Co-operative restaurant-ing

Although it is a footnote to restaurant history, the notion that restaurants could provide a solution to social and domestic problems is one that has cropped up quite a few times in American history, beginning in the 1840s, continuing into the 1970s, and not totally extinct even today.

The idea of community dining began with Frenchman Charles Fourier’s plan for a society organized into communes (phalanxes) where people both lived and worked. Several were established in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s, in Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, New York, and New Jersey. The North American Phalanx in Red Bank NJ, which continued for 12 years, may have been the longest lasting. Its phalanstery, a kind of hotel or apartment building, had 85 rooms and a “refectory” where members gathered at long tables and chose their meals from a bill of fare with prices.

The Fourier-inspired communes did not survive, but the idea of collective dining did. From the 1870s until World War I feminists saw commercial restaurants as the next, virtually inevitable, step in evolutionary progress that would liberate women from kitchens. Suffragist Tennessee Claflin observed in 1871 that women’s chores such as teaching children and making clothes were leaving the home and becoming special trades. Noting that men were becoming accustomed to eating their midday meal in restaurants, she expected food preparation to be next.

Others observed the same thing, especially with the growing popularity of kitchenless apartments. An 1876 article in The American Socialist viewed NYC apartment buildings where meals were served in ground floor dining rooms as an outgrowth of Fourier’s ideals. Although limited to fairly affluent families then, apartment living was regarded as a step toward universal cooperative housekeeping.

A goal of some futurists and feminists, such as Edward Bellamy and Helen Starrett, was to have complete meals delivered to the home ready to eat. Starrett wrote in 1889 that the solution need not be a non-profit enterprise. Rather, just as butter and soap making had been commercialized, she expected that the business world would find a way to do this profitably. Indeed, in Knoxville, Tennessee, a woman started a meal delivery service as early as 1896, sending out “steaming hot” food to families. The idea got a boost during World War I when a surging war economy drew hired cooks out of affluent households (e.g., Florence Hulling).

Author and social thinker Charlotte Perkins Gilman knew of three cooked food companies in operation, in New Haven, Pittsburgh, and Boston. She fully expected efficient restaurants and food services to replace the home as a site of production, which, she wrote in 1903, “lingers on inert and blind, like a clam in a horse-race.” In her 1909 novel What Diantha Did, the enterprising heroine not only runs a hotel for working women, she also operates a lunchroom for business men, a cooked food delivery service, and a mini-maid service.

Other than supporting utopian societies and liberating women from household chores, the goals of “public service” style restaurants in the 19th and 20th centuries also variously encompassed providing inexpensive lunches for young working women, luring alcoholics away from saloons, resolving labor strife, reducing the cost of living, and promoting healthy diets.

Social motives often lay behind the start of commercial restaurants also, such as the Dennett’s chain whose funding came in part from missionary societies. And some eating places that had their starts as community co-operatives developed into commercial ventures, such as the Hollister Cooperative Coffee Club or the Mission Cafeteria in Long Beach [shown], both in California.

A curious outgrowth of the interest in communal dining occurred in Cleveland OH, where Richard Finley established Finley’s Phalansterie shortly after the turn of the century [pictured above]. Eventually he presided over six eating places in Cleveland and grew rich. Although he chose the generally unfamiliar name to pique interest in his restaurant, it turned out that he did in fact have communitarian motives in mind. His plan, reminiscent of Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft in East Aurora NY, was to establish a colony in California where workers would live and produce arts and crafts furniture and objects. I was unable to discover how far he succeeded beyond building a hotel and cottages in La Canyada and publishing a magazine called Everyman.

The story of restaurants and eating places with social motives is not complete without mentioning the hippie and communal restaurants of the 1960s and 1970s – but that will be another chapter.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012


Filed under alternative restaurants, Offbeat places

17 responses to “Co-operative restaurant-ing

  1. Dear Ms. Whitaker,
    Love your article! I’m interested in finding out more about Richard Finley and his Finley’s Phalansterie in Cleveland. I am working on a book on lost Cleveland Restaurants and would like to include him and his restaurant. Do you have any other information about him or sources I can check for him. Thank you for any help you can provide.

    • Thanks! You shouldn’t have any trouble finding out more about Richard Finley and his restaurants. He advertised frequently in the Plain Dealer ca. 1907-1908 and his obituary appeared on Jan. 3, 1937. He has been included in the Cleveland Memory Project and in old histories of Cleveland. Good luck with your research.

  2. Jenny

    I came across your page while researching on the topic of co-op relating to food and restaurants. This page was really interesting to read! I have never heard of this phalanstery or community dining but it sound really interesting. Could you give me directions in where how I can find more information and other examples of these kinds of places? Also I was just wondering why these don’t last long. any ideas?

    • In my post I covered all the examples I specifically know of. You should be able to do some follow-up research using Google Books. You might want to start by reading Dolores Hayden’s Grand Domestic Revolution. These communitarian activities involved a very small proportion of the U.S. population and had extremely idealistic goals. Often proponents lost their enthusiasm when the movements did not grow or differences of opinion caused splits among leaders.

  3. This is great! I LOVE that you included a quote (actually more of the idea) of Helen Starrett. She was my great great grandmother, and she had so many amazing ideas! I am working on a book about her. So happy to have seen your post– you don’t happen to remember your source, do you? I’d love to read the whole thing! (I am currently writing about her in my blog here on wordpress. Check it out if you have a few minutes!)

  4. burns

    Thanks for your wonderful blog! I have to point out that the North American Phalanx was located about four miles west of Red Bank, NJ (not Red Hook).

  5. Tom Byg

    Always great reading your reasearch…love to know your sources…until next time then…

  6. David Kessler

    Unrelated…. Does anybody know of a restaurant by the name of Adam’s Cafe in New York City. Don’t have a time period. Possibly related to the Gimbels Department Store chain?

  7. When you think about it, in many ways the for-profit, food producing industry has managed to “replace the home as a site of production.” I would venture that the great majority of the food we consume today is prepared and often even cooked somewhere else. We just have chosen to eat much of it in the privacy of our homes rather than a community dining room.

    Though I do wish someone would open a “Phalansterie” in my neighborhood!

  8. Linda B

    Jan, please check out
    Salt Lake City cafe where you pay what you wish. I last ate there in 2008, fantastic healthful food! seemed like utopia!

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