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Name trouble: Sambo’s

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You might imagine that chain restaurants would spend vast amounts of time and money researching potential names in order to pick one that would convey exactly the desired associations and nuances. Certainly one that would not insult a portion of its intended customers.

I’m sure most do. Sambo’s was not among them.

Wouldn’t the founders of Sambo’s, in the late 1950s, dimly perceive that the name Sambo was not beloved by everyone, especially African-Americans?

Why would they decorate with images from the book “Little Black Sambo,” the American editions of which were filled with racist caricatures?

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Evidently they had no idea that Sambo had been – and still was – a derogatory word for black males for over 100 years; that the name and ridiculous images of Sambo were used on many consumer products in the early 20th century; and that after WWII school libraries had complied with requests by African-Americans to remove the book from shelves.

Even if they didn’t know any of this, when protests erupted they might have realized they had made a terrible mistake. Regardless of whether “Sam-bo” originated from the first name of one of them combined with the nickname of the other.

Nope, nope, nope, and double nope.

Instead the founders, their successor, and the corporation that finally took over the chain all insisted right up to the bitter end that no harm was intended or implied. Even as they renamed some units in the East where there had been boycotts, the company insisted the change was purely in order to market their new menus.

sambo's216CabrilloHwy1960The first Sambo’s was opened in Santa Barbara in 1957. [pictured] By 1977, when the son of one of the founders was heading the company, the chain was the country’s largest full-service restaurant chain, with 1,117 units.

But trouble was looming. Protests during the West Coast chain’s expansion into the Northeast had already resulted in renaming units in the Albany NY area “Jolly Tiger.” Eventually there were 13 Jolly Tigers in various towns. Protest would spread to Reston VA, New York, and New England including at least 9 towns in Massachusetts. In 1981 the Rhode Island Commission on Human Rights ordered the company to change its name in that state because indirectly the name violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by denying public accommodations to black persons.

SambosNoPlaceLikeSam'sLogo1981The company responded that it would rename 18 of its Northeastern units “No Place Like Sam’s”; in fact according to an advertisement a few months later they actually renamed 41 units.

Soon thereafter the company began to collapse. In November 1981 it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, closing more than a third of its units. In Leominster and Stoughton MA, early morning customers had to pick up and get out immediately so the restaurants could be padlocked.

In 1982 all, or most, remaining Sambo’s were renamed Seasons. By 1984 most of the Seasons restaurants had been sold to Godfather’s Pizza and other buyers.

The successive name switches undoubtedly hurt business, but a more serious problem was that Sambo’s, like other chains using a coffee shop format with table service and extensive menus, had been steadily losing out to fast food chains.

The chain is kaput yet the beat goes on. The original Sambo’s in Santa Barbara continues in business under new ownership – still using the thoroughly discredited name. On its website it also continues the threadbare tradition of justifying the name as a compound of the founders’ names.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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As the restaurant world turned, July 17

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July 17 being the anniversary of my blog, I’m celebrating. In the beginning I thought a blog would be so easy. I’d browse over my notes, grab a few things, and write a post in half an hour. Hah! That was approximately true of the first few posts — one of which I’ve revised repeatedly and another of which I’ve deleted. In memory of that happy delusion I present a quick rundown of restaurant happenings on random July 17ths.

1890 – Waiters walking off the job close down three more restaurants as they join a St. Louis waiters’ strike. The Waiters’ Union is further heartened when it learns that members of the city’s Typographical Union have pledged not to eat anywhere non-union servers are employed.

July17Clamshellpearl1907 – A Bangor ME restaurant worker grinding clams for chowder runs into a hard substance which turns out to be a pearl. She rejects a local jeweler’s offer of $250 ($5,000 or $6,000 today) saying she will instead send it to New York for appraisal.

1916 – Taylor’s Exchange Restaurant opens in a new building in Charleston SC promising there will be “no odors” since the kitchen is upstairs from the dining room. Taylor signs his advertisement, “I remain, Yours When Hungry.”

1930 – Despite his claims that he does not run a “booze joint” and had no idea liquor was hidden in his lunchroom’s walls, a judge fines the operator of Holyoke MA’s Washington Lunch $150.

1936 – Admitting she only took a restaurant job to escape “that darn farm” in Florida where she grew up, an Atlanta waitress announces she has won a scholarship to Louisiana State and will be quitting to study music there.

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1950 – Fifteen members of the Washington, D.C. Interracial Workshop are arrested for holding up the line at Sholl’s Cafeteria after Afro-Americans in the group are denied service.

July17Embassymgr1958 – Although she has been threatened with bodily harm, Beverly Sturdevant, a manager of the Embassy Restaurant in Cicero IL, testifies against mobsters inside Local 450 of the Chicago Hotel and Restaurant Employes Union to the US Senate Rackets Investigating Committee.

1962 – “Reverse Freedom Rider” David Harris announces he will open a barbecue and chili restaurant in Hyannis MA, summer home of the Kennedys. Harris arrived a few months earlier with a busload of Afro-Americans sent North by an Arkansas segregationist Citizens’ Council. The action was meant to embarrass President John F. Kennedy, who had recently taken a harder line on segregation.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Dining by gaslight

GSThreeFountainsINTThough it seems fairly obvious when you think about it, the development of entertainment districts post-WWII encouraged the growth of restaurant-ing in many cities across the U.S. On the minus side, the fate of such restaurants was highly dependent upon the fate of the districts.

The Three Fountains [pictured] was the star restaurant in the entertainment district of St. Louis which began in the late 1950s and was officially named Gaslight Square in 1961. The one-and-one-half block area attracted affluent suburban St. Louisans and the city’s many conventioneers with restaurants, live theater, and clubs that featured national acts such as the Smothers Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Lenny Bruce, and Miles Davis.

Developing out of a racially borderline, transitional neighborhood populated with apartments, music schools, and antiques stores, its pioneering establishments included the Crystal Palace theater, the Gaslight Bar, Smokey Joe’s Tavern, the Laughing Buddha coffeehouse, and the Dark Side jazz club.

GSThreeFtnmenuThe Three Fountains exuded luxury with a multi-level interior lavishly decorated with  antique fixtures complemented by an oversize menu filled with expensive dishes (the $6.50 pepper steak would cost about $46 today). Its decor, like most of the restaurants and clubs in Gaslight, consisted of an extravagant, crazy melange of salvaged windows, doors, railings, paneling, statues, fountains, and light fixtures from structures mowed down by a city obsessed with urban renewal.

gsMillCreekValleySlum clearance in an area known as Mill Creek Valley brought its bounty. There the destruction of residences formerly housing 20,000 people (95% of them Afro-Americans) freed up tons of antique woodwork and hardware for decorators with a taste for Victorian. The transfer of objects from Mill Creek to the nightclubs and restaurants in Gaslight Square can also be seen as an illustration of a troubled relationship with the city’s black population who lived close by, worked in Gaslight’s restaurants, and performed in its clubs, yet whose patronage was not welcome.

According to Jorge Martinez, owner of a couple of jazz clubs, the block’s business association ruled against his proposal for a dance hall out of fear it would attract Afro-Americans. Terry Kennedy, an Afro-American who grew up in the neighborhood adjacent to the area and became a city alderman in 1989, observed that if you were black “you better not be there too long, or the police would run you off.” (Interviews with Kennedy, Martinez, and others are found in the book Gaslight Square, an Oral History, by Thomas Crone.)

Yet, Gaslight Square offered opportunity to a few Afro-Americans. Sandra J. Parks occupied a rare position in America, that of black female chef. She cooked in several of the area’s better restaurants, including Kotobuki and Port St. Louis and managed Two Cents Plain before moving to Chicago for a career in catering.

Compared to the city as a whole, Gaslight Square was a somewhat integrated area. Nonetheless racial tension would become a major factor in its downfall, most evident in white patrons’ grossly exaggerated fear of black-on-white crime.

From the area’s beginnings as an entertainment zone to its serious decline by 1968, at least 20 restaurants, dozens of nightclubs, and numerous coffeehouses and theaters were in business there [see map]. After-hour parties took place above street level, in apartment buildings and flats.

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There were steakhouses (Magnolia House, Marty’s, Jacks or Better, Mr. D’s), two Mexican restaurants (Tortilla Flat and a branch of Chicago’s La Margarita), a Polynesian restaurant (The Islander), a Japanese restaurant where servers dressed as geishas (Kotobuki), a fish restaurant where servers dressed as sailors (Port St. Louis), a Greek restaurant (Smokey Joe’s Grecian Tavern), a deli (Two Cents Plain), an Italian eatery (Bella Rosa), a tavern (O’Connell’s Pub), and several places whose cuisine I could not determine (Red Carpet, The Georgian, Carriage House, Die Lorelei, Left Bank).

Many of the restaurants were in converted town houses. Whenever possible they had patio dining in front, and most featured entertainment such as cabaret, folk music, or Dixieland, ragtime, or cool jazz.
GSLaughingBuhdaSTL60sThe more expensive restaurants were first to suffer from the area’s decline as well-dressed, well-heeled customers stopped coming. Conventioneers were warned off, in many cases, by cabdrivers who refused to drive there. Clubs with go-go dancers in the windows displaced coffeehouses with folksinging and poetry as a younger, more casually dressed crowd took over.

Although Gaslight Square was in ways a model for Chicago’s Old Town and Omaha’s Old Market, many businesses began closing or moving away by the mid 1960s. Port St. Louis and Two Cents Plain moved to more promising locations. In 1965 Craig Claiborne gave the Three Fountains a short – and horrid — review (“It is said to be the only French restaurant in the city and, if this is true, it is unfortunate.”) A few years later a number of gaslights were extinguished for nonpayment of gas bills. By 1972 when O’Connell’s moved to South Kingshighway, the area was largely in ruins.

Aside from a memorial constructed out of the pillars that once stood outside Smokey Joe’s, not a trace of Gaslight Square remains standing today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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White restaurants

Whiteness in restaurants has had multiple dimensions. When it swept through the lunchroom industry in the early twentieth century the obvious intent was to denote cleanliness through the liberal use of marble and porcelain table tops and counters, and white tile walls and floors.

With names like White Kitchen, Sanitary Café, and Purity Cafeteria, large lunchrooms, led by the Childs’ and Thompson’s chains, advertised not only their cleanliness but their modernity and efficiency with ceramic tile, plate glass windows, and bright electric lights. They sent a message that they could not be more unlike “the old hole-in-the-wall lunch room, with its flickering lights, its smoky atmosphere, its greasy walls and sawdust carpeted floor,” according to Edison Monthly in 1911. Though the story didn’t say so, it’s likely readers would have associated the greasy old days with ethnic proprietors and the reign of the saloon-cum-eatery.

White tile lunchrooms figured as heralds of modernity to critic Lewis Mumford. Although he found them noisy and sterile, he was impressed with their machine age provenance (“If one looks carefully at the floors, the cutlery, the tables, the chairs, and the rest of the fixtures one discovers that there is not an object in the place which is not a machine product.”). In “The Quick-Lunch Counter,” poet William Rose Benét selected them as an exemplary institution of the World War I era alongside movie theaters and skyscrapers, with the lines:
Then a sharp command.
And, starting up, I take in hand
My share of thick white china, holding
Limp bread some limper ham enfolding,
Brown doughnuts, and a liquid less so.
(They call it ‘coffee.’ Well, I guess so!)

At the same time as white tile was being installed to cover up the unsanitary wood beneath it, other kinds of whitenings were taking place in the emerging “quick lunch” marketplace. Demands by the public — made up of growing ranks of male and female white-collar office workers — for greater cleanliness brought rejection of waiters’ European-style black garb which gave way to white uniforms. Many of the wearers of white were women servers who replaced men, oftentimes black men who had long made up the bulk of America’s waiters.

And while white-tile lunchcounters were scarcely the only eating places to refuse service to black patrons, it should be noted that the chains’ progressive attitudes did not extend to equal treatment of everyone who came through their doors. In the same years that the Busy Bee outlets in Columbus OH replaced black waiters with white women the chain grudgingly seated black patrons in the rear of its shiny lunchrooms and charged them higher prices.

The frankly businesslike hustle and bustle of the white tile lunchrooms came to a close with the Depression of the 1930s. By then the public had lost their distrust of restaurants and no longer demanded visible proof they were sanitary. But even more significant a reason for their decline was the wish for escape from the tedium and anxiety of everyday life. Bright colors and movie-set interiors became the new order of the day.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Righting civil wrongs in restaurants

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro NC (pictured) which set off a wave of similar protests across the South and turned the tide against segregated eating facilities. But these were far from the first such actions. Integration of American eating places came about from a patchwork of regulations that sometimes successfully impeded discrimination and by the courageous actions of individuals and groups, black and white, who negotiated with, sued, picketed, and physically occupied restaurants beginning in the 1870s.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which offered the strongest protection against discrimination in restaurants up to then, was neither sudden nor was it evidence of the steady march of progress. A federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 was repealed by the Supreme Court just eight years later, after which Southern states enacted separate accommodations laws (Jim Crow), while other states passed or amended civil rights acts.

Few state civil rights laws covered eating facilities, the most controversial area of public accommodations. White public opinion was strongly against blacks and whites eating together in restaurants. Segregationist sentiment grew stronger around the turn of the last century and again in the World War I period when many black Americans migrated North for jobs. Blacks lodged relatively few protests because the odds of winning in court were poor. Also, anyone brave enough to challenge discrimination needed enough social stature to refute the accusation of simply being a low-class ruffian. By the “Catch-22″ logic that long prevailed, any black person who went into a white-only restaurant was considered of poor character since proper black people knew better than to go where they were not wanted.

The following are examples of challenges against racism in restaurants that nevertheless occurred in the 20th century before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

1926 Organized by a cook, the black staff of an Alice Foote MacDougall tea room in NYC unites behind a black waitress discharged for serving a black customer. They all walk out, forcing MacDougall to change her policy.

1929 The president of the United Colored Socialist party is accosted by a waitress as he and a black associate enter the Mills Restaurant in Cleveland. Restricted to a table on the mezzanine, they are treated hatefully and a hefty service charge is added to their bill. They win in court after refusing to give up despite six postponements.

1935 Black activists test a new PA civil rights law in Philadelphia, leading to the arrest of four employees at Horn & Hardart’s Automat who seat five white parties while two black people stand by and wait for an hour. At Stouffer’s three black patrons receive their meals smothered in salt. The manager asserts that all Stouffer’s meals are “highly seasoned.”

1936 After two black New Yorkers are refused service at a restaurant in Bel Air MD, 17 bus loads of fellow (but white) WPA workers en route to a Washington conference protest. The demonstration is peaceful yet 40 state police armed with machine guns and tear gas arrive and arrest the two blacks.

1943 Howard University students sit-in at a “white trade only” eatery in DC, a city in which few restaurants are open to people of color including the cafeteria in the Department of Justice.

1943 The newly formed Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) initiates a sit-in at the Jack Spratt café in Chicago where one of CORE’s founders, executive director James Farmer (pictured in 1965), had been treated rudely the previous year.

1946 The United Packinghouse Workers union (CIO) files charges against Hackney’s Seafood restaurant in Atlantic City on behalf of two black delegates refused admittance and files false-arrest charges against the police department which arrested protesting union picketers.

1947 After 11 bias suits against Bullock’s department store in Los Angeles fail to alter the store’s discrimination policy, CORE initiates sit-ins in the store’s tea room. Several white bystanders join the protest by informing waitresses they will wait to be served after the black patrons.

1951 Long-time civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell (pictured), in her late 80s and using a cane, joins picketers in front of Washington DC’s Hecht’s department store, which does not permit its many black customers to use its cafeteria. The store changes its policy in 1952.

1958 Dime store lunch counters are integrated in Louisville KY after unpublicized sit-ins, but other restaurants continue to refuse to serve blacks.

1960 Martin Luther King is among the 51 protesters arrested at the famed Magnolia Room at Rich’s Department store in Atlanta. A few months later the store changes its policy.

1964 As passage of the bill nears in the House, Ku Klux Klan members sit-in at a Krystal Hamburger stand in Atlanta to prevent SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) members from occupying it.

Read more about discrimination in American restaurants.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Taste of a decade: 1890s restaurants

1893NYCAs the decade starts there are over 19,000 restaurant keepers, a number overshadowed by more than 71,000 saloon keepers, many of whom also serve food for free or at nominal cost. The institution of the “free lunch” has become so well entrenched that an industry develops to supply saloons with prepared food. As big cities grow, the number of restaurants swells, with most located in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts, and the Midwest where young single workers live in rooming houses that do not provide meals. Southern states and the thinly populated West, apart from California, have few restaurants.

Cheap restaurants such as lunch counters, lunch wagons, and ethnic cafés are the leading types, buoyed by the heavy immigration of Southern Europeans, particularly Southern Italians. Chinese restaurants become more common in the East. More unescorted women patronize restaurants, particularly in downtown shopping districts and around office buildings where they work. Bigotry increases and, despite civil rights laws, Afro-Americans face greater rejection by restaurants.

An economic panic in 1893 sends the country into a severe four-year-long Depression. Self-service lunchrooms which operate on the honor system begin to notice that one out of every ten patrons shaves their check. Interest grows in an “automat” from Germany in which food is not accessible until money is deposited in a slot. Rumors spread that one will debut in St. Louis and another in Philadelphia.

1893LadyinRedNear the decade’s end, the “Gay 90s” commence and those who are able and so inclined pursue the good life, which increasingly includes going to restaurants for the evening. It is still considered somewhat disreputable to do this, so some people go out to dinner only when visiting another city.

Highlights

1891 The Vienna Bakery restaurant of Los Angeles creates a stir when it advertises that it never serves “come backs” (food left on other people’s plates). “When a meal is served its remains are thrown away,” it insists. The following week it reaffirms the claim and further boasts, “No Chinaman Handles any of the food cooked at THE VIENNA.”

1893 Chicago is full of horse-drawn lunch wagons which cluster around railroad depots and the entrances to Jackson Park to take advantage of the crowds attending the World’s Columbian Exposition.

delmonicobdwy5th26th921893 A drunken man fires five shots into Delmonico’s in New York City (5th Ave. and 26th St., pictured), later declaring he believes in equality among the classes and wanted to “give the rich people I saw in there enjoying themselves a good scare.”

1894 The Maverick Restaurant opens in Golden, Colorado, for the express purpose of serving 5-cent meals to the vast army of unemployed men who earn credit to pay for the meal of meat, potatoes, and a vegetable by cutting and stacking wood. Unlimited amounts of bread are included but no butter.

1894 In Chicago, jobless men are thankful for free food that saloons provide with the purchase of a beer. One declares, “This free lunch is all that keeps me alive. I have been out of work for three months…. Five cents now buys me a meal and another nickel goes for lodging. That is what I live on and I consider myself lucky.”

Marston's3501895 Competition from cafés and restaurants in Massachusetts has just about wiped out the old boarding houses where renters had all their meals supplied. One reason is that people prefer restaurants because they get to choose what and when they eat. – Boston’s Marston restaurant, established by sea captain Russell Marston in the 1840s, opens a women’s lunch room on Hanover Street.

1896 With the passage of the Raines Law, which permits only hotels to sell liquor on Sunday (the busiest day for many restaurants), some New York restaurants begin to permit prostitutes to ply their trade in upstairs rooms which they have furnished with beds to qualify as hotels. The Maryland Kitchen on 34th Street, known for Southern cooking, and Gonfarone’s Italian restaurant in the Village are two of the many which take this route.

1897 In Michigan and Indiana bills are introduced in the legislature to outlaw French on menus. The Michigan bill is introduced by a legislator who had an embarrassing experience in a Chicago restaurant. Unable to figure out a menu, he ended up with two bowls of soup and some toothpicks.

1897 In the midst of the bicycling craze, two debutantes open a pink and white tea room serving lettuce sandwiches and café frappé to cyclists in Greenwich CT. Meanwhile a black cyclist who stops at Chicago’s Old Vienna café on Cottage Grove orders a lunch that never arrives. When he presses the manager, he is told, “You ought to know we don’t serve n*****s here.”

1898 During the war between the United States and Spain, public opinion against Spain whipped up by “yellow” (nationalist, sensationalist) journalism causes some restaurant keepers to rename “Spanish omelets.” Instead they are listed on menus as “tomato omelets.”

1899 A Chicago newspaper runs a story with a headline that reads: “Swell Gothamites Now Dine in Cafes. Members of New York’s Smart Set, with Some Exceptions, Have Adopted a Bohemian Fad Inaugurated in Paris and London. Society People Now Court Publicity and Love to Exhibit Their Marvelous Toilets [clothes] for the Admiration of the Vulgar. It Is Predicted That This Innovation, of Questionable Taste, Will Spread to Chicago.”

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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A footnote on pepper and un-hospitality

I should make it clear that when I write about “Americans” historically I mean “white Americans.” Although generally the application of pepper to the diner’s food suggests hospitality — this is true only in certain circumstances. In the 1920s — and no doubt much later as well — black Americans often experienced unwanted pepper (and salt) in their food and drink in restaurants. Something about a well-peppered glass of milk or a plate lunch white with salt sent an unsubtle message: Don’t Come Back.

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