Tag Archives: fast food

Early chains: Baltimore Dairy Lunch

baltimorelunchDetroitAPeople liked to say that the names of lunch room chains in the early 20th century offered a lesson in geography. There were Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Hartford, Iowa, Manhattan, Maryland, Milwaukee, New York, Pennsylvania, Pittsburg, St. Louis, and Utica Lunches, or Dairy Lunches as some were known. Los Angelenos patronized a New York Lunch in 1905, while customers in Duluth MN, Lexington KY, and San Francisco enjoyed their sandwiches in a Boston Lunch. Detroit had its Manhattan Lunch, while Manhattan had a Detroit Lunch. And so on.

baltimorelunchDetroitBBut before the 1920s no lunchroom chain was as popular as the Baltimore Dairy Lunch which at that time outnumbered Childs. Founder James A. Whitcomb began the business in the late 1880s in Washington, D.C., where he was a federal postal clerk, then opening a lunch room in Baltimore. Along with four quasi-franchisers, he controlled about 140 units by 1920. The largest branch, under the ownership of Harry Bowles in Springfield MA, consisted of a couple dozen units. Few large cities were without a Baltimore Dairy Lunch, as Whitcomb’s were named, or a Baltimore Lunch, the name used by Bowles.

baltimorelunchDetroitCWhether they belonged to large or small chains or were independents, Baltimores or Buffalos,  all Lunches were similar. As someone put it, “It’s an age of standardization, and one restaurant is now much like every other, barring minor differences.” A humorous story in Everybody’s Magazine in 1914 featured a cranky elderly man who went around from lunch room to lunch room asking the local wits, “What is the difference between a Hartford Lunch and a Baltimore Lunch.” Their answer was always the same, “Search me.”

Regardless of their similarity, dairy lunches were regarded as characteristically and proudly American, so much so that during battle in World War I, after U.S. soldiers took control of an improvised clubhouse used by German troops, they tore down a sign the Germans had posted over the door that said “Hindenburg Rathskeller” and replaced it with “Baltimore Lunch.”

baltimorelunchDetroitBaltimore Lunches shared many features in common with the fast food chains that arrived in the 1960s. Their offerings were simple and inexpensive. No alcohol was served. Customers got their food at a counter and carried it to their seats. Seating – one-armed wooden chairs — was uncomfortable and did not encourage lingering. Patrons didn’t mind, though, because they were interested in expediting the entire getting and eating process so they could go about their business.

baltimorelunchDetroit710Unlike fast food architecture of the 1960s, though, Baltimore Lunches were built as solidly and luxuriously as Grecian temples. Interiors used marble lavishly for counters and fixtures. Was it because both Whitcomb and Bowles were natives of Vermont, the state where so much marble is quarried? Maybe, but I think that marble was an expression of cleanliness and investment in a growing economy’s ability to efficiently mass produce affordable, nutritious meals. A standard feature of the Baltimore Lunch – a large marble bowl filled with sugar set on a marble pedestal — can easily be seen as a representation of democratic abundance.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Image gallery: stands

Perhaps the very earliest type of eating place is the stand which is largely in the open air on the street or in a marketplace. Who really knows how old they are? In this country today they are mostly found at fairs and carnivals, but they played a broader role in the 19th century and furnished the basis for other casual eateries such as standing-room-only quick lunchrooms, drive-ins, and fast food joints.

Remember that before some fast food chains started calling their units “restaurants” (what a shock it was the first time I heard McDonald’s called a restaurant!), they were called hamburger stands. Customers placed their orders at a walk-up window.

Stands were virtually synonymous with hamburgers and hot dogs in the 20th century, but through the decades they have also been places to get soft drinks (A&W rootbeer), coffee, doughnuts, ice cream, oysters, barbecue (Pig Stands), chili, and tamales.

At a classic stand, patrons really do stand outdoors while eating, or take their food away to consume elsewhere. But, clearly this is not the only type. Coffee stands in New Orleans sometimes furnish a roof and tables and chairs, though no walls. Neddick’s sleek curvilinear hot dog stands in mid-century NYC had open fronts and no seating, but patrons could get out of the rain at least while they placed their orders.

Some stands provide tall stools for their patrons, perhaps out of a competitive spirit or because they serve one or more of their offerings in dishes that they don’t want to lose. Others might have benches nearby.

In southern California stands were often designed to resemble the food they purveyed, such as at the Tail o’ the Pup pictured here.

Stands have always been considered the lowliest of eating places. Amenities are in short supply and customers pay first and then get their food. Yet they are more democratic than elite restaurants. Typically, no one is turned away.

They have flourished in particular circumstances and settings. Produce, fish, and meat markets of the early 19th century were dotted with stands offering prepared foods. These were usually located under the market’s roof and did business year round, keeping a fire blazing in cold weather.

Stands popped up everywhere in new settlements or in those destroyed by natural disasters. An 1850 directory to San Francisco showed a number of “refreshment stands,” and even a few “refreshment tables” doing business. Booming oil and mining towns of the West had stands (and tents) furnished by enterprising camp followers. Stands were erected in empty lots following the Chicago fire of the 1870s and the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

Recently some open-air pop-up restaurants seem to have come close to reproducing aspects of earlier days of eating out, but mainly as an offbeat diversion for jaded sophisticates.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Eat and run, please!

I’ve always thought it odd that anyone would think of fast food eateries as friendly. The tersely scripted counter help and the characteristically uncomfortable, bolted-down tables and chairs seem anything but hospitable to me. Of course, most patrons know and accept the terms of doing business with fast food chains whose low prices are predicated on providing minimal on-site facilities at which customers gulp their food, crumple their bags, and depart.

The fast food formula was first developed by turn-of-the-century “quick lunch” establishments. Like later chains they provided few amenities that might have encouraged lingering. Patrons sat in chair & table combos resembling one-armed school desks. No coat racks were provided so diners usually left their coats on. Just as well, because the spaces were so tight that someone removing his coat stood a good chance of sweeping his neighbor’s food onto the floor.

The idea that patrons should not linger wasn’t really new even then. Mourning the passing of Brooklyn’s old-fashioned chop houses, a reporter noted in 1889 that chop houses had been replaced by restaurants “where all is hurry and bustle, and where he who lingers at the table after his bill has been paid is regarded as an incumbrance.”

It’s not clear whether quick lunch proprietors plotted their interiors with an eye to turnover, but certainly by the 1920s restaurant managers were well aware that turning tables faster could increase profits. Suddenly even restful tea rooms were under pressure as they were thrust into competition with chain restaurants that used economies of scale to reduce costs and prices. Writing in 1929, Madeleine F. Wolf observed that if they wanted to survive, “The Dew Drop Inn, the Bide-a-Wee Tea Room, the Cheer-Up Cabin, must go on pretending an interest in each individual guest whereas their true interest lies in numbers.”

Brisk modern style, in the form of cubist decor and streamlined furniture, provided assistance in the late 1920s and 1930s. Artist and industrial designer John Vassos, who illustrated the book Phobia, felt he understood psychology well and successfully applied it in his 1931 design of NYC’s Rismont Tea Room, where the tables were a bit too small and chair seats were triangular. “The chairs are comfortable – if one doesn’t sit too long on them,” he wrote. [see photo]

Uncomfortable chairs would become known in the restaurant industry as “15-minute chairs.” Charles Eames’ fiberglass scoop chair (shown above) might be an example, offering little possibility of posture realignment.

Loud colors and loud music also discourage coffee refills and relaxed conversation, often quite deliberately. In the Forum Cafeteria in Kansas City MO in the 1960s walls with stripes in mist, olive, turquoise, blue, and white were deemed perfect for that “friendly, but not too friendly” effect. Nooks decked out with red banquettes and red carpeting, likewise, whispered “goodbye,” as did armless turquoise chairs.

If all else failed to dislodge the diner, the server could always lean over and ask, “Can I get you anything else?” – or “All set?” as they so bluntly say in New England.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Frenchies, oui, oui

It’s remarkable how people still pine for Frenchies of days gone by. Recipes for the most cherished of these, the Cheese Frenchie, a battered, deep fried cheese sandwich with a crunchy cornflake exterior, are all over the internet. It may have been modeled on the somewhat similar Croque Monsieur sandwich of France, explaining the name Frenchie.

Frenchies, sometimes spelled Frenchees, were the creation of King’s Food Host, a fast food chain catering to families and college students in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the chain’s units were located in the middle of the country, with headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, where there were once nine units. The first – King’s Drive-In – was started by James King and Larry Price in 1955, on North Cotner in Lincoln. I wonder if the first one had telephones at each table that patrons used to send their orders to the kitchen?

King soon dropped out of the partnership but Price stayed with it until 1972 when he gave up control of the company for around $3 million. It had reached its peak size then, with about 100 company-owned stores and 35 franchised units. Reportedly it had units in Winnipeg, Canada, and 20 states, but I’ve only been able to identify 18: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

In King’s younger days around 1966 when it had only 35 locations in 10 states, it focused on building near universities. King’s were handy for students at state universities in Nebraska (Lincoln), Iowa (Ames) [pictured], Wisconsin (Madison), and Colorado (Boulder), with new units under construction in Norman, Oklahoma, and Lawrence, Kansas.

Larry Price, who graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan University, had been a football assistant there and served on the university’s board of trustees. His first food service foray was as a teenager in 1934 when he ran a hamburger stand at the 1934 Nebraska State Fair. He was very likely the motive force behind the chain’s advertised principles. The company would not sell cigarettes nor allow patrons to tip lest servers “compete with each other for the tip to the extent that they appear greedy.” Price was disgusted when King’s new corporate managers installed cigarette machines because he believed it would encourage minors to smoke.

The Frenchies may have disappeared from the chain at some point or maybe simply dropped out of favor. They were heavily promoted as part of a nostalgia campaign shortly after King’s went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1974. Apart from Cheese Frenchies, King’s offered Tuna Frenchies [pictured], Hot Dog Frenchies, and Pizza Frenchies. Never having seen an actual Frenchie myself, I can’t picture what the last two varieties looked like. Apparently the Pizza Frenchie, which “joined the Frenchie family” in the dark days of 1974, was not a big hit. Nor were the 30% soymeal burgers which Larry Price, coming out of retirement to offer advice, persuaded the new owners to scuttle shortly after they were introduced to manage high beef costs.

None of these moves, nor others — the adoption of chicken in a box, frequent discounts, or red, white & blue decorating schemes — could save the company. The chain’s troubles started just after it went public in 1969 and began a rapid expansion drive. In debt for millions, it could not work out a satisfactory deal with creditors and never emerged from bankruptcy. Stock shares which sold for $14 each in 1969 dropped to a low of 50 cents after bankruptcy was declared. In 1978 a couple of business men from Minnesota and Wisconsin bought the remaining King’s outlets, which by then numbered only 17.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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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

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Ode to franchises of yesteryear

royrogersREVPeople have strong feelings about their favorite dishes from restaurant chains. I am thankful to all those who poured their hearts out on the subject on Jane & Michael Stern’s ever-fascinating Roadfood forums. I have excerpted the following wistful memories from “Long-gone regional franchises” which took on a life of its own and ran for years. After each snippet is the pertinent chain restaurant.

– The burgers were awesome, the onion rings superb and the soda cold. [Charco’s]

– Oh, those hot dogs steamed in beer. [Lums]

– Loved those frosty mugs of root beer and Big Boy hamburgers! [A&W]

– I went for the Ollie Burger. They bought the sauce from “Ollie’s Trolley.” [Lums]

– Shrimp salad. Chili spaghetti size. Navy bean soup. [Bob’s Big Boy]

– Frothy orange drinks and orange chili dogs. [Orange Julius]

– Tuesday night 10-cent “Coney Island Dogs.” [A&W]

– Orange colored cheese on their cheeseburgers, not the pale yellow stuff of today. [Wetson’s]

king'sFoodHostsign– The Cheese Frenchies were unique. [King’s Food Host]

– They also had a Tuna Frenchie, a Hot Dog Frenchie. [King’s Food Host]

– Greasy fish and plank-style chips. [Arthur Treacher’s]

– Orange drink with pulp in it. Tuna sandwiches. What fast food chain would have a tuna sandwich today? [Chock Full O’Nuts]

– How exotic it was to have a sandwich on a bagel. [Bagel Nosh]

– Good hot dogs. Never touched, cooks used plastic gloves. [Chock Full O’Nuts]

– My first straight cut fry. [Wetson’s]

– I remember eating and loving my first Apple Fritter there! [Hamburg Heaven]

– Coffee and Apple Fritters (hush-puppy shaped apples in dough, deep-fried and powdered sugar coated). [Dutch Pantry]

bobsbigboyREV– Pickles, diced onion, relish, mustard, ketchup and mayo were all available. [25 Cent Hamburger]

– Yummmm. A cheeseburger with ham and barbecue sauce. [Roy Rogers]

– Broasted chicken and french fries with a sweet sauce to die for. [Arctic Circle]

– I can remember stopping in for a soft drink and a basket of crumbs. [Squire Jacks]

– Ketchup was free. The fries weren’t like the “wavy,” half-fried or quick fried potatoes of today’s ilk. [Toot ‘n Tell]

– I haven’t had the heart to stop in and see if they still had Strawberry Pie. [Big Boy]

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The Automat, an East Coast oasis

automatlogoIn the late 19th century owners of large popular-price restaurants began to look for ways to cut costs and eliminate waiters. The times were hospitable to mechanical solutions and in 1902 automatic restaurants opened in Philadelphia (pictured below) and New York. In both cities, a clever coin-operated set-up – and a name – were imported from Germany. There was, however, a striking difference between the two operations. The Philadelphia Automat, run by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, served no alcoholic beverages, while the New York Automat, true to its European origins, did.

automatphil3051The Automat in NYC was owned by James Harcombe, who in the 1890s had acquired Sutherland’s, one of the city’s old landmark restaurants located on Liberty Street. The Harcombe Restaurant Company’s Automat was at 830 Broadway, near Union Square. Reportedly costing more than $75,000 to install, it was a marvel of invention decorated with inlaid mirror, richly colored woods, and German proverbs. It served forth sandwiches and soups, dishes such as fish chowder and lobster Newburg, and ice creams. Beer, cocktails, and cordials flowed from its faucets. A bit too freely. The Automat’s staff had to keep a sharp lookout for young boys dropping coins into the liquor slots.

While the Philadelphia Automat thrived, the New York counterpart ran into financial difficulties shortly after opening, possibly because of a poor location. It advertised in an NYU student magazine in 1904: “Europe’s Unique Electric Self-serving Device for Lunches and Beverages. No Waiting. No Tipping. Open Evenings Until Midnight.” The disappearance of the Harcombe Automat ca. 1910 seemed to fulfill pessimistic views that an automatic restaurant couldn’t succeed in New York, allegedly because machinery would malfunction and customers would cheat by feeding it slugs.

1912bdwyautomatUndeterred by the first Automat’s fate, Horn & Hardart moved into New York in 1912, opening an Automat of their own manufacture at Broadway and 46th Street (pictured). It turned out that New Yorkers did indeed use slugs, especially in 1935 when 219,000 were inserted into H&H slots. But despite this, the automatic restaurant prospered, expanded, and became a New York institution. By 1918 there were nearly 50 Automats in the two major cities, and eventually a few in Boston. Horn & Hardart tried Automats in Chicago in the 1920s but they were a failure. On an inspection tour in Chicago, Joseph Horn noted problems such as weak coffee, “figs not right,” and “lem. meringue very bad.”

Part of the lore of the Automat derives from the unexpected forms of sociability it inspired among strangers. Others found in it a unique entertaining concept. Jack Benny hosted a black tie dinner in a New York Automat for 500 friends in 1960, but he was scarcely the first to come up with the idea. As early as 1903 a Philadelphia hostess rented that city’s Automat for a soirée, hiring a caterer to replace meatloaf and coffee with terrapin and champagne. In 1917 a New York bohemian group calling themselves “The Tramps” took over the Broadway Automat for a dance party, inserting in the food compartments numbered slips corresponding to dance partners. For most customers, though, the Automat meant cheap food and possibly a leisurely place to kill time and watch the parade of humanity.

automatmysteries3041The Automats hit their peak in the mid-20th century. Slugs aside, the Depression years were better for business than the wealthier 1960s and 1970s when some units were converted to Burger Kings. In 1933 H&H hired Francis Bourdon, the French chef at the Sherry Netherland (fellow chefs called him “L’Escoffier des Automats”). In 1969 Philadelphia’s first Automat closed, being declared “a museum piece, inefficient and slow, in a computerized world.” That left two in Philadelphia and eight in NYC. The last New York Automat, at East 42nd and 3rd Ave, closed in 1991.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Fast food: one-arm joints

The wooden one-arm chair was a characteristic feature of the “quick lunch” type of eating place which became the popular choice for businessmen around the turn of the last century. The chairs were unattractive and uncomfortable as the cartoon below depicts. But considering that prior to their introduction patrons seeking a speedy lunch often ate while standing at a counter, they offered relative luxury. Solitary seating made sense in a café where businesspeople usually came in alone and spent little more than 10 or 15 minutes at their meal before rushing back to the office or store. (Later, in fact, more attractive one-arm chairs were used in Lord & Taylor Bird Cage restaurants.)

As is true of the fast food restaurants of today, one function of uncomfortable seats in the quick lunch eatery was to discourage lingering. These restaurants were usually shoe-horned into tight quarters in high-traffic, high-rent business centers, so it was paramount that each chair turned customers rapidly. The one-arm chair was patented by a Vermonter named James Whitcomb who designed fixtures for the Baltimore Dairy Lunch and also manufactured portable typewriters.

The core cuisine of the one-arms, and quick lunches in general, consisted of coffee and pie, supplemented by sandwiches and doughnuts. Some of the big one-arm concerns were the Chicago-based companies of John R. Thompson and Charles Weeghman, and the Baltimore Lunch and the Waldorf System, both of which originated in Springfield MA. The companies eventually broadened their menus to include hot dishes, supplying their locations in each city from central commissaries. Though the chains kept prices low, Waldorf prided itself on grating lemons for lemon pies and avoiding manufactured pie fillings, powered milk, dried eggs and other cost-cutting ingredients developed for the military in World War I and widely used by chains in the 1920s.

Under the intense competition of the late 1920s and the depression, the Lunches replaced their one-arm chairs with tables and chairs and abandoned their utilitarian decor in favor of more colorful interiors in hopes of attracting more women.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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