Category Archives: Polynesian restaurants

Effects of war on restaurant-ing

This is such a big subject that I’m focusing only on the two world wars of the 20th century. Both wars made restaurants more central to modern life. The restaurant industry emerged larger and with a more diverse patronage. It was more organized, more independent from the hotel industry, more consolidated, more streamlined in its practices, and less European in its values and orientation.

World War I

● The effects of World War I were felt before the US declared war against Germany in spring of 1917. Americans living abroad, such as artists in Paris, returned to the U.S. Some of them returned to Greenwich Village to develop and nurture something quite foreign here, namely café culture.

● In Washington DC, wartime bureaucracy required more office workers, increasing the ranks of working women, a new and lasting restaurant clientele. As the female workforce grew nationwide, women’s restaurant patronage from 1917 to 1927 went from 20% of all customers to 60%, and became foundational to the future growth of modern restaurants. Around the country low-priced restaurants accustomed to male patronage were forced to add women’s restrooms.

● Many foreign nationals who had worked as cooks, kitchen help, and waitstaff in restaurants left to join armies of their native lands. The restaurant labor shortage worsened when the draft began in 1917 and foreign immigration ceased. Immigrants were replaced by Afro-American and white women who migrated to cities. Serving in restaurants became female dominated.

● The war brought women to the forefront of food service. Home economists rallied to the cause by opening restaurants. In Washington DC, a graduate of Cornell’s home economics program began a cafeteria for war workers nicknamed the “Dom Econ Lunchroom.”

● Wartime prohibition followed by national prohibition in 1919 dealt a blow to fine dining. The culinary arts of European-trained chefs fell into disuse as many elite restaurants closed after a few lean years.

● Immigrant tastes were reworked by WWI. Those who served in the US military became accustomed to the American diet of beef and potatoes, white bread, and milk, as did Southerners used to “hogs and hominy.” Meanwhile on the homefront, certain “foreign” foods, such as pasta and tomato sauce, were admitted into the mainstream middle-class diet, in this case because Italy was an ally.

● Wartime also stimulated a more business-like attitude on the part of restaurants which now had to work smarter to produce profits. They adopted principles of scientific management — for example, they began keeping books! And they standardized recipes to turn out consistent food despite changes in personnel.

● The decade after World War I saw the rise of sandwiches, salads, milk, and soft drinks replacing the heavy restaurant meals served before the war.

● During the Depression WWI veterans demonstrated and lobbied for their long-overdue soldiers’ bonuses. Many used the bonuses to open hamburger stands and other roadside businesses such as the Kum Inn on Long Island.

World War II

● Many of the same kinds of effects were felt after the Second World War, sometimes more strongly because of the increased duration of the conflict. Immigration came to a halt, furthering the “Americanization” of restaurants. Women trained in institutional management and home economics continued to enjoy expanded opportunities and prestige. Two home economists in Minnesota saw their quantity cooking manual adopted by the military.

● During the war, the average American patronized restaurants as never before. Southern California restaurants were overwhelmed as an estimated 250,000 workers in war plants who lacked housekeeping facilities turned to public eating places for their meals.

● Food rationing dramatically increased restaurant patronage. In January 1943 the Office of Price Administration announced that the public would not need ration coupons in restaurants. Within weeks after rationing began restaurants were mobbed. In Chicago, Loop restaurants experienced a 25% increase in business. By October of that year patronage in NYC restaurants had doubled.

● Also stimulating the eating-out boom were generous business expense accounts which, said the NYT, “grew into a fat-cat fringe during World War II.” These benefits were meant to compensate workers who could not be granted raises because of government-imposed wage and salary freezes and employers’ wish to avoid paying excess-profits taxes. To retain valued employees they instead gave pensions, medical care plans, stock options, and generous expense accounts. Expense accounts led to the creation of the first nation-wide credit card, sponsored by The Diner’s Club.

● Already in 1944 the National Restaurant Association was looking forward to augmenting short staffs with some of the estimated 300,000-500,000 military cooks and bakers to be demobilized at war’s end. Tuition under the GI bill lured thousands into further training as restaurant cooks, managers, and proprietors.

● After fighting a war against a “master race” ideology, returning black GIs strongly resisted racial discrimination in American restaurants. In Seattle the NAACP filed complaints when “white only” signs appeared or blacks experienced deliberately poor service. The signs were meant for Japanese returning from internment camps as well. [Ben Shahn photo, FSA]

● Unlike before the war, eating in restaurants was no longer an unfamiliar experience for most Americans. A manual issued by the New York State Restaurant Association in 1948 proclaimed that restaurants were serving more than 15.5B meals annually. A sociologist attributed the emergence of the sassy waitress to wartime’s broadening clientele which included a “new class of customers, who were considered particularly difficult to deal with.”

● Family patronage, encouraged by a wartime increase in employment of married women, continued to grow after the war. A trade journal counseled operators of suburban restaurants to “be especially nice to children.” In Denver, the average family was said to eat out three or four times a month, a rate unheard of before the war.

● Another lasting effect of wartime eating-out habits was increased restaurant patronage in the South, a region where there had been few restaurants and little restaurant culture. Northern industries were already moving south in 1941, but also, as the restaurant industry noted in May of that year, “most of the Army activity is in the Southern States,” a fact they believed made it the area with the “greatest opportunity for restaurant expansion.”

● A number of common menu items can be attributed to World War II. Restaurant patrons learned how to eat lobsters, which were plentiful because they were not rationed. Pizza parlors proliferated because pizza was also simple to serve. Conscripted country dwellers were introduced to sea foods in military service. Veterans who had served in the South Pacific discovered a liking for Polynesian food.

● War spurred the use of new food products by the military, including frozen food. In a remarkably short time, the restaurant industry, which had previously preferred fresh to processed food, adopted frozen foods and by 1955 they accounted for 20 to 40% of their supplies. With the rise of frozen food and other war-facilitated convenience foods came restaurant stalwarts of the 1960s: French fries, breading mixes, and cheese cake.

● Along with frozen foods came new technologies for their preparation, in particular microwave ovens and quick-recovery griddles, both military spinoffs. The RadarRange, presented at the National Hotel Exposition in 1947, was developed by Raytheon using principles of infrared technology developed during the war. It not only permitted food to be cooked lightening fast but also made reheating pre-cooked frozen entrees possible. Another marvel was the Rocket Griddle which featured fast heat recovery that enabled frozen food to be cooked without defrosting.

● The development of the air freight industry following WWII, stimulated by the availability of trained pilots and surplus airplanes, permitted restaurants to obtain foods from locations around the world. A restaurant called Imperial House in Chicago was approached by two former Air Force fliers who proposed to fly in king crabs from Alaska by freezer plane. By 1952 the restaurant was bringing strawberries from Florida and California, bibb lettuce from Kentucky, salmon from Nova Scotia, pheasant and venison from South Dakota, grouse from England, and paté from France.

● Last but not least, the ideal of organizational efficiency was stimulated by both wars. The World War II postwar period saw the rise of a much larger food service industry.

And, of course, this brief survey is far from complete.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under family restaurants, food, patrons, Polynesian restaurants, proprietors & careers, restaurant industry, roadside restaurants, waiters/waitresses/servers, women

Ohio + Tahiti = Kahiki

kahikiExterior

In the heyday of Polynesian restaurants, the 1960s and 1970s, the business attracted operators because of high profits in rum drinks. Their marketing relied on bar decoration, bartender apparel, drink names, elaborate serving vessels, and imaginative presentation.

The same was true for “Polynesian cuisine.” There could be no such thing as a Polynesian restaurant without fabulously kitschy decor.

Whatever Polynesian cuisine was, it certainly wasn’t what real Polynesians ate past or present. The Kahiki’s reference point was Tahiti. So, what were Tahitians eating in 1961 when the Kahiki opened? According to a geographer, the traditional Tahitian diet consisted of baked fish, breadfruit, and taro, but natives then preferred French baguettes with Australian butter, rice from Madagascar, canned beef from New Zealand, and Canadian canned salmon, all “washed down with generous drinks of Algerian red wine.”

KahikiDrinksIt’s doubtful that Tahitians ate much in the way of Oriental Beef or Tahitian Flambee (flaming ice cream with rum). Not to mention Tossed Green Salads, Eggs Benedict, or Reuben Sandwiches.

But people didn’t go to the Kahiki mainly for its food. As an unenthusiastic reviewer wrote in 1975, “If decor is your reason for dining out, the Kahiki in Columbus is the place for you.”

Its drinks, on the other hand, were hard to resist. With three bars on the ground floor alone, the Kahiki’s menu at one point illustrated drinks served in 30 different glasses, goblets, and ceramic cups and bowls. The most expensive was the Mystery Drink served with four straws. Its presentation involved a scantily dressed server, a gong, a lei, and a kiss. There were also Smoking Eruptions, with fumes emanating from chunks of dry ice, as well as Pago Passages, Malayan Mists, Tonga Tales, and Native Nectars.

kahikiserverBeyond rum, customers were dazzled by the restaurant’s architecture, decor, and theatricality (e.g., periodic thunder and lightning). In the restaurant’s last decades its fans celebrated it as a temple of kitsch but, surprisingly, in earlier years it was often regarded as authentic.

The building reportedly cost $1 million to build in 1960 and, with 560 seats, was the largest Polynesian restaurant in the U.S. In a flat landscape peppered with indifferent utilitarian structures, it was a startling sight that promised relief from drab ordinariness. Stepping beyond the up-swooping 50-foot facade the visitor entered a darkened Tahitian village with tall palm trees, waterfalls, thatched huts, idols, and a wild profusion of South Seas-style artifacts.

The Kahiki’s decorator, artist and engineer Coburn Morgan, was a prominent Ohio restaurant designer whose career may have been launched by his work on the Kahiki. The flamboyant design of the Kahiki was undoubtedly due to him.

In 1960, when he drew the sketch shown above, Morgan was head of the design division of the Tectum Corporation which furnished many of the composite building materials used in the construction of the Kahiki, including pressed wood for roof supports as well as for soundproofing and decorative wall panels. It may also have been used for flooring and for the stylized fish arrayed along the roof’s crest.

kahikiTangierCMorganFollowing completion of the Kahiki, Morgan designed the Aztec-themed Thunderbird Restaurant (Lima), a red-fronted prototype for the Bob Evans chain (Chillicothe), McGarvey’s Nautical Restaurant (Vermillion), the Wine Cellar (Columbus), Jack Bowman’s Steak House (Columbus), the Brown Derby (Columbus), the 18th-century-themed Old Market House Inn (Zanesville), the Tangier Restaurant (Akron — pictured), Mawby’s (Cleveland), and the “Western Victorian-style” Judd’s (Cleveland).

For theme-restaurant inspiration, Morgan traveled to the American West for the Bob Evans chain and to Lebanon for the Tangier, which was modeled on the summer palace of the head of state. The Wine Cellar, owned by Kahiki creators Bill Sapp and Lee (Leland) Henry, had a Shakespeare theme. When it failed in 1991 “16 tall carved knight’s chairs” and a “grand piano bar with winged dragon” were among the furnishings auctioned.

During its more than 50-year run the Kahiki, which was also a nightclub and banquet center, entertained hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups such as Jaycee-ettes, senior citizens, anniversary and wedding parties, and so on. Despite its listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the efforts of local preservationists who felt the Kahiki was an important part of Columbus’ cultural identity, it was demolished in 2000.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Sweet and sour Polynesian

One remarkable accomplishment of Polynesian restaurants was how they lured the male diner without using steak as bait. Who would have believed mid-century Homo Americanus Modernus could swallow so many sugary rum drinks, pineapple chunks, and sticky sauces?

Another notable coup was that these tropical resorts were so obviously fake it was preposterous to accuse them of it. It is easy to imagine how Vic Bergeron, originator of Trader Vic’s, would have roared with laughter if charged with inauthenticity. (“Jeez, Honey, that was the whole point!”) Guests were well aware that the Tiki gods, fishnets, and outrigger canoes were artfully staged to stimulate escape fantasies, and vaguely conscious that the menu represented a culinary amalgam that never existed in the outside world. Bergeron once stated that the food of Polynesian islanders was “primitive” and “not acceptable to American tastes.” Stephen Crane, mastermind of Kon-Tiki Ports, admitted that many ingredients used in Polynesian dishes – bean sprouts, water chestnuts, tomatoes, and pea pods – didn’t grow on the islands. Who cared?

Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s were the first Polynesian restaurants, beginning in California in 1934 and 1938 respectively. It was quite a while, though, before eating in pseudo-grass-huts became a fad. Around 1957 only about 20 Polynesian restaurants were known. But by 1962, after Hawaiian statehood and the debuts of the movie South Pacific and TV show Hawaiian Eye, the number had grown to 200, according to a National Restaurant Association estimate.

Many were in big hotels where their job was to boost profits. As a Wall Street Journal headline succinctly put it in 1959, “Cocoanut Milk, Idols, Waterfalls Help Hotels Lift Food, Drink Take.” The Polynesian restaurant was about merchandising. Whether it was Bonko Bonko soup at Columbus’s Kahiki, Pineapple Teriyaki Garni at The Lahala House in Corpus Christi, or a take-home scorpion drink bowl (pictured) at Trader Vic’s, the concept was greater than all the inexpensive ingredients combined.

The appeal of exotic drinks held steady longer than the rest of the package. Already by the mid-1960s, American and “continental” standbys were infiltrating menus. Steaks made a comeback and diners could also choose from a broad array of restaurant items not even remotely tropical such as clam chowder, chicken cordon bleu, and hush puppies. In the 1970s more adventurous diners rejected Cantonese, the core of Polynesian cuisine, for spicier Szechuan and Hunan. Decor was seen as a growing problem, too, as the cost of importing tapa cloths and outrigger canoes rose. Restaurateurs searching for a concept were counseled to think about Old English which was easier to accessorize, according to the journal Cooking for Profit, only requiring some paneling and “a few old swords, or other recognizable ‘art objects.’”

By the mid-1970s and into the 1980s critics heaped scorn on things Polynesian, food especially. It seemed hard to believe NY Times critic Craig Claiborne had given it an ounce of credibility in 1958. Actor Yul Brynner sued Trader Vic’s in NY’s Plaza Hotel in 1979 after eating spareribs there and acquiring trichinosis. Ten years later Vic’s was booted out of the Plaza. Vic himself, having died in 1984, was spared the ignominious news. The long-lived Kahiki closed in 2000. Yet, even today Polynesian motifs cast a campy spell.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Drinking rum, eating Cantonese

Will the real Don the Beachcomber please stand up and mix me a Zombie? As is true with so many business histories it’s difficult to lock down the true story. Confusion in the case of Don the Beachcomber mainly arises from a divorce between the principals, Don (or Donn) Beach (born Ernest Beaumont-Gantt) and his one-time wife Cora Irene Sund. Both were involved in the development of the original Don the Beachcomber, begun in 1934 as a bar serving exotic drinks in Hollywood, California. Cora, a Minnesota schoolteacher turned model, arrived on the scene shortly after Don launched his business. She invested in it and became president, while Don acted as general manager. She focused on the food side of things, hiring a Cantonese chef and expanding the bar into a restaurant with “South Seas” cuisine. They married in 1937 and divorced in 1940, the year Cora opened a branch in Chicago. When Don came back from the Air Force after WWII they split up as business partners, she keeping the mainland operations while he concentrated on Hawaii.

According to Vic Bergeron, creator of Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber provided his inspiration for transforming his Oakland CA bar and sandwich spot Hinky Dink’s into a Polynesian restaurant in 1938.

beachcombertrunkDon ran into trouble with the postwar longshoremen’s strike and decided to limit his Honolulu Beachcomber to a drinking spot. By the early 1960s he was also in the restaurant business, operating a South Seas Cabaret Restaurant, a Colonel’s Plantation Steak House, a Colonel’s Coffee House, and at least one restaurant boat. Cora’s popular Chicago Don the Beachcomber was named one of the top 50 US restaurants in 1947. She soon opened another location in Palm Springs and by 1972, when it was acquired by Getty Financial, the chain had 6 or 7 units.

The greatest growth occurred under Getty management, eventually building the chain to a total of 16. An architect gave the Beachcombers a new look. The interior of the new 1973 Dallas Beachcomber, like others to follow, featured a full array of tropical effects such as a bridge over a reflecting pool, a waterfall, rain forest, thatched roofs, palm trees, and outrigger canoes suspended from a firefly-studded ceiling. But the public’s love affair with Polynesian restaurants began to fade and by 1989 only three Don the Beachcombers remained.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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