s story was clearly movie material, yet it seems that two announced films (“Ellis Island,” “The Incredible Romanoff”) never appeared. He had small parts in numerous films, sometimes playing a butler, aristocrat, or himself as restaurateur. In 1958 Congress voted to grant him permanent resident status and he became a naturalized citizen.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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The saga of Alice’s restaurants

alicesbook21A 1965 Thanksgiving dinner at the former church where Alice Brock and her husband Ray lived inspired Arlo Guthrie’s ballad of his arrest and subsequent draft board rejection for illegally disposing of trash. But “Alice’s Restaurant” also created vibrations so strong they imbued Alice’s whole career as a restaurant proprietor. Although she enjoyed a degree of success, her career was also filled with disappointments such as a nationwide chain of Alice’s Restaurants and a TV show (Cookin’ with Alice) that did not materialize.

In April 1966 she opened the first of her three restaurants, The Back Room, in an old luncheonette in Stockbridge which Alice described as “painted two-tone institutional green, and … definitely not the kind of place where I would eat, much less own.” Alice ran it for one year before she “freaked out” and closed it. In her book My Life as a Restaurant, she declares, “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I would never have another restaurant.” Not so – she would have two more.

After a year as consultant on the Arthur Penn movie built around Guthrie’s song, Alice decided to try again. But now she was a counterculture celebrity, portrayed in the film as a “dope-taking, free-loving woman,” a depiction which she insisted was false but which would bedevil her relations with town authorities whose approval she needed to open or expand a restaurant.

alicejokingcroppedShe would tussle with the town of Stockbridge throughout the four years she operated her second restaurant, “Alice’s.” Located in a semi-ramshackle former liquor store on Route 183, it began in the summer of 1972 as a roadside stand called “Take Out Alice.” Partly because of her celebrity and partly because she provided superior roadside fare – sushi, borscht, salmon mousse, and cream cheese & walnuts on homemade bread – she attracted volumes of summer visitors.

The next year she was granted permission to add a small dining room, but further expansion requests were denied, leading her to move the restaurant to Lenox, near Tanglewood, in 1976. In 1979 she closed Alice at Avaloch, the Lenox restaurant-plus-motel, after difficulties with the property’s sewage system and other adversities, permanently ending her restaurant career.

In interviews and in her two books Alice espoused the value of fresh ingredients, garlic, meals with friends, and an experimental approach to cooking. Her words convey a free-wheeling, irreverent outlook. Some examples:
* On cooking: “Hell, you can make a soufflé in a garbage can lid if you want to.”
* On busy nights: “Oh, if only you could just cry and it would be over, but it won’t be over. Crying will come to nothing but wasted time, and you could cry forever, but this night is existing, the dining room is filling, the orders … are lining up on their clothespins.”
* On her Lenox restaurant: “We still serve everyone from schlumps to snobs.”
* On being a restaurateur: “Crazy, the restaurant has become my life, there is no life outside it, only in relation to it.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: H. M. Kinsley

Herbert M. Kinsley, a leading Chicago restaurateur of the later 19th century, faced many obstacles. Like many in the restaurant business, his was a high-energy career full of zigs and zags. Born in Canton MA in 1831, he began working at a young age, picking up a skill of great value for his future, bookkeeping. After several years in retailing he entered hotel stewarding in Cincinnati, then Chicago and Canada.

He returned to Chicago in the early 1860s and was employed in hotels. In 1865 he acquired the restaurant in Chicago’s Opera House where he established a reputation as a skilled restaurateur, but lost money. He sold the business, spent some time setting up railroad hotels and dining cars, and then in 1868 started another restaurant in Chicago on Washington Street. The following year he reportedly also ran the first Pullman dining car, on the Chicago-Northwestern railway. In 1870 he opened a restaurant in the new planned community of Riverside IL, which likely went out of business when the development faltered shortly after its inception, about the same time his Washington Street restaurant was badly damaged in the Great Fire of 1871. He once again left Chicago, to open hotels on the Baltimore & Ohio line.

When he returned to Chicago he took over a restaurant called Brown’s, in 1874 during a nationwide depression. A few months later he closed it, announcing, “The expenses of a fashionable restaurant just now are too great, and the receipts too small, to warrant keeping it open longer.” The furniture and fixtures were auctioned and he leased out the premises, keeping just enough space to continue his catering business.

A few years later he dared to try again and opened a new place, finally meeting with success. By 1884 Kinsley’s was considered Chicago’s finest restaurant and society’s first choice for catering dinners and parties. In 1885 he built a new four-story restaurant on Adams Street. Short of capital to complete this costly venture, he turned to one of Chicago’s noted restaurant backers, the liquor distributor Chapin & Gore.

Kinsley took positions on the issues of race and tipping that were at odds with many restaurateurs of his time. He declared in 1880s he was always willing to serve Afro-American customers, thought black waiters were among the finest, and found tipping a reasonable system of remuneration that encouraged good service. He was fond of large silver serving pieces (coffee urn pictured) and authored a book for Gorham Silver on chafing dish recipes.

In 1891, he and son-in-law Gustav Baumann opened the new and elegant Holland House hotel in New York City, hiring a Delmonico veteran as steward, importing a French chef, and sinking $350,000 into the wine cellar. In 1892 architect Daniel Burnham hired Kinsley to plot the logistics of restaurants for the Chicago World’s Fair. That same year Kinsley’s was the site of a lavish inaugural dinner for the Fair that hosted the Vice President of the US and 6 cabinet members, former President Rutherford Hayes, 27 governors, 4 supreme court justices, 17 ministers of foreign governments, and countless dignitaries. After H.M.’s untimely death in 1894, his Chicago restaurant continued under new management until 1905 when the building was razed. For years to come it would be remembered as a symbol of a lost era.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Mary Elizabeth’s, a New York institution

Mary Elizabeth Evans, for whom the landmark tea room was named, began her career in 1900 at age 15 as a small grocer and candymaker in Syracuse. After one year in business she cleared the then-handsome sum of $1,000 which she contributed to the support of her family while supervising a growing crew of helpers which included her two younger sisters who served as clerks and her brother who made deliveries.

Her family, though in seriously reduced circumstances, had valuable social connections. Her late grandfather had been a judge, her uncle an actor, and her departed father a music professor. That may help explain how she achieved success so rapidly – and why her story garnered so much publicity. By 1904 several elite NYC clubs and hotels sold her candy and soon thereafter it was for sale at summer resorts such as Asbury Park and Newport and in stores as far away as Chicago and Grand Rapids. In 1913 the all-women Mary Elizabeth company, which included her mother and sisters Martha and Fanny, was prosperous enough to sign a 21-year lease totaling nearly $1 million for a prestigious Fifth Avenue address close to Altman’s, Best & Co., Lord & Taylor, and Franklin-Simon’s.

By the early teens the candy store had expanded into a charming tea room with branches in Newport and two in Boston, one on Temple Street and the other in the basement of the Park Street Church near the Boston Common (pictured ca. 1916). Like other popular tea rooms of the era, Mary Elizabeth’s bucked the tide of chain stores and standardized products by emphasizing food preparation from scratch. Known for “real American food served with a deft feminine touch,” Fanny Evans said the tea rooms catered to women’s tastes in “fancy, unusual salads,” “delicious home-made cakes,” and dishes such as “creamed chicken, sweetbreads, croquettes, timbales and patties.” For many decades, the NYC Mary Elizabeth’s was known especially for its crullers (long twisted doughnuts).

Mary Elizabeth distinguished herself as a patriot during the First World War by producing a food-conservation cookbook of meatless, wheatless, and sugarless recipes, and by volunteering to help the Red Cross develop diet kitchens in France. After her marriage to a wealthy Rhode Island businessman in 1920 she apparently played a reduced management role in the business.

In its later years the NYC restaurant passed out of the family’s hands and began to decline, culminating in an ignominious Health Department citation in 1985.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Women as culinary professionals

Women were the first to obtain professional training in the culinary trades from American institutions. However, because their training took place in college “domestic science” (home economics) programs it tends to be omitted in discussions of the development of culinary schools (most of which originated after World War II). Another important source of women’s formal training was the Y.W.C.A. So well respected was the “Y” for food service training that a large restaurant chain sent its managers to a New York branch in 1914 to study efficiency methods.

Throughout the last two centuries, most of the professionally trained people who owned, managed, cooked, and served in restaurants were born in Europe and learned their trades there. Native-born restaurant managers and workers, by contrast, tended to have no culinary backgrounds whatsoever unless they had cooked in their own homes or those of others. Exceptions included some women who had gained experience as housekeepers and many ex-slaves who had learned the culinary arts in the “employ” of rich Southern planters.

By the end of the 19th century, and especially in the early 20th, domestic science programs in colleges and universities began to train women in quantity cooking, nutrition, and the management of large-scale dining facilities, both commercial and institutional. Women were the first college-educated personnel to enter the restaurant and hospitality field, with degrees from Pratt Institute, the University of Chicago, Simmons College, Michigan State, the University of Wisconsin, and others.

Although many graduates went on to head hospital and school food service operations, quite a number took over department store restaurants or opened their own places. An early, ca. 1896, graduate of a program at the Armour Institute in Chicago (later the Illinois Institute of Technology) was Ida Foster Cronk, catering director and manager of the Coffee House at Jane Addams’s Hull House. In 1900 Cronk left the settlement house to open her own Ristorante Roma in Chicago’s Loop, shown here ca. 1906.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Restaurateurs: Alice Foote MacDougall

Alice, shown in this 1929 book frontispiece at least 20 years younger than her true age at the time, was one of the most carefully crafted restaurant personas of her day. Due to numerous magazine stories spun by her publicity agent, she was widely known as the poor widow with three children who built a coffee wholesaling and restaurant empire on $38. Even she had to admit (or was this PR also?) that the story was overplayed. “How tired I did get of that woman and those interminable three!” she confessed. Quite honestly, I’ve always felt her much-vaunted opposition to suffrage for women was a publicity stunt too.

She was from a distinguished New York City family. Her great grandfather, Stephen Allen, was mayor of New York City in the 1820s, while her wealthy father Emerson Foote was a charter member of the Union League. Alice, her daughter, and her two sons were listed in the city’s Social Register in 1918. Her career in the coffee wholesaling business began in 1909 with the death of her husband Allan MacDougall. In the 1920s she was said to be the only woman expert in coffee grading and blending in the U.S.

She opened her first eating place, The Little Coffee Shop, in Grand Central Station in New York in December 1919. Waffles were the specialty in her homey café which was decorated with a plate rail and shelves holding decorative china. (Evidently tips were good, because MacDougall had the nerve to charge her waitresses $10 a day to work there.) By 1927 she had signed a $1 million lease for her fifth coffee house, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street. Her places became known for their Italian-Spanish scene setting. The reason, she said, was that it provided a way to disguise long, narrow spaces, as was clearly the case with the Cortile (shown here).

At Firenze, reputedly used as a movie set, she dressed her black servers like Italian peasants in bright uniforms and head scarves and had them go about filling copper jugs with water from a stone well. Tables were set with imported pottery which she sold as well, along with her Bowling Green Coffee. The Mediterranean village style mimicking courtyard interiors became wildly popular throughout the U.S. in the 1920s and countless women were inspired by MacDougall to open tea and coffee shops of their own. The chain went bankrupt in the depression and new management took over for a time, lowering prices and adding cocktails to the menu.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Drinking rum, eating Cantonese

Will the real Don the Beachcomber please stand up and mix me a Zombie? As is true with so many business histories it’s difficult to lock down the true story. Confusion in the case of Don the Beachcomber mainly arises from a divorce between the principals, Don (or Donn) Beach (born Ernest Beaumont-Gantt) and his one-time wife Cora Irene Sund. Both were involved in the development of the original Don the Beachcomber, begun in 1934 as a bar serving exotic drinks in Hollywood, California. Cora, a Minnesota schoolteacher turned model, arrived on the scene shortly after Don launched his business. She invested in it and became president, while Don acted as general manager. She focused on the food side of things, hiring a Cantonese chef and expanding the bar into a restaurant with “South Seas” cuisine. They married in 1937 and divorced in 1940, the year Cora opened a branch in Chicago. When Don came back from the Air Force after WWII they split up as business partners, she keeping the mainland operations while he concentrated on Hawaii.

According to Vic Bergeron, creator of Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber provided his inspiration for transforming his Oakland CA bar and sandwich spot Hinky Dink’s into a Polynesian restaurant in 1938.

beachcombertrunkDon ran into trouble with the postwar longshoremen’s strike and decided to limit his Honolulu Beachcomber to a drinking spot. By the early 1960s he was also in the restaurant business, operating a South Seas Cabaret Restaurant, a Colonel’s Plantation Steak House, a Colonel’s Coffee House, and at least one restaurant boat. Cora’s popular Chicago Don the Beachcomber was named one of the top 50 US restaurants in 1947. She soon opened another location in Palm Springs and by 1972, when it was acquired by Getty Financial, the chain had 6 or 7 units.

The greatest growth occurred under Getty management, eventually building the chain to a total of 16. An architect gave the Beachcombers a new look. The interior of the new 1973 Dallas Beachcomber, like others to follow, featured a full array of tropical effects such as a bridge over a reflecting pool, a waterfall, rain forest, thatched roofs, palm trees, and outrigger canoes suspended from a firefly-studded ceiling. But the public’s love affair with Polynesian restaurants began to fade and by 1989 only three Don the Beachcombers remained.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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