Tag Archives: chains

Early chains: John R. Thompson

Although it is largely forgotten today, the Chicago-based John R. Thompson company was one of the largest “one arm” lunchroom chains of the early 20th century. We so strongly associate fast food chains with hamburgers that it may be surprising to learn that Thompson’s popular sandwiches included Cervelat, smoked boiled tongue, cold boiled ham, hot frankfurter, cold corned beef, cold salmon, and Herkimer County cheese, served on “Milwaukee Rye Bread” baked by the chain’s bakery. Thompson was proud that his meals were suited for sedentary office workers of the 1900s and 1910s. A 1911 advertisement claimed that lunch at Thompson’s “won’t leave you logy and lazy and dull this afternoon.”

Thompson, an Illinois farm boy, ran a rural general store as his first business. He sold it in 1891, moved to Chicago, and opened a restaurant on State Street. He proved to be a modernizer in the restaurant business as well as in politics.

He operated his restaurants on a “scientific” basis, stressing cleanliness, nutrition, and quality while keeping prices low. In 1912 he moved the chain’s commissary into a premier new building on North Clark Street (pictured, today). Thompson’s, then with 68 self-service lunchrooms plus a chain of grocery stores, became a public corporation in 1914, after which it expanded outside Chicago and into Canada. By 1921 there were 109 restaurants, 49 of which were in Chicago and 11 in New York (with a commissary in NYC). By the mid-1920s Thompson’s, Childs, and Waldorf Lunch were the big three U.S. chains, small by comparison to McDonald’s but significant nevertheless.

In politics Thompson served as a Republican committeeman and managed the campaign of a “good government” gubernatorial candidate in 1904. A few years later he failed in his own bid to run for mayor, promising he would bring efficiency to government while improving schools and roads. In the 1920s he financed a personal crusade against handguns.

Despite John R. Thompson’s progressive politics, his business would go down in history as one that refused to serve Afro-Americans. Or, as civil rights leader Marvin Caplan put it in 1985, “If the chain is remembered today, it is not for its food, but for its refusal to serve it.” J. R. died in 1927. Where he stood on the question of public accommodations is unclear but the chain faced numerous lawsuits by blacks in the 1930s. However the best known case occurred in 1950 when a group of integrationists led by Mary Church Terrell was refused service in a Washington D.C. Thompson’s. The group was looking for a case that would test the validity of the district’s 19th-century public accommodations laws. After three years in the courts the Thompson case (for which the Washington Restaurant Association raised defense funds) made its way to the Supreme Court which affirmed the so-called “lost” anti-discrimination laws of 1872 and 1873 as valid.

Over the years the Thompson chain absorbed others, including Henrici’s and Raklios. At some point, possibly in the 1950s, the original Thompson’s concept was dropped. By 1956 Thompson’s operated Holloway House and Ontra cafeterias. In 1971, as Green Giant prepared to buy Thompson’s, it had about 100 restaurants, including Red Balloon family restaurants, Henrici’s restaurants, and Little Red Hen Chicken outlets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

62 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Theme restaurants: barns

At the risk of offending anyone I have to say I find this one of the worst themes ever. I almost feel I don’t need to elaborate, that everyone is thinking “I agree.” Not only is the decor corny and the “atmosphere” non-existent, but the kitchen is usually totally lacking in ambition if not turning out food that is downright bad.

The 19th century was mercifully unafflicted with barn restaurants, presumably because barns were still needed for farming and restaurants that were more than plain, bare-bones eateries tended toward grandeur. Sometimes the grandeur was hokey but at least the aim was to provide guests with an experience that went beyond eating in a shelter designed for animals and fowls. Though theme restaurants weren’t totally unknown, the past had not yet been ransacked to come up with novelties that would attract jaded patrons looking for “something different” or catch the eye of passing motorists.

Barn themes were usually used to attract men. I’m guessing it was because subliminally they seemed to promise large quantities of food while not demanding overmuch etiquette. Some beefsteak dungeons, as they were called, where men ate steaks with their bare hands in basements of hotels and restaurants, adopted barn themes. Occasionally even tea rooms, supposedly appealing to discriminating women of delicate tastes, were tucked away in barns in the 1920s (Hyannis Tea Barn pictured). Men tended to avoid tea rooms, so a 1924 tea room trade journal suggested adopting a barnyard theme to draw them. A headline read “The Barnyard Lunch Shows How to Win and Hold Masculine Patronage.” Oof.

The nightclub and restaurant “renaissance” which occurred in 1933 right after the repeal of Prohibition inspired a host of barn eateries as well as many other kinds of theme restaurants. Many were night spots for drinking and dancing as well as “dining.” Examples included the Village Barn in Greenwich Village, as well as Topsy’s Roost near San Francisco which after Repeal relocated to a larger barn equipped to service over 1,000 merry imbibers at once. At Topsy’s, rooster images decorated the walls while chicken prints crossed the table tops. Is anyone thinking sucker joint?

The 1960s and 1970s saw another spate of barn restaurants, this time chains such as Red Barn and Nickerson Farms, which actually constructed barn-shaped buildings as restaurants. And some people loved them.  And pine over them even today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

6 Comments

Filed under history, restaurants

With haute cuisine for all: Longchamps

Staked by his brother-in-law, gambler Arnold Rothstein, Henry Lustig expanded from the wholesale produce business into restaurants in 1919. His first location, at 78th and Madison Avenue, was a property that belonged to Arnold. By 1924 he had two more restaurants, one conveniently near Saks Fifth Avenue. An advertisement informed “Madame or Mademoiselle” that at Longchamps they would find light French dishes as well as “soothing quiet, faultless service and a typically ‘Continental’ cuisine” that was above average “yet … not expensive.” While not exactly cheap, Longchamps was considered easily affordable by the middle-class.

The chain continued to grow rapidly after the repeal of Prohibition when it hired top modernist decorators and architects to give it ultra-sophisticated chic. With the assistance of German-born artist and designer Winold Reiss and architects Louis Allen Abramson and Ely Jacques Kahn, New York City gained some of its most glamorous restaurant interiors of the period. Reiss showed considerable talent in disguising irregular spaces with mirrors and murals, multiple levels, dramatic lighting, and flashy staircases that lured people cheerfully downward to dine below ground (see his interior sketch and menu cover below). From 1935 to 1940 Longchamps opened seven new restaurants, including two on Broadway, one at Lexington and 42nd Street, and one in the Empire State Building.

Cocktail bars were no small part of the slick 1930s Longchamps formula. The chain’s ninth unit at Madison and 59th Street, a site vacated by Reuben’s, had a long oval bar stationed above floor level in the middle of the dining room. With 50 bartenders staffing the bar, the restaurant itself seated 950 diners. When it opened in 1935 a Longchamps advertisement immodestly called it “The Outstanding Restaurant Creation of the Century.” Architectural critic Lewis Mumford found its red, black, gold, and yellow color scheme — carried out even on chair backs and table tops — overdone, but he sensed that his was a minority opinion and he was almost certainly right. Among others, it soon became a meeting place for James Beard and his old friends from Oregon.

During the war Longchamps’ did a booming business. Lustig, it turned out, was siphoning off cash as fast as he could and keeping two sets of books, one for him and one for the IRS. Keep in mind that he owned racehorses and had named his restaurants after a famous Paris racetrack. The game was up in 1946 when he was handed a bill for delinquent taxes and fines of more than $10M and sentenced to four years in federal prison. Nine restaurants, along with a good stock of wine (the Times Square unit alone was said to have 120,000 bottles in the cellar), miscellaneous pieces of Manhattan real estate, and the chain’s bakery, catering business, ice cream plant, candy factory, and commissary, then passed into the hands of a syndicate which owned the Exchange Buffet.

In 1952 a Longchamps was opened in Washington, D.C., becoming one of the few downtown restaurants in that city that served Afro-American patrons. About this time another Longchamps opened in the Claridge apartments on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. In 1959 the chain was acquired by Jan Mitchell, owner since 1950 of the old Lüchow’s. He revealed that the chain, which consisted of twelve red and gold restaurants, a poorly trained kitchen staff, and a diminishing patronage, had been losing money for the past five years but that he could revive it as he had done with Lüchow’s. Under his ownership the New York units began offering guests the dietary concoction Metracal in their cocktail lounges, as well as free glasses of wine and corn on the cob with their meal. After a couple of years the chain was in the black.

In 1967 Mitchell sold it to the Riese brothers, who owned the Childs restaurants and were in the process of buying up classic New York restaurants – Cavanagh’s in 1968, Lüchow’s in 1969, and others. In 1969 the old Longchamps were mostly turned into steakhouse theme restaurants. The restaurant at Madison and 59th, though, was renamed the Orangerie, dedicated to “hedonistic New Yorkers,” and given a “festive mood of Monte Carlo.” Its $8.75 prix fixe dinner came with free wine, “Unique La ‘Tall’ Salade,” and after-dinner coffee with Grand Marnier. In 1971 a single Longchamps operated under that name, at Third Avenue and 65th Street, but I doubt it had anything in common with the classic Longchamps of the 1930s. The holding company “Longchamps, Inc.” vanished in 1975.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

4 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Taste of a decade: 1930s restaurants

wonderbar1941Even as the Depression deepens, the number of full-fledged restaurants continues to increase, from 134,293 in 1929 to 169,792 in 1939. Immigration slows in response to restrictive legislation of the late 1920s, reducing the supply of professional waiters and cooks. Female servers make up more than half of waitstaffs. The economical fixed-price meal, which had virtually been replaced by a la carte service, returns to popularity. Promotions such as “all you can eat” and “free coffee refills” are featured. After the repeal of Prohibition nightlife revives. Many diners, accustomed to speakeasies, show a preference for small, intimate restaurants. All-white interiors give way to imaginative decor which mimics ships or European courtyards. Federal financing facilitates modernization, encouraging restaurants to add streamlined fronts and air-conditioning. Deprived of bootlegging revenues, racketeers infiltrate unions and extort restaurants, dispatching picketers and stench bombs to those that don’t play along.

Highlights

veneto351981931 Restaurants drop prices and see patronage rise. In Chicago prices go down by 10% to 12%.

1932 Stores install lunch counters to lure shoppers and capture a piece of the flourishing lunch trade. Architect Ely Jacques Kahn designs a sleek tea room with vermilion-topped tables and green and black terrazzo floors for the Broadmoor Pharmacy on NYC’s Madison Ave. – Chains such as Schrafft’s, Childs, Horn & Hardart, Lofts’, and Bickford’s expand as they take advantage of reduced rents and absorb failed competitors.

1933 Expecting all alcoholic beverages to be legal by the end of the year, liquor suppliers court restaurateurs. In Amherst MA a small lunchroom operator receives complimentary wine and champagne from the S. S. Pierce Company. – The Afro-American proprietor of the Launch Tea Room in Sheepshead Bay decides to cancel plans for wintering in Palm Beach and turn her Long Island tea room into a free dining room for the poor.

1934 In post-Repeal California Ernest Raymond Baumont-Gantt opens Don the Beachcomber, while Victor Bergeron starts Hinky Dinks, forerunner to Trader Vics. In accordance with state law both must include food service with their bar operations. – In NYC, the president of the Downtown Restaurants association acknowledges, “We know now that repeal of prohibition has saved the restaurant business from utter annihilation and saved it just in time.”

1935 The pro-America mood of the 1920s continues, exemplified by a column in a restaurant trade magazine which asserts preposterously that Delmonico’s got its recipes from Southern plantations while in the 1880s French chefs “flocked to this country” to learn American cooking. — Many restaurants remodel their fronts (see above illustration) as towns across the country launch “Modernize Main Street” campaigns backed with federal money.

brassrail371971936 An investigation reveals that Jack Dempsey’s, Lindy’s, The Brass Rail, and numerous cafeterias are among the NYC eating places that have capitulated to shake-downs by mobsters.

1937 The nationwide Childs chain reports that 47% of all alcoholic drinks served in their dining rooms are cocktails, 22% are highballs, 8% are wines (mostly sherry and port), and oldfashioned195the remainder are cordials. Beer is the most popular drink in summer.

1938 The president of the National Restaurant Association warns members that the number of places serving meals has quadrupled in the past 15 years and only the ingenious will survive.

1939 A book on how to run a tea room notes that 30,000 restaurants are managed by women and advises prospective proprietors to make inquiries such as, “Do the racketeers expect you to pay for protection?”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

22 Comments

Filed under history, restaurants

Early chains: Vienna Model Bakery & Café

Contemporary bakery restaurant chains such as Au Bon Pain and Panera Bread may have more units but they are scarcely the sensations that Vienna bread cafés were in the 1870s. America was a country that many considered plagued with inferior bread, whether commercial or home baked. The Fleischmann brothers, Charles, Maximillian, and Louis, were determined to improve American bread with their compressed yeast. Although they manufactured it as early as 1872 – as a byproduct of distilled spirits (another Fleischmann enterprise) – its fame was established at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. There the crusty Vienna-style bread produced with Fleischmann’s yeast won a prize for excellence and attained international renown. Although the fair’s Vienna Model Bakery café which served this bread was intended mainly to showcase the baked goods that could be made with the company’s yeast, it became a runaway hit in its own right. Some said the bakery café’s fame was as great as the fair itself.

A short time after the Centennial ended, Vienna Model Bakeries and cafés were opened in Philadelphia, New York City, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Chicago, very likely making this the country’s first restaurant chain. The cafés, whose coffee was as prized as their baked goods, were modeled on European coffee houses and furnished guests with comfortable seating and newspapers from all over the world. The St. Louis branch was so popular it had to move to larger quarters within months of opening. In Chicago, as in New York City, the cafes were located close to the cities’ major dry goods firms, Field & Leiter and A. T. Stewart, respectively, thereby attracting women customers as well as men. In the 1880s New Yorkers could enjoy their refreshments outdoors amidst planters of flowers under a large awning stretching in front of the 10th and Broadway café, which also had a full-scale restaurant on the second floor.

Another distinction of the Manhattan Fleischmann’s was its practice of giving away bread to anyone who would wait in line at midnight. Dubbed “the bread line,” it continued until around 1918 when the bakery café closed.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

Leave a comment

Filed under restaurants

Chain restaurants: beans and bible verses

Although the restaurants run by Alfred W. Dennett in the 1880s and 1890s were popular and earned him a cool million in just a few years, some people took a strong dislike to them because of the framed bible quotations which covered the walls. Newspapers regularly ridiculed them, noting for instance that burglars who cracked the safe at the Park Avenue Dennett’s in New York City did so right under a sign that read, “Be ye strong, therefore, and let not your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.” But no one took such a negative position against the Northeastern coffee/dairy/beans & fishcakes-based chain as did Terrence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor. In a talk in Brooklyn he offended some audience members when he declared, “I, temperance man as I am, would go into the lowest rumhole in the city, and get blind, rolling drunk, rather than go into that restaurant where they have such signs as ‘Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself,’ to get a cup of coffee.”

Founder Dennett, born in 1840 the son of a storekeeper in Topsham, Maine, was a zealous religious believer and temperance advocate who required his waitresses to attend daily prayer services and took a leading role in citizen vice squads. In New York City he disguised himself — as streetcar conductor, laborer, or man about town — to conduct surveillance and collect evidence against suspected sites of immorality. He gave away his fortune to charity, was forced out of his company by stockholders, and had numerous mental breakdowns, culminating in a declaration of insanity after being found wandering the streets of San Francisco with a pillowcase over his head. When the Childs brothers took over the chain in 1900 evidently they retained the Dennett’s name and left the bible verses on the walls. The chain of about 16 outlets continued until at least 1912.

At various times Dennett and his son George tried for a comeback on the West Coast, operating several places in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early 20th century (and possibly earlier) but they did not succeed and some of the San Francisco locations were taken over by the Puritan restaurant chain, which continued in a religious vein under the management of the appropriately named Mr. Goodbody.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

2 Comments

Filed under restaurants

Fried chicken blues

The 1960s were a boom decade for marrying fast food to franchise businesses christened with celebrity names. Chicken seemed like the up-and-coming successor to hamburgers in a business more about marketing concepts and stock quotations than food or hospitality. Following the success of Harlan Sanders, whose 500-unit Kentucky Fried Chicken chain mushroomed to 1,700 when he sold to a corporate buyer, entrepreneurs looked around for other celebrities to hitch their schemes to. Performers Minnie Pearl, Mahalia Jackson, James Brown, and Eddy Arnold, along with many sports figures, were persuaded to lend their names, rarely assuming any further involvement.

Minnie Pearl’s Chicken System, Inc., was the creation of Tennessean John Jay Hooker whose political ambitions included becoming governor, then president. Minnie Pearl, a Grand Ole Opry comedien whose frumpy stage persona suggested down-home eating, covered the white market, while gospel singer Mahalia Jackson lent her name to the black-owned side of the enterprise aimed at black inner-city consumers. Around the same time, ca. 1969, “king of soul” James Brown figureheaded the Gold Platter soul food chain which failed to get beyond the pilot stage in Macon, Georgia. Minnie’s and Mahalia’s ventures, too, lasted only a few years. Hooker, chicken systems mastermind, did not make it into office, but Benjamin Hooks, co-owner of Mahalia Jackson’s Gloree-Fried chicken (carryout only), went on to become executive director of the NAACP.

Though hailed as a restaurateur, Jackson received royalties for the use of her name but did not choose to invest in the Mahalia Jackson Chicken System, Inc. Perhaps she did not approve of its slogan: “It’s Gloree-Fried, and that’s the gospel truth.” The Minnie Pearl system totaled several hundred locations at its peak but it’s not clear how many outlets the Jackson chain comprised, probably many fewer. Chicago had only two units, paired with gas stations. The chain also operated in Memphis, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Detroit. In addition to chicken, menus included fish sandwiches, sweet potatoes, fried pies, and a ‘Soul Bowl’ of chicken giblets in gravy on rice.

Minnie Pearl’s chicken — and later roast beef sandwiches — business went bankrupt in 1970.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

Leave a comment

Filed under food, restaurants