Busy bees

A 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Nick of Time,” was set in a restaurant outfitted with a devilish fortune-telling device. The restaurant, supposedly in Ohio, was ordinary and undistinguished, with booths and laminated table tops.

The story’s writer chose a common name for it, one found in practically every city and small town across the entire United States: the Busy Bee.

I “collect” this name. To me it resonates with the typical 20th-century eating place. Judging from advertisements for eateries called The Busy Bee, they staked their reputations on being clean, economical, briskly efficient, and friendly.

I also find the name interesting because it is entirely divorced from place, proprietor’s ethnicity, and type of cuisine. Yet I’ve found that many restaurants of this name had proprietors who were of Polish, Italian, or Greek ethnic origins.

In the 19th century it was typical for restaurants to go by their proprietor’s surname. Over the 20th century, by contrast, many restaurants adopted “made up” names that were intended to suggest something positive, appealing, or at least memorable. I suspect that one of the factors propelling this change was the chance to background the ethnicity of the proprietor, particularly around World War I when much of the country became intolerant of those not native born. Busy Bee became one of the most common names around.

Also, restaurants owned by Greek-Americans, of which there were very many, were often run by multiple partners. It would be somewhat unwieldy if, for instance, the proprietors of the Busy Bee in Monessen PA in 1915 had decided to call their restaurant Chrysopoulos, Boulageris, Paradise, & Lycourinos. They might have taken the liberty of dubbing their establishment Four Brothers from Mykonos but they chose Busy Bee instead. [pictured: Busy Bee in Winchester VA — its proprietor, James Pappas, was born in Greece ca. 1889]

I have yet to find a Chinese restaurant called the Busy Bee but I’ll keep looking – I know there had to be a few.

Among many locations, I’ve found Busy Bees in Mobile AL as early as 1898, in Bisbee AZ in 1915, and in New York City’s Bowery, for decades presided over by Max Garfunkel. It was at Max’s Busy Bee, in 1917, that alumni of the Short Story Correspondence Schools of North America convened to greet the author of “Ten Thousand Snappy Synonyms for ‘Said He.’” Many Busy Bees became headquarters for meetings of business, civic, and social clubs.

Busy Bees were not known for any particular culinary specialties, offering instead home cooking favorites plus the inevitable chili and other Americanized foreign dishes such as spaghetti and chop suey. The four popular Busy Bees in Columbus OH, nonetheless, had an attractive array of warm weather choices on their June 29, 1909, menu which included Spring Vegetable Salad (10 cents), as well as Blackberries or Sliced Peaches in Cream (10 cents) and Fresh Peach Ice Cream (15 cents).

The Busy Bee name lives on even today, though perhaps less robustly. I was surprised there was not a single Busy Bee mentioned in Joanne Raetz Stuttgen’s books on contemporary “down home” cafes in Wisconsin and Indiana.

Is there a common restaurant name all around us today that will come to characterize the 21st century?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012


Filed under lunch rooms, miscellaneous

16 responses to “Busy bees

  1. Robert Madej

    Interesting history on the Busy Bee name for restaurants. My Mom purchased a restaurant back in 1965 in Chicago’s Wicker Park area and operated it for 33 yrs. She eventually changed it to Sophie’s Busy Bee before she sold it in 1998. This restaurant had been established in 1913. Thank You.

  2. Yes

    3776 Indian Ripple Rd
    Dayton, OH 45440

  3. Mark K.

    You said there was a “Busy Bee” in Bisbee AZ in 1915. My grandfather ran it. The “U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989” shows its address as “Brewery Ave” in 1917. I’m interested in his genealogy, so could you tell me your source?



    • Mark, It wasn’t 1915, but was in the Polk’s Arizona and New Mexico Pictorial State Gazetteer and Business Directory, 1912-1913. On p. 116 there is a box advertisement that has a photo of him and says: Busy Bee Cafe — John B. Hart, Propr. Main Streets Bisbee and Lowell, Arizona. Everything in Season Served to Order. Chef, the Best That Money Can Secure. Our Steaks Are the Best. Our Coffee Unequalled. Quick Lunch Counter for Those in a Hurry.

  4. Brandon Haygood

    Something I’d like to note about this particular establishment.
    Apparently Max’s busy bee was a popular place for The Marx brothers when they were younger, as Harpo mentions it in his autobiography, Harpo speaks.

  5. Food Stories

    Loved your post 🙂

  6. Hinote

    There probably are fewer entire popular names than there used to be, but I suspect that the largest category for the 21c would include “grill” or “grille.”

  7. murphy

    The Busy Bee in Indianapolis was too busy to put anything on the walls, even. Refreshing, actually!

  8. Martin

    Oh, and that’s surely a very young William Shatner in your pic from the Twilight Zone. But who’s the other actor?

    • It is William Shatner; playing his wife is Patricia Breslin who starred in a couple of TV shows in the 1950s.

      • Catherine

        I believe Patricia Breslin left her acting career behind when she married Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns and, later, the Baltimore Ravens.

  9. Martin

    Don’t know about 21st century, but in the midwest in the 2nd half of the 20th there were a lot of “Hurryback” bars. All independent.

    And go to Google Earth and center on Alexandria, Virginia. Then search for the Waffle Shop. It’ll take you to the intersection of Mt. Vernon Ave and Russell Road. Go to StreetView. See anything interesting? It’s been that way for 40 years.

    • It’s a triangular building with something that looks like a door which, if it opened, would lead directly into a brick wall. Also, only one F in WAFLE on the green awning (but I doubt that’s 40 years old).

      • Martin

        It was pointed out to me in 1976. So it’s not 40 years, but close. Lived within blocks from 1979-1994. Seems to be the same awning.

  10. Sadly that might be the fast food chains, or waffle houses :p

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