Toddle House

toddlehouseca1940

The Toddle House chain occupied “cozy cottage” style buildings that were quite popular as restaurants, gas stations, and cabin camps in the Depression. On the outside Toddle Houses projected an exaggerated Colonial doll-house version of domesticity, with two oversized chimneys and a primly manicured lawn.

toddlehouseinteriorca1939Inside, though, a very functional, almost clinical interior greeted customers: A back wall of stainless steel kitchen equipment, a counter with a dozen comfortless, backless stools (“in and out in 12 minutes”), bare windows, bathroom-tile wainscoting, and NO fireplaces. Open 24 hours, their menus were limited and featured hamburgers and breakfast at all hours.

ToddleHouseStedmanpatentAdding another touch of no-nonsense modernity was the “cashier machine” invented by founder and co-owner J. C. Stedman. Designed to keep the countermen (later women) from handling money, a mechanical box near the door received meal checks and payments in coins. After a counterman observed, via a mirror inside the box, that the customer had deposited the correct amount, he lifted a treadle behind the counter and the money and checks fell through trap doors into locked bins below (nos. 14 and 15 in the patent diagram).

As awkward as the contraption was – not giving change, easily circumvented by cheating employees, etc. – it remained in use at least until the 1940s and customers liked it. In Evanston IL customers felt let down, their trustworthiness in doubt, when the cashier machine was replaced by a standard cash register in 1945. Today, the old drop box system — in my view mistakenly considered an honor system — has become an object of nostalgia.

toddlehouseca.1953

The first Toddle Houses were opened in Southern states, principally Texas and Tennessee, in the 1930s. The chain never made it farther west than Omaha. In 1945 the company expanded northward with the acquisition of 46 Hull-Dobbs Houses, which resembled Toddle Houses to a remarkable degree. Toddle Houses built later were larger and of a style referred to as “New South” shown here that was plainer and even more symmetrical. Some had dining rooms and the front entrances with copper-clad canopies were enclosed by glass vestibules.

In 1946 Toddle Houses created Harlem House, for Black customers who were not otherwise welcome. Eventually there were 12 such units in Memphis, the company’s headquarters. An Atlanta Toddle House was the site of a prominent civil rights sit-in demonstration in December of 1963, in which demonstrators including comedian Dick Gregory were taken to jail.

toddlehouse1938Memphis

The original 24 × 12-ft Toddle Houses were prefabricated and shipped to their sites on flatbed trucks. It has been reported that their exteriors were of porcelain-coated steel for portability. Since this material is inappropriate for Colonial architecture and they do not appear to be shiny in pictures, I find the description given in Philip Langdon’s Orange Roofs and Golden Arches more convincing. He says that some Toddle Houses were “veneered with a cement coating scored to resemble brick.” Others were built of brick on site. Langdon also observes that because early Toddle Houses could be transported so easily, the possibility of moving them presented advantages when negotiating land leases. I discovered a number of them that were in fact moved.

In 1962 the Toddle House company was bought by Dobbs House which turned most of them into Steak N Egg Kitchens. In the 1980s, after another company, Carsons, bought out Dobbs, an attempt was made to revive the Toddle Houses, which by 1984 had dwindled to 11 units. Carsons built at least 45 new Toddle House units.

Though Toddle Houses no longer exist, many of the buildings continue as eating places or have been adapted for other uses, as shown in a blogpost by Dinerhunter.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

35 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, technology

35 responses to “Toddle House

  1. Anonymous

    No New York comments? Toddle House in Jackson Heights (1940 or so), New York near a public school. Best place for eats.

  2. tom

    They had the best chocolate ice box pie that ever was.

  3. Helen McCleskey

    Is the Toddle House building in Austin TX still standing at 29th and Guadaloupe? If so what is the business there now and/or the original address? Thank you

    • The old Toddle House building is still there, at W. 29th near the corner of Guadalupe. It is now Ruby’s BBQ, having previously been Fajita Flats. Though the building has been altered, the exterior is still somewhat recognizable as a Toddle House. You can view it using Google Earth.

      • Anonymous

        When I was a UT student back in the 60’s we referred to that Toddle House as “Earl’s” The late night cook was Earl Arnette. He remembered what you would always order and remember students after they graduated. Fabulous late night food.

      • tom cassin

        That would be W. 19th.

  4. Bill

    My dad took me to the Toddle House on Delmar Blvd. in University City, MO (suburban St Louis) in 1954 and 1955 when I was 9-10, after our little league baseball games. The hamburgers, which were a quarter, were terrific, as was the chocolate pie. Most memorable though were the hash browned potatoes, which were an unusual but appealing reddish color because the cook sprinkled them with paprika while they were cooking on the griddle, The place seemed quaint and more decorous than other such establishments, which were often mobbed with truck drivers and high school kids. Many people miss and still talk about the Toddle House.

  5. Donald Jordan

    My mom worked for toddle house on Ponce de Leon in Atlanta ga. And the one on peachtree. Then we transferred to the toddle house in Raleigh N.C. From there we transferred to the toddle house in Springfield Il. I was 15 when I worked there with my mom got me a job as cook. Gov. Adlai Stevenson came for breakfast, many times..many memories..

  6. Jane

    I remember a Toddle House in Rochester,NY.. My mother and I had to take two city buses to get to it. One night we arrived at the Toddle House which was Located around Park Ave as I remember and my mother had forgotten her money. Did we go home and stay, NO! We got our money and took two buses to go back to enjoy our Toddle House burgers. We took two buses home as we were Happy. we had our TODDLE HOUSE burgers. Yum!
    D

  7. Kelvin Crabtree

    My mother worked at a Dobbs House in Houston back in the mid to late 60’s. I still have her pin from there. It’s where she met my biological father (though I’ve never met him) when they worked together. I’ve tried for years to find pictures of Dobbs Houses in Houston or of what the uniforms looked like just so I could see what my mom would wear. Any ideas where I should look? ke

    • Was it at the airport? If so, you might find something by searching for images of the airport. Otherwise, I’m afraid I don’t know of any special collection or site to recommend.

    • Dennis H.

      There was a Dobbs House at North Braeswood @ Stella Link. I lived a block away. A young husband & wife team ran the franchise. Went to see the Harlem Globetrotters with the husband (don’t remember is name) and my dad. Could this be your parents?

      • Anonymous

        Unfortunately no. My mother was a cook and worked the front counter. My biological father was a cook but they never got married. I’m not sure about how long they worked at the Dobbs house. I know we lived off North Main when I was a baby. And my biological father lived close to Shepherd Dr. so not sure if there was one near there or directly downtown.

      • Anonymous

        Do you remember the name of the man by chance? The Harlem Globetrotter’s thing rang a bell with me just then.

  8. Anonymous

    I think we had place mats for the Toddle House diners in the late 80’s. I cannot believe if we rolled our silverware, or if we just did a set-up on a napkin!!! Anyone from the Dobbs owned Toddle House remember that?
    It was a pleasure working when Dobbs owned it because we had uniforms provided, an allowance for laundering our own uniforms. We made a better than a minimum wage, plus tips, in addition to insurance options. When it was sold to DHG out of Connecticut, everything changed for the worst! No quality product, no benefits if any kind. They were horrible to work for. Their managers illegally adjusted your time card, but only enough to keep any government investigation! You had to take them to civil court, for which the knew you didn’t have the money or time for that!
    They ruined a wonderful place to work and serve the public good food. They went into bankruptcy and closed the doors of Toddle House!

  9. Dick Fletcher

    In the 1940’s my family frequently went to the Toddle House in Chattanooga on Sunday evenings. This was when they still had the honor system. The box was by the door.and as a kid I would drop the ticket and cash in the box – this was a big deal for me. I guess when WWII came along people were less honest – no more cash boxes!

  10. Martie

    My mom worked at a Toddle House in Wilmington, Delaware. Dad was a radio operator for TWA and dating another of the waitresses who called him “her pilot”. Mom and Dad were interested in each other and Mom gave her phone number to somebody a little louder than necessary. Dad called her for a date and the rest is history. Thank you Toddle House!

  11. My family owned the Toddle House. Nice to see it remembered

    • Elaine Niles

      I would love to see the inside of the Toddle House diners that were in Tampa, Fletcher ave., and Temple Terrace, 56th street, Florida.
      I worked at both locations. Anne Garrder was my manager. She unfortunately, passed away February 2015. Anne was the most pleasant manager that anyone could work for.
      Anne came from Germany at 17 yeras of age. I think the horrible things she witnessed growing up in Nazi Germany, formed a kindness and happy greeting to all who came through the doors of Toddle House.
      It would be wonderful to see the menu, as well as having the source and recipe for their famous malt Belgian waffle, served with hot syrup. The grilled bacon cheese tomato sandwich grilled with real butter, served with their vegetable soup was a favorite!
      There is not a diner like this here in Florida anymore. Waffle house is disgusting! The food quality is horrible now that they were sold to a different owner.

    • Elaine Niles

      I started working for Toddle House about 1985 on Fletcher Avenue, Tampa, Florida. Dobbs still owned the franchise then. I stayed with them for 10 years within two locations.
      Unfortunately, when Diversified Hospitality Group from Milford, Connecticut bought it, it went to hell quickly. The managers adjusted your overtime and made sure it was under $200/so the EEOC wouldn’t investigate them!
      They changed the quality of the food product.
      I have very fond memories otherwise!

    • Dennis H.

      Sorry the rebirth of Toddle House in the 80’s didn’t make it.

  12. Cindy

    I went to work for a Toddle House in Waco Tx in 1961. I was only 14. I worked for them off and on until I was in my 20’s. I loved working there and they had excellent food. I wish I could run across some of the recipes they used to use !!! If anyone has any, let me know !

  13. Don Freidkin

    I used to stop at the Toddle House on Broadway in Lubbock, Texas, after I signed the radio station (KRKH-FM) off at midnight, for a chopped steak and egg breakfast.

    The eggs were beaten with cream and soft-scrambled in real butter, and the chopped steak was really chopped, not ground.

    I’d give just about anything for a breakfast like that again.

  14. Ken

    I remember the Toddle House on Hildebrand Ave in San Antonio sometime between the 1960’s and the 1980’s. I was impressed by the rapid cooking and stainless steel pan cleaning techniques of the one person operation.

  15. I used to love the Toddle House when I was a kid. The only two dishes I remember were excellent fried potatoes and chocolate pie.

    The money machine predates me by more than a decade, so I never saw it — but it reminds me of the fast food places in Japan where you pick your dish from pictures on a wall, punch the number of the dish you want into the machine, and then put the needed money into the machine. The machine then spits out a ticket, which you hand to the waiter once you find a seat. Your meal shows up minutes later. I wonder if it was inspired by the Toddle House machines.

  16. Jen

    Informative post—I just stumbled across your blog last night and knew it was a winner right off the bat! At any rate, I’d love to see one of the cash machines in real life. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never even seen one at a museum!

  17. One of your many intriguing, enjoyable blogs. I am particularly interested in the cash machine and the portability and building technology for the restaurants.

    • Thanks. I wish I could have found out more about the buildings’ manufacture or who designed them. As for the cash machines, I suspect Stedman wanted to see his invention go into general use but I have no idea if any other businesses ever used it.

  18. Excellent. Thanks Jan

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