Carhops in fact and fiction

The word “carhop” is almost certain to bring to mind a teenage girl dressed in a brief costume, possibly on roller skates. Ever since the George Lucas movie American Graffiti in 1973, the female carhop has become an icon. She is an object of nostalgia, even for those too young to have experienced drive-ins with carhops.

It’s not certain when she appeared on the scene. Curb service, usually for soda fountains in pharmacies, goes back to the turn of the 20th century. Usually boys were hired to rush orders while the driver of a car, or horse-drawn wagon, waited impatiently along the curb in front. In the 1920s Pig Stands selling sodas and sandwiches in Texas offered the same service. The Hot Shoppes also came along in the 1920s. In 1931 they advertised in Washington, D.C. for “girls for tray service.” In 1933 a Miami Beach drive-in looked for an “attractive curb waitress.”

By the late 1930s teenage girls and young [white] women (25 at the very oldest) were commonplace in Texas and California drive-ins and were the subject of quite a bit of turmoil. They worked long hours, often until late at night. In many cases, they not only delivered sandwiches to customers, but also beer, sometimes working for drive-ins that were more tavern than restaurant.

Issues surrounding female carhops came to a head in Texas and California in 1940. In January California’s chief of the Division of Industrial Welfare ordered 30 drive-ins to pay carhops the state’s legal minimum wage for women which was $16 a week. The drive-ins reacted negatively, being accustomed to paying no wages at all – carhops worked for tips only — as well as charging carhops for uniforms and meals. The Industrial Welfare head, a woman, threatened to arrest drive-in operators who failed to comply.

Meanwhile, in Texas the press was aglow with publicity about its carhops in LIFE magazine. The magazine’s cover showed an attractive teen dressed in a drum majorette outfit with what were then considered very short shorts. Stories in the Dallas press about carhops at that time were flippant, like one about the couple thrown out of a surrey. The sheriff, the story related, said “the horse probably had shied at the girl carhops in shorts who are employed at a near-by beer tavern.”

 

Although the drive-in featured in LIFE was in Houston, I wonder if all the publicity generated by that story was responsible for the blossoming movement of Dallas women who objected to carhops dressed in “scanties.” One letter-to-the-editor charged that if drive-in owners had to rely on “cheap chorus comedy cavortings” then the carhops “should be paid show house wages.” But when another letter writer suggested male carhops should also be dressed in short shorts and boots, the drive-in burlesque heated up as a few roadside places complied, attracting mobs of women. [illustration shows carhop interview]

Over time the campaign for modest dress for carhops met with more success than did the attempts to win wages for California carhops, or to unionize carhops in Dallas. In Texas, the state Restaurant Association denounced skimpy outfits and declared bare skin a violation of the state’s sanitary laws. The public, led by women and church leaders, grew more supportive of reform. With drive-ins in Houston and Dallas, one of the state’s largest operators, Sivils, agreed in 1942 to abandon shorts and bare midriffs for knee-length skirts and waist-long jackets. Other drive-ins followed their example, many dressing carhops in blouses and slacks. Meanwhile, drive-in owners in California went to court for a permanent injunction against the minimum wage order issued by the Industrial Welfare Commission. A judge ruled in their favor after they brought in more than a dozen carhops who testified they made from $25 to $70 a night in tips. A campaign to organize carhops at Sivils in Dallas likewise met defeat. Although the carhops voted for unionization, demanding a salary of $3 a week, a daily meal, and free uniforms, Sivils flatly rejected their vote.

In the course of the struggles new facts about carhops emerged. Far from carefree many of them were parents who, even if married, needed to work to support their families. A bitter letter testifying to this appeared in May, 1940, signed “two former carhops.” The women wrote that carhops dressed in shorts and grass skirts “are at least coming nearer to making a living wage than at any other time of their existence” while the women who complained about their outfits did not have to work for a living. They argued that without big tips, some carhops would become streetwalkers.

Big tips or not, serving customers in cars could be a trying experience, and the turnover rate among carhops was high, with many lasting only a few weeks. A 1957 column in Drive-In Restaurant, a trade magazine, revealed how carhops characterized customers: The Food Refuser, The Horn Blower, The Souvenir Seeker, the Breakage Fiends, The Deadbeats, The Wolves. As the last implies, attention from men was not always enjoyable, and sometimes it was dangerously hostile. In 1953, there was an instance of boys driving by a drive-in pelting girl carhops with gravel in Sacramento CA. A few carhops even met their deaths from obsessed customers.

By the mid-1950s, some drive-ins looked for ways to speed up service with automated ordering, usually from intercoms mounted on poles. Carhops’ only job then was to deliver food. Other drive-ins eliminated car service entirely, requiring customers to walk up to a window to order their food and carry it back to their car. When Ray Kroc took over the McDonald brothers’ drive-ins, he continued their practice of walk-up service. In the late 1950s Kroc reportedly attributed his company’s expansion to “no tipping, no jukebox, and no carhops.”

Although drive-ins with carhops can still be found today in some places, elegies for them began in the 1970s, American Graffiti being a prime example. Carhop fiction is more entertaining, but recognizing the difficulties carhops experienced in doing their jobs is, in my opinion, a better way to acknowledge them.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Finds of the day: two taverns

Steuben Taverns

Two small finds on a cold, rainy day at the Brimfield flea market. Both are from the 1930s, both are taverns, and both conjure up bygone days. But beyond that, the two – one representing a chain of German-themed restaurants and the other a small-town tea room – have little in common.

Steuben Taverns was a chain of pseudo-Bavarian restaurants located in big cities. The first, on 47th Street, was opened in New York City in 1930 and was the longest survivor of the moderate-priced chain, staying in business until 1971 [the postcard of the interior below is probably of the 47th Street place]. At its peak the chain had about a dozen restaurants, mainly in NYC but also in Newark, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

The business encountered a few bumps along the road. Opening a huge, block-long unit in Times Square in 1934 proved difficult, dragging out to 14 months, because the restaurant was located over the Times Square subway station, which had to be redesigned. Despite selling a lot of beer (Prohibition had just ended) and seating 800 customers, the Times Square Steuben Tavern failed just five years later.

Meanwhile the chain suffered more grief in 1936 during a mobster shakedown that affected a number of high-profile NYC restaurants. As a chain the Taverns allegedly paid a particularly high sum – $17,000 – to ensure that the racket leaders did not carry out their threats to send “union” picketers or set off stench bombs.

Strangely, given its German theme, the Steuben Tavern in Newark evidently entertained many Jewish patrons in the 1930s. On September 14, 1934, with the Nazis in power in Germany, the restaurant took out an advertisement in Newark’s Jewish Chronicle wishing its patrons the best for the Jewish holidays.

White Gate Tavern

It was almost as though the White Gate Tavern was in another country altogether, one without beer, racketeers, or subway stations. It began in business in August of 1932 in the town of Ashburnham, Massachusetts, in a 100-year-old house formerly occupied by a Latin teacher at the town’s private school, Cushing Academy.

Its proprietors were two unmarried middle-aged women, both of whom had worked for the Y.W.C.A. at one point. Ida J. Lyon was from Connecticut and, as a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a bona-fide Yankee. Her partner, Helen G. Cowell, was the daughter of the late but long-time principal of Cushing Academy.

The two women set about having the house remodeled for use as a guest house and tea room. They installed a modern kitchen with electric refrigeration, a convenience undoubtedly not enjoyed by many of the townspeople at that time. They emphasized the house’s old-fashioned Colonial features as they were considered “homey” by their prospective patrons. The dining rooms were decorated in a green and yellow color scheme that was carried over to the dishes and glassware. In 1932 – in the depths of the Depression – they offered special Sunday dinners for $1.00 and $1.50. (By comparison the Steuben Taverns advertised their “famous” 55-cent dinners on the business card from about the same time.)

In the next few years, further improvements were made to the White Gate Tavern. A yarn shop where knitting lessons were given was opened in a finished room in a barn adjoining the house. In 1935 the interior of the house was renovated and the kitchen was enlarged. A so-called Peasant Tea Room was opened in the barn, along with a “Sunbeam Shop,” a gift shop with crafts made by villagers.

The White Gate Tavern probably closed in the late 1930s. I could find no trace of it after 1937 — the local newspaper carried no further notices of its annual opening for the season or the usual lists of guests who stayed there.

The house is still standing and from the outside likely looks much like it did in the 1930s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Dining with a disability

Throughout the 20th century the number of mobility-impaired Americans grew – due to medical advances, lengthening lifespans, polio epidemics, wars, and rising rates of automobile accidents. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the problem of physical barriers confronting those using wheelchairs, braces, canes, and walkers, began to get attention, largely as a result of activism by the disabled.

At first the focus was on public buildings, but it soon expanded to include commercial sites such as restaurants. One of the early efforts to ease a path was the publication of a 1961 Detroit guide book that devoted several pages to describing features of two dozen popular restaurants that were at least minimally accessible. For instance The Village Manor in suburban Grosse Pointe had a street-level front entrance and a ramp in back as well as main floor restrooms outfitted with grab bars. But several of the restaurants listed had steps at entrances, narrow doorways, restrooms too small to maneuver a wheelchair, and tables too low for wheelchair seating.

In 1962 the National Society for Crippled Children and Adults (NSCCA, an organization that had added “Adults” to its name during WWII) joined with the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped (established in 1947) to launch a nationwide movement to change architectural standards and building codes so as to remove barriers affecting people with mobility limitations. This marked a new attitude acknowledging that handicapped people wanted to “do more things and go more places” but were blocked by the built environment. It was becoming apparent, reported one newspaper, that those “who were no longer ‘shut-ins’ were ‘shut-outs.’”

In 1963 the NSCCA began sponsoring surveys of public and private buildings which included restaurants. In various cities local volunteers equipped with measuring tapes compiled records of buildings concerning the width of doorways, number of steps, presence of ramps and elevators, and placement and design of restroom facilities. Meanwhile, in New Jersey the Garden State Parkway altered its restaurants and restrooms for disabled travelers.

Overall, though, there was very little action. The surveys showed that accessibility in the United States – not only in restaurants, but in schools, court houses, hospitals, churches, and all kinds of businesses – was rare. A survey of Oklahoma in 1968 revealed that only 32 of the first 2,144 public facilities checked were fully accessible to anyone operating their own wheelchair, while 60% were entirely inaccessible. In Oklahoma City, the state’s capitol, only one of the 20 restaurants surveyed at that point could accommodate a wheelchair user.

1968 was the year when official recognition of the problems presented by architectural barriers was achieved with the passage of a federal law that decreed that any building constructed even partly with federal funds had to be barrier-free. Although restaurants remained unaffected by the law, it was significant for demonstrating a growing recognition that accessibility problems arose from the environment as much as from the disabilities of individuals. It would, however, take another 22 years, with passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, before serious attention was given to eliminating obstacles in all kinds of public facilities.

Despite a common (and illogical) attitude held by numerous restaurant owners that there was no need to make their restaurants accessible since disabled people did not frequent them, there were a few owners who voluntarily removed barriers before the ADA passed. When the owner of the Kitchen Kettle in Portland OR remodeled in 1974 he built an entrance ramp and a low lunch counter. In Omaha, Grandmother’s Skillet, co-owned by Bob Kerrey who had lost a leg in the Vietnam war (and later became governor of Nebraska and a U.S. senator), had a restaurant designed in 1976 that could be used by anyone in a wheelchair or on crutches. In California, a builder constructed accessible homes as well as fast food restaurants with ramps and restroom grab bars in the mid-1970s.

In the 1980s it became a fairly common practice for restaurant reviewers to note whether an eating place accessible or, more likely, not. Most of America remained inaccessible. As irony would have it, that included much of Future World at Disney’s Epcot Center. Several fast food cafes there required patrons to get into a line formed by bars that were spaced too narrowly for wheelchairs. Even more depressing were the ugly letters advice columnist Ann Landers received in 1986 after she defended the rights of a handicapped woman to patronize restaurants. “Would you believe there are many handicapped people who take great pleasure in flaunting their disability so they can make able-bodied people feel guilty?” wrote one reader.

Passage of the ADA was a big step forward, but it didn’t work miracles. Even in the late 1990s it took enforcement activity from the U.S. Justice Department to get some restaurants to comply. Friendly’s, a family restaurant chain, was fined and compelled to alter entrances, widen vestibules, and lower counters, among other changes. Wendy’s settled out of court and agreed to remove or widen zigzag lanes at their counters.

Although many restaurants have gone to great lengths to guarantee accessibility, problems remain. Even when a restaurant is in compliance, there’s a good chance that disabled patrons will have an uncomfortable experience. This was detailed beautifully in a 2007 NYT story by Frank Bruni titled “When Accessibility Isn’t Hospitality.” His dining companion Jill Abramson, then editor of the paper and using a wheelchair following an accident, found that even luxury restaurants could present dismal challenges to patrons with mobility limitations.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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The history of the restaurant of the future

Starting in the early 20th century, most futuristic thinking about restaurants involved technological inventions. Many envisioned replacing waiters with mechanical devices that would send orders straight to the kitchen, then deliver the food to customers. Others foresaw the day that electricity could be used in restaurant kitchens to power every kind of tool for peeling, slicing, heating, etc.

In the teens, in fact, major hotels installed pneumatic tube systems that swooshed restaurant orders from guests in bedrooms and dining rooms to hotel service pantries. [1916 image]

The arrival of electronics with the end of World War II inspired dreams of near-instant cooking, and led to imagined scenarios in which waitresses shouted directions to the kitchen meant to produce a soft-boiled egg and crisp bacon: “One egg, hundred and thirty megacycles, six seconds – bacon, two hundred and forty megs, eleven seconds.”

The late 1950s, perhaps a wackier decade than it is usually portrayed, brought forth two curious predictions. Don Roth of Chicago’s Blackhawk Restaurant probably gave his prediction as a publicity stunt when he suggested that in the future gourmet meals by famous chefs would arrive by rocket ship from all over the world. Arrive, that is, after diners ordered via 3-D television on which they watched a chef prepare it. A columnist writing “Astro-Guide” under the name “Ceean” predicted that restaurants patronized by advertising and television executives would soon be equipped with table jacks permitting portable TVs and earphones to be used to monitor programs during lunch.

Watching a little screen at your restaurant table while eating? What a silly idea.

Still, in one way or another, most of the predictions eventually came true. Of course it helped if a prediction was made when the trend was already well underway. It wasn’t too daring in 1969 to predict that chains and franchising would grow. On the other hand, the same analysts considered the possibility that as people ate out more, future restaurants might offer special pricing for anyone who planned to eat five or more dinners a month at the same place. They did not seem to know that as far back as the 1870s it had been commonplace for restaurants to sell discounted weekly meal tickets.

Also in the 1960s, food scientists and industry gurus dreamed of frozen pre-prepared meals that needed only to be heated and served. That happened too.

The 1960s also produced a semblance of futuristic dining at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, at the gas industry’s Pavilion Restaurant [shown above], and at Disney’s Tomorrowland [shown here, 1967]. It was heralded as “Tomorrowland Terrace – A restaurant of the future where excellent food and entertainment are served daily. Presented by COCA-COLA.” The Pavilion Restaurant had walls of blown air, while the futuristic aspects of Tomorrowland Terrace escape me. Later TT was remodeled and renamed Club Buzz, and then in 2006 was semi-restored and once again became Tomorrowland Terrace.

A hospitality management professor once told me that the restaurant industry is not interested in the past, only the future. That attitude can produce some strange predictions, such as those of a professor of hotel management in 1976. He anticipated push button ordering with pneumatic tube delivery (turn of the century ideas, partly realized in the teens), boiling bag entrees (see 1964 image), pictorial menus (already in use by then), and scratch ‘n’ sniff menus (which, thankfully, never materialized).

In the mid-1970s, some thought that restaurants that implemented energy-conservation measures were models of restaurants of the future. In 1976 a new Jolly Tiger restaurant opened outside Albany NY, designed as a test site for energy reclamation and conservation, and monitored by the State University of New York, with funding from the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (later the Department of Energy). Given that restaurants are huge energy users, energy conservation has been recommended by the National Restaurant Association and implemented to varying degrees in some restaurants. However, as of 2013 only 38 U.S. restaurants out of a total of over 600,000 had been granted LEED certification, signifying that they had made a serious commitment to reducing energy consumption.

That future has yet to arrive.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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The food gap

Last week I spent some time doing library research, an increasingly rare activity for me in the age of digitized sources. Looking at early 1980s issues of a major restaurant trade journal I was struck by how unappetizing the food looked. The problem may have been partly due to poor photography but it was also due to the way food was presented, including how it was discussed. My reaction was so strong that I began to wonder briefly why I had ever been attracted to eating in restaurants.

It wasn’t the first time I experienced distancing from how restaurant trade magazines approach food. It has often seemed to me that there is a deep gulf separating how home cooks think about food as compared to how the restaurant industry – as reflected in trade journalism – does.

Here’s an example. What do you see in the image above of an excessively grill-marked steak accompanied by geometrically arranged onion rings and a yellowy triangle of Texas toast? The photo was part of an advertisement for portion-controlled steaks, accompanied by the text below. I have italicized the words that I find bizarre and alienating.

“Our luscious Longhorn shown above is a mildly marinated USDA Choice steak that provides consistently plump plate coverage at a slim cost. Like our Black Diamond, Sunset Strip and Steak for 2, it offers minimal cooking shrinkage, no waste and is highly merchandiseable as a steak you’ll proudly call your own.”

Nice silverware though.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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All the salad you can eat

The salad bar most likely developed from the Americanized version of the smorgasbord which, by the 1950s, had shed its Swedish overtones and turned into an all-you-can-eat buffet. The smorg concept lingered on for a while in the form of salad “tables” holding appetizers and a half dozen or so complete salads typically anchored by three-bean, macaroni, and gelatin. Eventually someone came up with the idea of simply providing components in accordance with the classic three-part American salad which structurally resembles the ice cream sundae: (1) a base, smothered with (2) a generous pouring of sauce, and finished with (3) abundant garnishes. Or, as a restaurant reviewer summarized it in the 1980s, “herbage, lubricant and crunchies.”

Whatever its origins, the salad bar as we know it – with its hallmark cherry tomatoes, bacon bits, and crocks full of raspberry and ranch dressings — became a restaurant fixture in the 1970s. Introduced as a novelty to convey hospitable “horn-of-plenty” abundance and to mollify guests waiting for their meat, it became so commonplace that the real novelty was a restaurant without one. Though strongly associated with steakhouses, particularly inexpensive chains, salad bars infiltrated restaurants of all sorts except, perhaps, for those at the pinnacle of fine dining. Salad bars were positively unstoppable at the Joshua Trees, the Beef ’n Barrels, and the Victoria Stations, some of which cunningly staged their salad fixings on vintage baggage carts, barrels, and the like.

Although industry consultants advised that a salad bar using pre-prepared items could increase sales while eliminating a pantry worker, restaurant managers often found that maintaining a salad setup was actually a full-time task. Tomatoes and garbanzos had a tendency to roll across the floor, dressings splashed onto clear plastic sneeze-guards, and croutons inevitably fell into the olde-tyme soup kettle.

The hygienic sneeze-guard came into use after World War II, first in schools and hospital cafeterias. Although a version of it had made its appearance in commercial restaurants in the early 20th century with the growth of cafeterias, many restaurants served food buffet style into the 1950s and 1960s without using any kind of barrier. The Minneapolis Board of Health required that uncovered smorgasbords either install sneeze-guards or close down in 1952, but it seems that their use did not become commonplace nationwide until the 1970s. Eklund’s Sweden House in Rockford IL thought it was novel enough to specifically mention in an advertisement in 1967. Massachusetts ordered them to be used in restaurants with buffets or salad bars in 1975.

On the whole salad bars went over well with the public – and still do — but by the late 1970s professional restaurant critics were finding it hard to hide their disdain. Judging them mediocre, some blamed customers who were gullible enough to believe they were getting a bargain. Others were wistful, such as the forbearing reviewer in Columbia, Missouri, who confessed, “It would be a nice change to get something besides a tossed make-it-yourself salad, and to have it brought to the table.” The trend at the Missouri college town’s restaurants, however, was in the opposite direction. In the 1980s Faddenhappi’s and Katy Station ramped up competition by offering premium salad makings such as almonds and broccoli while Western Sizzlin’ Steaks pioneered a potato bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Find of the day, almost

Over the weekend I went to Brimfield to see what the postcard dealers had to offer. As usual I was determined to come home with a “find.” But, no. The card that I thought might qualify turns out to be that of a tourist café in Montmartre that is enmeshed in dubious lore and still in business today just down the street from a Starbucks.

The Mère Catherine [Mother Catherine] looks so unpretentious on the ca. 1950s postcard that I wanted to believe it was a relatively unknown little café. I doubted I could learn much about it through research. However, instead I found many stories, most of them glorified puff pieces starting in the late 1920s.

The stories I rounded up are full of contradictions. Mère Catherine was established either in 1793 or in the 1830s. Mère Catherine herself was either the restaurant’s founder in 1793 and died in 1844 or she was the owner in 1939.

As I continued to search for Mère Catherine’s history the more confused I became. It appears that for much of its history Mère Catherine was more of a drinking place than the eating place it became in the 20th century. One article said it hosted impoverished singers who were allowed to bring food there to eat.

An image of the restaurant from 1897 shows the name then as Maison Catherine Lamothe. Might its founder have been the same Catherine La Mothe who was born in 1766 in Bourges, France? Or was there ever an actual Catherine Lamothe at all? An 1897 publication about Montmartre’s history suggested that Catherine and Lamothe were two different women, both wine merchants on Rue du Tertre once upon a time. After I read that I started to think I could make out a nearly invisible hyphen between the two names on the sign shown on the ca. 1897 photograph above. But maybe I was seeing things.

A brief mention of the restaurant at the end of the 19th century described it as an “ancient”, low-ceilinged cabaret that was popular with artists. The same paragraph reported that Mère Catherine left the business to her son who then sold it to someone else. At one point it was owned by a man nicknamed “Gros Guillaume.” In the late 1920s, when it was first publicized by newspaper columnists in the U.S., it was known as Chez Lemoine, and was popular for its billiards tables. [image] During the German occupation of World War II and into the 1960s it was owned by people named Meriguet.

The restaurant appeared in a 1928 Swedish film by the name of “Sin” (Synd), directed by Gustaf Molander who also directed Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo. The two movies have remarkably similar plots. In Sin, Mère Catherine is living in the 1920s and running a Montmartre restaurant with the same checkered tablecloths as are visible in my newly acquired postcard. She tries to prevent a young playwright with a wife and daughter from falling for a femme fatale who seduces him while she is starring in his play. [see above]

In the end, I am skeptical of the legend of Mère Catherine, but don’t know what the real story is either.

At least I have one small consolation. The postcard I bought at Brimfield for $2 is being offered on e-Bay for 79 Euros ($86.80). But I’ll be surprised if it gets a bid at that price.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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