Restaurateurs: Alice Foote MacDougall

Alice, shown in this 1929 book frontispiece at least 20 years younger than her true age at the time, was one of the most carefully crafted restaurant personas of her day. Due to numerous magazine stories spun by her publicity agent, she was widely known as the poor widow with three children who built a coffee wholesaling and restaurant empire on $38. Even she had to admit (or was this PR also?) that the story was overplayed. “How tired I did get of that woman and those interminable three!” she confessed. Quite honestly, I’ve always felt her much-vaunted opposition to suffrage for women was a publicity stunt too.

She was from a distinguished New York City family. Her great grandfather, Stephen Allen, was mayor of New York City in the 1820s, while her wealthy father Emerson Foote was a charter member of the Union League. Alice, her daughter, and her two sons were listed in the city’s Social Register in 1918. Her career in the coffee wholesaling business began in 1909 with the death of her husband Allan MacDougall. In the 1920s she was said to be the only woman expert in coffee grading and blending in the U.S.

She opened her first eating place, The Little Coffee Shop, in Grand Central Station in New York in December 1919. Waffles were the specialty in her homey café which was decorated with a plate rail and shelves holding decorative china. (Evidently tips were good, because MacDougall had the nerve to charge her waitresses $10 a day to work there.) By 1927 she had signed a $1 million lease for her fifth coffee house, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street. Her places became known for their Italian-Spanish scene setting. The reason, she said, was that it provided a way to disguise long, narrow spaces, as was clearly the case with the Cortile (shown here).

At Firenze, reputedly used as a movie set, she dressed her black servers like Italian peasants in bright uniforms and head scarves and had them go about filling copper jugs with water from a stone well. Tables were set with imported pottery which she sold as well, along with her Bowling Green Coffee. The Mediterranean village style mimicking courtyard interiors became wildly popular throughout the U.S. in the 1920s and countless women were inspired by MacDougall to open tea and coffee shops of their own. The chain went bankrupt in the depression and new management took over for a time, lowering prices and adding cocktails to the menu.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008


Filed under tea shops, women

9 responses to “Restaurateurs: Alice Foote MacDougall

  1. Pingback: How New York's Coffee Scene Has Evolved - BELLA New York Magazine

  2. Peetie

    I first became familiar with Alice Foote MacDougall when I picked up her 1924 tome, “Coffee and Waffles.” It is an adorable book, rather slim, and filled with little anecdotes and even some important culinary information. For example, she says one should not grind one’s own coffee if one knows that it has been freshly roasted, for it is the roast, and not the grind that determines the freshness of the coffee. Later on, in the midst of researching others of her era, there were references to her restaurant, and just recently, I came across an article about her in a 1925 issue of “International Studio.” As I had a little coffee operation at farmers markets where I would roast coffee at my stand and brew it there, I always took my copy of “Coffee and Waffles” along. At some point, I made contact with Mrs. MacDougall’s granddaughter, who was at that time in the business of producing and marketing coffee substitutes. This article about MacDougall is well-written and informative, and I thank the author for it.

  3. David Hance

    Jan – you are a gem!

    The best culinary blog site I have ever reviewed… 5 across all content for me too. I enjoyed the history that you are preserving here that is becoming lost. As a fellow St. Louisan, I really appreciate the Parkmoor (wish we could still pop in there for the endless menu after a movie at the Esquire), St. Paul Sandwiches, Toasted Ravioli, 1904 World’s Fair, and Busch’s Grove insights. You should spend some time on The Hill in one of your posts. I am curious if you remember the Lotus Room in Brentwood – seemed like our favorite family jaunt when I was a kid and my first and favorite experience with Chinese food – and there was a gypsy wagon on the corner of Brentwood Blvd and Clayton Road that represented a goulash and bread inspire restaurant. I cannot remember the name of that place for anything…..curious if you have any recollection.

    Thanks so much – David Hance

    • Thank you, David! The Hill is a good idea. I don’t know the wagon you refer to (now I’m intrigued) but I do remember the Lotus Room. I never went there because my family wasn’t a big fan of Asian cuisine, alas.

  4. Pingback: Alice Foote MacDougall Quotes | The Evanston Community Kitchen

  5. Hi there. I enjoyed your article about Alice. I am interested in researching her restaurants and the people that worked for her. Do you have any suggestions? My grandmother worked for her. I am trying to figure out some ways to research my grandmother’s work for Alice’s company. Where did you find the information about her restaurants you wove (beautifully I might add) into this post. Thanks. Feel free to email me directly. What a delightful blog you have. How is your book project going? I think it would a fascinating book.

  6. Hmm…could she have been the inspiration for Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life (the book and Claudette Colbert film version, not the glossy Lana Turner one)?

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