Category Archives: restaurant customs

Greeting the New Year

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For the longest time in the history of this country New Year’s eve and New Year’s day counted for very little as far as celebrations went. Restaurant-going didn’t come into the picture until the middle 19th century, and then only in a few selected places.

Charting the development of the holiday is no easy task, but one thing is clear: it was first celebrated in New York, beginning in the Knickerbocker era. Dutch communities introduced the custom of visiting on New Year’s Day. It was a home-based holiday, with women hostessing afternoon open houses with cakes, cordials, wines, and lemonade and men paying short visits.

In Boston, on the other hand, January 1 was just another day. Children went to school while adults worked, shopped, and went about their business. This pattern still held true there in the 1880s and even in 1919 Massachusetts was the only state that had not declared the day a legal holiday, although by then it was generally celebrated.

Gift giving on New Year’s was common elsewhere too, and it would appear that New Year’s day rivaled Christmas for gift exchange through much of the 19th century.

The 1850s saw an advancement in New Year’s day festivities, New Year’s eve still being mostly an occasion for rowdies to bang pots and pans in the streets. Washington DC and parts of California were beginning to celebrate with open houses and New Year’s cakes. Meanwhile, in New York City there was diminished enthusiasm about New Year’s. An editorial in the New York Herald complained of drunken men stumbling from house to house while hostesses had to put up with obnoxious strangers barging in. “They break the crockery, deface the plate, spoil the carpets, spill wine upon the ladies’ dresses, and altogether make beasts of themselves,” raged the writer, while the “lower million” brawled in grog shops where free drinks and food were on hand.

Through the 1860s and 70s celebrations slowly gravitated outside homes and into hotels, taverns, and restaurants. In Denver people gathered at the Tremont House and the Union Hotel on New Year’s eve for dining and dancing, and again the next day at the St. Louis Hotel for a “sumptuous dinner” and more dancing at residences and hotels. In Oakland CA, women received guests on January 1, 1874, while some men paid visits as others resorted to the free lunch tables such as that at Fennessy’s billiard parlor where a well-known restaurateur furnished a feast of “turkeys and truffles, Westphalia hams, elegantly garnished salads . . . and every appetizing substance imaginable.”

New Year’s day was also a time for reunions with fellow countrymen. In Rockford IL, those of Scottish descent gathered at Billet’s restaurant on New Year’s eve in 1891 for a 10:30 p.m. supper.

newyear'sMartin's1908New Year’s 1900, signaling the change of a century as well as a year, marked a stepping up of celebrations, both on New Year’s day and, increasingly, on New Year’s eve. In Charleston SC, New Year’s day dinners in hotels and restaurants were said to equal Christmas feasting. In Portland OR in 1903 the day’s offerings included a 50-cent dinner at Rath & Sandy’s with raw Olympia Oysters; Consomme and Clam Broth; Boiled Halibut with Egg Sauce; a choice of Chicken, Duck or Roast Turkey; Shrimp Salad with Celery; and two kinds of dessert.

At San Francisco’s Techau Tavern, the 1909 menu for New Year’s Eve was considerably more fashionable, and rather than coffee or tea as in Portland, it was accompanied by Champagne.

newyearTechauTavern1909
Every year 20th-century celebrations in big cities seemed to get wilder, inspiring clergymen to denounce the festivities from the pulpit and call for police crackdowns on how late cafes and restaurants could serve drinks. [See Martin’s, NYC, ca. 1908 above]  The words “orgy” and “Bacchanalian” appeared in headlines. Chicago’s mayor in 1911 irritated a Sunday School Association by his refusal to enforce early closing laws, as well as his quip that he felt “only a slight tingling” from all the prayers offered for him. In 1912 New Year’s eve fell on a Sunday night, increasing protests from reformers. In San Francisco, some wondered, “Will the wild spirit with which San Francisco celebrated on Sunday night New Year’s eve be curtailed in the future, or will the Bohemians be allowed to ramble about at will on this one night in the year?” In Butte MT the warning went out in 1913 that anyone dancing the tango on a table top would be dragged off to jail.

newyearmenuEXT1926Where law enforcement failed to put a damper on New Year’s celebrations, World War I and local, then national, Prohibition succeeded. Guests at the Buffalo Hotel’s New Year’s eve dinner in 1926 had a choice of mineral water, ginger ale, or lemonade with their Kennebec Salmon and Breast of Long Island Duckling. Chicago kept its bootleggers busy on New Year’s eve as revelers crammed into the Midnight Frolics and the Trocadero, but headlines no longer screamed orgy.

As the American population went out to eat in restaurants more frequently after WWII, New Year’s eve dinners lost some of their attraction, especially as word spread that it was the worst night for food and service. Though I’ve found no figures on this, it seems to me that dining out on New Year’s day (apart from brunch) fell off even more, leading many restaurants to close on that day.

Wherever you eat on the last day of 2015 or the first of 2016, best wishes to you!

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© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Filed under miscellaneous, restaurant customs

On the 7th day they feasted

Sundaydinner1966In the weekly schedule of meals through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Sunday dinner was the peak in terms of the costliness of the food and the elaborateness of preparation. By the 1890s and early 20th century it became clear that more people were choosing to have Sunday dinner in a restaurant, a trend that appears to have begun in the Western U.S.

Earlier in the 19th century most Sunday restaurant goers were travelers staying in hotels or denizens of boarding houses that did not provide meals on Sundays. Otherwise, Sunday was not a busy day for eating places as far as is known. In 1853 Putnam’s magazine reported that although many New Yorkers patronized restaurants during the week, on Sunday they did not.

SundayDinneratGrandma's1942So the fact that people in full-service households began to eat Sunday dinner in a restaurant was a big change considering that it was largely regarded as a home-based meal often celebrated in the style of holiday meals today. Sunday dinner in the home was enough of a big deal that small town newspapers in the early 20th century were in the habit of reporting the names of guests who had been invited to the Smith’s or Wilson’s, etc.

The acceptability of Sunday meals in restaurants went hand in hand with restaurants becoming respectable to mainstream Americans, especially temperance advocates. Traditionally most eating places were also drinking places. In the 1870s some cities and towns went so far as to shut down restaurants on Sundays to stop drinking on what was generally regarded as a holy day. Philadelphia’s “Sunday Laws” closed saloons, but also restaurants, ice cream gardens, and confectionery stores. People who lived in rented rooms in New Hampshire had no place at all to eat after restaurants were ordered to close on Sundays. Although the West was generally more tolerant of drinking, Tacoma WA closed restaurants on Sundays in 1891, leaving hotels as the only eating places open for business.

A more common prohibition strategy in the early 20th century was to allow restaurants to remain open on Sunday but to make it illegal for them to sell alcohol that day. Another tactic had been tried, that of closing saloons on Sundays and only allowing drinks to be sold at places selling meals, but it didn’t take long before saloons began claiming restaurant status. NYC’s experiment with permitting only hotels to sell alcoholic drinks resulted in restaurants adding bedrooms on their upper floors, often devoted to illicit trade.

SundaydinnerclevelandJan61912In Washington DC, where the sale of alcohol was illegal on Sundays in 1905, restaurants that had bars and wanted to serve meals on that day were allowed to stay open if they completely enclosed their bar with wooden partitions running from floor to ceiling.

Sundayfinley'sphalansterie1908One effect of the separation of drinking and eating was to broaden the base of restaurant customers. Restaurants began advertising that they were home-like and welcoming to families. To the middle class, homelike definitely implied alcohol-free in the early 20th century (only during Prohibition did drinking in the home become normalized). A correspondence course in advertising in 1905 recommended the following copy, aimed at women, to attract restaurant customers: “After Church . . . You’ll hardly want to go home, doff your good clothes, and cook a big dinner. We can save you all that trouble. Just induce your husband to bring you here for your Sunday dinner.” [see advertisement for Finley’s, Cleveland, 1908]

Tea rooms were at the forefront of the home-like restaurant trend. They specialized in what had become the most popular of Sunday repasts, the chicken dinner. As Americans acquired cars, drives into the countryside with a stop at a tea room, inn, or restaurant for a Sunday chicken dinner became irresistible to city dwellers.

sundaydinnerPierceMillsundaydinnerPierceMillBACK

By World War I it was old-fashioned to eat dinner in the middle of the day, with the custom living on mostly in rural areas. But, as is true of holidays now, Sunday remained an exception for many people. Even into the 1970s many restaurants that specialized in Sunday dinner offered it both around noon and in the evening. It even became fashionable to eat in a restaurant or hotel dining room on Sunday evening, as a 1920 headline in a Milwaukee paper attested: “Dine Out on Sunday. Once Famous Repast is Delegated to Restaurants.” The story reported that it was the biggest night in the week for restaurants there.

In a sense Sunday brunch, whose popularity grew in the 1960s, replaced mid-day Sunday dinners offered by restaurants. Another blow against Sunday dinners in restaurants came when Christian religionists took a stand against restaurant-going on Sundays, seeing it as a violation of the Sabbath. The status of Sunday dinners in restaurants today is unclear.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Filed under family restaurants, restaurant customs

“To go”

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

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

takeoutmetalsignFor most customers, carry-out was an added service meant to accommodate them. Not so if the customer was Black, though. Under Jim Crow in Southern states, Black customers were unwelcome in dining rooms and at lunch counters – and could only obtain food to go (if that).

takeoutJeri'sDetroit

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

The carry-out trend was well established by the mid-1950s. A restaurant in New York’s Grand Central Station offered a commuter’s dinner, while an inn in Nebraska was set up like today’s fast food restaurants with a speaker post in the driveway for dictating orders and packaged food ready to go at the check-out window farther along.

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

takeout1962McDonald'sSo, little wonder that in the early 1960s before adding indoor seating, McDonald’s dubbed itself “McDonald’s Carry Out Restaurant.” In 1963 the chain released a report claiming that one-fourth of all restaurant orders nationwide were “to go,” with drive-ins at the top and pizza parlors not far behind.

The popularity of food to go, already well established in the 1950s, was undoubtedly one of the factors propelling the growth of fast food eateries in that decade and the next.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Pepper mills

peppermill1964ILLEver wonder why restaurants make such a big to-do with pepper mills? Obviously many people like freshly ground pepper but it goes beyond that. It’s a grand gesture that suggests hospitality and attention to detail. Diners may reason that if a restaurant will bother with fresh ground pepper it must bring the same degree of attention to its cooking.

Throughout the 19th century, Americans were lukewarm to the idea of grinding their own pepper. The custom was mainly followed in restaurants run by German or Italian proprietors. Around 1900 some people questioned whether modern Americans wanted to grind peppercorns. So Old World! A story in the New York Sun in 1903 reflected this attitude: “Beginning with the little boxes on the table where you can grind your own pepper while you wait – imagine having time to grind your own pepper – everything in the Teutonic eating places is a protest against the American idea of life.”

peppermillminuetmanorILLSo pepper mills were un-American, at least for a while. But then, in the 1950s and early 1960s, competitive restaurateurs returned to the practice. For some reason – world travel? the rebirth of gourmet dining? – some guests had begun to carry around their own portable grinders. Restaurants may have felt a need to respond if they were to appear sophisticated. And so, along with Beef Wellington and large padded menus, the pepper grinder made its appearance. If it seemed European now, so much the better. Evidently pepper mills were quite the thing in Los Angeles around 1955 because there were at least two manufacturers there.

Trouble was, though, when small grinders were placed on tables initially patrons had a way of walking off with the cute little things. Early adopter Peter Canlis found that when he began supplying each table with 4-inch-tall mills at his Charcoal Broiler in Honolulu, they all disappeared in the first three days.

peppermillTown&CountryDallas1960

The solution: large, unpocketable grinders deployed only by the wait staff. How large? At the Town & Country restaurant in Dallas TX, which prided itself on Cuisine Français for discriminating diners, a special stand was required for propping a 9-foot pepper mill over the table. [pictured]

Beginning in the 1970s, pepper mills the size of fire plugs or in the shape of baseball bats became a source of humor and critique. Some also noted that pepper mills enabled servers to appear as though they were giving superior service in hopes of bigger tips. Mimi Sheraton objected to how restaurants pounced on diners with the pepper mill before they’d had a chance to even sample their food.

Now pepper mills have shrunken to a manageable size, criticism has died away, and it seems to be standard operation for restaurants of a certain price and service level to equip servers with them.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Little things: butter pats

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There are many ways to handle butter service in restaurants. Toast may be buttered in the kitchen, doing away with the establishment’s need to decide among curls, balls, rosettes, wrapped servings, pats or, whipped butter put in tiny ramekins. Alternatively, olive oil may take the place of butter on the table.

butterpat923Over the decades butter has given restaurant managers plenty of headaches, whether due to its cost, its scarcity, and/or complaints from patrons that they didn’t get enough. Not to mention that it melts when it gets warm and turns hard when it’s cold.

What form butter usually took when diners received it in the 19th century is not clear, maybe in lumps, possibly piled in a communal bowl on each table, a habit that customers would reject in the 20th century.

Bread and butter was viewed as a necessary complement to a meal in the early 1800s, and it often served as an entire meal for those with little to spend. Some restaurants charged separately for bread and butter, while in others it came along with a regular meat or fish order. A good restaurant or tavern might have fresh butter, but others did not. Even if they struck it rich, the early California gold diggers had to wait for Eastern butter to travel around Cape Horn before it reached San Francisco in poor shape. But soon California had dairies that supplied fresh butter, as an 1856 advertisement boasted, “From this date we shall use none other than California Butter, fresh from the best Petaluma Ranches, daily.”

Melting butter became a problem in the summer. The sickening description of “butter the consistency of salad-oil, dotted with struggling flies” can only inspire pity for summertime patrons of Chicago restaurants in the 1880s. To prevent melting, restaurants often placed butter pats upon chipped ice, making it a bit difficult for patrons to butter their bread, but still clearly preferable to the alternative.

butterpat1915HotelMonthlyAlbertPickButter making was rapidly becoming industrialized in the late 19th century, at which time inventors began working on butter cutters that would produce neatly cut chips for use in restaurants and hotel dining rooms. Although many eating places bought butter pre-cut into pats and stamped with their logo by a large dairy, others used mechanical cutters that permitted them to buy butter in bulk and cut it themselves, “untouched by human hands.” All-new-improved models came on the market in the early 20th century, such as the American Butter Dispenser that held 9 pounds capable of being turned into “clean, firm, equal” butter pats in only 2½ minutes. Another feature was that the machine could produce from 28 to 54 pats per pound, permitting a restaurant to economize on butter as needed.

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The size of butter pats varied with national conditions and other pressures. During World War I the Food Administration advised serving no more than ½ oz. per person (actually a generous serving). After the war the dairy lobby in Minnesota tried and failed to push through legislation that would have boosted the standard restaurant serving to 2 oz. Butter pats grew slim once again due to shortages during World War II, and some restaurants began charging extra for butter as its cost rose. Customers complained bitterly.

Perhaps the most curious complaint about butter was that of a patron at a Denny’s restaurant in the 1970s. When served toast with a cold, right-from-the-refrigerator butter pat on top – rather than melted butter as advertised on the menu — Malcolm Douglas Stroud deducted 25 cents from his check. A Denny’s employee made a citizen’s arrest; Stroud countered with a suit for malicious prosecution and was awarded $10,600 in damages by an Oregon court.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Reservations

reservationsJPGtablejpgRestaurant reservations are mainly a 20th century innovation, and yet for the best of customers tables have always been available, no reservations required. A visitor to a Chicago hotel noted in 1888 that a nearby table had chairs tipped, a sign that it was reserved. A number of business men led by packing house magnate Philip Armour walked in and sat down. “Waiters scurried to serve them, and in a twinkling they were attacking their thick steaks as if the meal were a business problem to be solved immediately,” the onlooker recorded in her diary.

It was a common practice to save tables for prominent business men who gathered at the same table daily. In cities with numbers of German-American settlers, such as St. Louis and Washington D.C., the table was known as a Stammtisch and the diners as Stammgäste. At a restaurant in St. Louis conducted by Detlof von der Lippe, tables in alcoves were reserved for different professions. An inset in the 1906 postcard below shows an alcove named The Grind Stone. In the background is The Roost, reserved for tailors, while lumber men sat in The Hoo-Hoo. Which profession met in The Grind Stone is anyone’s guess.

reservationsLippe's

As late as 1957, Harvey’s and the Occidental restaurants in D.C. kept tables for regular groups, as did others in that city. A table at La Salle Du Bois was reserved on Saturdays for businessman Milton S. Kronheim and his “Saturday 12″ composed of Congressmen, civic leaders, and judges. Richard Nixon, then VP, reserved a table there during the week for cabinet members and White House staff.

Of course luxury restaurants such as the Colony automatically reserved tables for wealthy and celebrity regulars too. For them, as for business groups, the rule was that if the party did not arrive within 15 to 30 minutes of their usual schedule, the table would be given to someone else.

reservationsJPG1913Greensboro

If saving tables for the toffs is a longstanding practice, so is resentment by the public when told no tables are available even as they gaze upon a dining room with empty spaces. The problem intensified as taking reservations became more common in the early 20th century with the spread of telephones in restaurants. [1913 advertisement]

reservationsJPGNewYorker1940Reserved tables have often implied to people without them that they were being snubbed and regarded as inferior. And in the case of Afro-Americans this was literally the case. No matter how well dressed, how well mannered, how able to pay, they were likely to be told no tables were available.

Although many Northern states had enacted civil rights laws in the 1880s when the South was instituting segregationist Jim Crow laws, they were rarely enforced. However, an 1889 case in Michigan stands out because of the appeals court judge’s decision for the plaintiff who had been told he could be seated only at a table in the back reserved for Black patrons at a restaurant in Detroit. Usually things did not work out so well. In the 1920s a Chicago restaurant discontinued taking reservations by telephone after they discovered that a women’s club who had booked tables for 40 was Black. Even the federal Civil Rights Law of 1964 failed to eliminate discrimination. Activist Dick Gregory and others were turned away at an empty restaurant in Tuscaloosa AL in 1965 when the hostess showed them a reservations list with 1,000 names on it.

Whose interests do reservations  primarily serve – the restaurant’s or the guest’s? This is a tricky question, but on balance I’d say restaurants are providing a service that is mostly in the guest’s interests. Although it benefits restaurants to have an idea of how many are coming to dinner, in terms of staffing and provisioning, there are also drawbacks. A popular restaurant may actually lose money by taking reservations because tables are not constantly producing revenue throughout a busy mealtime. With reservations, tables are bound to sit empty between guests. What’s worse, a percentage of reservations will not show up nor call to cancel, despite a restaurant’s telephoned confirmation or penalty charges.

reservationsJPGrestaurantpagersThe no-show problem developed into a major headache for restaurants in the 1980s. Restaurants that normally got a lot of tourists and sporting event fans suffered the most, and some reported they went into the red on nights when up to 30% of reserved tables went unfilled. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that so many popular dinner-house restaurant chains take no reservations on busy nights. As long as there are plenty of guests willing to wait up to an hour and a half, the decision is 100% rational. Most of these restaurants – such as the Cheesecake Factory – hand out pagers that permit people to stroll around or go shopping until they are buzzed, a system that came into use in the late 1980s.

For those of us who prefer to go to restaurants that still take reservations comes the dawning realization that we are very likely paying a premium for the privilege. And soon we might be paying for the reservation itself, according to a recent story in the Atlantic.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Shared meals

comebacks1874AlaskaStPhil

There is a lot of interest now in menus designed for sharing. Groups of friends order a variety of dishes of intriguing appetizers, passing them around so that everyone gets a helping.

Sharing restaurant food has a long history, not all of it so appetizing.

In the 1890s stories appeared in the U.S. press about market stalls in France that sold food left over from the tables of restaurants and hotels. The buyers were those of scant means who needed a cheap meal. What the stories left out was that the custom was not unknown in this country. How common it was is hard to say, but an account in 1874 described an eating place in Philadelphia that sold table scraps from hotels to the city’s poor. [illustration above]

There are two kinds of leftovers in public eating places: prepared food that has not been served and food that has been served to patrons and returned on their plates to the kitchen. The latter is known as comebacks. To what degree food removed from plates was served again to other patrons or added to kitchen stews, hashes, and soups in the 19th century is unknown, but it began to receive attention from health departments in the early 20th century.

Americans became conscious of public health issues in 1906 with revelations about the meat packing industry in books such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. One result of the uproar was that cities and towns that had not already done so expanded the duties of their health departments to include restaurant inspections.

In Los Angeles, inspectors in 1907 discovered that chicken, steak, or chop bones with meat still adhering to them were often added to kettles for stock, soups, or gravies. Somewhat surprisingly, this practice was not likely to happen at the cheapest restaurants. Those selling meals at rock-bottom prices (10 cents) claimed they rarely had any food scraps returned to their kitchens. In a 1908 exposé in a D.C. newspaper, a waiter “told all.” Among his advice to lunch room patrons was to order dry toast with butter rather than buttered toast because in the latter case it was likely to be comeback butter wiped off a plate by the cook’s dirty finger.

comebackshashAlso ranking high on the public’s list of restaurant mystery dishes was hash. Middle-class women, who were particularly distrustful of restaurants’ cleanliness, would only eat it in their own homes or in a genteel, woman-run tea room. Patrons often told the proprietor of a home-style tea room in Bangor ME, “I’m not afraid to eat hash here.”

comebacksADV1908EvanstonAt least one restaurant, the Pure Food Café in Evanston IL, was so concerned about public perception that it adopted the unfortunate slogan, “We Use No Comebacks.” Perhaps its patrons, mainly students at Northwestern University, needed this reassurance.

Another illicit use of food returned on patrons’ plates was for staff meals. Minnesota’s state hotel inspector declared he would put a stop to it. “We are going to stop the practice of making restaurant and hotel employes eat the ‘comebacks’ that the guests have already dallied with,” he pledged in 1917.

The re-use of comebacks was not a popular topic for public discussion so it’s impossible to gauge how often it occurred or to what degree the practice was halted by inspections. But the problem either persisted or recurred during the Depression, as evidenced by an article in a 1932 issue of the trade journal Restaurant Management.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Filed under restaurant customs, sanitation