Category Archives: chain restaurants

The Mister chains

Sometimes I feel the need to focus on ridiculousness in restaurants, maybe because I run across so many instances of it when I’m meandering through old sources. Lately I’ve been exploring franchising and have encountered numerous silly concepts expressed in the names of chains. Many businesses across the country adopted “Mister” or “Mr.” as part of their names, and this seems to have been particularly true of restaurant chains. [For now, I’m calling all of them Mister.]

There are also scores of restaurants with names such as Mister Mike’s or Mister T’s, but those are usually not part of franchise chains and the letter or nickname refers to an actual person, usually the owner, who may be known by that name in real life. I’m not including those here.

I’m more interested in the Misters that are not named for actual humans. At least I’m hoping that there is no real-life Mister Beef, Bun, Burger, Chicken, Drumstick, Fifteen, Hambone, Hamwich, Hofbrau, Pancake, Quick, Sandwich, Sirloin, Softee, Steak, Swiss, or Taco.

There were also Sir chains, such as Sir Beef, plus Kings and Senors. Were they in their own way an expression of multiculturalism? Being “continental,” Sir Beef was classier than most of the Misters.

For quite a while I believed there could be no Mister Chicken. That seemed obvious to me – who wants to be called a chicken? But then it occurred to me that I should do a little more research. I was proven wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Surrounding the logo shown here were the words: Home of America’s Best Barbecue Chicken Since 1966!” Although there were restaurants by the same name in Rockford IL and Atlanta GA, I don’t know if they were related.

I find Mister Pancake’s face somehow threatening, but never mind that – he was a hit in his hometown of Indianapolis. He came into the world there in 1959, but I don’t know if he appeared anywhere else.

I especially like the logos that attempt to humanize food, particularly unlikely items such as hambones. Sadly for him and his girlfriend, Mister Hambone International – aka Hammy — really didn’t catch on. Starting out in Virginia in 1969, he opened at least one place in North Carolina, but nothing, I think, internationally.

Mister Softee with his natty bow tie, born in New Jersey, was mainly peddled out of ice cream trucks, but there were also restaurants of the same name that served hamburgers, steaks, hot dogs, fish, etc., along with the creamy guy. In 1967 a mobile franchise cost $2,500 while a restaurant was ten times that, which may account for why there were then 1,600 trucks — even as far off as the French West Indies — but only 5 restaurants. Overall, Mister Softee, like Mister Steak, had a more successful life than most of the Misters.

Mister Drumstick, born in Atlanta, offered the World’s Best Fried Chicken. I can’t help but wonder why he is holding a hamburger rather than a chicken leg. Maybe it was because his franchise was sold in connection with Mister Sirloin, a roast beefery, as well as Mister Hamwich, a ham sandwich purveyor. So far I’ve found four Mister Drumsticks in Atlanta and a few in Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri. Nino’s Mister Drumstick in Sandusky OH looks more athletic than Atlanta’s, but of course he has the advantage of legs. Was he a go-go dancer in an earlier phase of his career?

I like the Drumsticks, but my favorites are Mister Bun and Mister Sandwich (of New York City!). They are so versatile. They can handle anything that goes between two slices of bread. I don’t know what Mister Sandwich looked like but Mister Bun was a strange one, with his extremely short legs, his six-guns, and his 10-gallon hat. I can’t really figure him out. Is he trying to compensate for being nothing but bread?

The three Florida creators of Mister Bun had high hopes in 1968 when they opened their first location in Palm Beach, with plans to add more outlets in Florida as well as a number of other states where investors were interested. They advertised for franchisees by telling them that Mister Bun featured “the eight most popular food items in this nation.” It was true that Mister Bun could hold almost anything, so they settled on roast beef, cold cuts, roast pork, frankfurters and fish, accompanied by french fries and onion rings, and washed down with a range of beverages, including beer. Alas, Mister Bun had a rather unhappy life, experiencing little growth, abandonment by his primary creator, and time in court.

Females seemed to stay out of the game, so there are no Mrs. Buns, Mrs. Beefs, Mrs. Tacos . . . or Miss Steaks. Maybe theirs was the wiser course.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

13 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, food, restaurant fads, restaurant names, signs

Celebrity restaurants: Here’s Johnny’s

Restaurant chains whose owners and franchisees hope to succeed based on a connection with a celebrity are often disappointed. It’s clear that a famous name is not enough, leading to the failure of many that have depended too heavily on this while ignoring other elements of what makes for restaurant success.

Here’s Johnny’s, with Johnny Carson as its namesake, is a vivid example of the inability of a name to build a chain’s fortunes. The same was true of many other chains, such as those affiliated with Pat Boone, Minnie Pearl, James Brown, and Mahalia Jackson.

The fact that the would-be national restaurant chain Here’s Johnny’s barely got off the ground had nothing to do with Johnny Carson. The bad timing for fast-food start-ups then, 1969, had something to do with it. But so did the initial concept – gourmet hamburgers – and the poor implementation and direction of the chain’s development.

Rather than Johnny Carson, it was the Swanson brothers, grandsons and wealthy heirs of the frozen food empire that introduced Swanson TV dinners, who were responsible for the chain.

Johnny Carson, a popular host of the Tonight Show, was already a television fixture when he agreed to lend his name and engage in publicity for Here’s Johnny’s. He accepted the position of nominal chairman of the board of the parent company, Johnny’s American Inn, Inc. His duties were to appear at five or more restaurant openings a year. In exchange he was to receive $37,500 a year and what amounted to about 15% of stock in the parent company.

Carson insisted publicly that he was more than a figurehead: “I’m going to be active in it. . . . I’m not going into one of those get rich quick things that you just lend your name to and strike gold.” But, of course, the business was under the direction of the Swansons, primarily the elder brother Gilbert Jr. Carson was right, though, in saying it wasn’t a “get rich quick thing.”

The Swansons had been overly optimistic about how many franchisees they could sell. Even before the prototype opened in Omaha in 1969, they announced that they were hoping to sell 375 franchises in the next 18 months, including four or five in Omaha. An advertisement for franchises that appeared in Esquire magazine less than a year after the grand opening claimed “more than 300 have been sold.” However many may have been sold, few actually made it into operation. When the parent company declared bankruptcy in 1974, only 13 were in business.

The original concept was of restaurants with booths, each furnished with a telephone for placing orders (a setup shared by the King’s Food Host chain, based in Lincoln NE). The menu was fairly limited, with hamburgers, fried chicken, steak, fish sandwiches, and hot dogs. However, in October of 1971, a little more than two years after opening, the two Omaha restaurants, described in the Esquire ad as having a “luxurious atmosphere,” were redesigned and the entire concept was changed to that of a family-style restaurant. The telephones that enabled each booth to call in their order were scrapped. Reportedly they had never worked properly.

All franchising was to halt until the new program was in place, but the changes were made only in the two company-owned Here’s Johnny’s in Omaha. The company acknowledged that it would be unable to carry out the makeovers for the franchised units. Needless to say the revamp did not save the chain, though it did improve business at the initial Omaha restaurant. [pictured: advertisement, 1972, for the only two Omaha locations ever opened]

The final blow for the Swanson brothers was a lawsuit brought by the Louisiana franchiser, who charged numerous problems with the chain, such as shoddy kitchen equipment, inadequate training, and little help with financing and site selection. The franchiser was awarded damages. Altogether, the brothers ended up having lost millions.

In 1976 the last Here’s Johnny’s, the first to be opened, closed its operation on S. 72nd Street in Omaha.

At the same time that Here’s Johnny’s was launched, the Swansons also opened the first of what was to be a chain of 100 Time Out fast food eateries meant to serve as financial boosters for the Black community. The brothers partnered with two Black sports figures, Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer, and other backers. The North Omaha location, opened in 1969, was the only one ever built. It failed in 1972 and was then taken over by new owners. It is still in business today, in the original building.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

8 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, family restaurants, proprietors & careers, restaurant issues

The long life of El Fenix

In 1958, an advertisement celebrating 40 years in business made the claim that El Fenix was “The Oldest Mexican Restaurant Chain in the U.S.” According to the family of founder Miguel Martinez, he opened his first restaurant in 1918 in Dallas TX. [El Fenix on McKinney Ave. pictured above, ca. 1954]

Of course Mexican eating places, including stands, were not a new thing in Texas. They had been around throughout the 19th century in San Antonio – which of course was part of Mexico for part of that time. A Mexican man and his French wife in Los Angeles were serving tamales, enchiladas, carne con chile, and albondigas in 1881 — along with French dishes!

Martinez had come to the U.S. around 1911 during the upheaval of the Mexican revolution. Then about 21 years old, he left behind a life of hard labor that began early in childhood, with no time for school. Before opening a small café in Dallas, he had worked as a streetcar track layer, a dishwasher, cook, pool hall operator, and barber.

It’s remarkable that he was so successful in the restaurant business – where failure within five years is the norm — and that he and his family altogether carried on the business for 90 years. But I am not convinced that El Fenix was the first Mexican restaurant chain in the U.S., since its true chain development took place after WWII.

Miguel’s first café – not yet named El Fenix — was located in the center of Dallas’ “Little Mexico” barrio, a part of the city virtually abandoned in terms of city services, without paved streets, and full of poorly constructed rental properties, many of which lacked plumbing.

About seven years later, Miguel — who adopted the name Mike – moved his restaurant to a new location, in a brick building that had been a food market. Although I’ve seen earlier dates quoted, the 1926 advertisement shown here suggests it was that year that the restaurant moved to 1608 McKinney Street, an address that would be a primary location until 1965 when construction of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway necessitated moving – across the street. The name Phoenix/Fenix referred to the mythical bird associated with rebirth and survival.

By the 1930s, Mike Martinez was regarded as the big success story of Little Mexico. According to a 1931 account his restaurant had become quite popular with visiting Northerners who came to Dallas to escape cold winters and were looking for something different in the form of enchiladas and chicken mole.

Within five years he had three restaurants. In addition to the El Fenix Café on McKinney [pictured] there was an El Fenix Coffee Shop on Oak Lawn Ave. and a Mexico City Café on Pacific Ave. However, within a few years, the group was down to just one, the McKinney Street address. The manager of the Mexico City Café had bought the business and moved to a new address. About the same time, the Coffee Shop’s manager joined rival El Chico and a grocery store took over its location.

Until the mid-1940s, when Mike Martinez turned over El Fenix to his eight children, the McKinney Street location remained the sole restaurant. It had become a popular place, equipped with a large banquet room and a ballroom annex and hosting many civic and social groups. The restaurant’s owners, now the second Martinez generation, soon began to build El Fenix into a chain. [Oak Cliff location, opened 1948]

Despite the popularity of Mexican food with certain Texans and out-of-town visitors, it appears that many patrons were not fans. El Fenix, like other Mexican places, found it necessary to offer standard American restaurant fare as well. Judging from advertisements, the American menu was often promoted more actively than the Mexican, suggesting that it took a while for many Dallasites to develop a taste for Mexican food, even when it was prepared to appeal to “Tex-Mex” preferences. Although the McKinney café redecorated with a Mexican theme in the mid-1930s, the menu featured standard American restaurant fare such as steak, fried chicken, fish, and shrimp, spaghetti and meat balls, combination salads, and french fries in addition to Mexican dishes. With the end of Prohibition, it began to offer alcoholic drinks, which no doubt expanded its appeal as a dinner venue.

In 1950 the family opened the first Oklahoma City restaurant [see above advertisement], then came new locations in shopping plazas. Meanwhile, the chain also produced much of its own food for sale, including candies, tacos, tamales, and canned chili. [below, Casa Linda Plaza El Fenix, ca. 1957]

By the 1960s, Mexican dishes formed a more prominent place in El Fenix advertising, with specialties such as “crispy” puffed tortillas filled with spiced beef, chili con quezo, or fried beans. With the opening of their restaurant at Lemmon and Innwood in 1960, tagged the “most elegant Mexican restaurant in the Southwest,” an advertisement touted its fare as “the ultimate in authentic . . . extraordinary Mexican cuisine.”

The chain continued to grow. By 1984 there were 18 El Fenix-owned/franchised restaurants, 11 of them in Dallas, 4 in other Texas cities, and 3 in Oklahoma City. Two went by other names: Don Miguel’s, in Addison TX; and Taco Burrito, in Oklahoma City. [pictured above, Galleria Mall, Houston]

In 1998 newspapers reported that the other venerable Dallas chain, El Chico, was set to buy El Fenix, but the deal fell through. Ten years later El Fenix – then consisting of 15 restaurants — was sold to the Firebird Restaurant Group which continues to own it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

Thanks to Daniel Arreola for lending the postcard of El Fenix in Houston’s Galleria Mall.

7 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, ethnic restaurants, food, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

Restaurant ware

Fine table settings were not to be taken for granted in pre-Civil War American eating places. In 1843 an English visitor was delighted to find a Charleston hotel with “clean table cloths and silver forks.” He recommended the Jones Hotel, run by a Black proprietor named Jehu Jones, the son of a freed slave. Thick dishes, often chipped, and crude forks were more typical of many hotels then.

According to Junius Henri Browne’s The Great Metropolis, in 1869 there were many restaurants in New York City but only in the most expensive, such as Delmonico’s, did the diner find “silver, and porcelain, and crystal, and fine linen.” Common basement eateries, on the other hand, had “broken earthen-ware, soiled table-cloths, and coarse dishes.”

Coarse dishes had become the definitive sign of a cheap restaurant. But in the later 19th century, when early fast-food chains began to form, they attempted to break the equation that thick dishes and bowls indicated filth by being insistent about cleanliness. They stuck with thick dishes that didn’t break or chip simply because they were more practical.

The Baltimore Dairy Lunch

Founded in the late 1880s, Baltimore Dairy Lunch was an early challenger to the old assumptions about thick chinaware. The first unit was opened in Baltimore by a postal clerk. By 1920 there were about 140 locations in large cities through much of the Northeastern U.S. Menus were simple and prices were low. Customers went to a counter to get their food, and consumed it quickly, either while standing at a high counter-type table or sitting in a one-arm chair similar to a school desk. This thick, shallow bowl – possibly used for milk toast – expresses the spartan simplicity of Baltimore Lunches. Despite some yellowing along the edges, it has held up well over the decades.

Ontra Cafeteria

The Ontra (pronounced “on tray”) was a cafeteria begun as a working women’s lunch club, one of four operated by Mary Dutton in Chicago in the 1910s. Like the Baltimore Dairy Lunches they were meant to be affordable and appealed to those who did not want to spend much for a noonday meal. Undoubtedly, like most women cafeteria owners who had studied home economics, Mary Dutton put a high stock on practicality and thrift. This Ontra plate, date unknown, is sturdy but not as thick as dairy lunch dishware.

Steak n Shake and Demos Café

These sturdy glasses are typical of mid-century restaurant glassware with their non-chip rims and their dents and bulges that make them slip proof as well. It’s likely they were produced by Libbey, a major advertiser of glassware in mid-century restaurant trade journals. An advertisement assured restaurant buyers that “Libbey Safedge glassware offers you a wide selection of patterns in all sizes, for beverage and bar service. And because of its durability, you are assured of economy in operation . . . with every glass backed by the famous Libbey guarantee: ‘A new glass if the rim of a Libbey ‘Safedge’ glass ever chips.’”

Woolworth’s lunch counter

The Woolworth plate came from my local dime store when it was closing for good in 1990. Its pattern is one of the endless variations on a theme of this sort, one that could appear in any of a number of colors. Again, a sturdy plate for customers who never gave it a second look.

The Craftsman restaurant

Cheap dishes, glasses, and flatware simply wouldn’t do for upscale restaurants. The better-off classes demanded finer table settings. This had always been true for the wealthy, but in the early 20th century, the middle-class also raised its expectations.

Good taste expressed in restrained design suggestive of nature was the motto of The Craftsman in New York City from 1913 to 1916. Lunch and dinnerware was Onondaga white china with a light brown pinecone design forming a border. For afternoon tea, Lenox furnished an off-white china featuring the Stickley “Als Ik Kan” symbol and motto that promised integrity of method and materials.

Alice Foote MacDougall coffee shops

Women’s tea shops tended to stress individuality. This meant rejecting standardized restaurant ware, instead establishing a unique identity with decor and tableware. Alice Foote MacDougall — who called her tea shops coffee shops to attract men — complained loudly about thick cups and dishes. In her 1929 book, The Secret of Successful Restaurants, she described how, formerly, she had to eat in restaurants “where china, white, thick, and hideous was used.” In them, food was served “naked on a bold, pitiless plate half an inch thick and consumptive in its whiteness . . .” By contrast, she said, the plates in her restaurants were colorful with shades of yellow, blue, turquoise, and lilac.

Shown above is the Graziella pattern used in her Italian-themed coffee shops. Like all the imported china in her restaurants it was also for sale ($2.50 for a dinner plate or a cup and saucer).

The Four Seasons

In 1966 a well-known restaurant consultant explained how people with good incomes preferred to dine when they went out. They liked fine restaurants, appreciated good food, and ate out often. “They expect the restaurant decor to be as nice as the decor in their own homes!,” he explained, adding, “They like fine china.”

Given that The Four Seasons was a power-lunch site, I’m sure there were some guests who paid absolutely no attention to the fine design of the hundred items designed by Garth and Ada Huxtable, nor did they notice that unlike the glasses used in dime stores and lunch counters, their wine glass had no reinforced edges. Others guests no doubt were pleased with the elegant simplicity of the designs.

When the restaurant closed and the furnishings and serving pieces were auctioned in 2018, bidders paid goodly sums for items such as the bread servers (as much as $6,250) and cream and sugar sets (more than $2,000) shown above. I do find it humorous that the cream and sugar set included so plebeian an object as a container for packets of sugar substitutes.

Today, collectors of restaurant ware value a wide range of china, including the thick kind often bearing the logo of a once-popular eating place.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

17 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, lunch rooms, restaurant customs, tea shops

An early French restaurant chain

Sometimes you need to leave your own country in order to get some perspective on it. Along with going back in time, that is what I’ve done. I’ve gone to France — though only through texts and pictures — to explore a restaurant chain begun in the 19th century known as Bouillon Duval.

I tend to think of the United States as the home of restaurant chains, and that they are quintessentially American. There is some truth to this, but it is also full of blind spots as the existence of the Duvals shows. They came before American chains, and showed that a highly rationalized, business-like approach to running restaurants is not solely American. [pictured, rue Poissonniere, 1882]

Looking at Bouillon Duval, which began as a soup restaurant, also dispels a bit of romanticism about French restaurants. As much as Duvals emphasized quality, they were eating places for the frugal masses, not temples of haute cuisine. In the beginning they were meant for poor workmen, but soon they became popular with the middle class. To put it in the language of the day, the “black coats drove out the blouses” who were embarrassed to be in the presence of the better dressed.

The Bouillons were the idea of Baptiste Adolphe Duval. He had a butcher shop in Paris and came from a family that ran a brasserie in the north of France. According to legend, around 1857 he opened a small soup restaurant near his shop using the unsalable meat scraps, and went on from there to become fabulously successful and wealthy. By 1867 he had eight Bouillons Duval in the city as well as at least one at that year’s world’s fair.

Of course it wasn’t quite that simple, and he might have failed if it hadn’t been for his wife’s assistance. According to the most thorough account of the chain’s development, the business was headed for failure as soon as it expanded beyond the small shop. With an enlarged menu and a lot of ideas, M. Duval had moved to a location in a former ballroom on the rue Montesquieu [shown at top of page in 1882, when it had reinstated male waiters]. There he installed a steam-heat system of cooking, along with elaborate piping that served every table with seltzer water. Both innovations were disastrous failures that cost a fortune to tear out. Add to this the lack of an accounting system that made it hard to calculate sales and permitted chiseling on the part of employees and the business was soon drowning in debt.

His wife Ernestine helped set up an accounting system and suggested replacing the questionable male servers with married women of irreproachable character who she dressed in uniforms resembling nuns’ habits [pictured, 1902]. The business began to show a profit and soon expansion was underway. Not surprisingly, when M. Duval died in 1870 shareholders chose Ernestine to take over the corporation and expand it further.

The Duval company had incorporated in 1868, by then consisting not only of eating places but also its own butcher shops, slaughter houses, bakery [pictured, 1882], large laundry, and caves that stored wine.

The company achieved heroic status in 1870 when it somehow managed to stay open during the “Siege of Paris” when German forces surrounding the city cut off food supplies. Their continuing in operation was significant not only for providing meals but also in boosting morale. In 1900 the French government awarded the Duvals’ son Alexandre, then manager, with the medal of the Legion of Honor. By then the company ran 32 restaurants.

The Duval system was based on keeping prices low while serving a large volume of customers quickly and efficiently. It was thoroughly a la carte right down to an extra charge for a tablecloth if wanted. During the Siege a London man recorded what he ordered at one of the 14 Duvals. He and his companion ordered bread for 1 cent, potato soup for 2 cents, as well as roast mutton, puréed potatoes, green beans in white sauce, and a pint of Mâcon wine. The total bill – with tablecloth – came to 18 cents. [Above, a menu that was to be filled out by the customer, ca. 1882; See The American Menu blog for several Duval menus.]

Needless to say, the fact that wine and other alcoholic beverages appeared on menus set the Bouillons Duval apart from most early chains that later developed in the U.S., such as Childs.

Numerous Americans as well as English citizens frequented the Bouillons when visiting Paris [above, diners at the 1878 Paris International Exposition; the objects with handles on the tables are menus], and expressed a wish to have something like them in their own countries. In addition to serving quality food and decent wine at low prices they were known to be spotlessly clean, quite unlike most of the cheap fixed-price cafes that working people had frequented before the Bouillons came along. The major criticism against them was that portions were small. Some critics said that if a hungry diner ordered all they wanted they would find that their bill was as expensive as in a finer restaurant. Other guests complained about the crowds and the “deafening din of knives and forks clinking against plates and dishes.”

Nonetheless the Bouillons Duval were invariably recommended in guide books for visitors to the international fairs held in Paris in 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900. In 1878 the Duval restaurants were said to have served 5M meals that year. Pictured above is one of several Duval locations at the 1889 Exposition.

At some point a Bouillon Duval was opened in London, and in the 1880s there was one advertised in Los Angeles that offered “hot soup and schooner lager beer, five cents.” I couldn’t determine whether it was connected to the Paris restaurants or not.

The last mention of the Paris Bouillons Duval I found was in 1924, when the chain was still said to be all over the city.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

1 Comment

Filed under chain restaurants, patrons, proprietors & careers, restaurant prices, waiters/waitresses/servers, women

Dinner and a movie

The first time anyone thought of combining film and food may have been about 100 years ago. In the early 1920s, organizers of the annual “renegade” Paris art exhibition, the Salon d’Automne, added both cinema and gastronomy to its notion of art. And then – voila! – they combined the two. In 1924, right in the middle of the grand salon, guests watched a film while they dined. The Salon’s novel idea did not migrate to the U.S., however.

It was an entirely different motive that brought the two together here. In the 1940s, entrepreneurs created small movie projection rooms available for rental by companies that wanted to screen films for their employees or the public, and to serve meals. Usually the films were training or promotional films, but evidently major Hollywood studios also used these screening rooms at times, perhaps for managers of movie houses. In NYC, for example, the Monte Carlo was used by Paramount in 1946. [Shown above, 1945, and during a ca. 1949 screening below]

The broader concept of combining food and film for the entertainment of the general public began to emerge in the 1970s. The Ground Round chain showed silent films and cartoons in the mid-1970s. About the same time, the New Varsity Theater in Palo Alto CA granted free movie admission to diners at its associated restaurant (though the dining area was not in the theater’s viewing area). Popular films included Reefer Madness, and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones. The restaurant was also a place for meetings of the French Cine Club, which followed its dinner with a French film. It’s likely that the theater and restaurant often hosted students.

In Boston a bit later, a combination restaurant/bar/theater named Play It Again, Sam, served as a popular student hangout, especially for those attending Boston College. Mexican-American food was served.

At the same time, in 1975, two brothers in Florida conceived the idea of a way to fill new malls with nighttime entertainment for adults. This took the form of a restaurant-theater called Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse showing movies rather than live performances, and selling beer, pizza, and sandwiches. By 1980 they had created four, three in Florida and one in Atlanta GA. One of them was franchised.

By 1994 the Duffys had created 22 Cinema ‘n’ Drafhouses, twenty of them franchised. In their prospectus they asserted that theirs was “a proven recession-proof product – food, drink and film – combined in a stylish, art deco theater.” They also suggested to franchisees that the theaters could be rented for private parties as well as being used in the daytime for business seminars. Another 1980s start-up was the Cabaret Pictures Show in St. Petersburg FL where the menu emphasized finger foods such as pizza and sandwiches.

The concept of the combined restaurant-theater really took off as downtown movie theaters began to fail and sit empty in the 1980s and 1990s. Theaters had become more dependent on strong concession sales, and selling drinks and dinners was an extension of this type of revenue. Typically these combo-businesses showed second-run movies that appealed to viewers of drinking age.

The franchised theater-restaurants, such as those created by the Duffy brothers of Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse (Cinema Grill Systems) seemed to fare better than some individual attempts. Expertise in running a restaurant did not usually extend to theater management. Cinema Grill Systems helped by handling movie selection and distribution, permitting operators to focus on the restaurant and bar.

The Cinema Grill franchise in Harrisburg PA, depicted here in 1997, showed two movies a week on a large high-resolution screen. Its menu included burgers, pita specialties, jalapeno poppers, and even sangria. The seating setup is shown here, and it is clear that the space is not as dark as in traditional theaters.

The winning formula has emphasized comfortable seating in cushy non-stainable leather lounge chairs, and a menu with popular casual dining/brewpub fare. Over time a number of chain-restaurant favorites have appeared on menus, such as fajitas, wraps, and chicken tenders. Despite a fairly high failure rate, theater-restaurants have proven popular with customers who are looking for a reasonably affordable and enjoyable night out, but are not overly demanding about the fare, whether food or film.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

4 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, chain restaurants, Offbeat places

Restaurant-ing in 1966

Every month in 1966 – 55 years ago — the Gallup organization surveyed about 1,600 Americans to find out what they thought about restaurants. The surveys were conducted for and published in Food Service Magazine.

Then, as now, dining out took place at a time of upheaval. It was a year of turmoil, with the U.S. bombing Hanoi as the Vietnam war raged on and protestors spilling into the streets. Black Americans pushed civil rights to the forefront, often meeting resistance from whites.

Gas cost 32 cents a gallon. The minimum wage was stuck at $1.25 despite attempts to raise it. Gallup divided the population into five income categories, with yearly family income under $3,000 at the bottom, and $10,000 and over at the top.

The restaurant industry was growing rapidly, led by lower-priced chains such as Denny’s, McDonald’s, and Jack in the Box. According to the National Restaurant Association, by 1966 annual restaurant volume had grown to $20 billion, compared to about $3 billion in 1940.

That year a steak dinner at a Bonanza Steak House came to $1.39. Very much at the opposite pole was Voisin in New York City where a dinner of Foie Gras, Consommé, English Sole, Squab Chicken, Fresh Peas and Asparagus, finished with Almond Soufflé, accompanied by wine, would come to $25 plus tip. Of course most restaurant meals were priced much closer to Bonanza’s then.

What did Americans want in a restaurant? The loudest and clearest message received by Gallup’s pollsters was that restaurant goers valued cleanliness more than atmosphere or appearance and almost as much as good food. “If there is anything Americans want, it is a restaurant that is clean, clean, clean!” the January report exclaimed. Diners had an eagle eye for sticky menus, flatware with water marks, waitresses with grimy fingernails, and dirty rags for wiping tables.

The most common answer to why eat out? was to have a change in routine, an attraction in itself far more appealing than getting a special kind of food, such as “Italian, Chinese, seafood, etc.” At a time when (white) married women were supposed to shun employment, it was hardly surprising that many commented that they wanted relief from cooking or just to get out of the house.

It is especially interesting that it seemed as if not all Americans had been won over to frequent restaurant meals. Pollsters were surprised to learn that many respondents actually preferred home cooking to restaurant food. The report noted that “many patrons really look down their noses at restaurant-prepared hamburger, roast beef, fish, chicken, baked potato and soup.” Grasping for an explanation, it asked: “Is the apparent preference for home cooking really a protest against the drab presentation of food in so many restaurants . . .?”

I find it somewhat surprising that the 1966 Gallup reports as published by Food Service Magazine candidly expressed criticisms of American restaurants. Another area they identified as in need of improvement was the lack of atmosphere. They noted: “Too many American restaurants have no personality – offer nothing that will give patrons a sense of participating in the exciting adventure that eating out really ought to be.”

But looking at the twelve monthly survey reports of 1966, I wonder just how much excitement in dining Americans actually wanted. According to the survey focused on atmosphere, the characteristic liked best about respondents’ favorite restaurant was “pleasant atmosphere,” (42%) followed by cleanliness (40%). Unsolicited comments referred to positive attributes such as “good-looking waitress,” “not too dark [lighting],” and “they leave me alone once I have been served.”

Clearly patrons weren’t looking for adventures in dining or in food. When asked “If you were going out to dinner tonight, which two of the foods on this list would you most likely select to go with your favorite meat dish?” most preferred baked potatoes and green beans. As for appetizers, 55% of respondents chose tomato juice as their favorite, although those with incomes over $10,000 preferred shrimp cocktail.

A short article prepared as part of a 12-page newspaper insert on the occasion of the 1966 opening of a new Forum Cafeteria in Miami remarked about the restaurant’s music: “Music by Muzak was designed to be unobtrusive and require no active listening. It avoids distracting musical devices and has a uniquely distinctive character which never forces itself on the conscious minds of its audience.”

I wonder whether the average American restaurant of 1966 achieved the same effect in dining.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

10 Comments

Filed under atmosphere, chain restaurants, family restaurants, patrons, restaurant industry, restaurant issues

Appetizer: words, concepts, contents

Appetizers became a prelude to a meal when many Americans suffered digestive problems in the 18th and 19th centuries. The idea was that appetizers were various items of fare that would help stimulate an appetite in those who were out of sorts. They could be foods, medicinal tonics, or alcoholic drinks.

Due to the strong influence of English customs in early America, the notion of taking something before a meal as a digestive stimulant more often than not meant an alcoholic drink rather than food. So the English term most often used – whets – referred primarily (though not exclusively) to drinks before dinner. The French equivalent of whets would be aperitifs.

As a term, however, “whets” did not appear on printed menus as far as I’ve discovered.

Drinks that usually served as whets/appetizers/aperitifs included rum, brandy, sherry, vermouth, champagne, and Dubonnet. In the 20th century especially, cocktails became a favorite pre-dinner drink.

While many diners began their restaurant meals with a cocktail, the drink itself was rarely referred to as an appetizer or whet after the 19th century. So I was quite surprised to find a Louisiana roadhouse restaurant listing Martinis, Old Fashion[ed]s, and Manhattans as appetizers in a 1956 advertisement!

As food, appetizers were usually lighter things consumed before the heavier Fish, Entrées, and Roasts courses typical of formal meals of the 19th century.

The word “Appetizer” itself though does not seem to have come into common use in American restaurants until the early 20th century. The term “Hors d’Oeuvres” was also used, as was “Relishes.” The French “Hors d’Oeuvre” tended to be used by higher-priced restaurants, such as New York’s Cafe Martin [1903], that sought to create an aura of continental elegance and sophistication.

Relishes initially referred to light vegetable foods, sometimes sauces. In the mid-19th century they were sometimes served just before the sweet courses, but by the early 20th century the category had risen to near the top of menus. Over time, the foods that had once appeared separately as Relishes tended to become included under the heading Appetizers.

But it’s almost impossible to firmly settle the question of what kinds of foods are found in the various categories – Relishes, Hors d’Oeuvres, Canapes, Appetizers, etc. The categories are loose and highly variable. One restaurant’s Relishes are another’s Hors d’Oeuvres.

A distinction is often made between Hors d’Oeuvres and Appetizers, stressing that the latter are eaten at the table in restaurants while Hors d’Oeuvres are one-bite morsels offered by servers to standing guests before they are seated. This distinction may hold for catered events but not for restaurants where there is no hesitation about using Hors d’Oeuvres as a general category.

Also confusing are the menus listing “Hors d’Oeuvres” as a selection under the headings Appetizers or Relishes. In 1917 a menu from San Francisco’s Portola Louvre actually put Hors d’Oeuvres under the heading Hors d’Oeuvres, along with caviar, sardines, celery, etc. Imagine a waiter asking, “Would you like some Hors d’Oeuvres for your Hors d’Oeuvres?

Until the 1960s and 1970s, the food items that were most commonly offered as beginnings to restaurant dinners were prepared simply and usually served cold. They have included: Fresh vegetables such as celery, radishes, artichoke hearts, and spring onions. Fresh fruits, including grapefruit and melons. Pickled and preserved vegetables, whether olives, beets, peppers, or traditional cucumber pickles. Preserved fruit combinations such as chutney and chow chow. Juices of tomato, grapefruit, pineapple, sauerkraut, and clams. Fresh seafoods — oysters, shrimp, lobster, scallops, and crab. And cured, smoked, pickled, deviled, and marinated meats and seafood/fish, including Westphalia ham, sausages, prosciutto, caviar, paté de foie gras, eels, herring, sardines, salmon, anchovies, and whitefish.

I am impressed that celery – en branche, hearts, a la Victor, a la Parisienne, Colorado, Kalamazoo, Pascal, Delta, stuffed, etc. – stayed on menus from the 19th century until long after World War II.

Heavier, more substantial, and often heated Appetizers seem to have been introduced post-WWII mainly by restaurants designated as Polynesian, Cantonese, and Mexican/Latin. In 1960 New York’s La Fonda del Sol offered appetizers such as Avocado Salad on Toasted Tortillas, Little Meat and Corn Pies, Grilled Peruvian Tidbits on Skewers, and Tamales filled with chicken, beef, or pork. A 1963 menu from a Polynesian restaurant called The Islander dedicated a whole page to its “Puu Puus (Appetizers)” that included ribs, chicken in parchment, won tons, and fried shrimp. The assortment was quite similar to the offerings at Jimmy Wong’s Cantonese restaurant in Chicago shown above.

By the 1980s, many restaurants featured appetizers that would now likely be called “Small Plates” or items for “grazing.” Two or three were substantial enough to make up a dinner in themselves, as demonstrated here by a rather expensive Spago menu from 1981.

If grazing was a form of “light eating,” that could not be said of the appetizers introduced in the 1970s and 1980s by casual dinner house chains such as TGI Friday, Chili’s [1987 menu above], and Bennigan’s. Now the idea of an appetizer was completely turned on its head. Far from a light morsel that would induce appetite in someone with digestive issues, it became a digestive issue in its own right — deep fried and loaded with fat. The menus of leading casual dinner chains overflowed with “Starters” such as deep-fried breaded cheese, “loaded” potato skins, cheese fries [pictured at top of post], and heaping piles of nachos laced with pico de gallo and cheese. Diners might need a 19th-century digestive tonic after dinner.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

5 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, ethnic restaurants, food, menus, restaurant customs

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. [above: staff of the Raton NM eating house, 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

22 Comments

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

15 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, confectionery restaurants