Category Archives: food

All you can eat

allyoucaneatFjordsSmorg-Ette

Except for the patrons of rarefied restaurants for whom exquisitely hand-crafted miniature food represents the triumph of artistic appreciation over animal hunger, most people like food in quantity. Even if they do not eat a great deal, they like the idea that they could if they wanted to.

allyoucaneatJPG1896ElyriaOHRestaurants advertising free seconds — or thirds — can be found in the 19th century, one example being the City Restaurant in Elyria OH in 1896 [shown here]. But it wasn’t until the Depression of the 1930s that the all-you-can-eat idea became a newsworthy phenomenon. In response to declining business, restaurants such as Childs in the East and Boos Brothers in the West took advantage of falling food prices by offering patrons as much of whatever they wanted for a set price of 50 or 60 cents.

In this Depression experiment restaurant proprietors learned something important about how people react when offered unlimited food. A few people went crazy, stuffing down as much as they could [below: Peter Rabbit cartoon by Harrison Cady, 1933], but most didn’t eat more than they normally would. If they overindulged in anything, it was desserts.

allyoucaneatJPG1933PeterRabbitHarrisonCady

All-you-can-eat as an adaptation to challenging economic conditions did not altogether disappear with the end of the Depression. Many restaurants found that having one night a week when they offered a special deal on a particular food, especially fried chicken or fish, could fill the house on a perpetually slow weeknight or help to build business generally.

Smorgasbords based on Swedish hors d’oeuvres tables also made their debut in the 1930s. At Childs and other Depression all-you-can-eat restaurants patrons relied on a server to bring their order, but smorgasbords introduced a novel approach: patrons helped themselves to relishes and appetizers from an attractively laid out table, and were then served with their main course as in a traditional restaurant.

allyoucaneatJPGKewanee95cents

The smorgasbord idea, it turned out, was a step on the way to the all-you-can-eat buffet. In the 1950s and 1960s chains developed whose entire business plans were based on bargain-priced buffets abounding with macaroni and cheese, chow mein, fried chicken wings, and “sparkling salads,” i.e. jello. Chains divested smorgasbords of their ethnic overtones even as some continued to call themselves by that name. In California, the word “smorgy” emerged (variations included smorga, smorgee, & smorg-ette). Rather than using round smorgasbord serving tables with food presented in decorative bowls and platters, high-volume chains tended toward cafeteria-type service with stainless steel pans.

allyoucaneatEric'sSwedishSmorgasbordGlendoraCA

California smorgys displayed seeming cultural diversity, with Ramona’s Smorgy, Mario’s Smorgy, and Gong Lee’s Smorgy. I’m still trying to grasp the concept behind Johnny Hom’s Chuck Wagon/Hofbrau/Smorgy in Stockton CA, the town that may have merited the title of smorgy capital of the U.S.A.

Along with the Swedish smorgasbord tradition, the spread of buffets and smorgys nationwide may have been aided by the $1.50 midnight spreads in Las Vegas casinos, which in the 1950s gave all-you-can-eat a popular culture imprimatur.

Opinion has been divided as to whether all-you-can-eat (or the more genteel “all-you-care-to-eat”) restaurants tended to serve cheap and inferior food. Many restaurants stressed that they baked daily, made their own sauces, or used fresh vegetables. “At Perry Boys’ Smorgy Restaurant, an inexpensive price doesn’t mean a cheap product,” according to an advertisement listing brand name foods in use. Yet, a 1968 restaurant trade journal seemed to suggest otherwise judging from its advice that “attractive buffet fare based on low-cost foods is essential.” For Quick Chicken Tetrazzini, it recommended mixing pre-cooked diced chicken with condensed mushroom soup and serving it over noodles.

As popular as all-you-can-eat restaurants were in the 1960s and 1970s, they suffered in the public relations department. They often undermined their own mini-industry with insults slung at each other. Is it helpful while touting your own restaurant to remind the public that “the words ‘all you can eat’ often mean quantity at the expense of quality”? And what does it say about the many restaurants advertising fried perch specials when a competitor says of its fish: “This is NOT frozen perch”?

AllyoucaneatJPGPhoenix&MesaPaulPerry'sSmorgee

Likewise some operators took an unfortunate “the customer is not always right” stance by posting signs that warned patrons to take no more than they could eat [see above]. This was directed at those, admittedly a small minority (but still!), who came equipped with plastic-lined handbags or special pouches in their coats in which to stow food to carry away. Meanwhile, other proprietors denounced these warning signs as an insult to guests.

Customers with huge appetites were another species of problem that most all-you-can-eat restaurants tried to be philosophical about, figuring above-average consumption would be balanced by the light eaters. Proprietors told themselves that the man who downed 90 steamed clams, or the one who swallowed 40 pieces of fried chicken, would provide free advertising when he boasted at work how much he ate. Families were prized customers, construction gangs less so. And they dreaded school football teams. Some restaurants located near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor found it necessary to put restrictions on salad bars.

allyoucaneatFL

Let’s face it, since the fall of Rome, gorging has been seen as unattractive. Restaurant owners and employees sometimes expressed disgust at customer behavior such as grabbing food off trays as staff tried to replenish buffets. “It’s disgusting,” said the proprietor of a Dallas all-you-can-eat steak restaurant, adding, “Some of them just ought to be led off to a big, old hog trough.” Another manager admitted that workers called customers “animals” in private. “You lose your appetite working in a place like this,” said one.

As a reporter wrote of Las Vegas buffets in 1983, “If I ever see another metal pan of mashed potatoes awash in melted margarine, another sea of macaroni salad, another ‘medley’ of canned corn, carrots and peas . . .” Stop right there!

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under chain restaurants, family restaurants, food, patrons, popular restaurants, restaurant etiquette

Anatomy of a corporate restaurant executive

corpexecJPG1966Jan14localrestaurateurnowRAvpIt strikes me that much more has been written about and by chefs than those restaurant personnel who mostly work behind a desk. Business people lack the glamour of knife wielding chefs. They are not surrounded by flames. They have no dishes named after them.

But Frederick Rufe’s career in restaurants was as interesting as many chefs’ and he was undoubtedly more influential in shaping the dining experiences of countless restaurant patrons over his career of nearly 40 years. His entire working life had a single focus. In a 1974 interview he stressed, “Everything I’ve ever done has been with food.” As a management executive he was closer to the soul (or soullessness, depending how you see it) of both the upscale and the midscale American corporate-owned restaurant of the 1960s and 1970s.

Born in New Jersey in 1922 he came from a humble background, growing up in a one-parent household with his mother, who was a factory worker, and a brother. While a student at a teachers’ college, he spent one summer as a waiter for a Pennsylvania resort, leading him to detour from a teaching career to one in food service. Following WWII army duty (working in food supply), he obtained a degree from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, which excelled in turning out top hospitality industry executives.

He then went to work in Miami Beach as food and beverage manager at large hotels there, among them the Monte Carlo, Algiers, and Deauville. He was not shy about promoting himself. Aiming for a catering manager job in a hotel without such a position, he “invented” it for himself. He took over a vacant room, bought a desk, put up draperies, and hung out a “Catering Manager” sign. When challenged by his boss, he successfully convinced him that the hotel needed someone – him – in that position.

corpexecFourSeasonsAlbertStockli1960He joined Restaurant Associates in New York in the mid-1950s as the company was entering its most creative phase. RA was going from managing coffee shops and cafeterias to developing theme restaurants, some in the luxury class. In 1956 Rufe was made general manager of RA’s Newark Airport restaurants which included the famed Newarker, its kitchen headed by the inventive Swiss chef Albert Stöckli who would go on to the Four Seasons [pictured here]. Rufe helped develop the Four Seasons, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and La Fonda del Sol. At a time when out-of-season fruits and vegetables equalled the height of luxury, he obtained shipments of melons and new asparagus from the West for the Four Seasons, as well as miniature vegetables that allowed power-lunching VIPs to minimize awkward bites. With James Beard’s help he brought the blind cook Elena Zelayeta from California to plan Mexican and Spanish dishes for La Fonda del Sol.

corpexecJPG1960LaFondaDelSolMenuAmiable and worldly, Rufe could be mistaken for a European sophisticate. He was on James Beard’s holiday dinner guest list, and had easy access to the food columns at major newspapers where he promoted RA’s restaurants with recipes and interviews. While manager of the Latin-themed La Fonda del Sol, he explained to a reporter that a “broiling wall” of revolving stuffed flank steaks was based on a setup he had observed at an inn in Peru on a menu-collecting tour of South America with La Fonda’s chef John Santi. He was known for focusing on detail, so much so that his travel notes were said to look like research for a doctoral dissertation.

In 1964 he took on the task of rescuing the Top of the Fair, a failing de luxe restaurant atop the Port Authority’s heliport building adjoining the World’s Fair grounds. He was made a RA vice-president in 1967 and two years later put in charge of food operations at LaGuardia and Kennedy air terminals, as well as other airports in the Northeast. “Our places are genuine restaurants,” he insisted, “not just places to grab a quick meal and dash to your plane.”

corpexecJPG1978MayADVAfter a shift in RA’s direction, Rufe left for the Marriott Corporation where he was soon made VP of its dinner house division of moderate-priced theme restaurants in the DC area. The recession of the 1970s was on and Rufe explained in the press that Americans wouldn’t pay for $25 French dinners any more. Marriott’s new dinner houses were geared to more modest lifestyles. Phineas Prime Rib, Joshua Tree, Franklin Stove, Port O’Georgetown, and Garibaldi’s were management-driven eating places where every detail was arrived at through consumer research and economic calculation. Lunch was not profitable, so dinner only. No reservations because that resulted in less than 100% occupancy. Short menus with only America’s favorites, beef and seafood. All-you-can-eat salad bars. Fireplaces and ceiling beams evoking old-time hospitality. Friendly college student servers speaking from scripts. Cooking by step-by-step recipe cards. No chefs.

corpexecJPGADV1971At first the formula was wildly popular with modal guests – suburbanites with $15,000 annual incomes who ordered $6.95 meals and cleared out in 1.5 hours. “Seventeen million dollars and no chefs,” Rufe boasted in January of 1975. However, by 1978 competition was up and profits were down. Marriott decided to sell off its dinner house division and some of the restaurants closed under the new owner.

After a few years as director of food and beverage planning and development for Hilton International, Rufe retired, returning to Stroudsburg PA where he continued as a consultant.

Needless to say, the chain dinner house formula he helped develop prevails today, demonstrating that there is a sizable market for restaurants with pleasant decor, parking, clean bathrooms, and palatable fare that is affordable.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under chain restaurants, food, proprietors & careers, theme restaurants

Surf ‘n’ turf

Surf&turftogetherIn the 1960s steak and seafood dinners became popular across the U.S. The lobster component of the dinner was frozen lobster tails from South Africa. Since the 1930s South African lobster tails had been appearing on restaurant menus. In 1937 Naylor’s Sea Food Restaurant in Washington D.C. offered a simple $1.00 Lenten special of  Broiled African Lobster Tails with Drawn Butter, French Fried Potatoes, and Sliced Tomatoes.

surf&turfMaineLobster1930sThe imported lobster tails roused Maine to mount a campaign to convince consumers to stick with Maine’s lobsters. Advertisements appeared in newspapers in 1937 stating that frozen lobster tails were inferior to Maine lobster, and in fact weren’t lobster at all! Rather, the notices said, they were clawless crawfish, aka spiny or rock lobsters. At that time, South African lobster tails – the only edible part as far as humans were concerned – were being sold at 1/3 the price of Maine’s. In 1938 Maine lobsters appeared in the marketplace with an aluminum disk attached to the claw stating they were a product of Maine.

surf&turf1968bookletDespite the campaign, imported lobster tails did not stop arriving from South Africa. After WWII a NY importer began flying them in from Cuba. Soon big shipments were also coming from Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand.

I had hoped to figure out why it was not until the early 1960s that restaurants began to combine lobster tails with beef, calling the combination surf ‘n’ turf, beef ‘n’ reef, etc. So far I haven’t been able to “crack” that one. It wasn’t a totally novel idea: in 1931, for instance, the LaJolla Beach & Yacht Club offered a “special steak and lobster dinner” for $1. Yet it took 30 more years after the cheaper lobster tails came to America for the surf ‘n’ turf vogue to begin.

Even though they could be dry and somewhat tough compared to Maine lobsters, ever-practical American diners liked rock lobster tails because it was easier to get the meat out of the shell without making a mess.

surf&turfRockford1968In 1964, a restaurant in Van Nuys CA combined steak and lobster tails for $3.00, making the combo cheaper than a steak dinner and affordable enough that it quickly caught on around the country as a “special dinner,” one likely to be chosen by middle-class diners for an anniversary or New Year’s Eve. Surf ‘n’ Turf was not likely to appear on the menus of luxury restaurants — but let’s be honest – there were very few luxury restaurants then, and even now they make up a small percentage of all restaurants. It was a dish more suited to a middle-class restaurant such as Schrafft’s, which in 1970 ran humorous advertisements suggesting their “Beef and Reef” platter was perfect “for executives who are tired of making important decisions.”

surf&turf1975ADVportionThe public’s love of lobster tails paired with steak continued through the 1970s, even as prices rose. By the late 1970s Surf ‘n’ Turf could easily run to $11.95 and more, and in Washington, D.C. restaurants were caught substituting Florida tails for the superior South African ones. By the 1990s, S&T’s desirability had faded. No doubt it can still be found today here and there, but, like cheesecake and baked potatoes with sour cream and chives, it would scarcely be the restaurant sensation it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Dining with the Grahamites

sylvesterGrahamANNature'sOwnBookIn the early 19th century many Americans had fairly wretched meals at home. No doubt some fared better but the historical record is full of spoiled meat, rancid butter and fats, sour bread, and rotting fruit. Diets were heavy with meats, fried food, and pastries, but few fresh fruits or vegetables. Strong condiments were used to hide bad tastes. Heavy drinking was common as was “dyspepsia” (indigestion).

In this context, the dietary reforms advocated by Sylvester Graham in the 1830s seem somewhat less extreme than they are often portrayed. A graduate of Amherst College and a Presbyterian minister, he began his career at a church in New Jersey but soon left to take a job with a temperance organization. Upon expanding his belief that drinking was morally and physically unhealthy by including foods and non-alcoholic beverages that should also be avoided, he went on the circuit as an independent lecturer.

Hoping to curb “unnatural appetites”(yes, of all kinds), Graham identified foods that should not be eaten because they were overstimulating. In addition to alcohol, they were coffee, black and green tea, and condiments such as pepper and mustard. He also targeted all meat and foods that were indigestible, among them raw cucumbers and radishes, gravies, melted butter, pastry, and cakes. He believed the perfect consumables were bread and water, assuming the bread was unbuttered, made of whole wheat flour, and baked by a female family member, not by a servant or commercial baker.

sylvestergrahamhouse1839Graham was disliked for being overbearing and ridiculed as a scientific fraud, but his lectures and books nonetheless won fervent disciples, including a number of well-known abolitionists. A few of his followers started boarding houses for “Grahamites.” So far I have found three in New York City, two in Boston, and one in Rochester NY in the 1830s and 1840s.

Like all boarding houses, Graham houses often operated as small hotels, with some guests staying for months, maybe years, but also transients who might be there for only a couple of days. Some guests only ate at the house, either regularly or for a single meal. The houses were small and could not accommodate many diners; certainly they were not full-scale restaurants, yet they were public eating places of a sort.

Graham boarding houses ascribed to Graham’s scientific system of living. Though mostly focused on diet, it also emphasized taking daily cold showers and sleeping on straw mattresses rather than feather beds. Meals – consisting of no more than three items — were to be eaten six hours apart at the same precise time every day. A sample Graham diet for one of the boarding houses was advertised in the New York Tribune in 1843 as follows:
Monday – Pea soup, vegetables, fruit and plum pudding.
Tuesday – Baked peas, vegetables, fruit and apple custard.
Wednesday – Vegetable soup, rice and prune pie.
Thursday – Vegetables, boiled bread pudding, cream and fruit.
Friday – Vegetables, fruit, pumpkin or potato pie.
Saturday – Bean soup, vegetables, rice or sweet potato custard.
Sunday – Baked beans, Yankee bread, cream pie and fruit.

The sweet items listed above would have used a small amount of molasses rather than sugar. No butter or lard was used in baked desserts. All dishes were served warm, not hot, without seasonings other than a bit of salt. A recipe for pea soup was given by Asenath Nicholson, founder of the Graham Boarding House on Beekman Street in New York City, and author of Nature’s Own Book [frontispiece at top]. For pea soup, she wrote, “Boil [peas] till beginning to be soft, with a little pearlash [to reduce acid content] – then change the water, and when well cooked, add a little thickening of flour.” She gave two recipes for “coffee,” one made of burnt bread, the other of potatoes.

Nicholson also codified other food rules for Graham boarding houses. Mashed potatoes were out because they did not involve chewing. Stale bread, on the other hand, was desirable because it did require chewing. Pastry was “an abomination.” Warm bread and buckwheat pancakes were “both highly injurious.” Butter was “at best . . . a questionable article.”

sylvester'sexterior

The house that Graham and his family lived in is in Northampton MA [pictured here as it looks today] and since 1984 has been a popular restaurant open for breakfast and lunch. Looking over its current menu, I note very few things Graham would permit on his table. It’s likely that only one dish would meet his approval, though it might violate the rule against too many heterogeneous foods in the same meal:

Veggies, Fruits and Nuts Salad – A large salad with tomato, red onion, green peppers, corn, sunflower seeds, candied  walnuts, fresh apple slices and dried cranberries… 12.00

I’m pretty sure he would order the red onion removed and certainly would not like the choice of dressings, especially Honey Mustard. Please!

[below: pitchers of coffee at Sylvester’s Restaurant today]

sylvester'sCoffee

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Deep fried

deepfriedfrymax1961As I read the morning newspaper a sentence by the head of a local restaurant dynasty caught my attention. “We all have fryolator oil running through our blood veins,” he said.

The speaker was Andrew Yee. His family enterprise includes a newly acquired retro diner, several popular bars & grills, a sushi restaurant, and a venerable Polynesian showplace, the Hu Ke Lau, begun by his father in the mid-1960s.

I was delighted to find the quotation because I was in the midst of researching deep-fried food in American restaurant history. Also because it is rare that topics such as cooking oil come up in reviews and discussions of restaurants. Yet nearly every restaurant kitchen contains a bubbling vat of it.

And always has.

deepfried1941PrimexADV

Think about how often you have been enveloped in a miasma of aged cooking oil fumes while passing a restaurant’s outdoor ventilating fan. In 1978 restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman visited a regional restaurant expo filled with demonstrations of deep frying; she subtitled her Washington Post story “The smell.” Her experience was nothing new. In 1887 neighbors complained about the odor coming from a Cleveland OH “French fried cake baker” using cottonseed oil, which had recently come on the market as a replacement for high-priced lard.

Not that lard fumes would have smelled much better. In 1849 a journalist’s plan to survey the flourishing “eating houses” of lower Manhattan was cut short by the overpowering “smell of fried grease before we got through the first street.” Not surprising when you consider that fried oysters were a top menu attraction and had been for at least a century, probably longer.

The number of deep-fried foods eaten in the 19th century was extensive, including oysters, doughnuts, fish and fish balls, clams, potatoes, all kinds of fritters, “corn dodgers,” brains, chicken, and even parsley.

Deep fat frying in the home in the 1800s was frequent, as far as I can tell. But that changed as kitchens were transformed from rough workrooms to adjunct living areas. For some time now the restaurant industry has benefited from the fact that most home cooks dislike deep frying in their own kitchens and would rather have restaurants prepare their French fries and onion rings.

deepfried1929BostonWhen the Pitco Frialator was invented in 1918 it quickly became standard equipment in restaurant kitchens because it extended the life of cooking oil, reducing costs and improving food quality. Oils were developed that would not break down under high temperatures. Then frying kettles came out with built-in thermostats adjusted to type of food.

deepfriedprimex1938Profits from the value added to inexpensive foods by deep frying in the 1930s were a boon to  struggling restaurants. A 1938 article in The American Restaurant, a trade magazine, estimated that many deep-fried dishes – among them sole, potatoes, oysters, and croquettes – could be priced at four or five times their cost. A restaurant in Duluth MN, The Flame, boasted in an advertisement (to the trade, not the public!) that it had built an “enviable reputation” for fried food through using “tons and tons of Primex.”

deepfriedmelvoshortening1968The successful marketing of frozen foods in the 1960s expanded restaurants’ deep-fried selections. Breaded, frozen French-fried shrimp became a top seller. Once only available in Gulf Coast restaurants, by 1960 shrimp appeared on restaurant menus all over the U.S. In 1969 a Gallup Survey rated it America’s favorite deep-fried food in the fish category; in 1973 it ranked #1 among all deep-fried foods.

deepfriedchicken&potatoes1968Deep-fried chicken ranked third favorite, after shrimp and potatoes, to the disappointment of fans of pan-fried chicken, which was becoming a rarity in restaurants in the 1960s.

Drive-in restaurants relied heavily on deep frying. According to a 1961 Drive-In Magazine, “There was a time not long ago when a deep fat fryer and a neon sign were practically all you needed to put yourself in the drive-in business.” But competition was becoming fierce as fast food chains challenged drive-ins’ popularity with young diners, the customers most attracted to deep-fried food and least afraid of its dietary consequences.

Despite the profitability of deep-fried food, two perils faced restaurants: dark breading and sogginess. Both were due to incorrect frying temperatures, and frying kettles and oil that had not been maintained properly. Customers had a strong preference for fried food that was “golden brown,” but not too dark or hardened into a shell. As an article about “lethal” truck stop fare put it: “You strike a chicken leg and the crust falls away in a curved sheet to disclose a sight best forgotten.” The problem of greasy, limp French fries was cited by Gallup as customers’ second biggest complaint.

deepfriedappetizersFroggy'sCafe1980

But neither darkness, greasiness, nor calories dampened the popularity of deep-fried food. Deep-fried appetizers dominated menus of 1980s chain restaurants designed to appeal to a young adult demographic. At West Coast Froggy’s Cafés (specializing in “food and fun” – and fat) seven out of eight appetizers on a 1980 menu came out of the frialator.

It’s likely we all have oil in our veins.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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When coffee was king

coffeeSignkelly'scafeFor decades coffee was the beverage most restaurant patrons drank with their meals.

But not right away. Coffee houses were popular gathering spots for business men in the Colonial era and in the early Republic but there is no way of knowing how often coffee accompanied meals in those times. Many coffee houses advertised that it was available all day long, but it’s likely it was outsold by alcoholic drinks.

Then coffee began to gain greater importance as the temperance movement developed in the 1830s. A restaurant owner in Providence RI was an early convert to the role of coffee in reforming heavy-drinking Americans. A religious magazine hailed him for his decision to replace liquor with coffee, stating “If a man must, from habit, drink at 11 o’clock, let him drink ‘Hot Coffee’ and patronize Mr. Dinneford.” In those days 11:00 a.m. was the traditional time for a ‘dram.’

So almost from the beginning coffee was associated with a sober, alert, and morally superior approach to life.

CoffeeTrentonNJdiner

From the mid-19th century into the 1890s most inexpensive restaurants charged 5 cents for a cup, though it might cost a couple of cents more or less. Move up a step to a higher grade eating place, such as Mouquin’s, a popular French table d’hôte in New York City, and a cup would cost 10 cents. Luxury restaurants of the 1890s, such as Delmonico’s, were likely to charge 25 cents for coffee, a sum that would buy a whole dinner in a common lunch room.

The importance of coffee to restaurants grew in the 20th century, especially at popular-priced eateries where the price of a cup remained 5 cents. By the early 1920s, the amount of coffee imported into the U.S. had more than tripled since 1880. At “quick lunch” places, individual table & chair combos that looked like school desks were designed with a hole in the top to hold the all-important coffee mug. Already by 1904, some horse-drawn lunch wagons provided cardboard containers for coffee orders to go.

coffeewithmealRestaurant proprietors and customers alike agreed that “coffee makes the restaurant” and that you could tell a good restaurant by its coffee. Even when sold at a low price it was profitable, especially at lunch counters where service costs were low. Most diners ordered coffee with their meals in the 1920s, even at the ritzy Waldorf Astoria. No one, it seemed, cared that famous French chef Auguste Escoffier had laid down the rule, “Never serve coffee except at the end of the meal.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, a nickel a cup didn’t seem enough to many restaurateurs who raised their prices to 10 cents. Those that did not had reason to regret it in 1944 when the war caused the federal government to order that restaurants not charge more for coffee that they had in October 1942. For most places this meant 10 cents, but chains such as the Automat, Bickford’s, Thompson’s, B&G Sandwich Shops, and the Waldorf System were stuck with nickel-a-cup until late in 1950.

Prices continued to tick upwards after that. By the mid-1970s 25 cents a cup was standard in the average restaurant. (Even then, there were customers who bristled at paying more than 5 cents!) Often restaurants softened the blow of price increases by offering free refills to those ordering full meals. Still prices rose, and even chains such as Wendy’s raised their price to 30 cents while Friendly’s went up to 35 cents in 1977. Ten years later, one dollar a cup was commonplace.

coffeeCory1960In the 1970s and 1980s, higher priced coffee beans, along with fast food chain competition, and the rise of soft drinks with meals reduced the popularity of coffee and dealt a blow to coffee shop restaurants. Coffee shops had been the fifth most popular type of eating place according to a 1976 National Restaurant Association survey, but by the mid 1980s they were slipping badly. Philip Langdon, author of a book on chain restaurants titled Orange Roofs and Golden Arches, observed that many coffee shops had restyled themselves as “family restaurants” in an attempt to draw the dinner crowd.

Around the same time a series of SCTV comedy sketches made fun of the mythical polka-loving residents of Leutonia and their fondness for “cabbage rolls and coffee,” marking a new attitude to coffee with lunch or dinner that branded it as the choice of unhip elderly diners.

Coffee retains its popularity as a stand-alone beverage today, but less as an accompaniment to meals. Gone are the days when Maxwell House coffee and Cory coffeemakers reigned – when 90% of restaurant customers ordered coffee with their meals (1935) – and when the trio “Cleanliness, Comfort, Coffee” were enough to assure a restaurant of success (1955).

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Farm to table

farmtotableWashingtonMarket

We might imagine that in the past the food served in restaurants was grown or raised fairly close to where it was consumed, perhaps that it came from farm to table without delay. Undoubtedly this was true in much of the 19th century when sellers brought their produce as well as live animals to city markets. [NYC’s Washington Market above, ca. 1850s]

Also, some 19th-century restaurants obtained fresh foods directly from farmers and hunters. A Detroit proprietor solicited suppliers with an advertisement in 1861 that said, “Farmers, hunters and others with game of any kind will please call upon William Carson, Carson’s Dining Saloon.”

Yet people living in cities still longed for food grown and raised in front of their eyes. They loved vacationing at country resorts that grew their own food. In 1858, for example, a typical notice appeared in a Baltimore paper about The Seven Fountains in the Blue Ridge Mountains where “The Table is abundantly supplied with Vegetables, Butter and Milk fresh from our own Farm and Dairy.”

Dairy products were perhaps the least satisfactory foods for city dwellers who did not keep their own cows, mainly because of the threat of sick cows kept penned up in cities and fed with swill. Milk that arrived from afar also presented dangers since there was always a good chance it might not be fresh.

Dissatisfaction with the milk supply opened up opportunities for dairies near cities. In the 1870s some began to operate urban “dairy lunch” rooms which became quite popular in the following decades. Washington, D.C., was full of them. One near the Treasury building adopted a decorating scheme with hanging baskets of plants, cages of canaries, and papier mâché cow heads. In Boston, the new Oak Grove Farm café seemed almost too good to be true. A reporter admitted he thought at first it was “a con.” But the café was indeed supplied by an 800-acre farm with 150 cows, as well as hothouses where lettuce and tomatoes were grown.

farmtotableChildsBaltimore

Childs, the first sizable chain of restaurants in the US, built its reputation on its dairy farms in New Jersey. Started by six farm-raised brothers in 1889, three ran the lunch rooms while the other three managed the chain’s dairies and truck farms.

In the late 19th-century some Americans balked at the modern food system altogether. Food traveled great distances by rail, much of it ending up parked for indefinite periods in cold storage warehouses. In them it suffered from fluctuating temperatures that damaged taste and texture, as well as sometimes causing the growth of bacteria. A prominent NYC physician declared that when he ordered game in a restaurant, “I make the waiter interview the chef to make sure that no cold storage game will be sent to fill my order.”

As the century turned, people were paying more attention to where their food came from. Due to the growth of the meat packing industry, factory production of butter and cheese, improved transportation, and cold storage facilities, traditional farm industries had largely disappeared. Despite seemingly positive pronouncements such as, “It is to the modern methods for the preservation of foodstuffs that we owe in great measure the lengthy bills of fare provided by our hotels and restaurants,” many people felt food had lost something. Some had come to fear it.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 addressed impurities in food, but critics wanted more. A few years later efforts were mobilized to subject cold storage warehouses to periodic inspections, to label all food with the date it arrived, and to set limits on how long food could be stored. Foreshadowing the “Truth in Menu” laws of the 1970s, which wanted to bar restaurants from claiming that frozen food was fresh, some laws demanded that restaurants inform patrons if food had come from cold storage.

farmtotableAug1911DenverIn this context restaurants supplied by their own farms proudly proclaimed that fact. A restaurant operator in Harrisburg PA who used home-grown food hit upon a novel slogan: “Farm to face.” In Denver a café advertised that its farm food cost no more than food that had been stored. In NYC the Craftsman restaurant promised that patrons would enjoy “all the wholesome products people crave in a city” delivered daily from their farm.

During World War I, eating places linked to farms served all social classes — from the quick lunch in Flint MI that promised lower prices by “cutting out the middle man” to fashionably smart tea rooms such as “At the Sign of the Golden Bull” in Boston. Its tea room, grill room, and affiliated Deerfoot Farm store were designed by Tiffany Studios, and outfitted with Grueby tiles, Flemish oak tables, and leather benches.

FarmtoTableKolb'sSept111921Starting around 1915 and lasting into the early 1920s, a US Post Office-backed “Farm to Table” movement encouraged consumers to have farmers ship them fresh food via parcel post. Its goals were to lower food costs while aiding farmers. In November of 1919, the B. F. Goodrich company supported a Farm to Table week in which consumers were to drive to rural areas to buy provisions from farmers. At least one restaurant which ran a farm, Kolb’s in New Orleans, adopted the slogan. In the late 1920s the Miami FL chamber of commerce encouraged restaurants to buy local, arguing that it was not only healthy to serve more fruits and vegetables but good for farmers and the Dade County economy.

Although there continued to be some restaurants that grew their own food throughout the US, the movement petered out in the Depression. A 1932 correspondence course for those interested in opening a rural inn warned that growing one’s own food or buying it in the country did not pay. Instead, it advised, it was best to buy groceries, meats, and dairy products from city wholesale dealers. Greater status was attached to having foods available year round. According to Susanne Freidberg’s book Fresh: A Perishable History, in the 1930s the Schrafft’s chain listed how many miles the food they used traveled. Freidberg writes that “the makings of a vegetable salad together racked up 22,250 miles,” demonstrating “technology’s conquest of borders, distance, and seasons.”

After the Second World War, industrial food production grew rapidly as did the restaurant industry which turned increasingly to convenience food products made specifically for commercial and institutional meal service. By the 1960s frozen foods included pre-prepared heat-and-serve entrees.

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In the 1970s convenience foods became controversial as their use spread. The decade saw the advance of farm-themed restaurants using convenience foods, on the one hand, and, on the other, a growing number of restaurants and consumers rejecting factory food. In 1973 architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable expressed displeasure with “the unfulfilled promise [of] the American way of life,” one symptom of which was “the oversize restaurant menu suggesting farm-fresh succulence and delivering precooked food .” Meanwhile, even as farm-theme restaurants hung farm implements on their walls of recycled barn siding, Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and other California restaurateurs were buying produce from local farmers, leading a movement that would burgeon in the 1980s and continue into the 21st  century.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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