Name trouble: Sambo’s


You might imagine that chain restaurants would spend vast amounts of time and money researching potential names in order to pick one that would convey exactly the desired associations and nuances. Certainly one that would not insult a portion of its intended customers.

I’m sure most do. Sambo’s was not among them.

Wouldn’t the founders of Sambo’s, in the late 1950s, dimly perceive that the name Sambo was not beloved by everyone, especially African-Americans?

Why would they decorate with images from the book “Little Black Sambo,” the American editions of which were filled with racist caricatures?


Evidently they had no idea that Sambo had been – and still was – a derogatory word for black males for over 100 years; that the name and ridiculous images of Sambo were used on many consumer products in the early 20th century; and that after WWII school libraries had complied with requests by African-Americans to remove the book from shelves.

Even if they didn’t know any of this, when protests erupted they might have realized they had made a terrible mistake. Regardless of whether “Sam-bo” originated from the first name of one of them combined with the nickname of the other.

Nope, nope, nope, and double nope.

Instead the founders, their successor, and the corporation that finally took over the chain all insisted right up to the bitter end that no harm was intended or implied. Even as they renamed some units in the East where there had been boycotts, the company insisted the change was purely in order to market their new menus.

sambo's216CabrilloHwy1960The first Sambo’s was opened in Santa Barbara in 1957. [pictured] By 1977, when the son of one of the founders was heading the company, the chain was the country’s largest full-service restaurant chain, with 1,117 units.

But trouble was looming. Protests during the West Coast chain’s expansion into the Northeast had already resulted in renaming units in the Albany NY area “Jolly Tiger.” Eventually there were 13 Jolly Tigers in various towns. Protest would spread to Reston VA, New York, and New England including at least 9 towns in Massachusetts. In 1981 the Rhode Island Commission on Human Rights ordered the company to change its name in that state because indirectly the name violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by denying public accommodations to black persons.

SambosNoPlaceLikeSam'sLogo1981The company responded that it would rename 18 of its Northeastern units “No Place Like Sam’s”; in fact according to an advertisement a few months later they actually renamed 41 units.

Soon thereafter the company began to collapse. In November 1981 it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, closing more than a third of its units. In Leominster and Stoughton MA, early morning customers had to pick up and get out immediately so the restaurants could be padlocked.

In 1982 all, or most, remaining Sambo’s were renamed Seasons. By 1984 most of the Seasons restaurants had been sold to Godfather’s Pizza and other buyers.

The successive name switches undoubtedly hurt business, but a more serious problem was that Sambo’s, like other chains using a coffee shop format with table service and extensive menus, had been steadily losing out to fast food chains. Unsurprisingly, it did not survive.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under chain restaurants, racism

57 responses to “Name trouble: Sambo’s

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  5. john

    I remember working at Sambos in Calif/ in the 60″s. When Sam had his hand in it, it was good The family took over and did not help. Black Sambo was treed and chased by Tigers, found only in India. Has nothing to do with Africans. It seems that some business run by “A SAM” run into problems when the family takes over. SAmbos – Walmart

    • I wrote this essay with the intention of showing how critical a name choice can be for a national chain. I did not accuse anyone of overt racism. I see the Sambo’s story as an instance of the happy state of ignorance so many white people live in about the heritage of racism, and the burdensome expectation placed on Blacks to pretend they are unaware of it along with everyday blundering insults. It’s obvious that many white people have been blissfully ignorant of how ugly the heritage of the images, words, and concepts associated with the very name “Sambo” is.

      Many of the comments on this post (the ugliest ones of which I have not approved) reveal white American’s ongoing blindness and defensiveness about racism. It does not matter whether the name Sambo originated as a combination of syllables of the founders’ names; it does not matter if later versions of the children’s story were revised to take place in India.

      Face it – the name had offensive associations to many people and was proven to be unacceptable nationwide.

      • Anonymous

        The real reason the chain finally started downhill financially. Sam tried to put the chain on the big stock exchange by putting ALL store and area manager on salary and takin* them off “fraction of the action” program.

      • Anonymous

        Its made me very aware how as a kid I had no idea that this was a racist thing, I grew up in an accepting household, never was I told that I was any better or different than anyone, but was also not talked to about racism, I’m so disappointed in this, as I got older an educated myself I am appalled that this went on for so long. There is still one in Lincoln City OR. :(*

      • Anthony Holmes

        Thanks for this story and for your sensitivity and insight into a shameful aspect of our society that is perpetuated by anger and blinders … still.

  6. Dean

    So I guess if someone named their restaurant “Adolph’s Oven-Baked Ham” no one would have a problem with that. Adolph’s could be the nicest person in the world, with no Anti-Semitic leanings, could even be Jewish himself.

    Although no anti-Semitism is intended, the name would be insensitive to millions of people. And, after it was pointed out to Adolph, he insisted on keeping the name (because it’s his name), he would have no one to blame if he went bankrupt.

    Being insensitive to potential customers is bad business, no matter what one’s personal feelings are. If twins Kevin and Kirby Knight opened a rope-making business called KKK Ropes, do you think they would stay in business long? Dumb, stubborn people should not go into business.

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  8. Anonymous

    What about Cracker Barrel? White Castle?

  9. Ron D-

    In 1957 in Southern California discrimination was not a bad thing. In my home town between L.A. and Palm Springs, there were many restaurants and movie theatres where people of “color” were not welcome well into the 1960’s. It’s no surprise that calling a restaurant “Sambo’s” at a time many children and adults knew the story of “Little Black Sambo” thought it was a catchy and cute name, and if it discouraged black people from coming in, all the better. People are often surprised that racial discrimination was so far west, but in the late 1800’s when many of the now-cities of Southern California were being settled by Anglo-Americans displacing the Mexicans and Indians (aboriginal Americans) who lived there, many of the settlers were refugees from the deep south who refused to live there after the war. They brought with them their attitudes and prejudices.

  10. John

    I always loved Sambo’s in Springfield, MO when I lived and worked there in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Good food, good prices, very busy places.

  11. Karen H.

    When my husband and I thought up the name for our new coffeehouse it took us at least a month of consideration, including asking friends and acquaintances across the board what they thought of our choice. Any hint of inappropriateness would have caused us to reject the name. This is called due diligence.
    Many of the commentators do not seem to understand you were not slurring the names of the restaurant owners, but questioning their due diligence in the naming of the place.

  12. Two important points that a number of commentators have glossed over or misunderstood:

    1) Taking a syllable from the name of each proprietor is a common way to form a restaurant’s name. But in the end, the proprietors still choose the name they will use. “Sambo” was a well known slur-name for a Black man. In the case of the Sambo’s chain, not knowing that or not taking it into consideration was unfortunate and unwise.

    Consider this: Ms. Jewell and Mr. Boyden could combine their names into Jewboy’s. Would they? Not hardly.

    2) I am well aware that the original Little Black Sambo children’s book featured a boy who lived in India, and that the Sambo’s chain used images of an Indian boy, not an Afro-American boy. However, when the story was published in America, he was often portrayed as an American “pickaninny.”

    So, when the name was chosen for the restaurant, it was associated with a negative, racist heritage that could not be swept aside. Search for Sambo on e-Bay and you will see that in American popular culture it was mostly a negative caricature of a Black male, sometimes a child, sometimes an adult, who grinned, looked foolish, ate watermelon, and was subservient.

  13. Dee Dee

    God bless you EFX Designer…as former husband and wife owners of two units, you HAVE spoken the truth. Sam Sr. was a true gentleman who’s handshake was law. Now a prejudice bone!! Cannot speak highly enough of him…thank you for your post.

    • Michael Eugene Shipley

      I was a Sambos employee and manager. I left when the company was sold and managers were put on salary without part ownership. The story of their fall is history. People can form their own opinions. It was a very good chain of restaurants with quality food at a fair price. Not all locations did not do well when the chain did their expansion.

  14. Chris Pobst

    I worked for Sambos from 1972 starting out as a 15 year old dishwasher and leaving them at 23 as a training manager. I’m still in the restaurant business owning a successful steak house for 20 years. I consider myself well versed in the long slide to bankruptcy that Sambos found itself in. The name of the company had very little to do with it if at all. The Securities and Exchange Commission had the biggest impact on their financial situation with the result of a ruling eventually causing almost a 100% loss of Sambos management literally within a matter of months.

  15. Karl Humphreys

    I have to agree with EFX designer. If anyone bothered to read the book “The Little Black Sambo” and it’s history they would have realized that it actually was one of the first depicting a black child as a hero. When it first came out ln 1899, it also saw it’s trouble, until the critics realized that although the name was unfortunate (possibly used for the purpose to draw people in) the idea was to bring a positive spin on a story of a black child.

    Most important is that although many like to blame poor Sambo for the demise of the restaurant chain, It was a little more complicated than that. The company decided to change their management compensation package which was a completely new idea with profit sharing etc. Managers were bidding on popular stores in order to boost their income. Imagine what that would do to a person when they live locally and they lose management to a store and must relocate. This caused tension, defection, and strife, the exact opposite effect the owners were anticipating, and trying to accomplish. That along with other mismanagement bad decisions was the true demise of Sambo’s They could no longer afford to fend off or ignore the stupid attacks and this along with the name changes, which ended up being another major misstep, losing their corporate identity. The majority (over 600) were renamed Seasons Family Restaurants (lasting a few years and finally going the way of the dodo) and the remainder sold to Denny’s.

    • Anonymous

      Seems there are many reasons this or any restaurant chain might go out of business, and but I’m puzzled by the people who defend the name “Sambo’s” as neutral. Simply by being offensive to African Americans, the chain was adding to its own problems. I’m embarrassed by my own lack of sensitivity to racism often enough, and recall with a cringe my grandmother’s way of speaking of people of color. She meant no harm, either, I am quite sure, but that does not mean I feel any need to speak the same way.
      As for the history of Black people being depicted as “heroes” in popular tales, it seems the problem is that even these “heroes” are seen as quite significantly lesser than white characters — humorous and trivial, rather than figures who act effectively in the real world. I’ll have to check whether any librarians still recommend “Little Black Sambo” as reading material; I seriously doubt it.

  16. Ann Carlson

    I remembered Sambo’s as a child. Even as a child, I knew the boy was Indian. He’s shoes were genie shoes. Any intellgent person knows that. Genies were a good thing. I loved the pictures of the boy and tiger on the walls. I highly doubt anyone in town knew the tarnished side of the word Sambo or abt the book. Once again, I feel a certain race pulled the poor us racist card, making something ugly that was never about them. Ive found very few even know the true facts of slavery. That blacks owned slaves in America. In fact, one of the cruelest know Black slave owners was once a slave yet he beat, raped and even sold his own offspring into slavery. Many tribes sold their own members or neighboring enemies who had been caught. Right now, I feel little tolerance after watching a black woman stomp of the American flag. A flag (though a little different) that covered the casket of President Lincoln and represents those who died in the Civil War to free the slaves. A flag that represents the thousands fighting for our freedom and safety as well as those who have died fight for it. If it was the confederate flag, I would understand it more though I fail to understand anger over something that ended over 100 years ago and didn’t directly involve them. It was the American flag so to me it was just to disrespect anything or anyone that would cause chaos just like the Sambo situation ad many other ones. I feel sorry for the blacks who are great citizens and make something out of their life. How do you overcoming negativity when your race is making you look so ba? I am not prejudge but I do judge people on their actions. I’m aware of whites disrespecting our flag as well and like others feel they should leave this country. What I don’t like with the video last night is blacks claiming it was ok because whites slaved them and owe them. So they destroy a symbol of their freedom????

    • In the U.S. there is a darker, negative side to the both the name “Sambo” and the heritage of the tale. This post addresses that dark side and how the failure to recognize it due to white privilege and obliviousness was a factor in bringing down a restaurant chain.

      • Anita

        Explain how two men combing their own names was white privilege? I grew up eating at sambo’s my mom worked at the first Sambos, all the locals knew it meant it was Sam and Bo’s place or Sambos just like 7-11 name is shortened to hey stop by the sev and get… Sorry but your agenda of white privilege just won’t fly to the people that know history. The restaurant’s Mascot was a tiger and a child from india the Child got the tiger to run around the tree and turned into butter! Would you like some tiger butter on your pancakes!
        So enough already with the white privilege, these two mens white privilege was risking their savings and working their behinds off. Same as any man or women in America has the right to do.

      • It is irrelevant how the name Sambo was arrived at. The objection is entirely about its hateful and degrading legacy. Had they exercised due diligence in choosing the name, the owners would have rejected it. Choosing a blighted name is bad business.

  17. When I was a small child living in the bay area, (late 60’s-early 70’s)I had a plush toy of the tiger and a small boy with a turban riding him. The toy had been given to me at a Sambo’s restaurant by a man in a suit who said he was the owner. It was a favorite toy for many years until a hole in its side started leaking sand and had to be thrown away. It has been many, many years, but I have never forgotten that plush toy, or how happy I was the day I got him. Back then we were taught sticks and stones… whatever happened to that??

  18. James Grounds, Sr.

    I lived in Santa Barabara from 2004-2008. Sambo’s was a favorite of mine. The Battistones are great people, & really know how the Food Service! Sam Sr.’s grandson Chad Stevens is a perfect example of this: running 2 separate restaurants, not an easy task! My question ( a rhetorical one ) is as follows: Can’t we all just get along? [I know the answer is: “NO!”, but, can’t all of us try a ‘little bit harder’?]

  19. I will not approve comments that attack others. I have just deleted a provocative comment I had earlier approved that was borderline offensive. Please phrase your comments tactfully.

  20. I remember a Sambo in Hazel Park Michigan when was very young.

  21. Anonymous

    Let’s be truthful about the whole thing. I don’t care about the name. They had good food.

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  24. Thomas Alderson

    Actually the OWNER / FOUNDER was Sam Battistone, Sr. He was born in Santa Stefano di Sessanio, Italy (1913) and immigrated to the U.S. with his mother in 1919 (Just outside of Pittsburgh, PA – his father was already here. His father, made his living as a coal miner. Sam also worked in mines as well. Income was sparse, due to Union strife. Sam Eventually left – hopping freight trains from PA – to California with a friend (he was a genuine rail rider / hobo for a while).

    He settled in Glendale, CA – worked as a cook – met his future wife there. He and his family moved to Santa Barbara in 1947. Again, he was drawn to the restaurant business. He had a restaurant on State St, called Sammy’s – he had a business relationship with an equipment supplier, by the name of Newell BOhnett. Sam borrowed $5,000.00 US from Newell, found a great location on Cabrillo Blvd (facing the Pacific Ocean) and Sambo’s (THEIR NAMES) was born on June, 17, 1957.

    Neither of this gentlemen had a racist bone in their body, at it’s peak, Sambo’s employed over 60,000 Americans of ALL races and backgrounds. Sam was very generous and gave back to the community many times over and established a foundation to help the Seniors of Santa Barbara.

    The story of Little Black Sambo was indeed used as a marketing tool. As has been mentioned, this ‘story’ takes place in Asia NOT Africa – and the interest in the story by the restaurant was due to the fact the story ends on a high note of serving Pancakes, which is what Sambo’s Restaurant specialized in the day.

    If one wants to find fault – look to the original author and the illustrations within the book – BUT… keep in mind, the time frame of the story (1899) into the mid 20th Century was an entirely different era and mind set.

    It’s fine to disagree with the premise of the story, restaurant and the so-called ‘Racist Overtones” implied by the owner of this web page and others who have over the years, have made some fairly bold assumptions.

    For me personally, I am now in my mid 60’s, I am an African American, Black, Colored, Negro man… I both, in my lifetime, have worked and eaten at Sambo’s (in Illinois).

    As a young man, I met Sam Battistone, he extended his hand to me and as an employee and a fellow human being, he showed me the respect that I had earned up to that time and he was very kind to all those he met, or who may have worked for him.

    It was my pleasure to work for this fine gentleman and while I worked hard, I was always proud to have been associated with the Sambo’s Restaurant family.

    Do not judge, lest ye be judged – unless you have walked in MY shoes and have lived MY life – you have no idea of what you are talking about.

    Have a good day, sir. And I am grateful that Sambo’s was there for me.

    Thomas Alderson

    • Anonymous

      Great reply! I find the author of this article to be offensive and should have researched the resturants history more thoroghly. Some people try too hard to find racism where it does not exist.

    • Great job Thomas, I worked at Sambos in the 70’s going into the early 80’s. I currently own and run the excisting building that was a Sambos in Puyallup Washington. Floor plan is the same and still looks like a Sambos.
      Always have great memories of Sambos.

  25. Anonymous

    I remember eating at one of their restaurants near the Miller Hill Mall in Duluth, MN in about 77.

  26. Stan

    No use explaining the name’s origin. Some people are too hateful and prejudiced to see the truth.

  27. jon newlin

    Mrs. Bannerman’s book–despite the idiotic protests from those who never got beyond the title–is set in India…Last I heard, there are no tigers on the African continent…nor is ghee much of a favorite there…

  28. Richard H. Engeman

    There is yet today a “Lil’ Sambo’s Family Restaurant” in coastal Lincoln City, Oregon. They too have a “justification” for their name, which they attribute to Helen Bannerman’s 1899 children’s book. Sigh.

  29. Having lived and worked in Santa Barbara in the 70’s I am very familiar with Sambo’s. This concern about the name being racist was and continues to be politically correct nonsense. The Sambo’s name was simply the combining of SAM and Bo, the names of the founders..long before the popular children’s book “Little Black Sambo” by Helen Bannerman made its’ way into popular American culture…for better or worse.

    You might say “they should have known better” but I say “get over it”.
    At the time the chain offered terrific meals 24 hours/day at reasonable prices. The employees (from my observation) were happy and the compensation to managers broke the “long hours for no pay” mold in the restaurant industry with an ingenious payment plan based on gross weekly volume similar to the Valle’s steak house chain in the East.

    • Yeah, those politically correct negroes had some nerve! Always being over-sensitive. All those pictures of the little ni-black boy inside the restaurants prove that Sambo’s was just a contraction of two good white people’s names. Those coloreds even made Quaker Oats change Aunt Jemima’s picture away from being one of a proper Black Mammy, like she’s supposed to be. We need to take back this country!

    • Freespirit22

      That’s what I say, too, Eric! Get frickin’ over it! My god, people… is that how insecure you are?? You’re going to let the name of a *restaurant* determine how worthy *you* are, as a human being?? And, for this blogger to insinuate that they lied about how they came up with the name… what the hell do YOU know about these people?? Geez-Louise!

      • Let’s say it’s true that the origin of the name was innocently dreamed up. But how unconscious would someone have to be not to realize what it communicates? Not to mention the bungled response to valid criticism. It’s an embarrassment.

  30. Thomas Byg

    Where was the owner “from”…there seems to be an inherent racist predilection just forgotten

    • Both owners lived in Santa Barbara, and one of them was the mayor.

      • EFX Designer

        Different time… Different place… Whatever side of the fence you live on, the “math” being used here is fuzzy logic at best.

        The overall ‘tone’ set here seems hell bent on admonishing and impugning two fine gentlemen – Sam, Sr – (died in 1992) and Newell “BO” Bohnett (in his 90s as of this post). Too much focus being put on the Race Card and not enough effort on the humanity shown to the 10s of 1000s employed by this restaurant chain over its years of existence not to mention the MILLIONS who stopped in and ate there. My gosh – with 1200 restaurants nationwide – using the logic set forth here, it is apparent anyone who walked into a Sambo’s pancake house was a blatant, card carrying KKK member. Putting YOUR dollar on one of their counters, automatically made you a contributing factor to the White vs Black mentality that has polluted this nation since its inception.

        It was a PANCAKE house – nothing more, nothing less. And by the way, these two men were very smart, kind, generous, giving and forgiving. The oldest son, Sam, Jr, (now 76) – He was the Principal Owner, Founder and Governor of the New Orleans Jazz and Utah Jazz of the National Basketball Association (NBA) from 1974 to 1986 and also served as its President from 1974 to 1986. In 1983, he was appointed by the Commissioner of the NBA to the Advisory committee of the Board of Governors of the NBA. IF one takes the time to look at this franchise’s roster – the majority of this team’s players were NON-White AND this so-called ‘minority’ players made a great deal of money, lived lavish life-styles and had advantages that most Americans regardless of their ‘color’ simply do not experience. Mr. Battistone (JR.) served as Chairman of the Board of Directors and Vice Chairman of Sambo’s Restaurants. He served as a Founding Director of Sambo’s Restaurants, Inc. The point is do you really think a man with racist intentions would trouble himself to make African-Americans rich???

        As a nation we have spent too much time, wanting to pigeon-hole a race, nationality, color into a category – when in reality we are simply ‘Americans’ – if you need any further examples of racial overtones – just have a look at a typical government (local, city, county, state, national) application form – ALL of them want to know YOUR RACE – when in reality if we are all neutral (non-bias), what difference does it make, what color we are? Either good or bad – this divide will be with the human race for all eternity. You only have to go as far as the beginning of civilization. It has always been MAN against MAN, RACE against RACE, NATION against NATION. Two men, in the sleepy beach-side community of Santa Barbara opened a pancake house in 1957 – it became a national success story of an Italian immigrant (Sam) and a good ol’ American boy (Bo) putting their heads together and living a dream most of us can only hope for. As with anything in life – there are good, bad and indifferent decisions and choices made by businesses and individuals alike – you live, learn and move on. The chain was a success – because of a number of factors and historic events (Civil unrest, Civil rights, racial tensions, racial divide) an easy target was made of a restaurant chain and in the process, many good, hard-working people (including many whites, blacks, latinos and asians) were unemployed – some of whom recovered and some who did not.

        In 2016, racial bigotry, disgust, hatred and despair is very much alive in this nation and one thing is certain – Sambo’s Restaurant has NOTHING to do with these feelings of uneasiness and prejudice. Like it or not, it is in our genes – you either like, hate, or are indifferent to the variety of colors, races and religions in this world – it seems the overall hatred and intolerance towards the African-American is being overshadowed by the rise of a new kid on the block – seemingly drawing all the attention these days not only in the U.S. but around the globe – a group that instantly stirs deep emotions. Who are they? They are Muslims…. I wonder if there is a restaurant out there, somewhere that tells a story about a little Muslim boy and a tiger, or a lion or even a donkey or a horse.

        Oh, and for the record – Neither Sam or Bo were ever MAYOR of Santa Barbara – in reality it was Bo’s FATHER who at one time served as mayor in this hamlet called Santa Barbara.

        I’m off my soapbox now, there is nothing more to see. Move along, move along….

      • I am sure everyone realizes that choosing a name and theme for a national chain is a matter requiring considerable deliberation. In this case a serious mistake was made, and that is a subject of interest to a restaurant historian. By no means have I likened the owners to the KKK. Offensiveness lies primarily in the name Sambo, which had an unmistakable and well-known history as a slur when they chose it.

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