Category Archives: chain restaurants

Boston’s automats

I have written quite a lot about automats, their origins in Germany, and where they have appeared around the country and the world. The automats run by the Horn & Hardart Company in New York, which began in Philadelphia in 1902, were undoubtedly the most successful and best known.

But automats did not do so well in other places. In Boston, The Automat Company of New England is pretty much completely unknown and I could not find a single illustration. (Boston’s automats were not part of Horn & Hardart Co.)

In 1916 the Automat Co. of New England’s first automat opened in a renovated building at 255-257 Washington, occupying the first floor and basement.

It’s difficult to say exactly who was behind this business, but evidently there were numerous investors, including a NYC bond merchant, a New England hotelier, Harvard College, a Philadelphia trust company, and a Boston realty company.

The company began advertising in Boston papers for help, running hundreds of advertisement for chefs, cooks, buss boys, dishwashers, porters, bakers, pie men, and mechanics. Applicants were directed to 40 Winchester Street, which was the central office and commissary where food was to be prepared for the branches that would soon open.

Next, the company hired a general manager and began running advertisements for leases on new locations containing “not less than 4,300 square feet floor space with basement preferred.” Soon it had five: 2 High st., 40 Court st., 234 Huntington ave., 255 Washington, and 32 Franklin, as well as its headquarters on Winchester. As might be expected, the cost of installing automat equipment in the five locations was high.

By early 1919, the company was insolvent and operating only three locations. Receivers were appointed by the court. A story in March revealed that the company owed a serious amount of money to its creditors: $103,789. In August, the commissary and the remaining four locations were auctioned, including all equipment, furniture, stock, and patent rights.

The Waldorf Lunch System, which ran about 24 lunchrooms in the Boston area, acquired the assets of the Automat Company. They continued to run at least one of the locations as an automat, 234 Huntington, until they auctioned the restaurant in June 1924.

Waldorf ran a second automat in the 12-story Little Building on Boylston Street. Since this had not been a location of the Automat Company, Waldorf must have moved automat equipment they acquired in the auction to this address. But, in 1924 they converted this automat into a “modern cafeteria,” saying that they would now be able to handle an additional 50 customers at a time, as well as to expand the menu to include steaks, chops, roasts, and even oysters, cooked by “special chefs” who would provide “regular first-class hotel cooking.” The change was seen as a substantial upgrade.

It sounded as though Bostonians weren’t shedding tears over the disappearance of automats in their city.

It seems to beg the question of why NYC’s automats were celebrated and became objects of nostalgia.

Automat is a word still in use in Germany, meaning a vending machine. And if you think about it, weren’t the old H&H automats simply large vending machines with people working inside of them?

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under chain restaurants, lunch rooms

Lunching at the dime store

Waves of nostalgia about lunch counter menus, low prices, friendly waitresses, and non-pretentious hospitality surged when dime stores began closing their counters in the 1970s and 1980s. [photo ca. 1930]

Nostalgia was mostly confined to former patrons who were white and not involved in the 1960s protests to integrate variety store lunch counters. In fact, some black activists still had criminal records on the books for participating in sit-ins.

It isn’t surprising that dime store lunch counters were chosen as sites of protest in 1960 and 1961 if you realize that they were among the top food service chains in the country then. A report from 1964 showed that F. W. Woolworth Co. and McDonald’s Systems, Inc. were neck and neck in the chain restaurant race. McDonald’s was ahead in sales with $114M while Woolworth was at $100M, but Woolworth dominated the landscape with 1,950 units across the country as compared to McDonald’s 611. And though not in the top ten, other dime store chains also had notable lunch counter sales, particularly Kresge, Grant, Newberry [shown below, 1940], and McCrory.


Dime store lunch counters dated back to the 1910s. The earliest lunch counters were probably the ones associated with the railroads, going back at least several decades into the 19th century. But dime stores added something new to their lunch counters – soda fountains — giving them wider appeal and the ability to attract customers between mealtimes.

Their installation involved significant capital investment. As dime store advertisements proclaimed, they were modern and sanitary. Through the first half of the 20th century, the stores constantly reminded the public that they were outfitted with the latest in modern gas and electric appliances for cooking, refrigeration, cleaning, and sterilization. [Kresge, Louisville, 1922]

When a new Woolworth store opened in Abilene TX in 1939, a lengthy story reported that “All utensils touched by food are of stainless, seamless steel.” Plus, it said, the food was kept at the correct temperatures at all times, dishes were washed and sterilized automatically, and the kitchen was lit by fluorescent fixtures.

I have no doubt that due to their expensive kitchen and counter equipment, dime store food service far exceeded the typical under-capitalized independent lunch room or restaurant of the same time in terms of sanitation.

Another modernizing feature was promoting women into lunch counter management. Although I’ve seen no numbers, Woolworth’s claimed that the majority of their lunch counters and bakeries had women managers. When a new Woolworth store opened in Butte MT in 1928, the opening of the lunch counter was under the supervision of a woman who managed a busy lunch counter in a Denver Woolworth store. This was surely a role not often played by women in the world of business then. She predicted that with 62 stools and quick service, the Butte store should easily be able to serve 1,000 persons at lunch.

Dime store lunch counters have been seen as early versions of fast food restaurants and to a degree this is true. They depended on fast delivery of food, high turnover of each counter stool, and price breaks for quantity buying. But there were also many ways in which they were not like the fast food chains that helped put them out of business.

Baking on the premises and selling baked goods in the store certainly set them apart from burger chains of the later 20th century.

So did using fresh produce and buying locally. When a new counter at the Newberry store was opened in Fremont OH in 1941, an advertisement stated, “Daily there arrives, fresh from the finest markets, a big assortment of garden vegetables and fruits; from the best local dairies come rich milk and cream and palate-tempting butter . . .” Local dairies and food purveyors often co-sponsored advertising when a new store was built or a new counter installed. A new Kresge store in St. Louis acknowledged its suppliers in 1919, “reliable firms, such as Freund Bakeries, Carpenter’s Ice Cream, Thomas L. Tierney Tea and Coffee Co., Sixth Street Grocery Co., Bentzen Commission Co., Harry E. Grafeman, Foerstel Bros. Meat Co., Herz-Oakes, Swift.”

Their menus included sandwiches and desserts, but also substantial hot meals. A remodeled Kress store in Fort Worth TX announced its menus for April 1931 would include a number of 25c plate lunches such as Roast Chicken with Dressing, Cranberry Sauce, Creamed Potatoes, Buttered English Peas, Lettuce and Tomato Salad, Corn Sticks, Butter, and Rolls. There was also a vegetable plate with Mustard Greens, Creamed Potatoes, Buttered English Peas, Lettuce and Tomato Salad, Corn Sticks, Butter, and Rolls. [Woolworth menu, 1959 — click to enlarge]

Woolworth had a love affair with turkey, serving it on plate lunches throughout the year. The explanation, according to Karen Plunkett-Powell in Remembering Woolworth’s, was that the store bought up farm surpluses for good prices – whether vegetables, dairy products, or turkey. Turkey seemed to appear frequently at Kress and Kresge also.

As dime stores experienced declines in business, their lunch counters were often the first sign of cutbacks, with the last ones closing in the late 1990s. Among the mourners were older patrons who took part in informal lunch counter coffee clubs. [Northampton MA, 1990]

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under chain restaurants, food, lunch rooms, menus, popular restaurants, sanitation

Clown themes

Have you ever felt that clown themes, characters, and motifs in restaurants were a mistake? A good number of Americans – estimated as many as 12% of children and adults — experience fear that clowns are deranged maniacs in disguise.

But that wasn’t always true. The 1950s and 1960s were the era of jolly clowns. Several clowns, particularly Bozo, won a children’s audience on TV, redeeming a character that had a sometimes dark history in past centuries. In 1963 Ronald McDonald got his start on television, played by Willard Scott who became better known in subsequent years as a weather forecaster.

Scott’s Ronald, a character he claims to have created, was costumed differently than later and more familiar Ronalds. Ronald has, in fact, gone through numerous costume changes over the years — as have many corporate mascots.

Whether because of clowns’ popularity on TV or some other source of inspiration, quite a few drive-in restaurants (and some drive-in movies) of the 1950s and 1960s adopted clown names, signs, and motifs. Taking on a clown theme suggests a wish to attract children in hopes they might bring the whole family along. The drive-ins’ menus of hamburgers and ice cream were certainly in tune with children’s tastes.

As was true of drive-ins generally, clown-themed drive-ins got their start in the warmer climates of California and Texas. The original Jack In The Box, previously called Oscar’s, was one of the first, opening in 1951 in San Diego, California, with the Jack figure looming over a low roof.

Another early California drive-in of the 1950s was the Big Clown Drive-In, again describing itself as a “hamburger operation.” The Clown Burger, in Fort Worth TX, opened in 1959 serving what are now regarded as surprisingly small, thin burgers and fries.

The innocent appeal of clowns began to wane in the 1970s.

It was a blow to the clown image when juvenile and teen-age murder victims of John Wayne Gacy began to be discovered in 1978. Gacy sometimes wore a Bozo the Clown costume to aid in luring his victims. After his conviction he sold crude paintings of himself dressed as Bozo that he painted in prison.

The disclosure of Gacy’s crimes didn’t put a total end to the clown theme, but it may have accelerated its decline. A year earlier Jack In the Box had already simplified and stylized its clown logo which had been in use for nearly a decade (shown here as a charm).

Somehow, though, Ronald McDonald survived. In 2011 the chain’s mascot was criticized for peddling an unhealthy diet to children, but the company decided to keep him nonetheless.

In the 2000s, around two dozen movies with scary clowns were released. Then, in 2016 clown fears increased due to a number of incidents where knife wielding men wearing clown masks marauded in public. After that Ronald became less visible.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under atmosphere, chain restaurants, drive-ins, family restaurants, restaurant fads

Basic fare: meat & potatoes

Meat and potatoes were so characteristic of eating places in the 19th century we could call it the Meat and Potatoes Century. But of course that title could apply to most of the 20th century as well.

In 1829, the Plate House, a cheap New York City eating hall, offered steaks with potatoes by the dish and half dish, 4 cents for the latter.

Chop houses of the 19th century were also based on meat and potatoes. They could be considered forerunners of today’s steakhouses, with their dark interiors, male patrons, and baked potatoes as accompaniments to meat. One difference, though, was that in the 1800s patrons were as likely to order mutton as beef.

The chop house was regarded as an antiquated type of eating place in 1873 when a journalist wrote that Farrish’s and others were “sought out by Britishers who like places off the beaten track and humble, dark and without glitter.” Old fashioned or not, it was still loved for its “mealy” baked potatoes, probably even in the 1930s when this postcard was produced.

Little surprise that “meat and potatoes” became a metaphor for no-frills reliability. To call someone a meat-and-potatoes “man” – always a man — was more than a commentary on his diet; it also meant he was a regular guy. Similarly for a meat-and-potatoes town. As Chicago columnist Bob Greene would put it in 1983, as the world capital of meat and potatoes, his hometown was “tough, brawling, no-nonsense, rugged.”

The metaphor – that came into use after World War II — could extend to almost anything. Business success relied upon sure-thing “meat and potatoes” products and services. For Gloucester MA, odd as it sounds, the town’s meat-and-potatoes industry was ground fish. For a symphony orchestra their meat and potatoes might be a popular Beethoven sonata.

Nineteenth-century restaurants featured potatoes either mashed, boiled, baked, stewed, fried, Lyonnaise, scalloped, mousseline, or au gratin. In the 20th century the choices tended to narrow down to mashed, baked, and French fried. Meat meant mostly beef in the 19th, but extended to chicken in the 20th.

In 1885 it was standard for potatoes to come free with a meat order. As noted then, “An unordered boiled potato, with the skin on, is the second grand characteristic of an American dining saloon. It matters not what meal it is, the boiled potato will always appear, if the establishment is truly legitimate.”

But this “legitimate” entitlement was about to end. Where would fast food restaurants be today if they didn’t charge extra for French fries? As far back as the early 20th century, restaurant operators realized there was additional profit to be made by charging separately for potatoes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, fast food burger chains, hotel rib rooms, and chain and independent steakhouses began to proliferate. Steakhouses proved popular with lunching business men while families chose economy cuts at Bonanza or Ponderosa. “Advances” took place, such as foil wrappings that allowed the potatoes to remain under infra-red lamps longer without drying out. By the early 1960s sour cream and chives were considered essential additions to baked potatoes. By that time, the favorite All-American meal was shrimp cocktail, followed by steak, baked potato with sour cream, an iceberg lettuce salad thickly coated with Thousand Island dressing, and cheesecake for dessert.

In 1971 a Gallup survey measuring the popularity of “international cuisine” confirmed the timidity of most American palates. The strangest aspect of the survey were the dishes Gallup offered up as international. Among them were Beef Stroganoff (ranked highest), Swedish Meat Balls, Lasagne, Veal Parmigiana, Chili Con Carne, and Hungarian Goulash. A full 10% of respondents found nothing among the 22 selections that they liked.

Nevertheless . . . around the late 1970s the whole meat-and-potatoes dining complex began to be questioned. Increasingly it ran against new notions of health and fitness. The cholesterol, the heaviness! Also, it was such a limited diet. Did its fans have no interest in other cuisines? Meat-and-potato towns – Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Denver, Fort Worth – were shamed and ridiculed even though, occasionally, someone admitted there were plenty of steakhouses on the coasts too — New York, San Francisco, even New Orleans.

In the next phase, not surprisingly, many meat-and-potatoes towns struggled to refurbish their reputations by boasting of restaurants of all kinds. Omaha touted its seafood, Japanese, Korean, and French restaurants. Minneapolis was still conservative, wrote Jeremy Iggers and Karin Winegar in John Mariani’s 1986 Coast to Coast Dining Guide, yet they identified seventeen Vietnamese restaurants, three Thai, two Ethiopian and many other nationalities represented as well, along with examples of “yuppies” taking fresh approaches to American cuisine.

Plus, pizza had actually become the new meat and potatoes.

How are steakhouses doing today? Although there are still many around and some Americans nurture a wish to return to the 1950s, I’m guessing that it’s unlikely the golden years of the steakhouse will return. Burgers and fries, too, may have seen their better days.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Picturing restaurant food

Restaurants have long tempted the public with displays of food, but in the 20th century it became possible to replace actual food with images of desirable dishes on colored postcards and illustrated menus.

Color photochrome postcards became standard after WWII, yet it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that menus illustrated with full-color photographic images of food came into common usage.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, before photochrome postcards came into widespread production, linen-finish postcards were the norm. Their cartoonish coloring often lacked realism. For example, the grayish shrimp topping stuffed flounder at Manuel’s in Galveston TX look distressingly like worms.

Even as quality photography and printing became more available in the 1950s, restaurants weren’t always successful in portraying food attractively. Professional food stylists had yet to arrive on the scene to solve problems such as poor plating, monochromatic food combinations, and runny gravies.

Regarding poor plating, a large portion is all very fine but should an order of meat or fried fish be bigger than the plate?

Gargantuan food itself can be questionable, not only to consume but also to look at. How attractive are french fries almost as big as baked potatoes? Is a two-pound burger eight times better looking than a quarter pounder?

On menus, photos of food play multiple roles, providing information about “exotic” dishes, invoking desire, and steering choices. In the case of restaurants whose dishes – or drinks in the case of Polynesian theme restaurants — might be unfamiliar to some patrons, pictures serve as visual description.

As far back as the 1930s, some restaurants used illustrated menus but with images that appeared to be hand drawn and colored and almost comical compared to the realistic photographs that dominated chain restaurant menus by the 1980s. Full-color, laminated menus are most often found in 24-hour coffee-shop restaurants and present all the meals and dishes that are available; breakfast, lunch, and dinner often have no clear demarcation.

Laminated menus cost more to produce than others yet are relatively long-lasting because they can be wiped off — though, as often noted, rarely are. Their lifespan is about 3 to 6 months, after which prices and dishes need updating.

Unlike Indian, Chinese, or Mexican restaurants (especially in the years when they were new to many diners), dishes found on illustrated menus of chain restaurants – such as bacon and eggs, pancakes, or burgers — are not the least bit unfamiliar. Quite the opposite.

Which seems to raise the question of why such ordinary food needs to be illustrated at all.

Not too surprisingly the main role of photos is to encourage customers to order the restaurant’s more profitable dishes. It’s always possible to order a single pancake or fried egg, but it is certain that what will be pictured is instead a stack of three pancakes or two eggs with sausage or bacon.

Featured dishes are positioned to follow the paths typically taken by customers’ eyes. Prized locations include the menu’s center and top right. Another tactic, one that turns the whole menu into an eye-catching circus, is to place featured dishes inside brightly colored boxes.

As for dishes that don’t get top billing, a Denny’s advertising director observed that a hopelessly slow seller like a grilled cheese sandwich would be line-listed, no photograph. On a 1970 Tops Big Boy menu [shown here], beef and shrimp achieved center feature status but ham and fish dinners failed to make the cut, languishing in a line-list.

I am still left wondering why many dishes on illustrated menus look so unattractive, especially considering that the menus are often produced after extensive research and consultation with experts. On a three-panel 1985 Friendly’s menu a “100% Sirloin Steak Burger” looms over the center column at a scale larger than other features such as a Clamboat Platter and a Seafood Salad Plate, yet it utterly fails to project charisma.

Contrary to wished-for results, many diners view laminated, illustrated menus as a signal that a restaurant’s offerings are going to be bland and uninteresting. An Orlando FL restaurant reviewer complained in 1988 that many restaurants there used laminated menus: “It seems that no matter what type of restaurant I go to, or how much is charged for the average meal, the menu is plastic coated. It reminds me of the people who buy really nice furniture and then cover it in plastic.”

Really? Nice?

Illustrated menus have become so strongly associated with mediocre food that it is a huge mistake for an establishment aiming for the fine-dining category to use such a menu, even temporarily. But, believe it or not, such a restaurant existed in Phoenix AZ in 1983, with expensive entrees pictured in shiny plastic while the wine list was calligraphied and covered in velvet.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under chain restaurants, food, menus, restaurant customs

Restaurant design and decoration

In the second half of 19th century restaurant decoration – in restaurants that had any — was mainly the work of painters who created baroque fantasies on walls and ceilings. Rooms reserved for female diners seemed to be more likely to be well decorated. An example was a ladies’ Refreshment Saloon on Broadway in New York in 1853 painted by someone simply referred to as Delamano. It’s likely he was the same Signor Delamano who painted scenery for a minstrel production with tableaux featuring Uncle Tom and Little Eva five years later.

Unfortunately I don’t know what the women’s decor of 1853 looked like. But for men, a standard decorative focal point was a painting over the bar of a reclining nude woman. Presumably men enjoyed these paintings, though one dissenter in 1884 declared barroom artwork a tasteless and degraded “decorative nightmare” aimed at “gamblers and the swell-mob.” To little effect – such paintings survived well into the 20th century, continuing to define spaces as male turf.

Along with friezes and murals, a full-service painting and decorating firm was likely to be able to handle plaster ceiling decorations and room moldings. In the case of the excessively ornate, carved and gilded Tosetti Restaurant opened in Chicago in 1895, decorators were aided by metal grillwork attached to the ceiling which was then covered with elaborate plaster work and lunettes painted to depict historic scenes.

Magnificence had become more attainable in the 1880s with the availability of Lincrusta-Walton, a thin version of linoleum that was embossed and paintable. It was waterproof and altogether superior to papier maché reliefs that had been used earlier. An era of exuberant gorgeousness was about to begin.

Theatrical decor reached a peak in the work of Henry Erkins, who designed the short-lived, Babylonian-styled Café de l’Opera and the opulently ridiculous Murray’s Roman Gardens in New York, shown here in 1908.

Decorative materials such as Lincrusta [shown here] were especially popular in the decades when restaurants were designed as empty boxes, ready for a decorator. As explained in Interiors Book of Restaurants (1960), architects from earlier eras had “designed buildings from the outside in, often giving no more thought to the appearance of the interior than the use of appropriately designed moldings, paneling, stairways, and other architectural details which would relate the style of the interior to that of the exterior.” The rest was left to a decorator who would finish the interior in the period style selected.

Later, particularly around the mid-20th century, the process was reversed, with architects working from the inside out, often in collaboration with an integrated design team that might include lighting and kitchen consultants along with interior designers. The integrated inside-out process was manifested in the California coffee shop of the late 1940s and 1950s.

Of course hiring a professional design team presumes a well-capitalized restaurant. Many restaurants, of course, had no architect, designer, or decorator unless it was the owner or an associate, and this remains the case today. In stark contrast to restaurants designed by prominent designers and decorators such as Raymond Loewy Associates or Dorothy Draper [see top, coffee shop at The Greenbrier], were the everyday 20th-century cafes and lunchrooms that had no decor whatsoever other than advertising calendars and soft drink posters.

For a long time, only luxury restaurants enjoyed the services of professionals, but that had begun to change with the emergence of chain lunchrooms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They adopted functional designs meant to make the most of a storefront location from a business standpoint. Rather than beauty or faux-luxury, they built their reputations on cleanliness, efficiency, and brisk, moderately priced food service.

Although there have been some well-known restaurant designers, they tend to remain behind the scenes, largely unknown to the dining public. Certainly the designers of lunchroom and cafeteria chains were not celebrated. It’s likely that some of them were employees of restaurant supply companies, such as Vulcan Equipment and Supply Co. of Birmingham AL, which claimed in the 1950s to be “One of the South’s Finest Restaurant Designers,” specializing in “beautiful and serviceable” restaurants.

After World War II restaurant design came into its own, with firms that specialized in just that, handling not only dining room decor, but kitchen layouts, lighting, furnishings, and even the design of distinctive uniforms, tableware, and menus. In the case of restaurants owned by New York’s Restaurant Associates – such as the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, Leone’s, the Four Seasons [see below], La Fonda del Sol, and others, each restaurant had its own logo appearing on menus, matchbooks, ashtrays, and in advertisements.

Although New York City had many restaurants by top designers, California proved a strong rival in the 1960s when restaurant patronage soared there. A new restaurant type had evolved, the “California coffee shop,” combining elements of drive-ins, coffee shops, cocktail lounges, and dinner houses. They occupied specially designed structures that used novel angles and signage, with modern interiors that were said to reduce labor costs and speed up service. Among the leading designers were IRS, Inc., responsible for designing and developing more than 2,200 California coffee shops by the mid-1960s, and Armet & Davis, hailed by Alan Hess (Googie, Googie Redux) as responsible for making “Coffee Shop Modern . . . a major popular modern style.” Hess identifies a specialized architectural vocabulary applicable to these styles, one that includes terms such as boomerangs, dingbats, folded eaves and plates, and hyperbolic paraboloids. [Biffs, Los Angeles, Dougles Honnold architect]

The Four Seasons, opened in 1959 in NY’s Seagram Building, represented the height of luxury restaurant design, not only because it employed a top flight of designers but also because everything in it was custom designed to the tune of $5.5 million. The decor changed with the seasons, from the interior trees and plants right down to the color of waiter uniforms and matchbooks. The recreated Four Seasons, about to open at a new address, reportedly cost $30 million, which works out to $6.2 million less than the present-day value of the 1959 project [measuringworth.com].

In the 1970s and 1980s, the growing popularity of theme restaurants brought about new kinds of decorating services, as well as a growing industry of collectors who amassed warehouses full of objects of all sorts, ranging from antiques to wagon wheels and dentists’ chairs. One such business, originating in the late 1950s, was Oceanic Arts in suburban Los Angeles which grew to be a major supplier and manufacturer of Tiki decor.

By the later 20th century anyone opening a first-class restaurant faced a host of requirements beyond heightened customer expectations of decor. They ranged from managing utility demands, fire and health regulations, accessibility issues, and, in California, earthquake proofing. By 1990 costs began in the hundreds of thousands, easily escalating into the millions, even when dealing with a location in pre-existing building.

Restaurant design has come a long way from Lincrusta and potted palms.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, lunch rooms, restaurant decor, uniforms & costumes

Dining on a dime

To celebrate my blog’s 10th anniversary, I’m looking at what a dime would buy in American restaurants of the 19th and 20th centuries.

It’s not too surprising that a meal could be bought for a dime through much of the 19th century. BUT, does that mean that a restaurant meal was much cheaper then than today?

Not necessarily. For example, compare the situation of unskilled laborers in 1869 and now.

In New York City in 1869, when the average hourly wage for an unskilled laborer was about 15 cents, a meal of meat or fish with two slices of bread and a potato could be had for 10 cents. Adding pie, the bill came to 15 cents. A laborer had to work one hour to pay for this meal. And, any restaurant with prices this low – most were more expensive – was almost certainly dirty and smelly.

Today, by contrast, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that $16.60 is the median hourly wage for an unskilled construction worker, meaning half of workers surveyed make less than that and half make more. Using this as a typical wage, we also have to consider that various taxes are taken out resulting in a smaller net amount, something that was not the case in1869. Subtracting $5.00 gives a net wage of $11.60. At McDonald’s a regular hamburger costs .95, but let’s make it a double for $1.89; small fries are $2.09, and an apple pie is $1.14. The total comes to $5.12. So a laborer has to work less than one-half hour to pay for what is probably a more substantial meal than in 1869. And – this is not intended as an advertisement for McDonald’s — the restaurant is undoubtedly cleaner.

Before Prohibition cheap restaurants had a hard time competing with saloons’ free lunches in many parts of the country. According to research on urban working-class saloons (Jon M. Kingsdale, American Quarterly, October 1973), along a 4-mile section of a major street in Chicago in the 1890s there were 115 saloons with free lunches, but only five 10-cent restaurants and twenty five charging 20 to 35 cents. Brewers bought food cheaply in large quantities and furnished it to saloons at cost.

Not surprisingly, it became harder to find 10-cent meals, or even single dishes, in 20th-century restaurants. And, of course, even in the Depression people who had jobs made more per hour than they did in the 19th century, making a 10-cent sandwich, for example, a better deal.

But in the 1970s it was basically impossible to find anything on a menu for ten cents. (But, keeping in mind the McDonald’s example above, it was possible to find something in a restaurant that cost no more than one hour’s wages.)

Here are some samples of what you could get for a dime in American eating places over the years:

1854 A New York City temperance restaurant tried to lure patrons away from strong drink with plates of meat for 10 cents, as well as tea, coffee, and cocoa for 3 cents a cup. Since a typical laborer’s wage was even lower then than in 1869, this was a bargain only in the sense that prices were higher in most other restaurants.

1869 In contrast to New York City, a workman could do pretty well in San Francisco, according to one newspaper account that asked, “Where else in the world can a man sit down to green-turtle steak, bread and butter, celery, sauces, etc., . . . with but ten cents in his pocket? A very popular cheap eatery was in the What Cheer House which served over 1,000 patrons a day in dining rooms crowded with people waiting to grab a vacated seat. On average, workers in California made 60% more than New Yorkers, about $2.00 a day.

1884 At the Novelty Lunch Room in Grand Rapids MI a hungry worker could get Hot Griddle Cakes and Maple Syrup or Pork and Beans for 10 cents. A nickel more bought pie or cake. Michigan’s median daily wage for a laborer was then $1.42.

1889 Boston was said to be the home of sandwiches of all kinds, with Wyman’s taking credit as originator of the Fried Egg Sandwich. As noted on this trade card from the 1880s, Wyman’s specialty was a ten-cent lunch. At this time Massachusetts’ median daily wage for a laborer was only $1.22, about 12 cents an hour.

1895 Eating places known as “Beefsteak Johns” in NY sold single dishes such as roast beef and potato for 10 cents, while a regular dinner costing 20 cents had meat and potato plus soup, tea or coffee, and pie or pudding. But a few years later a letter to the editor of the Daily People signed “Hamburger Steak” charged Beefsteak Johns with paying low wages and serving bad food. It ended with “Forward! To the days of the Socialist Republic when the food of the workers will not be adulterated by the little business man in the restaurant line.”

1904 Fairgoers generally expected high prices for food at world’s fairs, but at the St. Louis World’s Fair the Universal Lunch Co. ran barbecue stands selling hot beef sandwiches for ten cents.

1910 Prices were lower in self-service eating places such as the newly opened Servself Lunch in Detroit’s Majestic Building which billed itself as the finest quick lunch in America. Most items, including soup, corned beef hash, pork and beans, macaroni and cheese, chicken pie, boiled eggs, sandwiches, corn flakes, baked apples, griddle cakes, and pastry, cost a dime each.

1922 Cooper’s Cafeteria in the college town of Champaign IL offered weekend specials such as Veal Loaf with Tomato Sauce or Creamed Chicken on Toast for 10 cents, while most side dishes and desserts cost 5 cents.

1928 and 1929 At Macy’s Department Store in New York, where it was “Smart to Be Thrifty,” the store shaved a penny off items that would have been 10 cents in most restaurants, such as Vegetable Soup, almost all pies and cakes, and a variety of beverages including Coca-Cola and Orange or Raspberry Phosphate. Each cost 9 cents. But a 1929 menu from Schrafft’s at 181 Broadway in New York listed absolutely nothing for 10 cents. The average hourly wage for manufacturing workers before taxes was about 56 cents in both years.

1932 The White Castle chain adopted a promotion to attract women customers (who generally avoided the restaurants). They were mailed coupons by a hostess named “Julia Joyce” that offered five small hamburgers to carry out for only a dime. The economy was depressed and the average hourly pre-tax wage for factory workers had dropped to 47 cents.

1941 With the U.S. supplying food to Great Britain for the war effort, the cost of food went up. Restaurants responded by raising prices. In Springfield IL a Wimpy’s hamburger stand increased the price of its 10-cent burgers to 12 cents.

1950 In New York City the Automat raised the price of coffee from 5 to 10 cents. At the Children’s Milk Bar in the Lord & Taylor department store, children could snack on milk and crackers for 10 cents.

1951 In Beaumont TX the Pig Stand was selling hamburgers that cost 10 cents before WWII for 25 cents. The average hourly pre-tax wage for manufacturing workers was $1.59.

1962 Even at inexpensive restaurants and drive-ins, beverages such as coffee or a small soda were usually the only items priced at 10 cents.

1965 A Burger Chef in Baton Rouge LA celebrated its 6th anniversary with 10-cent hamburgers. Ordinarily they cost 15 cents.

1974 See cartoon.

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