Tag Archives: self-service

Bumbling through the cafeteria line

In 1931 the American humor magazine Life (not to be confused with the later photojournalism magazine of the same name) published “The Cafeteria,” an essay that described an inexperienced patron’s befuddlement in composing a meal item by item while being propelled forward by an ever-moving line. (The illustration by W. E. Hill is also from 1931.)

The essay, from which I have selected sentences to shape into a “poem” similar to Charles Green Shaw’s The Bohemian Dinner, was written by John C. Emery. It’s likely that at the time he wrote about his cafeteria experience he was a 27-year old editor with Railway Age, a trade journal located in Chicago. Chicago, it happens, was a city with plenty of cafeterias. In its early stages cafeterias were identified with women while men were notoriously resistant to them.

Turns out Mr. Emery had an interesting biography. As a naval commander during World War II, he was in charge of expediting air cargo. Following the war he founded Emery Air Freight, which began as a freight forwarder that leased space on existing airlines and grew into a major corporation. Alas, I know nothing about his further adventures in eating out, but I doubt he continued to go to cafeterias.

The Cafeteria
The trays.
The cutlery.
The selection of a knife, a fork and two spoons.
The selection of two pieces of bread and a roll.
The after-thought selection of another roll.
The sudden realization that you have a lot of bread.
The hesitancy to put any of it back, under the eagle eye of a waitress.
The great variety of salads.
The quick selection of one kind.
The immediate regret that you did not take another kind instead.
The inclination to make a change.
The nudge of a tray in the hands of a woman in line behind you.
The decision to move along.
The bowl of soup.
The meat order.
The potatoes.
The string beans.
The beets.
The realization that your tray is getting pretty full …
The decision to forego dessert.
The tempting pies.
The urgent desire for a piece of pie.
The selection of a piece of pie.
The difficulty of finding space for it on your tray.
The check, amounting to $1.32.*
The vast surprise.
The realization for the first time that you have enough food for about three hungry men.
The search for a table.
The unloading of your tray.
The vast array of dishes.
The growing conviction that other patrons are laughing at you.
The discovery that you forgot to take a napkin.
The consumption of every bit of food before you.
The gorged feeling.
The sluggish return to the office.
The surreptitious nap.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

* Equal to about $18.90 in 2010 dollars, probably about double what he usually paid for lunch.

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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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