Speed eating

Since the early 19th century, observers have commented on how fast Americans eat. Visitors from other countries were especially apt to notice the speed with which people, particularly men, gulped down their food and hurried away from the table as quickly as possible.

In the 1843 book Men and Manners in America, the author observed that “all was hurry, bustle, clamor, and voracity, and the business of repletion went forward with a rapidity altogether unexampled.” He described how at breakfast he had barely arrived at the communal table as others were rushing off, leaving behind a terrific mess of chicken bones, an upset mustard pot, and a tablecloth with egg, coffee, and gravy stains. Dinner was no better: “the same scene of gulping and swallowing, as if for a wager.” Many of his fellow diners left the dining room before the second course and few waited for dessert.

His observations were ratified by many others, continuing throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. New York’s inexpensive “slam-bang” places with counters were especially noted for their customers’ speed of eating. Viewed from the back, wrote an essayist in 1865, a row of 30 men with heads bent down and elbows moving rapidly looked as though they were weaving or fiddling. They finished in about 8 minutes.

A Scribner’s story in 1874 described the typical American restaurant as a place where men “do not eat – they feed,” without even removing their hats. It reported that the average mid-day “dinner” time lasted 6 minutes and 45 seconds. At New York’s Astor House of the 1880s – scarcely a low-class eatery – many of the male customers ate standing up at a counter, a practice that was by no means rare. A visiting French economist attributed the popularity of 5-minute counter lunches in saloons to the wish not to interfere with business — a convenience “that does not cut the day in two.” Or, as another writer put it in 1895, “The ammunition is put in, with a wad of dessert on top, and in ten minutes the man who is going to be a millionaire in less than ten years is back at his desk, loaded and pointed at his work . . .”

By the late 1890s, women had also become speed eaters, “stopping in restaurants when shopping and being in such a hurry that they don’t care what they eat and do not even remove hats and coats.” The so-called “new woman” was ready to sit at lunch counters “like a man and eat her pie and drink her coffee in a hurly-burly.”

The late 19th century also witnessed the development and spread of new restaurant types organized around speed – the cafeteria, the automatic restaurant, and the quick lunch, all of which were based on the abolition of table service. They also did away with the much-hated custom of tipping that was widely viewed as a foreign importation from old and dying Europe.

Through the 20th century speediness was made into a science, increasingly applying not only to how fast customers ate, but how quickly food could be prepared, how quickly customers could be presented with food, and how they could be induced to leave as soon as possible. The hot noontime “dinner” gave way to the sandwich lunch. The number of menu choices was reduced. Chains developed that produced food in central commissaries, doing away with the need for full-scale restaurant kitchens. Cafeterias discovered they could speed up the serving line by wrapping silverware in a napkin. Uncomfortable seating could be designed to stop patrons from lingering.

After the second World War, in which the military had developed rapid methods of feeding troops, speed-up technology advanced in restaurants. A California drive-in had machines that could mold 800 hamburger patties per hour and slice 1,000 buns in the same time. In 1956 an automatic broiler was advertised to drive-ins that broiled approximately 300 burgers an hour. The franchise system began to spread quickly to drive-in eateries across the country, but now without curb service because it was much too slow even if carhops wore roller skates. Even table-service restaurants, catering to the relatively leisurely dinner crowd which was on the increase in the 1960s, improved their speed with frozen foods, boiling bags, and microwave ovens.

By 1965, more than 70% of the more than 378,000 commercial eating places in this country were quick-service restaurants, according to a marketing research study.

No one comments about Americans eating fast anymore. It has become normal.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Top posts in 2020

It’s been a year! Bad for restaurants but good for restaurant history. I’m disturbed by the number of restaurants that became history this year and the many that are barely hanging on. It’s great that my blog has fared well but I’d rather see good fortunes shared.

The top post was a controversial one: Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. I focused on its troubled relation to race, which many readers disputed, arguing that the Black staff loved working there. Others ignored the post’s theme and just commented on the restaurant’s fried chicken.

The second most popular post was about Wolfie’s, in Miami. Since I published this post in March of 2011, it has consistently drawn large numbers of readers, becoming the all-time #1 post about an individual restaurant.

Other starring restaurants that drew many readers were (in this order): Schrafft’s, The Bakery, The Bird Cage, Miss Hulling’s Cafeteria, Toddle House, The Pyramid, and The Silver Grille. Note that two were in department stores: the Bird Cage in the newly-closed Lord & Taylor, and the Silver Grille in Higbee’s.

The number three post was Taste of a decade: 1970s restaurants. That was the decade in which many small chef-owned restaurants came along, introducing more adventurous menus and moving away from the post-war favorites, steak and baked (potatoes).

Most surprising to me was the number of clicks on Sawdust on the Floor, a post not focused on an individual restaurant, so not a fan page. This made me happy because I actually prefer researching and writing posts on trends and characteristics of restaurants.

Another surprise in 2020 was the increased number of appreciative comments — and especially emails — that I received from readers who took the time to write. Despite the contentiousness and divisiveness on display this year, I am also struck by how many people have gone out of their way to be kind and thoughtful.

Finally, I’m remembering what a friend said to me when I began this blog in 2008: Won’t you run out of things to write about? No, my list of ideas is longer than ever.

Meanwhile, wishing you all the best for 2021!

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Holiday greetings from 11th Heaven

A while back I found two small Christmas cards from the 11th Heaven Tea Room, run by Ella Roberts.

The name was evidently inspired by the tea room’s location on the 11th floor of the Browning Building, an oddly narrow building for its height, located in the Chicago Loop. The building, designed in “Moorish Gothic” style by architect Harry S. Wheelock, was constructed in 1899 and razed in 1990.

I have been able to find out almost nothing about the tea room or its owner, who had an unfortunately (for me) common name. In April of 1931 she ran three brief newspaper advertisements in the classified section saying, “Home cooked dinner, 50c; hours 10 to 4. Phone Dearborn 2673.”.

How long did she stay in business? Was her tea room a victim of the Depression? Was the 11th floor a curse, despite the building’s four elevators?

Regardless, I echo Ella’s messages: may the world treat you right, have a gorgeous appetite, and call again.

Addendum:

Thanks to Gary Allen, author, food blogger, and researcher extraordinaire, I now know more about the proprietor of Chicago’s 11th Heaven Tea Room.

Ella M. Roberts was a hard-working, seasoned businesswoman who had owned her own grocery store as far back as 1910. Her first husband had been a confectioner and it’s possible she had worked with him. By 1910 she was divorced; she remarried and in later censuses she was described as widowed. In 1920 she was still running the delicatessen, i.e., grocery. By 1930, at age 71, her occupation was listed as tea room proprietor, but no longer in the 1940 census. She lived to be 96.

Following on Gary’s research I learned that Ella’s three children were stage actors in the early century. In 1912 her daughter Maude Le Page created quite a stir and became a minor celebrity when she stood up in the balcony of a Chicago theater and loudly proclaimed that she would sell herself to a man for $1,000 so that she could escape working in a deli (!) and publish her poetry. She then enjoyed a whirl as a newspaper columnist writing on the hard life of working girls, explaining why they liked cheap thrills and frills, why they should be paid better, and why they were tempted to trade sex for money. In 1930 she lived with her mother and worked as a hand letterer for a card company. I have to wonder if she designed her mother’s Christmas cards.

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Dining with “Us Mortals”

From 1917 until 1955, W. E. Hill (William Ely Hill) created weekly panels of cartoons for newspapers under the overarching title “Among Us Mortals.” They featured ordinary people going about their business in public settings – always in ways that revealed their foibles. Clearly he was a sharp observer of people who possessed a wry sense of humor. His project – a “romance of the commonplace” – has been compared to that of Charles Dickens. I began “collecting” his images when I noticed that his observations often took place in restaurants.

Summer People, 1937

The Age of Hurry, 1939

Quick Lunches, 1941

Summer Tea Room, 1946

A Waiter’s Headaches, 1955

Where They Lunch, 1955

Where They Lunch, 1955

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Your favorite restaurant?

What was your favorite restaurant of the past? One that is no longer around, but that you think of all the time with fond memories. And what was it about it that you especially liked? The food, the atmosphere, the staff – or maybe all of those. Tell us all about it, including where it was and give a rough idea of when you used to patronize it.

One of my favorites was Duff’s in St. Louis’ Central West End. Oddly, I have no memories of what I ate there at all, though I know I was happy with their menu. What I liked about it was that it represented a new trend in eating places in St. Louis, occurring in the 1970s. (It opened in 1972 and closed in 2013.) The new breed – also represented by others in the Central West End and University City — were at least somewhat more adventurous with their cuisine, but the big difference was their laid-back, offbeat “vibe.” At Duff’s this was due in large part to the mismatched tables, chairs, dishware, silverware — just about everything. It was friendly but not in an invasive, scripted way. A great place to meet friends for lunch.

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Ceilings on display

Most people wouldn’t think of ceiling treatments as significant elements of restaurant decor, but they have been in many cases, as I have touched upon in an earlier post. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, fancy restaurants borrowed palatial European ceiling treatments with molded plaster ovals and rectangles framing paintings of classical scenes.

Such ceilings were, of course, in the minority. Most restaurants kept it simple with plain wood, plaster, or acoustic tile. A common treatment was to expose part of the building’s structure, its ceiling beams. Over time, of course, most buildings were no longer constructed with wooden beams. Steel beams don’t convey quite the same thing, and are usually covered up. But, as one company that makes faux beams for restaurants writes, “A drab ceiling design can easily detract from the experience.”

This realization led some eating places to attach fake beams. Although they are meant to convey an impression of sturdiness, in at least one case that impression was tragically false. In 1993 a decorative beam that had been attached with too-short nails came loose from the ceiling in a newly opened Taco Cabana in Las Vegas. It injured 14 people and the restaurant closed.

Cover-ups. If beams are meant to reveal structure, many restaurants have tried to hide it. As I researched this topic I was surprised to discover that collapsing ceilings are not entirely rare. This led me to wonder about one of the more common types of ceiling decor, billowing swaths of cloth. Was this a simple way to hide an unsightly or crumbling ceiling? Cloth certainly lacked the elegance borrowed from European palaces with rococo relief work and frescoed scenes, but they were undoubtedly much cheaper.

Hanging things. Objects dangling from ceilings may also simply be meant to add interest. They have ranged from faux flowers (Colaizzi’s), to enormous swordfish at a Texas fish restaurant (Granger’s, Sabine Pass TX), or grids of bamboo poles with Japanese glass float balls in Polynesian themed eateries. Maxwell’s Plum featured large animals in its street-front café. But none of these suspended objects could match those at Eddie Rickenbacker’s of 1980s San Francisco where the owner suspended his collection of vintage motorcycles.

Blue skies smiling above. In the 1930s it became popular to design a dining area to look as though it was located in a courtyard of a village, open to a starry sky above. This may have been a way of dealing with windowless interiors. In Los Angeles, the Paris Inn recreated a scene with the Eiffel Tower at one end, streetfront building alcoves along the sides, with tables under a starry sky between. The Child’s chain recreated Old France in Boston in the 1930s, while Morrison’s Cafeteria in New Orleans featured a Spanish pueblo. Blue sky ceilings had staying power. At El Fenix Restaurant of Casa Linda in Dallas in the 1950s guests were invited to “Dine in the Delightful Atmosphere of Old Mexico” where a large fake palm tree rose up incongruously from a checkered linoleum floor.

Lighted glass. When it comes to lighted glass ceilings, Maxwell’s Plum springs to mind immediately, with elaborate glass ceilings in both its NYC and San Francisco locations. But neon rods in a sunburst pattern could also be striking, especially when you consider that they were part of a drive-in’s decor. Of course California drive-ins, such as Dutch Youngman’s in Monterey shown here, were often more elaborate than those in the rest of the country.

There were certain hazards with a lighted glass ceiling, as I discovered at a restaurant in St. Louis.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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The Automat goes country

What happened when Horn & Hardart went outside the densely populated city and into the countryside?

“The Automat in the Forest” was located in Sterling Forest Gardens, a 125-acre private park filled with attractions such as huge floral displays, children’s playgrounds, fountains, and a meditation garden. The enterprise, created by a NYC investment company, was a one-hour drive outside New York City.

The Gardens presented a highly-engineered version of nature achieved with imports such as 1.5M tulip bulbs and 300 robins for the grand opening in spring of 1960. (The robins arrived by plane.) There were swans, peacocks, cranes, and flamingos, while native wildlife was strongly “discouraged” from participating. There were even special “picture-taking spots” where a sample photograph was displayed along with precise instructions on how to get the same results.

At the time of the 1960 opening a wire-service story disclosed a jarring fact: “The setting is so romantic that few visitors would guess that the Union Carbide Corporation’s laboratory is constructing an atomic reactor over the nearest hill.” That did not seem to deter visitors.

Into this surreal wonderland came the Automat in 1962. That summer a promotional photo showed children feeding a deer in front of a wall of vending cubicles – which was odd since deer were forbidden in the gardens. The photo’s caption explained that the Automat was the first to be located outside a city, and described it as having redwood planks and pastel panels rather than the usual marble facing “in keeping with its surroundings.” In the postcard above, the vending wall looks oddly out of place in the high-ceilinged building and has little feel of an urban Horn & Hardart.

At the same time that the Automat moved into the Sterling Forest Gardens, Horn & Hardart’s Food Service and Management Division was advertising that it could furnish In-Plant ‘Automats for Industry’. I suspect the factory installations were very similar to the array in the Gardens.

The Automat was not the first eating place in the Garden’s International Pavilion. A 1961 postcard described the original eating place, a buffet, as “tastefully decorated in international motifs.” Nor was it the last restaurant in the Pavilion. It was there only two years, continuing in business through the 1964 season. By the 1965 Spring Festival the Automat in the Forest had been replaced by the Sterling Farms Restaurant. Later, in 1968, there was a Schrafft’s occupying the Pavilion.

Horn & Hardart also operated a second eating place in the Gardens, Peacock Patio, that had a cafeteria and barbecue. Not far from the park, it ran a Country Store where, ironically, H&H frozen prepared dishes were sold. It’s not clear how long either remained in business under Horn & Hardart’s ownership.

As might be imagined, Sterling Forest Gardens was popular with garden clubs, groups of older adults, and bus tours generally. Without doubt its most unusual guests were Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia and his wife who visited in summer 1963, one day after Tito enemies had infiltrated the Waldorf Towers where the Titos were staying in NYC. Distrustful of the city’s ability to protect him, Marshall Tito cancelled plans to attend a 1,100-person dinner at the United Nations, asking instead to visit a farm. He was taken to Sterling Forest Gardens, where he and his wife lunched at the Automat. Walking through the Automat’s cafeteria line, he chose a hamburger steak, french fries, and macaroni while she accompanied her ground meat with fries, carrots, and spinach.

After several years of slumping attendance, the Gardens closed in 1976. Later, it became a site for medieval jousting.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Maitre d’s

As the name suggests, “maitre d’hotel” (hotel master) tended to be used most often in hotels. In a large enterprise a maitre d’hotel would supervise multiple headwaiters, each of whom had charge of service in one of its multiple dining spaces. Those could include a formal dining room, a supper-room, a grill room, banquet rooms, and/or a café lounge. Over time, the positions of maitre d’hotel and headwaiter were collapsed into one, yet both terms remained in use.

The man (99.9% of the time) playing that role became the public face of a restaurant or hotel dining room. Like celebrities, he was often known by one name only. A counterpart of the chef who ruled the kitchen, he ruled the front of the house. In addition to being completely in charge of the dining room and its service, he might hire, train, and supervise the entire waitstaff as well as plan private dinners and banquets, take reservations, admit and seat guests, make recommendations and take orders, and prepare special dishes at the table.

Whether called maitre d’hotel or headwaiter, historically the person filling this role was an imposing physical figure, large, tall, and very well dressed. In this country during the 19th century the role was most often filled by a Black man, usually working in an American-plan hotel where meals were included in the cost of lodging. [L. D. Houston, shown here in 1904, worked in New York and for a time in Hong Kong where he went to escape U. S. racism.] Dressing the part was essential. During the 1930s Depression a nightclub performer in Paris entertained his audience by describing a headwaiter as “The only man in the place whose clothes fit.”

The maitre d’hotel (shortened to maitre d’ over time) or headwaiter could have a wide variety of duties depending upon the size of the dining facilities. An expensive, full-service restaurant that was French or international might have captains, waiters, wine stewards, and busboys in addition to a maitre d’. In the 20th century, a popular maitre d’, having reached the pinnacle of the waiting profession while working for someone else, might look for partners or backers and become the host of his own restaurant.

A prominent example of someone who worked his way up from waiter to owner/maitre d’ was the late Sirio Maccioni of New York’s famed Le Cirque. Other well known maitre d’s — who stayed at their posts for about 50 years each — were “Oscar” and “Hoxter.” Oscar Tschirky of the Waldorf was said to be the first to rope off a doorway, while Stansbury Hoxter of Boston’s Parker House was known for his smile and his infallible memory. [Portrait of Stansbury Hoxter courtesy of his great, great, great nephew James Bell.]

Although some maitre d’s who had immigrated from Europe arrived with hotel school training, usually the headwaiter/maitre d’ reached his position after considerable time working his way up the dining room hierarchy. He may have begun as a busboy or waiter, then advanced to captain of a group of waiters, and finally to headwaiter. Along the way he would have proved his ability to judge a guest’s social status, underwritten by his astute understanding of human behavior. It was expected that he not only remembered regular guests’ names and faces, but also knew their favorite dishes.

Although many Americans probably never encountered a maitre d’, he became a figure in popular culture. In 1927 the debonair Adolphe Mange played one in a silent-era rom-com.

While it’s true that favored guests at luxury restaurants appreciate the services of a maitre d’ who saves them “their” table, treats them with great care, and knows their likes and dislikes, many Americans have not reacted well to what they regard as haughty judges of their social rank who may treat them poorly or even turn them away. Despite the geniality of well-liked headwaiters, to many people the overall impression created by this personage is a feeling of cold formality. According to a 1940 opinion piece in a restaurant industry journal, diners did not like bowing nor “that type of waiter service that constantly rearranges your bread-and-butter-plate and water glass . . . and then frequently walks by your table to see if you are eating properly.”

That may be why in more recent times even an upscale, expensive restaurant probably does not have a formally dressed maitre d’ greeting guests. That role is more likely to be filled by a younger person, frequently a woman, who probably does not run the entire dining room nor hire the staff. She may nod her head as she hands guests a menu but does not bow.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

 

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Added attractions: cocktail lounges

Neither cocktail lounges nor cocktails were new in the 1930s when both became quite popular. Far back into the 19th century, men enjoyed lounging at bars and tables in hotels and other places while they imbibed cocktails, along with cobblers, fixes, fizzes, flips, juleps, punches, slings, smashes, sours, and toddies. Cocktails became popular after the Civil War and a regular pre-dinner habit in the 1890s.

In those times drinking in public was a male enterprise. Later, during Prohibition in the 1920s when it became illegal to sell alcoholic beverages, drinking in the home, formerly rare, became common. Women who had generally shunned drinking in public began to indulge. Since bootleggers made more money from concentrated alcohol than wine or beer, cocktails rose in favor with both sexes.

Upon repeal of Prohibition in the early 1930s, hotels and restaurants made plans to capitalize on cocktail drinking, ushering in the era of luxurious cocktail lounges that could attract women as well as men. According to one report in 1934 the new spaces attained a level of respectability by avoiding the old term “bar room,” preferring instead to be called cocktail bars, cocktail lounges, Persian rooms, palm rooms, and tap rooms. Cocktail “hours,” often accompanied by a tinkling piano, were instituted to encourage patronage.

In some senses, though, Prohibition hung around for years, even decades. Some states and towns did not permit cocktail lounges, while others only allowed men to be served at bars. The latter rules favored having a lounge with tables.

Hotels were prominent among the places where cocktail lounges were installed, and they still remain in many today, providing meeting places for socializing with friends or doing business with associates. Some, such as the new lounge at the Hotel Jermyn in Scranton PA in 1935, were quite glamorous with their bright colors, shiny surfaces, and over-the-top interpretations of art deco motifs.

It isn’t too far fetched to say that in the 1930s New York cocktail lounges were swankier than the restaurants they accompanied. Creative uses of materials such as metals, glass and leather, modern furniture, murals, and clever lighting set a tone quite unlike earlier decades. Color choices were striking, especially on surfaces not usually painted brightly such as tabletops and ceilings.

But women didn’t really love the hard, smooth yet cold, ultra-modern look. According to a 1934 article in Restaurant Management titled “The Ladies Must Be Pleased,” they actually preferred Colonial themes, something that designers would have realized if they had paid attention to the tea rooms of the 1920s.

The bold styling of the Jermyn was passé by the 1940s, when the oh-so-glamorous and romantic cocktail lounge at the Town and Country Restaurant in NYC opened on Park Avenue. It seemed to epitomize the very concept of lounging with its high-back tufted banquettes.

The Keys restaurant, in Indianapolis, had the informal look of a living room in the 1950s.

The advantages of setting off a space for a cocktail lounge made good sense for restaurants because it drew people in. And there was always a good chance that some who came in for a drink would decide to stay for dinner. Plus the lounge served as a waiting place for diners. Liquor offered higher profits than food, and having an attractive lounge extended the flow of traffic both before and after the dinner hours. Of course space was at a premium, with high rents in some cities, New York in particular. Anyone attending Goldie’s supper club in New York in 1955 [shown at top] was going to be crammed into a tight space with the club’s owner, pianist Goldie Hawkins. How servers maneuvered around his piano without spilling drinks on the well-dressed patrons is a mystery.

Cocktail lounges were rarely found in small cafes, and pretty much never in commonplace lunch rooms. But they were found in a number of Chinese restaurants that adopted a nightclub style, as well as some California drive-ins, a restaurant type quite different than the standard drive-in, and often referred to as the California coffee shop. The Tiny’s drive-in chain in the San Francisco area had it all: carhops, a dining room, and a cocktail lounge.

Yet, clearly, America was never totally comfortable with cocktail lounges, or bars, and regulated their numbers. Even as the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn eased its liquor law, allowing restaurants to serve mixed drinks, it capped cocktail lounge seating to 25% of seating in a restaurant’s dining areas. The 1980s saw the cocktail lounge recede somewhat as a restaurant feature when movements to reduce drunk driving took hold and the cost of liability insurance rose. Consumption of cocktails and hard liquor generally shrank as wine grew in popularity. These trends continued into the 1990s as cities restricted the number of liquor licenses granted.

In recent years cocktails have become popular once again. Many restaurants have bars, but I really haven’t noticed that cocktail lounges have reappeared.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Lunching at the drug store

I’ve often noticed how the history of some institution or object does not quite mesh with the nostalgic haze that eventually envelopes it. To a significant extent this is true of now-vanished drug store soda fountains, many of which became places for lunches as well as for sweet fountain treats before they vanished.

Independent soda fountains date as far back as the 1810s. Decades later some druggists began adding soda fountains to their apothecaries, mainly as a favor to their customers. Soda fountain drinks, whether plain carbonated water or water mixed with syrups, were viewed as healthful and in accord with the temperance movement of the 19th century.

Soda fountains emphasized the elaborate beauty of their fountain apparatus, especially after a marble soda fountain went on display at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia. A soda fountain in Boston in 1886 was described as made of “black and chocolate marble, surmounted by a statue of purest marble, representing a dancing girl.” In addition to the artistic features, customers were attracted by the technical aspects of fountains with their tubes and faucets.

Fads in drinks meant that there was a constant search for newness, with Easter punch the first choice in 1890, but surpassed in 1891 by orange phosphates and Creme de Russe. The number of concoctions was endless. The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages, published in 1897, promised more than 1,500 “formulas,” including how to mix “Coloring Agents, Foams, Extracts, Essences, Fruit Juices, Syrups, Meads, Beers, Ales, Phosphates, Lactarts, Egg Drinks, Ades, Milk and Cream Drinks, Medicinal Drinks, Popular Fancy Drinks, Hot Soda Drinks, Ice Creams, Ciders, Fruit Wines, Liqueurs, Cordials, Bitters, [and] Cremes.”

In the 1890s druggists began to feel economic pressure to install soda fountains. Apart from drawing people into the store, soda fountains produced good profits at a time when department stores were taking away some of druggists’ business by selling over-the-counter medicines. Plus, the complex range of possible drinks did call upon mixing skills in a way that was at least somewhat similar to what druggists did in compounding medicines. They could reassure themselves — if need be — that they were using “formulas” rather than “recipes.”

In the 1910s, many druggists took a step further and began offering light lunches along with fountain drinks. According to one account, this was a way of ensuring that soda fountain traffic did not die away during lunchtime as it had been doing.

The added profits from selling sandwiches and a few other edibles were welcome but, having spent many years learning their trade, many druggists were depressed about needing to go into what became known as the luncheonette business. A 1914 survey of pharmacists found that most respondents were not thrilled about selling food. Replies included, “Let the hash houses have the pie business.” Some called the situation degrading and asked, “Can we still claim the right to class our calling as a profession?” and “When a man finds it necessary to make a living selling hot dogs, he had better pull in the sign ‘Druggist.’”

Nevertheless the luncheonette business spread and grew, as did druggists’ dependence on this source of revenue. In the 1920s it was not at all unusual to find a luncheonette in a drug store, some even selling hot dishes such as chop suey and tamales. By 1931 an estimate was that nearly half of the 25,000 drug stores nationwide served fountain lunches, with 2,800 doing so in NYC alone. And it was said that some druggists were taking in more money from food service than from everything else combined.

As popular as they were with customers, soda fountain luncheonettes were deeply disliked by catering employee unions, as well as restaurateurs and lunch room owners who viewed them as illegitimate competitors. A 1926 article in the trade magazine Cafeteria Management argued for higher national standards for restaurants, pointing out drug stores as examples of businesses that should not be in the feeding business. To gourmets who mourned the loss of fine restaurants in the 1920s when the sale of alcohol was banned, drug store food exemplified the worst of the worst. Duncan Hines, who began to rate restaurants across the entire country in the 1930s, pointed to the drug store lunch counter as a “sinister influence” and asked, “How in God’s name can anyone who regularly eats drugstore snacks ever be expected to recognize a good meal when it’s served?” Much of the food sold in drug store luncheonettes in the 1920s, was in fact bought ready-to-eat or nearly so from commercial commissaries.

Given all the criticism of drug store lunches, it’s rather surprising to see a menu attachment from Walgreen’s in 1948 and note how closely it resembles a full-scale restaurant, both because it offers 8 “complete dinners” with soup, potatoes, vegetables, roll and butter, desert, and beverage and because it describes the sauces for two fish dishes à la française! Of course it’s likely that the big drug store chains met a higher standard of cleanliness and food quality than many of the small stores had in earlier decades.

Drug store lunch counters were still sufficiently popular in the early 1960s that they, along with dime store counters, were sites of Black protestors claiming a right to patronize them. Notably, a 1951 report of the Congress for Racial Equality cited Walgreen’s stores as among the very few eating places in St. Louis that served Black customers.

By the 1970s drug stores were beginning to close their lunch counters. As early as 1970 Walgreen’s operated only one in New York City, down from 17. Whelan’s too had closed most of its counters there. The trend swept across the country and by the 1980s, nostalgia attached to the few left, most of which were limited to serving sodas and ice cream concoctions. Bitterness among druggists is long forgotten, along with other complaints. Now the best way to find any still in existence is to search for “old-fashioned soda fountain.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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