Category Archives: restaurant industry

Dressing the female server

Clearly restaurant uniforms and costumes serve a variety of practical purposes, especially if they are comfortable, easy to move in, and well supplied with pockets. They mark their wearers as restaurant staff rather than patrons. Some go a step further by carrying out a restaurant’s decor or theme. Still others promise to bring male customers in the door.

Even though they share common characteristics, three types can be distinguished as described above: the functional, the decorative, and the alluring. Each has its own separate history.

Surprisingly, the oldest are alluring costumes that bring customers in the door.

Most restaurant and hotel dining room servers in the 19th century were male. Female servers usually worked in the lower types of eating and drinking places. They were often viewed as women of loose morals if not downright criminals; enticing male patrons as well as taking abuse from them were part of the job.

As early as the 1860s, music halls, also known as concert saloons, began heavily advertising the presence of “pretty waiter girls” whose job was to deliver beer and cocktails to male patrons. Their outfits were referred to as “fantastic,” “with short petticoats,” “microscopic,” or resembling “extremely reduced ballet dress.”

Reformers eventually succeeded in eliminating pretty waiter girls by banning the sale of alcohol in music halls. But the realization that female servers dressed in scanty costumes could attract customers did not disappear. In the mid-1890s, some cafes introduced women dressed in knee-length bloomers that showed off their legs. Although bloomers also had some practical advantages, that was not what attracted crowds of gawking male customers.

Dressing servers as pretty waiter girls continued in the 20th century and right into the present. In the 1930s, drive-ins dressed carhops in drum majorette costumes with shorts and bare midriffs; Playboy bunnies came along in the 1960s, as did topless waitresses and bordello-themed restaurants with servers in red and black corsets; in the 1980s came “breastaurant” chains such as Hooters, with Twin Peaks and Tilted Kilts arriving in the 2000s, all with servers wearing regulation big smiles and low cut tops and short shorts or micro-kilts.

The ability to attract large tips clearly plays a significant role in women’s willingness to perform an almost vaudevillian sexy server role. It was said that the 1860s pretty waiter girls, who enticed patrons to drink heavily, received a portion of the check rather than regular wages. Some 1930s drive-ins paid no wages either, figuring the carhops received generous tips.

About the same time as pretty waiter girls arrived in music halls, “good girls” wearing modest decorative costumes took up their serving trays at fairs to raise money for civil war soldiers. At New York’s fair, for instance, they dressed as Normandy peasants with picturesque caps. It soon became fashionable to dress female servers in costumes such as Martha Washington at a “Boston tea party” or Swiss peasants at an 1876 Centennial Exhibition restaurant named The Dairy.

The popularity of decorative novelty costumes carried over to commercial restaurants such as the tea rooms of the early 20th century where Asian and Colonial motifs were popular. Next it spread to theme restaurants of all kinds and servers could be found wearing togas, grass skirts, kilts, Bavarian dirndls, sarongs, etc., some of these — such as steakhouse wench costumes — revealing as well as decorative.

As far as I can tell, Asian-American women were never hired as servers unless they agreed to work in their “native costumes.” Black women rarely worked as servers in white restaurants, but when they did they often wore Mammy costumes. I can’t decide if it was a step forward or backward when Alice Foote MacDougall hired light-skinned Black women to dress like Italian peasants at Firenze in NYC in the 1920s.

As is true of alluring waitress costumes, decorative costumes never fell completely out of favor and continue in use today.

Fred Harvey, who ran lunch rooms and restaurants for the Santa Fe railroad, introduced functional, standardized uniforms as early as 1883 and a Denver restaurant claimed in 1895 that its unionized “lady waiters” were “dressed in complete uniform, something never before introduced in this country.” But in most eating places women simply wore street clothes such as shirtwaists and long skirts, possibly with a long apron or pinafore, when they served meals. This began to change in the early 20th century, primarily in the better-capitalized, modern restaurant chains.

The spread of standardized uniforms in the teens and twenties represented a significant change. Although the status of waitresses did not rise dramatically, wearing a uniform did add a professional dimension to the job, putting wearers on a par approaching nurses, police, soldiers, and others with authority. A newspaper columnist in 1928 named Mary Marshall observed that wearing uniforms had recently become “a privilege rather than a disgrace” as they were adopted by dentists and doctors, telephone operators, bank tellers, hairdressers, department store saleswomen, and waitresses.

Part of the explanation for standardized waitress uniforms arose from concerns with restaurant cleanliness in the years before WWI. But their adoption was also a sign of a growing restaurant industry looking for legitimacy. The development of functional uniforms occurred as restaurants were run more systematically. Specialized manufacturers and suppliers emerged to furnish restaurants — separate from hotels — with kitchen equipment, furniture, china, linens, uniforms, and food products.

Another significant change in how female servers were dressed began to take place in the 1970s, influenced by the women’s movement. A growing number of Americans expressed dislike of revealing costumes. A restaurant critic focusing on Monterey Jack’s at Rancho Bernardo in California in 1978, for instance, cited the restaurant’s corny decor, “near total disregard for food,” and “exaggerated and tasteless attire” that debased the waitresses.

The tide was definitely turning in the 1980s. In a 1993 article in Gender and Society, author Elaine J. Hall’s research showed that the more “prestigious and trendy” a restaurant was, the more likely all its serving staff, both male and female, would be referred to as waiters and would wear “generic male uniforms.” A unisex uniform is usually composed of dark pants and shirt worn with a vest or a long bistro-type apron. Women servers in restaurants that have adopted unisex uniforms, she noted, see them as “an important aspect of gender equality.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under restaurant industry, uniforms & costumes, women

Between courses: secret recipes

Once again, what I thought would be a simple post has required a crash course in the unfamiliar, this time the technicalities of trade secrets, confidentiality agreements, lawsuits, and settlements.

What I have learned is how complex the restaurant industry has become. A restaurateur’s simple claim to have one or more secret recipes, either from a revered family member or an “exotic” cuisine, has given way to extremes of self protection aimed at stemming not only competitive use of signature recipes but also their novel names, plating, and menu descriptions.

Around 1900 a secret recipe was little more than one that the restaurant declined to give out to customers. But now, in extreme cases, restaurants hire what could be called “simulacrum chefs” whose main role is to build the restaurant’s identity and give it celebrity chef chic. Often chefs must sign agreements to abandon their rights to the recipes they develop while in the restaurant’s hire.

This can lead to ugly confrontations down the road. As happened, for instance, in clashes between Chef Laurent Tourondel and Jimmy Haber, owner of the BLT string of restaurants. Haber called the restaurants’ recipes “work product” belonging to the company, that could not be used in the new restaurant Tourondel opened. In the case of “Chef Bee,” a Miami restaurant company, 50 Eggs, claimed that the chef, whose legal name is Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, refused to cook once the restaurant opened, then quit and took recipes and all he had learned during training back to his family-owned restaurant. In the suit, 50 Eggs made it sound as though the chef’s standing as well as “Thai street food” itself were their products.

Fast food chains were among the first to widely advertise their special recipes for “11 herbs and spices” and “secret sauces.” Given that, upscale restaurants today are less likely to advertise their secret recipes. (Besides, all their recipes may be secret.)

In earlier years it seemed that the real value of secret recipes lay in their advertising potency. Some restaurants went so far as to concoct silly stories about spies trying to buy their wonderful chili formula, or, in the case of Eberett’s in Charleston SC, how they obtained their homely-sounding recipe for pot roast from a German spy. In the 1980s, a New Orleans Chinese restaurant claimed its “Singapore Fried Chicken” was based on a secret recipe “from the Orient.”

In the case of fast food, successful competition – to the extent it is based on food at all – depends upon a few products with “unique” tastes that can be produced faithfully over and over. The protection of secret recipes is essential and it seems clear that the recipes do not belong to the low-paid personnel who work on the assembly line.

But fine – or trendy – restaurants, on the other hand, are expected to pioneer or at least keep up with the latest sensations. Yet the chef who develops the recipes often must leave them behind. Citing “the restaurateur’s dilemma,” bloggers Denise M. Mingrone and Roland Chang asked in 2014: “Doesn’t society benefit from allowing chefs . . . to create culinary delights and publish their recipes without fear of legal reprisal?”

It is scarcely surprising that some chefs refuse to accept positions that require them to surrender ownership of recipes they develop, or that they aspire to open their own restaurants where they can be autonomous “chiefs.”

Meanwhile,“Nondisclosure and noncompete agreements in employment contracts have become increasingly popular in the restaurant industry,” noted Sarah Segal in “Keeping It in the Kitchen” in 2016.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, food, proprietors & careers, restaurant controversies, restaurant industry

The history of the restaurant of the future

Starting in the early 20th century, most futuristic thinking about restaurants involved technological inventions. Many envisioned replacing waiters with mechanical devices that would send orders straight to the kitchen, then deliver the food to customers. Others foresaw the day that electricity could be used in restaurant kitchens to power every kind of tool for peeling, slicing, heating, etc.

In the teens, in fact, major hotels installed pneumatic tube systems that swooshed restaurant orders from guests in bedrooms and dining rooms to hotel service pantries. [1916 image]

The arrival of electronics with the end of World War II inspired dreams of near-instant cooking, and led to imagined scenarios in which waitresses shouted directions to the kitchen meant to produce a soft-boiled egg and crisp bacon: “One egg, hundred and thirty megacycles, six seconds – bacon, two hundred and forty megs, eleven seconds.”

The late 1950s, perhaps a wackier decade than it is usually portrayed, brought forth two curious predictions. Don Roth of Chicago’s Blackhawk Restaurant probably gave his prediction as a publicity stunt when he suggested that in the future gourmet meals by famous chefs would arrive by rocket ship from all over the world. Arrive, that is, after diners ordered via 3-D television on which they watched a chef prepare it. A columnist writing “Astro-Guide” under the name “Ceean” predicted that restaurants patronized by advertising and television executives would soon be equipped with table jacks permitting portable TVs and earphones to be used to monitor programs during lunch.

Watching a little screen at your restaurant table while eating? What a silly idea.

Still, in one way or another, most of the predictions eventually came true. Of course it helped if a prediction was made when the trend was already well underway. It wasn’t too daring in 1969 to predict that chains and franchising would grow. On the other hand, the same analysts considered the possibility that as people ate out more, future restaurants might offer special pricing for anyone who planned to eat five or more dinners a month at the same place. They did not seem to know that as far back as the 1870s it had been commonplace for restaurants to sell discounted weekly meal tickets.

Also in the 1960s, food scientists and industry gurus dreamed of frozen pre-prepared meals that needed only to be heated and served. That happened too.

The 1960s also produced a semblance of futuristic dining at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, at the gas industry’s Pavilion Restaurant [shown above], and at Disney’s Tomorrowland [shown here, 1967]. It was heralded as “Tomorrowland Terrace – A restaurant of the future where excellent food and entertainment are served daily. Presented by COCA-COLA.” The Pavilion Restaurant had walls of blown air, while the futuristic aspects of Tomorrowland Terrace escape me. Later TT was remodeled and renamed Club Buzz, and then in 2006 was semi-restored and once again became Tomorrowland Terrace.

A hospitality management professor once told me that the restaurant industry is not interested in the past, only the future. That attitude can produce some strange predictions, such as those of a professor of hotel management in 1976. He anticipated push button ordering with pneumatic tube delivery (turn of the century ideas, partly realized in the teens), boiling bag entrees (see 1964 image), pictorial menus (already in use by then), and scratch ‘n’ sniff menus (which, thankfully, never materialized).

In the mid-1970s, some thought that restaurants that implemented energy-conservation measures were models of restaurants of the future. In 1976 a new Jolly Tiger restaurant opened outside Albany NY, designed as a test site for energy reclamation and conservation, and monitored by the State University of New York, with funding from the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (later the Department of Energy). Given that restaurants are huge energy users, energy conservation has been recommended by the National Restaurant Association and implemented to varying degrees in some restaurants. However, as of 2013 only 38 U.S. restaurants out of a total of over 600,000 had been granted LEED certification, signifying that they had made a serious commitment to reducing energy consumption.

That future has yet to arrive.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under chain restaurants, odd buildings, restaurant industry, technology

The food gap

Last week I spent some time doing library research, an increasingly rare activity for me in the age of digitized sources. Looking at early 1980s issues of a major restaurant trade journal I was struck by how unappetizing the food looked. The problem may have been partly due to poor photography but it was also due to the way food was presented, including how it was discussed. My reaction was so strong that I began to wonder briefly why I had ever been attracted to eating in restaurants.

It wasn’t the first time I experienced distancing from how restaurant trade magazines approach food. It has often seemed to me that there is a deep gulf separating how home cooks think about food as compared to how the restaurant industry – as reflected in trade journalism – does.

Here’s an example. What do you see in the image above of an excessively grill-marked steak accompanied by geometrically arranged onion rings and a yellowy triangle of Texas toast? The photo was part of an advertisement for portion-controlled steaks, accompanied by the text below. I have italicized the words that I find bizarre and alienating.

“Our luscious Longhorn shown above is a mildly marinated USDA Choice steak that provides consistently plump plate coverage at a slim cost. Like our Black Diamond, Sunset Strip and Steak for 2, it offers minimal cooking shrinkage, no waste and is highly merchandiseable as a steak you’ll proudly call your own.”

Nice silverware though.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under food, restaurant industry