Anatomy of a restaurateur: Dario Toffenetti

Who would predict that a boy growing up in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1890s would make his fortune by selling Idaho baked potatoes? But that’s exactly what Dario Louis Toffenetti did. Born in 1889, he came to the U.S. in 1910, allegedly after being recruited to peddle ice cream from a cart in Cincinnati. Disillusioned with that project, he soon traveled westward, selling baked potatoes at a Wisconsin mining camp, then becoming a bus boy at the dining room of Chicago’s Sherman House. In 1914 he opened his first restaurant in Chicago.

He was ambitious and would quickly develop into a canny marketer. In 1916 he enrolled in night school at Northwestern University’s School of Commerce. In 1921 he opened his second restaurant, on S. Clark. At a time when advertising, marketing, and public relations were making giant leaps forward, he was quick to implement the latest tactics. He advertised heavily and “named” the food sold in his restaurants. When he promoted ham, it was not generic ham but “Roast Sugar Cured Ham” from packer Oscar Mayer. (“It’s no wonder these Ham Sandwiches make your mouth water! Oscar Mayer’s ‘Unusually Good’ Approved Hams are used.”) By 1937 he had six restaurants in the Chicago Loop under the name Toffenetti-Triangle.

TriangleAd32According to accounts, “D. L.” wrote his own colorful advertising copy, such as, “These hams are cut from healthy young hogs grown in the sunshine on beautifully rolling Wisconsin farms where corn, barley, milk and acorns are unstintingly fed to them, producing that silken meat so rich in wonderful flavor.” Equally over the top was his copy for Idaho baked potatoes, with references to a “bulging beauty, grown in the ashes of extinct volcanoes, scrubbed and washed, then baked in a whirlwind of tempestuous fire until the shell crackles with brittleness…” Customers who had not previously eaten baked potatoes soon learned to ask for “an Idaho.” Another heavily promoted dish, “Old Fashioned Louisiana Strawberry Shortcake,” was “topped with pure, velvety whipped cream like puffs of snow.”

To build trust with an always-skeptical public, he featured himself in his ads (bald head and all), often adding his signature. In a 1930s Depression advertisement (pictured), he pledged to keep prices low without reducing quality. When Prohibition ended, he announced that he would serve beer, but not “in any fashion that might offend our most fastidious women patrons.”

ToffenettiNYC1942Another factor in his success was winning catering contracts at two world’s fairs, Chicago in 1933 and New York in 1939-40. Following the NY fair he outbid Louis B. Mayer for an immensely valuable piece of Times Square real estate on the corner of 43rd and Broadway. He hired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design a two-story, glass-fronted moderne building (pictured), outfitted with an escalator and a show-off gleaming stainless steel kitchen. The restaurant served 8,500 meals on opening day.

Dario was president of the Chicago Restaurant Association for seven terms (1936-1943). After his death in 1962, the business was conducted by other Toffenetti family members until about 1980. The Times Square restaurant closed in 1968.

Unlike many other immigrant restaurant operators who were characterized (often unfairly) as running “holes in the wall,” Dario Toffenetti was celebrated by the organized restaurant industry as a model progressive restaurateur.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

56 Comments

Filed under proprietors & careers

56 responses to “Anatomy of a restaurateur: Dario Toffenetti

  1. lecycliste

    I went to grade school with his grandson, also named Dario Toffenetti. Dario taught me, a shy third-grader, newly arrived from Montana to play four-square and start to fit in. He had leukemia and died young – either just out of eighth grade or after freshman year at New Trier West High School.

  2. Kathleen Foley

    My mother worked as a waitress at Toffenetti’s in the 1940’s. Does anyone have pictures of the inside of the restaurant? Or perhaps pictures of waiters or waitresses? Thanks in advance!

    • There is a common linen-finish postcard that show a part of the interior of the Times Square restaurant, easily found on e-Bay, but other than that I have not seen any pictures of interiors or of servers.

  3. Gianna

    Hi — My great grandpa is the original owner of this restaurant.

    • Carrie Toffenetti Bagg

      Hi Gianna, I am a Toffenetti too, who was your Grandfather?

      • Kari Moriarty Fischer

        Hi Carrie! This is Kari Moriarty Fischer from Glenview. I’m still in So Cal. I just read an article about the best high schools, saw New Trier and then Googled your name for fun. WOW

  4. Anonymous

    Ken Demme I would love to see any pictures you might have. My email is blondie4kids@earthlink.net

  5. peggy

    I have visited Dario Toffenetti’s home in the gorgeous Italian alps. Lovely Menas & Milan, lovely family. And he was well loved & successful because he was a loving, kind gentleman who wished to treat his employees like family. His desire to make a good name for Italian Americans was realized.

  6. Joyce

    I have a 23 page booklet from the Toffenetti’s Restaurant while at the NY Worlds Fair. My Aunt Betty worked there at the time. It was located on the Avenue Of Pioneers opposite the Swedish Village. The booklet actually welcomes you and it represents each location. It boasts its most loved Specialties. Of course the Juicy Ham and and Sweets is top of the list. Another was the Spaghetti ala Toffenetti. It says ‘One Hundred Yards of Appetite Joy! Comments such as ‘To Toffenetti’s on Times Square – A 5 Cent Fare From Everywhere’….The pictures in it are drawings. It measures 3 1/2 by 5 inches.

  7. Lisa

    My Father James Coscette was the manager of the restaurant in NYC, My brothers middle name is Dario! He worked there for most of his life!

  8. Gail Smith

    I was so happy to find your article on Toffinetti’s. I am writing a story about my husband’s Aunt Icele (Smith) Kantor. In 1935 she was living and working in Chicago for Toffinetti’s. Her younger sister Jean Smith also moved from Northern Michigan in about 1938 to work there. The two girls were asked to move to New York when the owner opened his New York restaurant! The two girls did move to New York, where they worked as waitresses for Toffinetti’s in Times Square! Both girls met their future husbands there, Icele married the Chef, Frank Kloc, and Jean married Tom Joyce, who may or not have worked at Toffinetti’s. I know Uncle Tom worked for over 50 years as a bartender at a near by bar. If there are any pictures of the staff in those early years in New York, or the late 30’s in Chicago. I would love to see them!

  9. Nicola Toffenetti

    I have some photos of that interest it, thank you

  10. Qualcuno ha qualche foto dell’epoca. Sarei molto interessato, grazie

  11. Amanda Brown

    My Grandmother waitressed at Toffenetti’s in the Chicago Loop for years during the Depression and beyond. I grew up on the stories she’d tell. He sounded like a lovely man.

  12. L’e-mail era sbagliata.

  13. Nicola

    Mi chiamo Nicola Toffenetti, ho 44 anni e sono figlio di Livio, abitiamo a Monclassico, paesino vicino a Menas paese Natale di Dario. Mi farebbe piacere ricevere qualche foto dell’epoca.
    Ringrazio Nicola

    • Ho dimenticato, mio figlio si chiama Leonardo Toffenetti.

    • Many years ago I was hired to take photographs of the 20th anniversary of the Toffenetti restaurant. I have quite a few pictures of Dario and his family. If you have an e-mail address, I be glad to send you some photo’s.

      Ken Demme

    • Charlene

      Hello Nicola — I am doing a family history. My husband’s great-grandfather was Peter Toffenetti. He married Mary Albasihi. They left Menas in 1898, moving to Wisconsin. In 1910, their daughter, Erminia, married Cornelius Bresadola (who emigrated from Ortise). In 1937, their son, Thomas, moved from Wisconsin to Chicago and worked in a Toffenetti restaurant, which is where he met his wife, Angie. Thomas and Angie are my huband’s parents. Supposedly Dario was Erminia’s cousin? Do you by chance have any information on Peter or Mary Toffenetti or their parents? I would love dates, photos, anything. I do have a photo of Peter and Mary that I’m having scanned, which I would be happy to share with you.

  14. Leonardo

    Sono molto contento di vedere queste foto dei miei avi ho 13 anni , mi chiamo Leonardo Toffenetti e vivo in Italia.

  15. ALBERTO

    Mi fa’ molto piacere leggere questi commenti sul miei antenati vicini.

  16. I don’t think I will upload my Toffenetti photo’s to my website, but I would send them to you via e-mail if you would like.
    I also invite you to check out my website, I think you’ll find it interesting.
    Best regards,
    Ken Demme

    • eugenio

      Dear Ken
      I am a Toffenetti from Italy (my mother actually is) and I spent last week together with DarioToffenetti’s daughter.
      I would be really interested in receiving those pictures by email.
      My email is eugenioboni@inwind.it

      I watched your website, great pictures!! Anyway you named one pic Red Fort when actually it is the Wind Palace (Hawa Mahal) in Jaipur.

      Next time yo come to Italy, please visit me, you will be highly welcome.
      I live in Bologna

      Bye
      Eugenio

      • Gina interrante

        Who is your mother? My grandpa was Louis Toffenetti from Menas, Italy.

      • Karen Sheridan

        Eugenio,
        I am also a Toffenetti. Dario Toffenetti was my great uncle and brother to Rudolpho my grandfather. I am interested in learning more about the family and would love to contact you via email to share information about our family. My email is karensheridan60@mac.com

  17. Lauren B

    My Grandfather is Dario Toffenetti Jr. — his father, was the owner of the Toffenetti restaurant! I love reading about how my great grandfather was this huge restaurateur. My family has different articles, original recipes, and much more, there was more to the story though, well according to my grandfather. He came with ten dollars in his pocket! That ten dollars stretched very far, considering he owned a restaurant in Times Square!

  18. Just this past weekend, I was going through my old negatives and 35 mm slides and I came across about 4 sleeves of negatives entitled Toffenetti’s. All I could remember at the time is that that this was my first job as a free-lance photographer. I was either a senior in college, or my first year in the business world. Sometime in the mid 50’s. My curiosity was peeked and decided to scan them into my computer which I am doing as I write this.
    It seems I was hired to shoot the 20th anniversary of the restaurant. I took shots of the restaurant’s exterior, interior and I believe of Mr.Toffinetti and his wife and some family members. I have fond memories of this era as it was the beginning of my career.

    • I’d love to see them. If you decide to post the images on your website, let me know and I will link to them from my Toffenetti’s post.

    • Kim Patterson

      Ken, I found your website but not a contact link. My mother worked at Toffenetti’s for years and I wondered if you could send me some pictures also. (She started at the Chicago world’s fair and ended up on Times Square.) This was during the radio age, and she told me wonderful stories about Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny, and many others who were unknown at the time. Thanks so much!!

  19. saundra

    As a young girl my dad would take me to Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving. We always had jelly omelets at Toffenetti’s and we could watch the paraders from the big glass windows. We stood in line to see Macy’s windows display.

    • Gina interrante

      My Dad returned from WWII and went to work for my grandfather, Louis Toffenetti and his brother, Dario Toffenetti. My Dad would always make us jelly omelets! Mmm good!

  20. laura toffenetti

    I enjoyed the article. I’m a Toffenetti myself. We grew up with people always asking if we were related. We were, my grandfather, Louis, was Dario’s brother and worked at the restaurant all his life. The name pops up in odd places, including the movie, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY.

    • Laura — Fascinating! Thanks for the addition. I knew Dario had a brother who was also very involved with the restaurant. — Jan

      • luann benetti

        I also enjoyed the article. My Grandmother’s maiden name was Toffenetti. She came from Italy and settled in Northern Wisconsin. I do remember my parent’s talking about the Tofenetti relations owning a restaurant in New York and Chicago. My Grandmother’s name was Mary and she had a brother Benjamin.

      • There were three brothers. Dario was the owner and his brothers Rudolf and and Louis were employees. Louis was the youngest (and grandma always assured us, the best!)

    • Bill

      My grandfather was Rudolph. Must have been your grandfather’s brother I really don’t have must history of the Toffenetti family. my sister and I will be starting a search of our family history soon so if you have any tidbits to pass along… please do?

      • Anonymous

        Hello to all the Toffenettis. I am so proud to just have found out that my father before becoming a great teacher, worked for such a famous restaurant as The Toffenetti in New York City during the year of 1962. As my father retells his story, he gets very excited about his experiences and he smiles.

    • Bill

      By the way I have a picture of what would be our great grandparents. My Aunt Helen took a picture of a picture why she was visiting relatives in Italy. It’s not great picture but it is interesting.

    • Gianna Toffenetii

      Hi — I’m a Toffenetti myself too. I’m your niece!

  21. Martin

    I’m curious, I’m not clear that Oscar Mayer had any industrial sized packing house in Chicago. He clearly “packed” meat in his retail store in Chicago, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all his wholesale meat packing was done in Madison, Wisconsin, not Chicago. Neither the Wiki site or the Oscar Mayer site says definitively, one way or the other.

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