Category Archives: chain restaurants

Fred Harvey revisited

As many readers probably already know, particularly if they’ve seen the Harvey Girls movie with Judy Garland, Fred Harvey was the prime architect of a company begun in 1875. Harvey ran what were once called eating houses serving passengers and workers along the route of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. [Raton NM, ca. 1900]

Largely due to the movie, Fred Harvey — the man and the company — has been turned into a myth about providing the first good meals for train passengers and, in the process, civilizing the West. The myth was crafted mainly in the 20th century, and has rarely been challenged. As such, the Harvey enterprise has also been hailed as an example of the first restaurant chain.

I have looked carefully at the company’s first 25 to 30 years and have found many ways in which the actual history challenges the myth. Almost certainly the meals provided by Harvey’s eating houses were superior to much of what was available in the West. Yet, this is an exaggeration in that it leaves out how often eating houses on other railroad lines were praised. [menu, Las Vegas NM, 1900]

And, although Harvey’s meals were better than average in the 19th century, “the Harvey system . . . represented a utilitarian approach to meeting the needs of travelers and railroad company employees” (History of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway; Bryant, 1974). Some of the early dining spaces were far from elegant, located in simple frame buildings, or even fashioned out of train cars. [Deming NM lunch room, ca. 1900]

Viewed as a model of a successful modern restaurant chain, the Harvey case demands a closer look. Harvey had a close relationship with the vice-president, later president of the Santa Fe line, W. B. Strong, and enjoyed a sweetheart deal with the railroad. Essentially he could not fail, even in the early years when the number of patrons of his eating houses was small. Railroad passengers going West in the early years were of two classes. One was tourists who could afford to travel for enjoyment. The second, people moving West, were classed as “emigrants.” They were of lesser means and carried food with them because they could not afford to buy the meals, which were high priced.

The railroad’s primary business was freight; passenger traffic was light. The 44 Harvey houses then in business each fed an average of only 114 per day in 1891. It is striking to compare this figure to that of an admittedly very busy restaurant in NYC, which often fed 8,000 patrons a day in 1880.

In a number of ways the railroad operated like today’s cruise ships in terms of its relation to the surroundings, stopping briefly to refuel, get water, and let passengers off for meals. Using the railroad to transport food, supplies, and workers from afar by train – all at no cost – was what sustained the Harvey eating house business. Additionally, the beef used by Harvey eating houses was supplied from Harvey’s own ranch, and shipped for free (a practice known as deadheading) to slaughterhouses in Leavenworth KS and Kansas City MO and back to his kitchens. This drew the ire of local butchers and ranchers who had to pay high rates to ship their cattle. As Stephen Fried reported in his thoroughly researched Appetite for America, Harvey co-owned a ranch of 10K cattle with Strong and another railroad executive.

Newspaper editorials in several of the towns where Harvey did business railed against his practices. A paper in Newton KS called him “one of the worst monopolists in the State” because he brought supplies from Kansas City rather than buying from local merchants. Conflict about the same issues in Las Vegas NM was ongoing as the town struggled to prevent Harvey from supplying his own meat. Bitter complaints were made from people in Albuquerque as well, especially when two box cars were delivered and painted yellow to serve as a make-do restaurant. High prices for meals were widely criticized by local patrons.

Employees in the Harvey system included very few local people. Many were immigrants from Europe, especially the cooks, though the waitresses tended to be U.S.-born, and were selected by employment agencies in cities. Myths have celebrated how the “Harvey girls” married ranchers and helped populate the West (indigenous Indians and Mexicans aside). But in fact the servers were semi-indentured, with half their pay held back for 6 months to keep them from leaving the job. Not only was this meant to discourage resignations due to marriage but also to discourage the practice of working for a short time and then requesting a transfer farther west, all in the effort to finance travel through the West. [Photo of dining room server, ca. 1890s]

In terms of pleasing patrons, Harvey’s food was widely praised. But Santa Fe passengers were not really satisfied. What they disliked about the eating houses was basically that they existed at all. As an article in Scribner’s inquired, “Why . . . should a train stop at a station for meals any more than a steamboat should tie up to a wharf for the same purpose?” Passengers would have much preferred to eat on the train rather than to rush through their meal in 20 minutes – or, worse, to have mealtime delayed for hours when trains ran late. But the three largest railroads, including the Santa Fe, had made a pact not to introduce dining cars because they were huge money losers.

The pact began to break down in the late 1880s, but when the Santa Fe decided it wanted to run dining cars on through trains, Harvey got a court injunction preventing it, claiming it would violate his contract. After several years, the injunction was lifted when Harvey was awarded the contract to run the dining cars. [California Limited advertisement, early 20th century]

Despite many of the myth-challenging realities of the favorable circumstances Harvey enjoyed, he did introduce some practices common to modern chain restaurants. His was a top-down organization based upon standardization and strict centralized control. Each eating house was run like every other, with goods, employees, and services selected according to the same methods. In the early years, Fred Harvey personally visited and inspected all restaurants. Later supervision was taken over by managers, accountants, and a chef, who operated from the central office in Kansas City. By contrast, other railroads contracted with individual operators to run their eating houses as they saw fit and sourcing food locally, which produced excellent results in some cases, but limited menus and unappealing food in others.

It’s not surprising that the Harvey myth persists like so much of Western lore. Alas, it is extremely difficult to correct legends. When facts depart from a legend, John Ford, director of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, concluded with resignation, “. . . print the legend.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under chain restaurants, lunch rooms, proprietors & careers, waiters/waitresses/servers

Famous in its day: Blum’s

In the early 1890s Simon and Clemence Blum started a confectionery business in San Francisco, creating a brand that would become one of the nation’s largest. In 1907 they relocated to what become the store’s lifetime address at Polk and California after their earlier location was destroyed in the earthquake and catastrophic fire of 1906. By the 1920s, if not earlier, Blum’s was serving three meals a day in addition to selling their handmade confectionery.

With Simon’s death in 1915 and that of his son Jack in the 1930s, the business passed into the hands of Fred Levy who had married Simon’s daughter. This was in the depths of the Depression when few could afford candy and Blum’s was close to failing. Somehow Levy resurrected the business, getting through the Depression, and then sugar rationing during World War II. By 1947, the business was in good shape, reporting sales of over $3.5M, most of it coming from the Polk Street store, and the rest from sales in department stores and mail orders.

In addition to endless varieties of chocolate candies, Blum’s also specialized in ice cream, including its “fresh spinach” flavor, ice cream desserts, baked goods such as Koffee Krunch cake, fruit and vegetable salads, “Blumburgers,” and triple decker sandwiches.

Levy brought innovations, switching to machine production of candy in 1949 and, a few years later, introducing a successful 10-cent candy bar for sale in vending machines. The candy bars as well as a second brand of lower-priced boxed candy sold in Rexall drugstores under the name Candy Artists. These products developed out of his belief that postwar consumers were unwilling to pay for premium candy.

That year Blum’s opened its 2nd company-owned-and-operated store, in San Mateo. Its candy counters in department stores such as I. Magnin, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus, and others were not run by Blum’s.

Also in 1949 a “Blum’s Confectaurant” opened in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel [shown above]. The Polk street store also had a confectaurant, as its combination soda fountain + candy counter + bakeshop + restaurant was known. The term refers to an eating place that has table service for dessert orders only as well as for meals, and was likely used only in California.

Levy sold his shares in Blum’s in 1952 and resigned as head, but the number of stores continued to grow under a succession of new owners. Expansion began in October 1953 with the opening of an outlet in the Stonestown Mall.

In 1956, in addition to Blum’s four San Francisco locations (Polk St., Fairmont Hotel, Stonestown, and Union Square), there were stores in Carmel, Pasadena, Beverly Hills, Westwood, and San Mateo and three more planned to open soon in Palo Alto, San Rafael, and San Jose.

A luxurious Blum’s opened in 1959 at Wilshire and Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills [shown above]. It had a cleverly named “Board Room” reserved for men during the daytime, outfitted with dark paneling, crystal chandeliers, and a long cocktail bar — plus a stock ticker in the corner. Serving alcohol may have been an innovation for Blum’s at this time, repeated when their New York City location opened in 1965 on East 59th Street [see below]. Making an appeal to men was also new for Blum’s, which had customarily located in shopping areas where women abounded.

The New York Blum’s stayed in business only about six years, and two Oregon units opened in 1967 and 1968 fared even worse. The one in Salem closed after only nine months while Blum’s in Portland stayed in business fourteen months.

Since the late 1950s Blum’s had passed through the hands of various majority stockholders. The first, Owl/Rexall Drugs, was followed by the California-based chain Uncle John’s Pancake House. After Uncle John’s came General Host Corp., then National Environment in 1968, shortly thereafter renamed Envirofood. Things did not go well for Blum’s after that. In 1970 “surplus” equipment and furnishings were auctioned at the original Blum’s on Polk. The following year, the company was sold to an investor in Lincoln, Nebraska, who soon moved headquarters there. In 1972 he closed the Polk Street Blum’s, leading columnist Herb Caen to coin the term “glum Blummer.” In a few more years there would be no Blum’s left in San Francisco.

Blum’s candy continued to be produced for years despite the brand being acquired by a Kansas City MO company in 1983. Perhaps no longer world famous, it was undoubtedly remembered by Californians who recalled when “Blum’s of San Francisco” was a proud name. As late as 1984 a Blum’s Restaurant was in operation at the I. Magnin store in Los Angeles, where patrons could indulge themselves with a Giant Banana Bonanza for $3.95. And a florist in Napa CA was still selling boxes of Blum’s candy for Easter in 1991.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under chain restaurants, confectionery restaurants

Speed eating

Since the early 19th century, observers have commented on how fast Americans eat. Visitors from other countries were especially apt to notice the speed with which people, particularly men, gulped down their food and hurried away from the table as quickly as possible.

In the 1843 book Men and Manners in America, the author observed that “all was hurry, bustle, clamor, and voracity, and the business of repletion went forward with a rapidity altogether unexampled.” He described how at breakfast he had barely arrived at the communal table as others were rushing off, leaving behind a terrific mess of chicken bones, an upset mustard pot, and a tablecloth with egg, coffee, and gravy stains. Dinner was no better: “the same scene of gulping and swallowing, as if for a wager.” Many of his fellow diners left the dining room before the second course and few waited for dessert.

His observations were ratified by many others, continuing throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. New York’s inexpensive “slam-bang” places with counters were especially noted for their customers’ speed of eating. Viewed from the back, wrote an essayist in 1865, a row of 30 men with heads bent down and elbows moving rapidly looked as though they were weaving or fiddling. They finished in about 8 minutes.

A Scribner’s story in 1874 described the typical American restaurant as a place where men “do not eat – they feed,” without even removing their hats. It reported that the average mid-day “dinner” time lasted 6 minutes and 45 seconds. At New York’s Astor House of the 1880s – scarcely a low-class eatery – many of the male customers ate standing up at a counter, a practice that was by no means rare. A visiting French economist attributed the popularity of 5-minute counter lunches in saloons to the wish not to interfere with business — a convenience “that does not cut the day in two.” Or, as another writer put it in 1895, “The ammunition is put in, with a wad of dessert on top, and in ten minutes the man who is going to be a millionaire in less than ten years is back at his desk, loaded and pointed at his work . . .”

By the late 1890s, women had also become speed eaters, “stopping in restaurants when shopping and being in such a hurry that they don’t care what they eat and do not even remove hats and coats.” The so-called “new woman” was ready to sit at lunch counters “like a man and eat her pie and drink her coffee in a hurly-burly.”

The late 19th century also witnessed the development and spread of new restaurant types organized around speed – the cafeteria, the automatic restaurant, and the quick lunch, all of which were based on the abolition of table service. They also did away with the much-hated custom of tipping that was widely viewed as a foreign importation from old and dying Europe.

Through the 20th century speediness was made into a science, increasingly applying not only to how fast customers ate, but how quickly food could be prepared, how quickly customers could be presented with food, and how they could be induced to leave as soon as possible. The hot noontime “dinner” gave way to the sandwich lunch. The number of menu choices was reduced. Chains developed that produced food in central commissaries, doing away with the need for full-scale restaurant kitchens. Cafeterias discovered they could speed up the serving line by wrapping silverware in a napkin. Uncomfortable seating could be designed to stop patrons from lingering.

After the second World War, in which the military had developed rapid methods of feeding troops, speed-up technology advanced in restaurants. A California drive-in had machines that could mold 800 hamburger patties per hour and slice 1,000 buns in the same time. In 1956 an automatic broiler was advertised to drive-ins that broiled approximately 300 burgers an hour. The franchise system began to spread quickly to drive-in eateries across the country, but now without curb service because it was much too slow even if carhops wore roller skates. Even table-service restaurants, catering to the relatively leisurely dinner crowd which was on the increase in the 1960s, improved their speed with frozen foods, boiling bags, and microwave ovens.

By 1965, more than 70% of the more than 378,000 commercial eating places in this country were quick-service restaurants, according to a marketing research study.

No one comments about Americans eating fast anymore. It has become normal.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under cafeterias, chain restaurants, patrons

The Automat goes country

What happened when Horn & Hardart went outside the densely populated city and into the countryside?

“The Automat in the Forest” was located in Sterling Forest Gardens, a 125-acre private park filled with attractions such as huge floral displays, children’s playgrounds, fountains, and a meditation garden. The enterprise, created by a NYC investment company, was a one-hour drive outside New York City.

The Gardens presented a highly-engineered version of nature achieved with imports such as 1.5M tulip bulbs and 300 robins for the grand opening in spring of 1960. (The robins arrived by plane.) There were swans, peacocks, cranes, and flamingos, while native wildlife was strongly “discouraged” from participating. There were even special “picture-taking spots” where a sample photograph was displayed along with precise instructions on how to get the same results.

At the time of the 1960 opening a wire-service story disclosed a jarring fact: “The setting is so romantic that few visitors would guess that the Union Carbide Corporation’s laboratory is constructing an atomic reactor over the nearest hill.” That did not seem to deter visitors.

Into this surreal wonderland came the Automat in 1962. That summer a promotional photo showed children feeding a deer in front of a wall of vending cubicles – which was odd since deer were forbidden in the gardens. The photo’s caption explained that the Automat was the first to be located outside a city, and described it as having redwood planks and pastel panels rather than the usual marble facing “in keeping with its surroundings.” In the postcard above, the vending wall looks oddly out of place in the high-ceilinged building and has little feel of an urban Horn & Hardart.

At the same time that the Automat moved into the Sterling Forest Gardens, Horn & Hardart’s Food Service and Management Division was advertising that it could furnish In-Plant ‘Automats for Industry’. I suspect the factory installations were very similar to the array in the Gardens.

The Automat was not the first eating place in the Garden’s International Pavilion. A 1961 postcard described the original eating place, a buffet, as “tastefully decorated in international motifs.” Nor was it the last restaurant in the Pavilion. It was there only two years, continuing in business through the 1964 season. By the 1965 Spring Festival the Automat in the Forest had been replaced by the Sterling Farms Restaurant. Later, in 1968, there was a Schrafft’s occupying the Pavilion.

Horn & Hardart also operated a second eating place in the Gardens, Peacock Patio, that had a cafeteria and barbecue. Not far from the park, it ran a Country Store where, ironically, H&H frozen prepared dishes were sold. It’s not clear how long either remained in business under Horn & Hardart’s ownership.

As might be imagined, Sterling Forest Gardens was popular with garden clubs, groups of older adults, and bus tours generally. Without doubt its most unusual guests were Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia and his wife who visited in summer 1963, one day after Tito enemies had infiltrated the Waldorf Towers where the Titos were staying in NYC. Distrustful of the city’s ability to protect him, Marshall Tito cancelled plans to attend a 1,100-person dinner at the United Nations, asking instead to visit a farm. He was taken to Sterling Forest Gardens, where he and his wife lunched at the Automat. Walking through the Automat’s cafeteria line, he chose a hamburger steak, french fries, and macaroni while she accompanied her ground meat with fries, carrots, and spinach.

After several years of slumping attendance, the Gardens closed in 1976. Later, it became a site for medieval jousting.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under alternative restaurants, chain restaurants, Offbeat places, patrons

Name trouble: Aunt Jemima’s

Of all the Black representations found in American white-owned restaurants, the mammy figure has been by far the most common. Many women in the restaurant business of the past have been known as Mama or Mother, but Mammy was reserved for Black women.

The mammy figure, usually grinning broadly in its corporate version, was meant to be a symbol of hospitality universally appreciated by white Americans. Early restaurants using Mammy as part of their name and/or as a visual trademark started appearing in the 1920s in Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania, and Florida, among other states, with the word Mammy often paired with Shanty, Shack, or Log Cabin. The name and trademark continued in use through the 1970s.

In 1955, probably the best known of all the mammy restaurants opened in Disneyland as Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House, using the sponsorship and trademark of the Quaker Oats Company. The other eating places in Frontierland – among them Pepsi-Cola Golden Horseshoe, Swift’s Chicken Plantation, and Casa de Fritos – also reflected name-brands.

In 1960 Quaker Oats began to franchise Aunt Jemima’s Kitchens, a name variant that signaled wider menu offerings. The first opened in the Chicago suburb of Skokie IL. In 1963 there were 21 in operation in the U.S., plus one each in England and Canada. Among the states, New York led with seven Aunt Jemima’s in the first few years. Pancake restaurants, largely inspired by the high profit potential of pancakes, were the latest food trend in chain eateries at that time, with an estimated 150 around the country. One Aunt Jemima’s franchisee, Pancake Kitchens, Inc., had optimistic plans to open 36 units in the Eastern U.S. I doubt that they were all built, or that the total number of Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Houses and Kitchens across the country ever topped 100.

Protests against Aunt Jemima’s restaurants began in 1962. But there had been objections to the Aunt Jemima image on pancake mix boxes much earlier. Black newspapers ran an editorial in 1937 saying that Aunt Jemima was an “insulting caricature,” in particular criticizing the bandanna she wore over her hair, saying, “The fight against ‘Aunt Jemima’s’ bandanna is one of self-respect.” (Quaker did not get rid of Aunt Jemima’s bandanna until 1968.) Yet, apparently not all Black people were offended by the Aunt Jemima portrayal. In 1952 the Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore hired a marketing company to research the use of Aunt Jemima pancake mix by their Black readers. The company surveyed 501 Black families and 501 white families whose house values or rents were similar. Both groups chose Aunt Jemima pancake mix as their favorite, but it was preferred by a higher proportion of Black respondents (38.1%) than white (31.7%).

It would be interesting to know whether the results would have been the same if the survey had been carried out in the 1960s. The NAACP led the protests, joined by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The biggest victory seems to have been in an affluent suburb of Rochester NY, Brighton, where an Aunt Jemima’s restaurant was proposed in 1963. The two organizations criticized Aunt Jemima for her degrading costume, calling her “a negative stereotype of a Negro subservient to a white family.” The restaurant was not built but once again opinion was not unanimous in Rochester’s Black community. The editor of a city paper, The Frederick Douglass Voice, contended that “These symbols are part and parcel of our heritage.”

The Rochester protest was widely ridiculed in opinion pieces in the white press that characterized protestors as humorless and oversensitive. Writing in Chapel Hill NC’s Daily Tar Heel, author Armistead Maupin called it “comical” and “absurd,” arguing that the mammy was not a negative stereotype but a historical figure to be proud of.

Still, the tide was turning. In 1966 members of the American Federation of Teachers voted at their annual convention at Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel to picket the hotel’s Aunt Jemima restaurant unless it agreed to allow its workers to unionize and get rid of the mammy costume worn by the Black hostess. The delegates then resolved to urge Quaker Oats to drop the Aunt Jemima symbol on its products or face a possible boycott. According to an article in Jet magazine, the restaurant’s hostess expressed unhappiness that her heritage was attacked and that she could no longer wear the Aunt Jemima costume, which she had designed. Obviously the AFT was unsuccessful in asking Quaker to get rid of the Aunt Jemima trademark, which did not happen until this year.

In 1968 and 1969 a number of Aunt Jemima restaurants closed. The restaurant in Grand Rapids MI became Colonial Kitchen, while one in Mount Prospect IL was renamed Village Inn Pancake House. Many across the country became part of the Calico Kitchens chain. In 1970 Disneyland ended its contract with Quaker Oats and renamed its Aunt Jemima restaurant Magnolia Tree Terrace, changing that in 1971 to River Belle Terrace.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under chain restaurants, family restaurants, food, racism, restaurant controversies, theme restaurants, uniforms & costumes

Dinner to go

The current situation, with restaurants packing up take-out meals for customers, makes me think it’s time for a repost of this one — with a few additions.

Selling prepared food ready to be eaten off the premises, known as carry-out or take-out, is as old as the restaurant itself. In Colonial days, James Hearn of New York City advertised that “families may every day be provided with plates of any dish, that may happen to be cooked that day, by sending their servants for the same.” In addition to full meals, early “restorators” and restaurateurs were also happy to deliver oysters and sweets such as freshly made ice cream, sherbets, and pastries.

After the Civil War, advertisements appeared offering “lunches put up” for travelers and tourists. Such ads became more common as time went on, especially in the 1920s as many first-time car owners took to the roadsides for vacations and Sunday outings. With relatively few restaurants outside cities, the service was a welcome one. The ads continued into the 1950s in areas that attracted seasonal fishers and hunters.

For most customers, carry-out was an added service meant to accommodate them. Not so if the customer was Black, though. Under Jim Crow in Southern states, Black customers were unwelcome in dining rooms and at lunch counters – and could only obtain food to go (if that). In the early 1960s, Black activists fought for the right of table service in white restaurants.

The post-World War II era produced not only a baby boom but also a television boom. TV-watching suburban families with young children fueled the advance of a carry-out trend in the 1950s and 1960s. By the early 1950s the restaurant industry realized it had a “television problem” but found a way to deal with it. A restaurant consultant offered 2-day seminars detailing how smart restaurateurs were actually increasing business volume through carry-out. He explained for the slow learners that “people telephone in orders, pick up their food at a set time, then go home to eat before their television sets.”

The carry-out trend was well established by the mid-1950s, when a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association remarked, “the way the business is booming, pop not only brings home the bacon . . . he brings it home ready to eat.” A restaurant in New York’s Grand Central station offered a commuter’s dinner, while an inn in Nebraska was set up like today’s fast food restaurants with a speaker post in the driveway for dictating orders and packaged food ready to go at the check-out window farther along.

In the 1960s certain foods achieved greater popularity with diners on the dash than with sit-down restaurant customers, particularly fried chicken and pizza. Other favorites were Chinese, Mexican, and barbecue. Regular “meat and three” dinners did not fill the bill, it seemed, plus fast food chains were able to deliver the goods faster. Why take-out orders are so common in Chinese restaurants, which do offer full meals, is still something of a mystery to me.

So, little wonder that in the early 1960s before the chain added indoor seating, McDonald’s dubbed itself “McDonald’s Carry Out Restaurant.” According to a report released in 1962 one-fourth of all restaurant orders nationwide were “to go,” with drive-ins at the top and pizza parlors not far behind.

Although Chinese and fast-food have clearly dominated the take-out marketplace for some time, there has been some space for more elaborate cuisine. Take-Out Alice, opened in 1972 by Alice Brock, made famous in song and film (“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant”), may have been one of the early places supplying gourmet meals to go, such as sushi, borscht, and salmon mousse. Beginning in the 1980s there was something of a blossoming of take-out eating places with more ambitious offerings, including some with catchy names, including The Joy of Not Cooking and Good To Go.

As long as Americans want the convenience of meals prepared by someone else but are disinclined to step inside restaurants for table service, we might expect take-out to enjoy an increase in business.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015, revised 2020

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Filed under chain restaurants, restaurant customs

Drive-up windows

A short time ago I read a Serious Eats article about how drive-through fast-food restaurants are filling a gap during the coronavirus epidemic because they make it possible for customers to get ready-to-eat food without getting too close to others. It also gave a brief history of drive-up windows.

Reading it reminded me that I had put this topic on my to-do list a while back (along with ideas for about 500 other future posts!). Now’s the time.

Over the years, drive-throughs have come in for criticism for environmental issues around idling car engines. I think there is a genuine problem with idling vehicles, but often critiques come with an unfair amount of negative judgement about the people who use them. I reflected on this a few years ago when a journalist asked me about why Americans are so fond of using drive-ups.

Customers of drive-ups are assumed to be too lazy to get out of their cars and/or blithely unconcerned about air pollution. But it occurred to me that there are some good reasons for getting a meal this way. Certainly it’s worth considering those who are physically disabled, dead tired from a hard day’s work, dressed in dirty work clothes, accompanied by crabby small children, don’t speak the language, or are self-conscious for whatever reason.

Yet clearly most of the enormous number of people who use drive-ups do not fall into these categories. In 1998 when many communities were trying to keep out new drive-throughs, a McDonald’s company spokesperson said outlets with drive-ups made up about half of sales that way.

Fast food restaurants claim, probably accurately, that doing business from windows while providing limited or no indoor seating reduces operating costs and allows them to offer lower menu prices. That may be true, but it’s also true that environmental costs tend to be invisible.

Initially, drive-ups appeared in warm climates in the 1930s. One reason drive-up windows did not come into use earlier was that prior to the Depression many restaurant-goers still ate hot meat and potato dinner-type meals on a plate, even at noon. So drive-ups could not be a service option until restaurants had whittled themselves down into fast-food providers. They needed a small menu of simple hand-held items that could be prepared in a flash and would not turn into a mass of cold mush within minutes.

Drive-up restaurants became more common in the 1950s and 1960s, at the same time drive-up banking did. Jack in the Box, Wendy’s, and Der Wienerschnitzel were early adopters. At Der Wienerschnitzel drive-up customers passed right through their A-frame buildings, somewhat similar to a 1964 patent that shows a giant M with two lanes running through it [shown below]. In the 1970s and 1980s, as chains spread across the country, drive-up windows became commonplace.

Early drive-up windows were often intended to serve customers who had phoned in their orders. Soon some restaurants began to use push-button intercoms, making phone-ahead ordering unnecessary. In the mid-1980s a wireless ordering system became available that permitted the worker to talk to the customer without pushing a button each time, enabling her/him to move around to fill the order while communicating at the same time.

Another innovation was the drive-through with no indoor seating at all. This was the ultimate in paring down the restaurant experience, to the point of non-existence. But this approach did not reach predominance, possibly because the major chains believed that customers wanted the option of going inside.

In 1989 California adopted a plan to reduce emissions by limiting car idling at drive-throughs. Municipalities throughout the country — often those with higher-income residents – attempted to stop the construction of new drive-through businesses in the 1990s and continuing into the present. Beyond addressing environmental concerns, the movement to restrict drive-up windows may be inspired equally by a wish to keep fast-food restaurants out of the neighborhood entirely.

Despite the strong reasons that some customers have for using drive-throughs, especially now, I tend to side with the opposition. Yet, if viral epidemics become more common as some have predicted, we may see a proliferation of this type of food service.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under chain restaurants, restaurant issues, roadside restaurants

Franchising: Heap Big Beef

The 1960s was the decade when franchising frenzy began. Franchising was hailed as a chance to be your own boss and make a comfortable income with a moderate investment.

Fast food drive-ins and other low-priced eateries with limited menus were in the forefront of the franchised businesses springing up everywhere. As is typical with franchised restaurants, owners needed no particular experience, or even interest, in food or food preparation. Because, in a sense, someone might just as well choose a franchise in wigs or roto-rooters as chicken or hamburgers.

One of the interesting franchising business careers was that of the originator of Bonanza and Heap Big Beef. The principal creator of both was an ambitious man named Don Pruess. He was a true believer in a franchising formula that paired a celebrity name with a chain of small businesses run by people who put up the capital. In 1956 he signed up Esther Williams to lend her fame as a movie star and champion swimmer to the sale of backyard in-ground, vinyl-lined pools. However, as has often been true of businesses with celebrity figureheads, the company was soon in bankruptcy.

A few years later, in 1963, Pruess began licensing local distributors to sell franchises for Bonanza Sirloin Pit Steak Houses. An advertisement for franchise applicants proclaimed, “It’s America’s hottest food franchise,” saying net profits ranged from $2,500 up to $7,000 a month with a $20,000 cash investment. The following year the first restaurant in the chain opened in Westport CT with Dan Blocker, who played ‘Hoss’ Cartwright on the TV show Bonanza, enlisted as the chain’s celebrity mascot.

As it developed, Preuss’ business was more than simply a franchisor of restaurants. As a 1973 law brief put it, his corporation, Franchises International (F. I.), “was the ultimate in franchising” because it “franchised the right to sell franchises.”

Serious expansion of the Bonanza chain actually did not happen until its acquisition by a Texas company in 1965. The following year F. I. began seeking franchisors and franchisees for Heap Big Beef. The first units in the HBB chain opened in 1967, with a menu of “giant” beef sandwiches for 59 and 99 cents.

In addition to franchising for Heap Big Beef, F. I. did the same for a beauty salon chain named Edie Adams’ Cut & Curl and Mary’s Drive-Thru Dairies. At one point F. I. revealed plans to move into franchising for more than 50 other types of businesses including nursing homes and diet centers.

At the same time, F. I. was seeking capital from a large investing company called City Investing Co. Starting in 1967, Heap Big Beef franchising advertisements identified F. I. as a subsidiary of City Investing. But the relationship was fraught from day one. The president of City Investing did not approve of F. I.’s sales tactics, including misrepresenting how many units had been opened. For example, City Investing objected to the false implications of F. I.’s claim that Heap Big Beef #32 had opened, suggesting that the number was not in fact a tally of how many had been opened. City’s subsequent failure to supply F. I. with enough capital led to the resignation of Pruess and the other officers of his corporation.

Beginning in 1969 there was a die-off of Heap Big Beef outlets. Though it had been advertised as the hottest thing going, it turned out the chain had never exceeded 60 units nationwide. The latest date I could find one in operation was 1971.

Maybe there are fans out there that still sorely miss Heap Big Beef, but I doubt it. Given its theme, it was a chain that could not exist today. The American Indian theme had no relevance, having been adopted solely because of the popularity of western TV shows at the time. The A-frame buildings were meant to suggest tepees, although they were used by other chains, including Der Wienerschnitzel. There was little about the menu that differed from 19th-century lunchroom fare except for the paucity of items and the offensive “Hollywood Injun English” used. Consider: “You’ll let out a war whoop” when you eat a Heap Big Beef (or Ham, Fish, or Corned Beef) sandwich. How about a Warrior Burger, a Shawnee Shake, or a Pawnee Pie?

File Heap Big Beef under failed restaurant chains.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under chain restaurants, menus, proprietors & careers, roadside 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