Although the restaurants run by Alfred W. Dennett in the 1880s and 1890s were popular and earned him a cool million in just a few years, some people took a strong dislike to them because of the framed bible quotations which covered the walls. Newspapers regularly ridiculed them, noting for instance that burglars who cracked the safe at the Park Avenue Dennett’s in New York City did so right under a sign that read, “Be ye strong, therefore, and let not your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.” But no one took such a negative position against the Northeastern coffee/dairy/beans & fishcakes-based chain as did Terrence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor. In a talk in Brooklyn he offended some audience members when he declared, “I, temperance man as I am, would go into the lowest rumhole in the city, and get blind, rolling drunk, rather than go into that restaurant where they have such signs as ‘Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself,’ to get a cup of coffee.”
Founder Dennett, born in 1840 the son of a storekeeper in Topsham, Maine, was a zealous religious believer and temperance advocate who required his waitresses to attend daily prayer services and took a leading role in citizen vice squads. In New York City he disguised himself — as streetcar conductor, laborer, or man about town — to conduct surveillance and collect evidence against suspected sites of immorality. He gave away his fortune to charity, was forced out of his company by stockholders, and had numerous mental breakdowns, culminating in a declaration of insanity after being found wandering the streets of San Francisco with a pillowcase over his head. When the Childs brothers took over the chain in 1900 evidently they retained the Dennett’s name and left the bible verses on the walls. The chain of about 16 outlets continued until at least 1912.
At various times Dennett and his son George tried for a comeback on the West Coast, operating several places in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early 20th century (and possibly earlier) but they did not succeed and some of the San Francisco locations were taken over by the Puritan restaurant chain, which continued in a religious vein under the management of the appropriately named Mr. Goodbody.
© Jan Whitaker, 2008