Category Archives: roadside 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

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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

Turkeyburgers

If the turkey growing industry had one marketing mission in the early 20th century it was to get consumers to eat more turkey, and to eat it year-round.

So, during the Depression turkeyburgers arrived upon the dining scene.

In the mid-1930s humorists found rich material in California cuisine, notably in the range of burgers found at weird and fanciful roadside eateries. Among them chickenburgers, nutburgers, onionburgers, lobsterburgers, even mysterious huskyburgers. And on Los Feliz Boulevard in Los Angeles a commentator spotted a neon sign advertising “The Snack with a Smack – Our Toasted Turkeyburger.”

The stories that appeared in the press attributed turkeyburgers to California’s bizarre culture. But what they didn’t say was that in the 1930s California was becoming a major turkey producer. Production had moved westward from its East Coast home of origin. In California, dry weather conditions were more favorable for turkey raising. But in 1936 overproduction resulted in a serious drop in prices. This was bad for producers but good for Depression-era drive-ins and roadside stands. And now producers were more interested in increasing turkey consumption than ever before.

Gonzales, Texas, was another important turkey-raising area. A local newspaperman there had a product placement idea about how to stimulate turkey sales. He suggested that since the comic strip character Wimpy was known for his love of hamburgers, it would make sense to introduce turkeyburgers into the strip. Wimpy started eating them in December of 1939.

Meanwhile, in Corpus Christi, Texas, a drug store was offering a December holiday lunch of sorts, “Something New”: a Turkey-Burger with waffle potatoes and cranberry sherbet, for 19 cents. Also in 1939, someone in Phoenix registered the trade name Turkey-Burger with the Arizona Secretary of State. It’s interesting, too, that the Berkeley, California, menu shown below, possibly from the 1930s, says “copyrighted!” following “Turkeyburger Sandwich.” (Thanks to the reader who sent me a scan of this menu and inspired this post.)

With rationing of beef, pork, veal, and lamb in World War II more restaurants added turkeyburgers and other turkey dishes to their menus. In 1941 the magazine Chain Store Age tested recipes for turkeyburgers and turkey salads on behalf of in-store soda fountains and luncheonettes. It showed that turkeyburgers had high profit potential: if a turkeyburger on a bun was served with cranberry sauce, sliced tomato, and potato salad, the magazine reported, it could be priced at 25 cents while costing only 6.55 cents. A few years later Payless stores in Albany, Oregon, cashed in on the idea, boldly charging 40 cents for their sandwich.

In the 1950s drive-ins served turkeyburgers. In 1950 they were up to 65 cents at Vogel’s Drive-In in Ogden, Oregon, though only 30c a few years later at Moeby’s Hamburger Palace in Eureka, California. A Texas drive-in revived the idea of burger variety, offering sandwiches made of chicken, turkey, rabbit, shrimp, or pork, all for 40 cents. Somewhat surprisingly, in 1969 Ferdinand’s in Honolulu’s Coral Reef Hotel, which specialized in 16 kinds of burgers, offered a Turkey Burger Deluxe on Thanksgiving Day.

Starting in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s – and continuing today — turkeyburgers came to represent a healthier substitute for a hamburger, one with less fat and fewer calories.

Have a delicious Thanksgiving!

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

8 Comments

Filed under drive-ins, food, restaurant customs, roadside restaurants

Franchising: Heap Big Beef

The 1960s was the decade when franchising frenzy began. Franchising was hailed as a chance to be your own boss and make a comfortable income with a moderate investment.

Fast food drive-ins and other low-priced eateries with limited menus were in the forefront of the franchised businesses springing up everywhere. As is typical with franchised restaurants, owners needed no particular experience, or even interest, in food or food preparation. Because, in a sense, someone might just as well choose a franchise in wigs or roto-rooters as chicken or hamburgers.

One of the interesting franchising business careers was that of the originator of Bonanza and Heap Big Beef. The principal creator of both was an ambitious man named Don Pruess. He was a true believer in a franchising formula that paired a celebrity name with a chain of small businesses run by people who put up the capital. In 1956 he signed up Esther Williams to lend her fame as a movie star and champion swimmer to the sale of backyard in-ground, vinyl-lined pools. However, as has often been true of businesses with celebrity figureheads, the company was soon in bankruptcy.

A few years later, in 1963, Pruess began licensing local distributors to sell franchises for Bonanza Sirloin Pit Steak Houses. An advertisement for franchise applicants proclaimed, “It’s America’s hottest food franchise,” saying net profits ranged from $2,500 up to $7,000 a month with a $20,000 cash investment. The following year the first restaurant in the chain opened in Westport CT with Dan Blocker, who played ‘Hoss’ Cartwright on the TV show Bonanza, enlisted as the chain’s celebrity mascot.

As it developed, Preuss’ business was more than simply a franchisor of restaurants. As a 1973 law brief put it, his corporation, Franchises International (F. I.), “was the ultimate in franchising” because it “franchised the right to sell franchises.”

Serious expansion of the Bonanza chain actually did not happen until its acquisition by a Texas company in 1965. The following year F. I. began seeking franchisors and franchisees for Heap Big Beef. The first units in the HBB chain opened in 1967, with a menu of “giant” beef sandwiches for 59 and 99 cents.

In addition to franchising for Heap Big Beef, F. I. did the same for a beauty salon chain named Edie Adams’ Cut & Curl and Mary’s Drive-Thru Dairies. At one point F. I. revealed plans to move into franchising for more than 50 other types of businesses including nursing homes and diet centers.

At the same time, F. I. was seeking capital from a large investing company called City Investing Co. Starting in 1967, Heap Big Beef franchising advertisements identified F. I. as a subsidiary of City Investing. But the relationship was fraught from day one. The president of City Investing did not approve of F. I.’s sales tactics, including misrepresenting how many units had been opened. For example, City Investing objected to the false implications of F. I.’s claim that Heap Big Beef #32 had opened, suggesting that the number was not in fact a tally of how many had been opened. City’s subsequent failure to supply F. I. with enough capital led to the resignation of Pruess and the other officers of his corporation.

Beginning in 1969 there was a die-off of Heap Big Beef outlets. Though it had been advertised as the hottest thing going, it turned out the chain had never exceeded 60 units nationwide. The latest date I could find one in operation was 1971.

Maybe there are fans out there that still sorely miss Heap Big Beef, but I doubt it. Given its theme, it was a chain that could not exist today. The American Indian theme had no relevance, having been adopted solely because of the popularity of western TV shows at the time. The A-frame buildings were meant to suggest tepees, although they were used by other chains, including Der Wienerschnitzel. There was little about the menu that differed from 19th-century lunchroom fare except for the paucity of items and the offensive “Hollywood Injun English” used. Consider: “You’ll let out a war whoop” when you eat a Heap Big Beef (or Ham, Fish, or Corned Beef) sandwich. How about a Warrior Burger, a Shawnee Shake, or a Pawnee Pie?

File Heap Big Beef under failed restaurant chains.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under chain restaurants, menus, proprietors & careers, roadside restaurants

Lobster stew at the White Rabbit

On the menu shown here a bowl of lobster stew cost 70 cents and came with crackers, pickles, and chips. Oyster stew was 50 cents, while fried clams with french fries, cole slaw, and coffee cost 60 cents.

The menu is undated but is probably from the 1940s. Fried lobster was one of the White Rabbit’s most popular dishes, according to Duncan Hines’ 1947 guide book, Adventures in Good Eating. With a fruit cup, tomato, pineapple, french fries, rolls, dessert, and tea or coffee, it came to $1.35. And, of course, they threw in pickles and chips.

In addition to lobster fried, sautéed, or stewed, it was also available as a salad.

Admiring patrons quoted in the 1948 edition of Gourmet’s Guide to Good Eating explained that the reason the Rabbit was always mobbed with people on their way to and from Cape Cod was due to its high standards, excellent food, and, specifically, “plates of hot buttered rolls.”

On Saturday nights the White Rabbit offered a traditional Massachusetts dinner of baked beans for 50 cents. Other interesting dishes on the menu include a vegetable salad sandwich (35¢), a sardine and horseradish sandwich (25¢), and a side order of tomato and cucumbers (15¢).

The tea room got its start in 1931, in West Chatham on the Cape, about 37 miles from the Buzzards Bay location which became its long-term home. Prior to its beginning, owner Nate Nickerson was a taxi driver in Brockton MA, where co-owner Mildred Ring may have worked as a waitress.

Nickerson’s two sons were waiters at the restaurant which was open only from April through November.

In 1966, the final year in which I found advertisements for it, the White Rabbit had evidently abandoned the tea room theme. It then featured liquor and steaks. Nickerson had died in 1950 and it’s likely that it was under different management.

A few years ago I received a nice surprise when a stranger sent me this bowl by Syracuse china used in the tea room.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under food, menus, popular restaurants, roadside restaurants, tea shops

Effects of war on restaurant-ing

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

World War I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World War II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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

Christmas dinner in the desert

A red-and-white-striped restaurant named the Christmas Tree Inn located on a desolate stretch of road in the Arizona desert makes a little bit more sense when you learn that its creators were Los Angeles real estate developers.

The Christmas theme was, of course, a publicity gimmick, and one that worked rather well, at least at the beginning.

Ninon Rivé Talbott, a well known “subdivider” in L.A., opened the restaurant in 1939 with her husband Edward. It was intended to kick off an associated project, a housing development called Santa Claus Acres on the road leading to the newly completed Boulder Dam (renamed Hoover Dam in 1947).

The Talbotts had moved from Los Angeles to Kingman AZ in the early 1930s with an interest in developing tourist facilities. In 1929 they formed a corporation to build hotels along The Old Trails Highway (U.S. Highway 66), which went through Kingman. The road’s creation had been promoted by the Automobile Club of Southern California since the mid-teens, was officially designated in 1926, with paving beginning in 1931. The corporation’s first hotel was to be in Kingman, with others in Nevada, Utah, and California. (I could not determine whether any were built.)

The housing development scheme was undoubtedly spurred not only by the budding Route 66 but also the concurrent U.S. government plan to build Boulder Dam. After checking out a number of locations the government auctioned off some of the properties in the vicinity, including a 80-acre parcel acquired by the Talbotts.

However, although Santa Claus Acres building lots were sold, the housing development was foiled when it proved impossible to drill deep enough to access water.

Needless to say, the absence of water was quite a hindrance to the restaurant complex as well. Water had to be trucked in from Kingman, 14 miles away. However, the absence of water did not entirely defeat the Christmas Tree Inn, with its associated gas station and playhouses for children.

The Christmas Tree Inn complex, which comprised the entirety of “Santa Claus, Arizona,” was a classic do-it-yourself mid-century roadside attraction. Characteristically, it occupied an isolated spot in the wilderness, was garishly eye-catching, and somewhat makeshift. Still, the sight of it was so striking in the vast and empty desert that vacationing families with bored children were almost certain to stop there.

Despite the red and white stripes and the Christmas name, the complex had more of an overall story-book feel, with its Cinderella playhouse, Three Little Pigs hut, and indoor murals with goose girls and other characters. A second dining area, devoid of any theme decor, was inexplicably called the French Room.

Any early success was due primarily to Ninons’ initial efforts and those of the couple who acquired it next. Ninon dubbed herself “Mrs. Santa Claus,” claiming in 1939 that this was a character who seemed “to have been neglected up to this time.” Presumably it is a be-wigged Ninon depicted on the 1940 postcard above.

She was evidently quite a high-powered personality capable of motivating others and making deals. Married four times and mother of five children, she somehow managed to build a career as a realtor in the 1920s and 1930s. Additionally, she was said to be a fine cook who produced surprisingly delicious food for a small roadside eatery. A listing in Duncan Hines’ 1941 edition of Adventures in Good Eating recommended the Inn, saying “Perhaps the best rum pie you ever ate, chicken a la North Pole and lots of other unusual things.”

The war years had to be tough ones. Traffic must have been light due to gasoline rationing and elimination of public access to Boulder Dam from 1941 to September, 1945.

By 1946, the Inn seemed to be doing somewhat poorly judging from the listing in Hines’ guide, which tersely stated: “Serve cold sandwiches.” In 1947 and 1948 want ads appeared in Phoenix and Salt Lake City papers offering the restaurant complex for sale at $35,000, citing the seller’s ill health and that it had cost $60,000 to build. Ninon was 50 years old at that time. According to a 2008 article in The Journal of Arizona History by Douglas C. Towne, Ninon weighed 300 pounds and had a gambling addiction.

The second owners, Erma and “Doc” Bromaghim, carried on some of Ninon’s traditions such as answering children’s letters to Santa. The Bromaghins revealed in 1954 that December was a poor month for business, so they would close then, as well as January and February. Soon they gave up running the business completely, defeated in part by their renewed failure to find water.

Although the Christmas Tree Inn survived until about 1994, its later history was rocky, involving at least 10 owners and or lessees and managers. It was advertised for sale almost continuously.

Today, what is left of the complex is boarded up and covered with graffiti. As a quick internet search will demonstrate, it is an ever-popular subject for photographers fascinated by roadside ruins.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under alternative restaurants, family restaurants, odd buildings, Offbeat places, roadside restaurants, women

Image gallery: eating in a hat

In an earlier post I wrote about buildings shaped like what they sell – known as “ducks.” Usually they sold simple foods rather than entire meals. They were often located on busy roads where it wasn’t easy to get cars to stop. But proprietors realized that even the most humble shed, if masquerading as a giant dog or coffee pot, just might get speeding motorists to stop for closer examination.

Ducks, which became popular in the 1930s, could be found all over the country but their birthplace is usually cited as Southern California, the land of fantasy and car culture.

The slogan “eat in the hat” was, in fact, created in Los Angeles for the Brown Derby restaurant that opened in 1926 on Wilshire Blvd, shown above a few years later after it enlarged and added a patio.

To be considered a genuine duck, the Brown Derby should have been selling hats, but it was a restaurant, and one with a standard menu rather than just grab-and-go food. Its fame derived from its successful courtship of gossip columnists and film stars.

Copying, I am convinced, is one of the most common business tactics. Eating places love to borrow a little bit of the glamour of far-off restaurants that have achieved fame. As Los Angeles’ Brown Derby became famous, taverns and eateries across the land adopted Brown Derby, Green Derby, and related names. As shown in the images that follow, some also created a variety of hat-shaped buildings, signs, and menus.

Brown Derby Drive-in, Southern CA – Something went terribly wrong with the shape of this derby.

Brown Derby, Tyler TX – Ditto.

Brown Derby, Evansville IN – The Hat had loomed impressively larger atop an earlier, one-story building. As humorist S. J. Perelman wrote in 1936, “. . . the flood waters of the Ohio River weren’t far away, but the Brown Derby went unscathed. Such is the irony of nature.”

Brown Derby, Olympia WA – Menu on which a waffle with “wild blackberry syrup” was 40 cents.

Miner’s Hat, Kellogg ID – Why stick to derbies? This Hat had odd hours, from 10:00 A.M. to 1:00 A.M., possibly to mesh with work shifts of area miners.

Hat-O-Mat, between Warren and Youngstown OH – Maybe it was too hard to build a derby shaped drive-in? A 1950 advertisement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer sought franchisees for the Hat-O-Mat’s unnamed “new idea in feeding the public.”

El Sombrero Drive-In, Albuquerque NM – A sombrero on top just in case people didn’t realize this was a restaurant serving Mexican food. A sombrero is without doubt one of the most hackneyed of restaurant symbols.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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The up-and-down life of a restaurant owner

The model tea room proprietor has generally been portrayed as a woman of taste and refinement who has a heightened aesthetic sense, is congenial, and knows good food. In short, she closely resembled the ideal of the early 20th-century wife. So it comes as something of a shock to discover a tea room proprietor whose life did not neatly conform to that ideal.

An interesting example of someone who only partially conformed to the ideal was Charleen Baker, proprietor of the Buttercup Hill Tea Room near Fitchburg MA from 1928 to 1943.

She had taste, she was a successful hostess, and she knew good food. Her menu, filled with dishes such as Duck a la King, Sauteed Sweetbreads, and Lobster Newberg, bears that out. Her tea room was recommended by Duncan Hines in the 1937 edition of Adventures in Good Eating.

But how successfully did she personify refinement?

On the one hand, she portrayed herself as a product of a patrician background. In her 1935 cookbook she subtly painted a picture of her life and world that began with childhood cooking lessons from her southern Mammy, Aunt Maria. She explained that her mother had taught her that thin biscuits revealed a family’s “fine lineage,” as was true in her family. Presenting herself as a dutiful young wife, she described how hard she had worked to please her husband, on one occasion baking three different “lemon sponge pies” before she produced one “good enough to set before the king.” And she included a chapter on “Sunday Night Suppers” which assumed that, even in the Depression, the lady of the house had a maid who cooked — and took Sundays off.

Yet – big surprise – I discovered that her “king” had tried to divorce her in 1923, resulting in a sensational headline in the Fitchburg Sentinel as well as the Boston Herald. Her husband also accused her of abandoning their hospitalized son while she vacationed in Florida.

She then filed a reply, producing another zinger headline, “District Attorney Charged With Unfaithfulness In Answer By Wife.” Each charged the other with having multiple partners.

Upon further research I learned that in 1900, far from enjoying a life of leisure and refinement in the South, the 13-year-old Charleen had lived in a miner’s boarding house in Tortilla Flat, Arizona Territory, with her mother and her stepfather (#2 of her mother’s four husbands) who ran the place. Upon her stepfather’s death in 1903, she and her mother moved to Fort Worth TX where they resided in a lodging house run by her mother.

How she made her way from a Texas boarding house to studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston I don’t know. While in Boston she met her future husband, Emerson, then a Harvard law student. They married in 1907 and settled in the Fitchburg area where Emerson joined his father’s law firm and later the district attorney’s office.

Remarkably, Charleen and Emerson reconciled later in 1923 and he assisted her in enlarging her tea room, which by 1931, when the Early American Room was added, seated nearly 160. The couple’s marriage continued until his premature death in 1934.

Two years before that Charleen had taken over the Green Parrot Tea Room in Winter Park, Florida, redecorating it in blue and orchid and calling it Charleen’s Tea House. Buttercup Hill stayed open from May through October, while Charleen’s in Florida was open the other months.

Due to wartime gasoline rationing that caused a fall off in customers, and to difficulties getting staff, Charleen closed the Buttercup in early 1943. She auctioned off furnishings that included old cradles, antique clocks, hooked rugs, and Currier & Ives prints.

From everything I’ve read about her, Charleen was successful in winning status as an admired figure in Fitchburg society.

After she sold the Buttercup several other owners operated the complex of buildings as a tea room while continuing the practice of serving cocktails that Charleen had begun in 1938. After the WWII the name was changed to Buttercup Hill Steakhouse and Club and it continued into the 1970s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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The Lunch Box, a memoir

There is little glamour surrounding the operation of most restaurants. They demand hard work, long hours, and relentless determination. Few stay in business long or bring their owners great riches.

All of these observations apply to the Lunch Box. Except one. The Lunch Box stayed in business for 35 years, becoming a well-loved stopping place along the road in the small Western Massachusetts town of Williamsburg.

But, glamour? As its owner, Anthony “Tommy” Thomas, writes in his recently published book, “the happiest day of owning the Lunch Box was the day that we hooked up to the sewer line.”

After that, he no longer had to worry about overuse of the restrooms.

In 1968 Thomas bought the small roadside restaurant that had begun in 1949 as a hot dog stand. Since then it had been enlarged [see below], never quite meeting the building standards he would have liked.

Thomas, like the owners of so many modest eating places, had been disappointed working for others and was strongly attracted to the risky idea of having his own business. Given the woeful condition of the restaurant, along with considerable misery in the lives of previous owners, the Lunch Box seemed overrun with risk and negative vibes. But that didn’t stop him.

In addition to hooking up to a sewer line, he also discovered in the early years that he needed to install a grease trap. For 35 years he cleaned it himself, an arduous task since it was located in a crawlspace under the building. “I had to crawl under and take the trap apart, take the pieces that needed to be cleaned and drag them outside, clean them and then crawl back under to put the trap back together,” he explained. He also spent many an hour defrosting frozen water pipes.

The small kitchen, with a ceiling “so low that a person six feet tall would have to bend over to use the stove,” was equipped with an “apartment size gas stove.” The original cash register could not ring up an order over $5, and had to be supplement with an adding machine to total checks. Shortage of capital meant that major improvement projects had to be deferred, particularly when it came to solving the building’s heating and cooling problems. “We were always cold on really cold days and hot on the very hot days,” he wrote.

Eventually he was able to rebuild the Box, adding a second story and a peaked roof [see book cover above]. And, he and his wife were able to raise four children, though it must have been tough at times. As he says, “There were years when my tax returns showed hardly any income and I was fortunate that I was in the food business so I could feed my family.”

Thomas took great pride in his other roles, admitting – rather surprisingly — that “The most rewarding in my judgment and the most important aspect of my life outside of my family was my time serving as a firefighter/EMT.” I was surprised that he did not cite the restaurant. He worked as a firefighter and EMT in both Williamsburg, where the Lunch Box was located, and in neighboring Goshen, where he lived. And he served as a Goshen Selectman for years.

He inherited the cafe’s reputation as a “woodchopper’s diner,” but he improved the quality of its comfort food menu by using fresh local produce whenever possible. He took great care in testing brands of coffee before selecting one. He saw to it that soups and pies, previously purchased, were made in house. The Box’s comfort foods, such as shepherd’s pie, macaroni and cheese, and meat loaf, drew locals, public officials, police, truck drivers, woodsmen, and a wide range of others including a few who traveled some distance to eat there regularly.

As is often the case with roadside diners, over the years the Lunch Box became a community hub where business was conducted, friends met up, and local news was exchanged. In a book with plenty of anecdotes, it becomes clear that each day promised new adventures with the Lunch Box right in the middle of it all. [photo: The Lunch Box float in Williamsburg’s 225th anniversary parade]

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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