Category Archives: restaurant issues

True confessions

Through the years a number of writers have described deceptive practices and foul scenes in restaurant kitchens where they have worked. Probably the best known authors are George Orwell (Down and Out in London and Paris, 1933) and Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential, 2000).

In those books, and in periodicals, I’ve read many reports of bad restaurant food, along with dishes misrepresented on menus. But I’m still a bit stunned after reading Restaurant Reality: A Manager’s Guide by Michael M. Lefever (1989). One of the biggest surprises is that he reveals his own willing involvement in kitchen tricks and horrors inflicted on guests — even in restaurants he and his wife owned and operated.

The book has a puzzling disclaimer on the copyright page: “This book is a composite of the author’s own experiences. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is purely coincidental.” But, whether absolutely factual or not, and despite being aimed at college students interested in restaurant management, the book seems to sanction questionable activities.

In his preface to Restaurant Reality the author makes several statements that seem to undermine the disclaimer somewhat. He says that he tried to present “an authentic overview” that was “a real eye-opener for anyone who has ever eaten in a restaurant.” He adds that while the content may be shocking, “that’s how things really are.”

Starting at age 14, Lefever had at least a 23-year career in a number of restaurant roles, including dishwasher, server, cook, and bartender for an Italian restaurant, followed by unit manager and district manager for a fast-food chain, and regional manager for a dinner-house chain. Plus, in between the chains, he and his wife were owner-operators of three independent restaurants. Following his restaurant career, he held academic positions both as Associate Dean of the Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston and as head of the Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Travel Administration at UMass Amherst.

Although no names of individuals, places, or restaurants are given in the book, I have discovered that the third restaurant the Lefevers owned briefly was The Balcony in Folsom, CA. According to a 1983 story in the town’s paper, their two previous restaurants were in Bend OR and Salt Lake City, probably in that order.

How things really were

At age 16 Lefever became head cook at an Italian restaurant. It was before microwave ovens were common so hot water was used for parboiling and defrosting items such as lobster tails. The same water might be used for multiple items, such as pasta, chicken, and fish, as well as frozen steaks before they went on the broiler. He remarks, “This may be of some interest to readers who are strict vegetarians.”

No matter what the customer ordered at the Italian restaurant, all steaks were delivered to guests rare and cooked further only if they complained. If the customer insisted on a well-done steak the kitchen took revenge by putting it in a deep-fat fryer, followed by treatment with a blowtorch which caused it to burst into flames. Just before it burned to a crisp they would throw it on the floor and smother it in salt, then shake off the salt, put it on a platter and brush it lavishly with butter. He claims – and maybe it was true – that customers loved these steaks and some started asking for theirs charred.

As a fast-food unit manager, he oversaw (or witnessed? or heard about?) some truly disgusting practices. For instance, afternoon employees hired mainly to clean toilets and dispose of trash often did some off-hour cooking as well — but they weren’t always terribly sanitary. If no fresh lettuce was available, he writes, “the afternoon employee might fish out of the garbage can some discarded outer leaves.” They were oversized with tough spines, so the worker would “simply place his palm on the assembled sandwich and smash it downward.” When condiments squished out, he would “take a dirty cleaning rag” and wipe off the bun.

Since Lefever’s monthly bonus was based on keeping costs down, he recycled sandwiches that had officially expired as often as he could, even though this subverted the chain’s system. Eventually they began to look inedible. Then the workers would replace limp lettuce, spray the dry bun with water, and make other repairs. If that didn’t work they would disassemble the sandwiches and salvage the valuable parts for remakes during the off-hours, and so much the better if the customers were nighttime drive-thrus who had spent their evenings in a bar.

At the Lefevers’ own restaurant, The Balcony, servers were instructed to tell customers that all dishes — Veal Piccata, Beef Wellington, and so on — were prepared on site though they actually came from a supplier of frozen entrees. The cooks were highschool students who defrosted them in a microwave while doing their homework.

He declares that customers who found eggshells in their omelets should have been grateful since this meant the restaurant used fresh eggs rather than processed omelet mixes. But it could also mean that they came from the bottom of containers they used to store hundreds of cracked eggs in water. And, he reveals, “The bottom also collected the heavier eggs, which result when hens are sick, given a strange diet, or frightened.” Customers requesting decaffeinated coffee didn’t necessarily get it, since servers randomly grabbed the handiest pot, switching the red or green plastic bands that indicated type of coffee.

In discussing food spilled on the floor, he writes, “I have served . . . entrees spilled and then salvaged such as lasagne, beef stew, chili, pasta, and scrambled eggs. Steaks and chops are no problem at all. Simply put them back on the grill or in the pan to freshen them, after washing them under the faucet.” But he advises cooks to inspect the entree “looking for hairs and foreign pieces of food that do not complement the dish.”

Lately I’ve found myself eager to eat at home.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Odors and aromas

It is said that the sense of smell became less important when proto-humans began to walk upright. Yet it has played a significant role in restaurant history, for better and for worse.

While not limited to the 19th century, complaints about bad odors in eating places abounded then. In that century, unwanted smells might come from the building itself, accumulated cooking odors, or the humans in the rooms. Worst of all were the cheap eating places located in damp and windowless basements where all three perils came into play.

A self-styled researcher in 1849 cancelled a plan to visit common eating houses in New York City, writing, “We once undertook to count these establishments in the lower part of the City, but got surfeited on the smell of fried grease before we got half through the first street, and were obliged to go home in a cab.”

Even Taylor’s, Broadway’s mid-19th-century hot spot where fashionable ladies went to consume fricandeaus and meringues, failed the smell test. It had a deluxe interior with 18-ft-high ceilings, gold leaf, fountains, and mirrors, leading journalist Fannie Fern to exclaim, “What a display of gilding and girls.” And yet, upon its close in 1866, a critic put things straight, admitting “there was always the restaurant odor, the mingled essence of many past dinners, and precisely the same from month to month and year to year.”

If Taylor’s wasn’t free of bad odors, what restaurant was? Well, according to a British visitor, the answer was just about none! In 1868 the author, after visiting New York, gave 99.9% of the city’s eating places a no-star rating when it came to smelliness. “The restaurants, with the exception of Delmonico’s on Fifth Avenue, generally speaking, are dingy and warm, and have a sickly smell about them,” he wrote. Not much later the Prince of Wales traveled to the U.S. and quickly grew sick of the sight and smell of one of the country’s most beloved foods: oysters. “During his sojourn he was always endeavoring to escape from the smell of them,” according to one chronicler. Obviously, one person’s bad odor might be another’s delicious aroma.

Old-fashioned chophouses, revered as hyper-masculine shrines to meat-eating, also came in for criticism. One critic denounced New York’s Old Tom’s, a venerable dining spot, as “the humbug of the century.” He characterized its atmosphere as “fat and greasy,” adding, “You breathe it, smell it, taste it.”

On the whole, though, it was unusual for men to criticize the smell of meat cooking. It was so enticing that the owner of an 1890s NYC ballroom arranged to pipe in the kitchen’s odor of steaks being grilled at the end of the night’s entertainment, ensuring a crowd for his dining room a floor below.

The restaurant foods usually singled out as unacceptably smelly tended toward fried, greasy things, as well as garlic, onions, cabbage, and, in certain cases — when they perfumed residential neighborhoods — hamburgers and hot dogs. Los Angeles regarded tamale wagons as “odor factories” and Scarsdale fought to remove a “smelly” stand operated by Castel Hitaltakides, aka ‘Hot Dog Joe.’

But it wasn’t until after the first world war that real improvements were made with ventilation and kitchen design. Wood surfaces were replaced with harder materials such as “Monel metal,” forerunner to stainless steel. And the use of vents and exhaust systems grew commonplace except in the poorest eating places. Air conditioning in the 1930s also made a big difference. However, improvements in air quality were always in order. A 1946 customer survey revealed that restaurant patrons’ biggest complaint after noise and clatter was still bad odors. They almost certainly would have included cigars and cigarettes, which would draw even more complaints as the movement to ban smoking in restaurants grew.

What could restaurants do to control odors? There were range hoods as far back as the 1880s, though I don’t know enough about them to judge their effectiveness. Another method employed by restaurateurs who could afford it was to locate their kitchen on the top floor of a building, with the dining room a floor below so the kitchen’s greasy hot air and odors would float inoffensively skyward.

But then attitudes to food smells began to shift. An overlooked feature of the food “revolution” taking place in the late 1970s and 1980s was that cooking aromas – which, apart from beef, had rarely been regarded as a positive attraction in restaurants – became a plus, particularly when they emanated from the kitchens and platters of ethnic restaurants. Fast food smells, such as the pizza-burger’s, were also redeemed as pleasant.

At Joe’s, yes, but not so much in luxury restaurants.

Remember that smelling was long associated with lowly creatures. And for decades the standard had been that proper middle class homes should be entirely free of cooking smells, even if this required a series of doors between kitchen and dining room as well as frequent daily airings of the kitchen. In the 1920s a genteel residential hotel in Cleveland went so far as to design suites in its new building with no kitchenettes “so that one family will not inconvenience other occupants with cooking odors.”

It seems this standard was adopted by luxury restaurants as well. I have been unable to find any reviews of elite restaurants that mentioned odors or aromas. Evidently the only time customers’ noses were allowed to come into use was in sniffing wine offered by the sommelier.

What would Julia (Child) have thought about this? In a 1972 interview, she was asked how, when traveling, she identified a good restaurant. Her answer: “If you poke your nose in, the smell will tell you something. A good restaurant smells good – of fresh food and butter and fresh olive oil.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Celebrity restaurants: Here’s Johnny’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Famous in its day: Le Pavillon

Alternative headings for this post could be Former Busboy Becomes Famous Restaurateur, Best Mid-Century French Restaurant in the U.S., or The Restaurant that Set the Standard for Fine Dining.

In other words, everyone who has known or researched Le Pavillon agrees that it produced this country’s finest French cuisine for most of its 22 years under Henri Soulé. It’s also significant that throughout that time numerous employees of the restaurant left to found some of New York’s other top French restaurants.

Not that the city was devoid of fine French restaurants when Le Pavillon arrived on the scene. French restaurants were well established and plentiful, both as independents and in hotels. Among those competing for the most discriminating and well-heeled diners were Voisin, Café Chambord, and La Belle Meunière. But they were soon outdone.

Because its story has been written about so often and so well, it is challenging to approach Le Pavillon as a topic. For a thorough history that gives a good appreciation of its cuisine, I recommend Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman.

Le Pavillon opened in New York City in 1941, after a spectacular two-year run at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. Located near the top of the Fair’s French Pavilion, it had a dramatic spot overlooking the Lagoon of Nations where a light and fireworks show took place each night at 9 p.m. Despite being the Fair’s most expensive eating place, it was wildly popular and booked for weeks in advance. Because the Fair was difficult to get to by car, New Yorkers had to want to go there badly enough to take public transportation. Yet many returned again and again to dine at the Restaurant Français.

The French Pavilion’s restaurant was provisioned with food and wines brought from France and was staffed by French cooks, maitre d’s, and waiters. It was backed by the French Line and a number of prominent Paris restaurants owned by the Drouant family. Jean Drouant ran the show, hiring Soulé [pictured here], a maitre d’ at one of his Paris restaurants, to manage the dining room.

During the Fair’s tenure, Germany advanced on France, occupying Paris. When the Fair ended, Soulé decided to stay in New York. It has been said that he did not want to return to France under enemy occupation, but it’s likely he was also swayed by the stunning success of the Restaurant Français.

Since many of the restaurant’s French waiters had decided to return to France, Soulé had to hire a good number of French waiters already living in New York. He would soon become known for disputes with his staff, some resulting in resignations of chefs and temporary closure of the restaurant. His authoritarian attitudes may have been shaped by his history with Drouant, who occupied a powerful position in the French restaurant industry. He was president of the Syndicate of French Restaurants as well as the General Owners Union and was not sympathetic to waiters’ rights. He had fully supported military force used to stop a 1938 workers’ strike in response to elimination of the 40-hour week in France. He was critical of French waiters working in America, describing them as “contaminated.”

Soulé’s negative attitudes also included dislike of smoking at the table, women drinking, and the widespread American habit of eating quickly rather than slowly savoring the meal. Perhaps because of his general air of disapproval, regular patrons sought signs of his favor, which he gave sparingly. His was a notable ability to confer status on people who were as hungry for that as they were for Chateaubriand with sauce Béarnaise. One of his ways of winning the loyalty of valued patrons was to offer them special dishes not on the menu. [Note that his dislike of smoking in his restaurant did not keep him from appearing in a Luckies’ advertisement in 1954.]

In a 1962 review of a book about Le Pavillon, a clever journalist summed up how to become approved by Soulé. She wrote: “When you go to Le Pavillon you should be famous, if you can manage it, if not, you should at least be rich, elegant, chic and witty. Beautiful, if a woman, dintingué, if a man. If you can’t manage that, then maintain a balance between hauteur and quiet rapture and for heaven’s sake be careful of your manners and careless of your money.”

Yes, the restaurant was exceedingly expensive, beginning at the Fair. According to Craig Claiborne, in 1960 it was possible to spend as little as $6 there for a meal without drinks, equivalent to about $52 today. But with drinks it could cost ten times that. However, in the era of expense accounts, it was standard that a power lunch would be written off as a business expense.

1960 was the year that a dispute between chef Pierre Franey and Soulé over working hours resulted in Franey’s resignation, followed by that of seven of the kitchen staff and leading to a temporary closure of the restaurant. It was not the first time the restaurant closed in response to a dispute. [1955 notice above]

Soulé died in 1966, at age 62. I find it interesting that he willed his watch to frequent patron and “dear friend” J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, whose favorite dishes included Filet of Beef Periogourdine accompanied by a bottle of vintage Romanée Conti.

After Soulé’s death, attempts were made to keep Le Pavillon going but it closed for good in 1971.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Restaurant-ing in 1966

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Lunching at the drug store

I’ve often noticed how the history of some institution or object does not quite mesh with the nostalgic haze that eventually envelops it. To a significant extent this is true of now-vanished drug store soda fountains, many of which became places for lunches as well as for sweet fountain treats before they vanished.

Independent soda fountains date as far back as the 1810s. Decades later some druggists began adding soda fountains to their apothecaries, mainly as a favor to their customers. Soda fountain drinks, whether plain carbonated water or water mixed with syrups, were viewed as healthful and in accord with the temperance movement of the 19th century.

Soda fountains emphasized the elaborate beauty of their fountain apparatus, especially after a marble soda fountain went on display at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia. A soda fountain in Boston in 1886 was described as made of “black and chocolate marble, surmounted by a statue of purest marble, representing a dancing girl.” In addition to the artistic features, customers were attracted by the technical aspects of fountains with their tubes and faucets.

Fads in drinks meant that there was a constant search for newness, with Easter punch the first choice in 1890, but surpassed in 1891 by orange phosphates and Creme de Russe. The number of concoctions was endless. The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages, published in 1897, promised more than 1,500 “formulas,” including how to mix “Coloring Agents, Foams, Extracts, Essences, Fruit Juices, Syrups, Meads, Beers, Ales, Phosphates, Lactarts, Egg Drinks, Ades, Milk and Cream Drinks, Medicinal Drinks, Popular Fancy Drinks, Hot Soda Drinks, Ice Creams, Ciders, Fruit Wines, Liqueurs, Cordials, Bitters, [and] Cremes.”

In the 1890s druggists began to feel economic pressure to install soda fountains. Apart from drawing people into the store, soda fountains produced good profits at a time when department stores were taking away some of druggists’ business by selling over-the-counter medicines. Plus, the complex range of possible drinks did call upon mixing skills in a way that was at least somewhat similar to what druggists did in compounding medicines. They could reassure themselves — if need be — that they were using “formulas” rather than “recipes.”

In the 1910s, many druggists took a step further and began offering light lunches along with fountain drinks. According to one account, this was a way of ensuring that soda fountain traffic did not die away during lunchtime as it had been doing.

The added profits from selling sandwiches and a few other edibles were welcome but, having spent many years learning their trade, many druggists were depressed about needing to go into what became known as the luncheonette business. A 1914 survey of pharmacists found that most respondents were not thrilled about selling food. Replies included, “Let the hash houses have the pie business.” Some called the situation degrading and asked, “Can we still claim the right to class our calling as a profession?” and “When a man finds it necessary to make a living selling hot dogs, he had better pull in the sign ‘Druggist.’”

Nevertheless the luncheonette business spread and grew, as did druggists’ dependence on this source of revenue. In the 1920s it was not at all unusual to find a luncheonette in a drug store, some even selling hot dishes such as chop suey and tamales. By 1931 an estimate was that nearly half of the 25,000 drug stores nationwide served fountain lunches, with 2,800 doing so in NYC alone. And it was said that some druggists were taking in more money from food service than from everything else combined.

As popular as they were with customers, soda fountain luncheonettes were deeply disliked by catering employee unions, as well as restaurateurs and lunch room owners who viewed them as illegitimate competitors. A 1926 article in the trade magazine Cafeteria Management argued for higher national standards for restaurants, pointing out drug stores as examples of businesses that should not be in the feeding business. To gourmets who mourned the loss of fine restaurants in the 1920s when the sale of alcohol was banned, drug store food exemplified the worst of the worst. Duncan Hines, who began to rate restaurants across the entire country in the 1930s, pointed to the drug store lunch counter as a “sinister influence” and asked, “How in God’s name can anyone who regularly eats drugstore snacks ever be expected to recognize a good meal when it’s served?” Much of the food sold in drug store luncheonettes in the 1920s, was in fact bought ready-to-eat or nearly so from commercial commissaries.

Given all the criticism of drug store lunches, it’s rather surprising to see a menu attachment from Walgreen’s in 1948 and note how closely it resembles a full-scale restaurant, both because it offers 8 “complete dinners” with soup, potatoes, vegetables, roll and butter, desert, and beverage and because it describes the sauces for two fish dishes à la française! Of course it’s likely that the big drug store chains met a higher standard of cleanliness and food quality than many of the small stores had in earlier decades.

Drug store lunch counters were still sufficiently popular in the early 1960s that they, along with dime store counters, were sites of Black protestors claiming a right to patronize them. Notably, a 1951 report of the Congress for Racial Equality cited Walgreen’s stores as among the very few eating places in St. Louis that served Black customers.

By the 1970s drug stores were beginning to close their lunch counters. As early as 1970 Walgreen’s operated only one in New York City, down from 17. Whelan’s too had closed most of its counters there. The trend swept across the country and by the 1980s, nostalgia attached to the few left, most of which were limited to serving sodas and ice cream concoctions. Bitterness among druggists is long forgotten, along with other complaints. Now the best way to find any still in existence is to search for “old-fashioned soda fountain.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Lunch in a bus station, maybe

In November, 1961, new Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) rules took effect requiring all interstate bus terminals to integrate their lunch and waiting rooms. The new regulations went against Jim Crow laws in the South that required separate “white” and “colored” facilities.

Although travel on interstate buses had been integrated by the ICC in 1955, the regulations had not covered restaurants or restrooms in the terminals.

The new rules were issued just months after the Congress of Racial Equality organized “Freedom Rides” with groups of Black and white members who rode buses to Southern states — Alabama and Mississippi in particular — with the intention of challenging segregated bus station facilities. In May, 1961, the Freedom Riders were attacked by violent white mobs who beat them and firebombed one of their buses while it was stopped with a flat tire outside Anniston AL. [photo above]

Twelve days after the ICC rules took effect a Black journalist, Bettye Rice Hughes, set out on a bus trip through the South to observe firsthand what had changed – and what hadn’t. She was a graduate of Lincoln University in Jefferson City MO where she majored in journalism. She and her husband, Albert Hughes, a photographer for the Associated Negro Press [ANP], lived in Los Angeles. She was a reporter for the ANP, but it is unclear if that was her job at the time of her tour. In 1964 she was editor of the women’s page of the San Francisco Sun-Reporter. That year she took part in a panel at a conference on Black writers sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley. In 1966 she left the Sun-Reporter and may have moved to New York City. I was not able to trace her any further than that. [photo: Bettye Jean Hughes at 1964 conference, talking with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)]

Her six-week tour took her through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and part of Mississippi. Her story, “A Negro Tourist in Dixie,” was published in April, 1962, and continues to be read today.

The bus she took avoided going through all but a corner of Mississippi – where it made no stops – and her tour did not include Louisiana, the birthplace of segregated railroad travel.

In her report of the bus tour it’s clear that she is a close observer, paying attention not only to the reaction of white people to her, but also to the reaction of other Black people, on the bus and in the stations, including kitchen workers. Clearly she is an object of curiosity, but also hostility. “I felt that the threat of violence was always there – particularly in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama – but somehow it never erupted,” she writes. She is served in the lunch rooms, though often grudgingly. On a couple of occasions she has to insist on her right to eat in what were still considered by many to be “white” lunch rooms.

The first direct challenge to her presence in a lunch room came at a Greyhound station in Florence, South Carolina. There, the white cashier as well as a white counterman yelled at her to go to the station’s other lunch room, “the one for you.” She stood her ground, despite her growing fear, and succeeded in getting served, but the episode filled her with dread about the next stops. During the encounter, white patrons, she noted, were silent and “pointedly staring at their food.” In Tallahassee FL, the “problem” of serving her was solved by having a Black cook do it.

Throughout her experiences in lunch rooms she felt the eyes of Black travelers on her as much as those of whites, though evidently few dared to order food. She concluded her essay expressing hope that Black passengers would assert their rights in the future and that white Southerners would become accustomed to eating in lunch rooms with them.

I was curious about how lunch room integration proceeded in other parts of the South that she did not visit, and how things developed after her tour. I found that in quite a few cities officials refused to integrate, insisting that local Jim Crow laws took precedence over ICC rulings. The major of Shreveport LA put it bluntly: “We don’t care about the ICC.”

In Birmingham, the manager of the Greyhound cafeteria was fined and given a suspended sentence for allowing Black and white people to be served together. The manager of the lunch counter in the McComb MS bus station took down the signs indicating separate lunch rooms but refused to serve five Black customers in what had been the white room. When they began banging on the counter for service, a gang of white males ran in and attacked them as well as chasing off a TV cameraman.

In some cities and towns local authorities closed their bus stations’ eating facilities rather than integrate. Federal authorities stepped in and prevented Birmingham from closing its Greyhound restaurant. But in Crossett AR a lunch room closure left a Black woman traveling with a 2-year old stuck on a Continental Trailways bus with little food for two days in a snow storm. White passengers had found rooms in a local hotel, but the hotel told the Black woman they were full. After a radio station ran a story about their plight, Black families offered a room and neighbors brought “enough food for a banquet.”

By the time Bettye Hughes’ essay came out, it was generally possible for Black travelers to get a meal in a Southern bus station, though resistance continued in some places. An Associated Press story declared that Virginia and the Carolinas had accepted bus station integration, but Birmingham had integrated “in name but not in practice.” It also reported that Black people were staying away from bus station restaurants generally. They knew they still were not welcome.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under atmosphere, lunch rooms, racism, restaurant issues, waiters/waitresses/servers

Reflections on a name: Plantation

Restaurant names such as Plantation, Old/Ole Plantation, and Southern Plantation leave me wondering why. Why adopt a name that references slavery and is offensive to a lot of people, particularly if they are Black?

Plantation names are similar to ones such as Sambo’s, Mammy’s Kitchen, or those with the initials KKK. Maybe not all who have chosen such names intended to insult anyone, but were unaware of their resonance. But, really, how much reflection does it take to realize that such names carry deeply negative historical associations?

Isn’t it just plain bad business to have an offensive name? Evidently the Disney company thought so. They tried hard to create a fictitious, slavery-free history of their Louisiana resort Dixie Landings by avoiding the name plantation. Eventually they shed “Dixie Landings” as well, becoming Port Orleans Riverside. Of course, white-washing history is controversial in its own right, but clearly Disney recognized that “plantation” held liabilities.

Ostensibly, restaurants named Plantation were meant to convey gracious Southern hospitality. But, again, the question is for whom? If your ancestors were enslaved and forced to do hard labor for white people who lived graciously off their profits, would you be charmed by this concept?

Although it might be assumed that most Plantation Restaurants were in the South, this is not the case. Since the early 20th century, and especially after World War II, they have appeared in Michigan, Wisconsin, California, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado, Connecticut, and other northern, western, and midwestern states. In the 1920s and 1930s the Seattle WA environs were fertile ground for restaurants with racially offensive names. In addition to The Plantation, there was Mammy’s Shack, Henry the Watermelon King, Coon Chicken Inn, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Why would anyone choose the name Plantation? Perhaps because they had access to a building that looked like a Southern manor house, so it seemed “natural’ to name it that. But then, how to explain restaurants that had no magnolias, no romance whatsoever and looked more like roadhouses than elegant mansions [above, Auburn IN].

Others added “columns” in a not-very-convincing attempt to mimic a plantation mansion.

And then there were the Plantation Restaurants that exhibited confused identities not expressive of their name with respect either to cuisine or ambiance. What were patrons to make of New York City’s Old Plantation on West 47th in the 1920s with its Mexican dishes? The Old Plantation Restaurant near Lawton OK served bratwurst and schnitzel in the 1960s. Nor is there anything about pancakes or a vaguely early American exterior that would seem to suggest the name Pancake Plantation. Equally odd, Charleston’s 1970s Plantation Restaurant was decorated with wagon wheel light fixtures and red tablecloths.

It seems more likely that the popularity of the name can be explained by large numbers of white people who actually loved the “moonlight and magnolias” aura that surrounds plantations. Many advertised for banquet trade, and may have wanted to attract wedding parties. Even today many white women reportedly associate plantations primarily with romance as portrayed in the film Gone With the Wind.

When – and if – proprietors were informed that quite a few Americans were offended by such a name, how would they respond? The answer is not on record. But having received many comments to this effect on other race-related posts, I can imagine many would reply: it was long ago, don’t be so negative, get over it.

There are still quite a few restaurants named Plantation in business today. I’d say it’s way past time to reject that as a name.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

19 Comments

Filed under atmosphere, patrons, racism, restaurant issues, theme restaurants

Restaurant-ing on wheels

Will more people turn to food trucks for away-from-home meals this summer? With the cancellation of so many outdoor festivals and events, food truck operators may want to set up on city streets instead.

But in many places they may face obstacles that go back more than 100 years, to the era of the horse-drawn lunch wagon.

Selling ready-to-eat food on the street originated long ago. As far back as the 1830s, and again in the 1850s, “omnibuses” outfitted as cafes appeared on the streets of Paris and Lyons. But it wasn’t until the 1870s that some American sellers of prepared food graduated to vehicles. Following Chicago’s disastrous fire of 1871, “wagons gaily painted and covered with awnings” showed up on street corners supplying homeless crowds with basics such as sausages, fish, oysters, boiled onions, baked potatoes, pie, and coffee.

Early lunch wagons could be found in other states too. The oldest advertisement I’ve found is from Connecticut in 1877. In the 19th century they were usually referred to as night lunch wagons since night was their busy, sometimes only, time of business.

In the 1880s the number of lunch wagons grew. Temperance groups in Chicago and the Northeast adopted them as a way to lure late-night drinkers with coffee and rolls, naming their vehicles “owl wagons.”

The first wagons tended to be cobbled together out of spare parts, but it wasn’t long before enterprising New Englanders realized the potential for profit in manufacturing them. Worcester, Massachusetts, became a center of production for a number of companies, as detailed in the classic book American Diner by Richard Gutman. By 1892, Worcester lunch wagon maker Charles Palmer was supplying his patented lunch wagons to many parts of the country. Some of them had elaborately painted exteriors that made them resemble circus wagons. Larger ones tended to have enough room inside to allow a few customers to sit at narrow side counters, while in older and homemade models orders were handed out a window.

Except for in Southern states where they were rare, their numbers continued to grow in the 1890s. It’s likely that the economic depression of that decade expanded their popularity. The low prices lunch wagons charged for humble food such as hamburger sandwiches made them favorites of the poor who formed their main customer base along with heavy drinking saloon patrons. In some places they were known as sandwich or frankfurter wagons, and in California as tamale wagons. Whatever they served, it was inexpensive.

Some lunch wagon proprietors made a decent profit but there were costs to doing business in addition to supplies. These could include wagon rental, hiring a horse to haul the wagon back and forth, rental of a garage to store the wagon during off time, and sometimes various payoffs to authorities and saloon owners.

It didn’t take long for opposition to lunch wagons to emerge, particularly from all-night restaurant keepers who became angry when wagons took a stand outside their doors. In 1893 restaurant keepers in Hartford CT petitioned the city for an ordinance that would limit how many hours lunch wagons could be on the streets. Complaints against the wagons were extensive. Restaurant owners declared that their businesses built up the town by supporting taxable properties, while the lunch wagons did not. They also argued that city streets were not intended as business sites.

Other complaints — from city officials and the public at large — focused on traffic congestion, gaudy and ugly appearance, unsanitary conditions, and rough customers who got into fights. In Los Angeles in the early 1900s, wagon proprietors were criticized for serving “embalmed” beef dosed with chemical preservatives. There were complaints about cooking odors. In Fort Worth TX, a paper reported, “Some people simply don’t like the idea of seeing a man take a big greasy hamburger sandwich and standing on the sidewalk munching away, while ladies and children pass and cannot avoid seeing him.” (Hamburger was seen as undesirable poor people’s food then.)

Fancier lunch wagon designs may have been intended to win greater acceptance. “White House” lunch wagons, produced by Thomas Buckley in Worcester and regarded as the finest made, were not only painted a clean-looking white but had colored glass windows with images of presidents and military figures. By 1899 the Buckley company was said to operate and control the lunch wagon business in 25 cities. The company sent wagons all the way to the Pacific Coast. However, despite their finery, Buckley wagons in Chicago operated in the poor parts of the city, where payoffs to property owners and police were often necessary.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th more regulations and limitations were forced on lunch wagon operators. Some required restaurant licenses or limited the number any one owner could operate. Chicago was among the cities that banned wagons on main streets, while others such as Albany NY and Lynn MA banned them on all streets. Operators began to look for alleyways or permanent locations they could settle on, often hiding their wheels behind dummy foundations. Over time the prefab eateries – now called diners – were produced in larger sizes, without wheels, and with better seating and cooking facilities.

But, now-motorized portable restaurants on wheels did not go away – rather they adapted to the restrictions by going on the move. They traveled to factories for shift changes, or to fairs and carnivals. As long as they were moving all day and had a peddler’s license, they were legal. Then, in the 2000s, food trucks became somewhat upscale, appealing to customers interested in exploring dishes from a wide range of the world’s cookbooks.

Yet some of the issues that plagued early lunch wagons lingered on. Complaints today no longer target brawling customers or spoiled food, but not all cities welcome the trucks. Fumes from gasoline powered generators that many trucks use can be obnoxious. And of course restaurants still don’t want them parked outside. Regulation of food trucks has increased considerably since the olden days (see Wikipedia) and some locations are off limits.

But, with the threat of the spread of disease and some diners’ hesitations about indoor seating, I wonder if we’ll see some relaxation of regulations.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

6 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, diners, food, odd buildings, patrons, restaurant issues, roadside restaurants

Drive-up windows

A short time ago I read a Serious Eats article about how drive-through fast-food restaurants are filling a gap during the coronavirus epidemic because they make it possible for customers to get ready-to-eat food without getting too close to others. It also gave a brief history of drive-up windows.

Reading it reminded me that I had put this topic on my to-do list a while back (along with ideas for about 500 other future posts!). Now’s the time.

Over the years, drive-throughs have come in for criticism for environmental issues around idling car engines. I think there is a genuine problem with idling vehicles, but often critiques come with an unfair amount of negative judgement about the people who use them. I reflected on this a few years ago when a journalist asked me about why Americans are so fond of using drive-ups.

Customers of drive-ups are assumed to be too lazy to get out of their cars and/or blithely unconcerned about air pollution. But it occurred to me that there are some good reasons for getting a meal this way. Certainly it’s worth considering those who are physically disabled, dead tired from a hard day’s work, dressed in dirty work clothes, accompanied by crabby small children, don’t speak the language, or are self-conscious for whatever reason.

Yet clearly most of the enormous number of people who use drive-ups do not fall into these categories. In 1998 when many communities were trying to keep out new drive-throughs, a McDonald’s company spokesperson said outlets with drive-ups made up about half of sales that way.

Fast food restaurants claim, probably accurately, that doing business from windows while providing limited or no indoor seating reduces operating costs and allows them to offer lower menu prices. That may be true, but it’s also true that environmental costs tend to be invisible.

Initially, drive-ups appeared in warm climates in the 1930s. One reason drive-up windows did not come into use earlier was that prior to the Depression many restaurant-goers still ate hot meat and potato dinner-type meals on a plate, even at noon. So drive-ups could not be a service option until restaurants had whittled themselves down into fast-food providers. They needed a small menu of simple hand-held items that could be prepared in a flash and would not turn into a mass of cold mush within minutes.

Drive-up restaurants became more common in the 1950s and 1960s, at the same time drive-up banking did. Jack in the Box, Wendy’s, and Der Wienerschnitzel were early adopters. At Der Wienerschnitzel drive-up customers passed right through their A-frame buildings, somewhat similar to a 1964 patent that shows a giant M with two lanes running through it [shown below]. In the 1970s and 1980s, as chains spread across the country, drive-up windows became commonplace.

Early drive-up windows were often intended to serve customers who had phoned in their orders. Soon some restaurants began to use push-button intercoms, making phone-ahead ordering unnecessary. In the mid-1980s a wireless ordering system became available that permitted the worker to talk to the customer without pushing a button each time, enabling her/him to move around to fill the order while communicating at the same time.

Another innovation was the drive-through with no indoor seating at all. This was the ultimate in paring down the restaurant experience, to the point of non-existence. But this approach did not reach predominance, possibly because the major chains believed that customers wanted the option of going inside.

In 1989 California adopted a plan to reduce emissions by limiting car idling at drive-throughs. Municipalities throughout the country — often those with higher-income residents – attempted to stop the construction of new drive-through businesses in the 1990s and continuing into the present. Beyond addressing environmental concerns, the movement to restrict drive-up windows may be inspired equally by a wish to keep fast-food restaurants out of the neighborhood entirely.

Despite the strong reasons that some customers have for using drive-throughs, especially now, I tend to side with the opposition. Yet, if viral epidemics become more common as some have predicted, we may see a proliferation of this type of food service.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under chain restaurants, restaurant issues, roadside restaurants