Tag Archives: buffets

All you can eat

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Except for the patrons of rarefied restaurants for whom exquisitely hand-crafted miniature food represents the triumph of artistic appreciation over animal hunger, most people like food in quantity. Even if they do not eat a great deal, they like the idea that they could if they wanted to.

allyoucaneatJPG1896ElyriaOHRestaurants advertising free seconds — or thirds — can be found in the 19th century, one example being the City Restaurant in Elyria OH in 1896 [shown here]. But it wasn’t until the Depression of the 1930s that the all-you-can-eat idea became a newsworthy phenomenon. In response to declining business, restaurants such as Childs in the East and Boos Brothers in the West took advantage of falling food prices by offering patrons as much of whatever they wanted for a set price of 50 or 60 cents.

In this Depression experiment restaurant proprietors learned something important about how people react when offered unlimited food. A few people went crazy, stuffing down as much as they could [below: Peter Rabbit cartoon by Harrison Cady, 1933], but most didn’t eat more than they normally would. If they overindulged in anything, it was desserts.

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All-you-can-eat as an adaptation to challenging economic conditions did not altogether disappear with the end of the Depression. Many restaurants found that having one night a week when they offered a special deal on a particular food, especially fried chicken or fish, could fill the house on a perpetually slow weeknight or help to build business generally.

Smorgasbords based on Swedish hors d’oeuvres tables also made their debut in the 1930s. At Childs and other Depression all-you-can-eat restaurants patrons relied on a server to bring their order, but smorgasbords introduced a novel approach: patrons helped themselves to relishes and appetizers from an attractively laid out table, and were then served with their main course as in a traditional restaurant.

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The smorgasbord idea, it turned out, was a step on the way to the all-you-can-eat buffet. In the 1950s and 1960s chains developed whose entire business plans were based on bargain-priced buffets abounding with macaroni and cheese, chow mein, fried chicken wings, and “sparkling salads,” i.e. jello. Chains divested smorgasbords of their ethnic overtones even as some continued to call themselves by that name. In California, the word “smorgy” emerged (variations included smorga, smorgee, & smorg-ette). Rather than using round smorgasbord serving tables with food presented in decorative bowls and platters, high-volume chains tended toward cafeteria-type service with stainless steel pans.

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California smorgys displayed seeming cultural diversity, with Ramona’s Smorgy, Mario’s Smorgy, and Gong Lee’s Smorgy. I’m still trying to grasp the concept behind Johnny Hom’s Chuck Wagon/Hofbrau/Smorgy in Stockton CA, the town that may have merited the title of smorgy capital of the U.S.A.

Along with the Swedish smorgasbord tradition, the spread of buffets and smorgys nationwide may have been aided by the $1.50 midnight spreads in Las Vegas casinos, which in the 1950s gave all-you-can-eat a popular culture imprimatur.

Opinion has been divided as to whether all-you-can-eat (or the more genteel “all-you-care-to-eat”) restaurants tended to serve cheap and inferior food. Many restaurants stressed that they baked daily, made their own sauces, or used fresh vegetables. “At Perry Boys’ Smorgy Restaurant, an inexpensive price doesn’t mean a cheap product,” according to an advertisement listing brand name foods in use. Yet, a 1968 restaurant trade journal seemed to suggest otherwise judging from its advice that “attractive buffet fare based on low-cost foods is essential.” For Quick Chicken Tetrazzini, it recommended mixing pre-cooked diced chicken with condensed mushroom soup and serving it over noodles.

As popular as all-you-can-eat restaurants were in the 1960s and 1970s, they suffered in the public relations department. They often undermined their own mini-industry with insults slung at each other. Is it helpful while touting your own restaurant to remind the public that “the words ‘all you can eat’ often mean quantity at the expense of quality”? And what does it say about the many restaurants advertising fried perch specials when a competitor says of its fish: “This is NOT frozen perch”?

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Likewise some operators took an unfortunate “the customer is not always right” stance by posting signs that warned patrons to take no more than they could eat [see above: “Take all you want. Eat all you take.”]. This was directed at those, admittedly a small minority (but still!), who came equipped with plastic-lined handbags or special pouches in their coats in which to stow food to carry away. Meanwhile, other proprietors denounced these warning signs as an insult to guests.

Customers with huge appetites were another species of problem that most all-you-can-eat restaurants tried to be philosophical about, figuring above-average consumption would be balanced by the light eaters. Proprietors told themselves that the man who downed 90 steamed clams, or the one who swallowed 40 pieces of fried chicken, would provide free advertising when he boasted at work how much he ate. Families were prized customers, construction gangs less so. And they dreaded school football teams. Some restaurants located near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor found it necessary to put restrictions on salad bars.

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Let’s face it, since the fall of Rome, gorging has been seen as unattractive. Restaurant owners and employees sometimes expressed disgust at customer behavior such as grabbing food off trays as staff tried to replenish buffets. “It’s disgusting,” said the proprietor of a Dallas all-you-can-eat steak restaurant, adding, “Some of them just ought to be led off to a big, old hog trough.” Another manager admitted that workers called customers “animals” in private. “You lose your appetite working in a place like this,” said one.

As a reporter wrote of Las Vegas buffets in 1983, “If I ever see another metal pan of mashed potatoes awash in melted margarine, another sea of macaroni salad, another ‘medley’ of canned corn, carrots and peas . . .” Stop right there!

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under chain restaurants, family restaurants, food, patrons, popular restaurants, restaurant etiquette

Lunch and a beer

It won’t come as a surprise to learn that the free lunch wasn’t really free. As everyone knows the patron of a saloon had to buy a beer or some other sort of drink in order to partake of whatever edibles the proprietor had to offer. What might be news, though, is that it wasn’t exactly what we would call lunch nowadays. It was more of a snack eaten between meals, sometimes around noontime, sometimes not.

Although the standard free-lunch time began at 11:00 a.m. through much of the 19th century, some saloon keepers put out a spread as early as 9:00 in the morning, hours after most working people had their breakfasts. Or it might be at night – a kind of happy hour. At some saloons lunch on the house was provided every day, but at others it was more of a special occasion celebrating a grand opening, holiday, or proprietor’s birthday.

The dishes did not conform to our modern idea of a snack. In early June of 1872 the owner of a Sioux City IA saloon promised a Saturday morning spread where patrons could accompany their juleps and Roman punches with oyster soup, fish with egg sauce, deviled ham, lobster salad, pickled oysters, salmon, tongue, pickles, lettuce, and radishes – a very different kind of morning break than today’s coffee and doughnuts. Which proves that our snacks have become lighter, while lunch has gained the stature of a regular meal. It also shows that profit on the sale of whiskey and beer could be more than enough to underwrite a veritable feast.

It’s likely that the free lunch is a very old custom. Certainly there were plenty of free lunches to be had in New York City in the 1840s and 1850s. But in their advertisements saloons rarely described a spread equal to what the drinking man (respectable women did not enter saloons) could find in New Orleans, considered the country’s finest free lunch locale. In Northeastern cities often only plates of crackers and cheese made it onto the counter, possibly accompanied by a crock of soup. The New Orleans free lunch was more elaborate, with beef, mock turtle soup, “delicate slices of highly flavored buffalo tongue,” and “well dressed salads.”

The rule of thumb was that where there was intense competition, there would be high-quality saloon fare. San Francisco qualified, as did St. Louis and Chicago. Chicago’s spreads were rarely elegant, but they were hearty. Beer drinkers there favored sandwiches of dark rye bread piled with liver sausage or herrings, strong mustard, and sauerkraut.

In the 1860s, upscale saloons patronized by better-off customers started calling themselves buffets or cafés. Later some would charge a small charge for a “merchant’s lunch.” Business men liked these lunches because they were quick. The food was ready, no tipping was necessary, and little ceremony was involved. You could eat standing if it suited you, in fact there were few tables and chairs.

Feeling the loss of customers, restaurateurs repeatedly tried to abolish the free lunch habit, as did temperance advocates who wished there could be cheap but respectable restaurants that competed successfully with saloons for the workingman’s business. The average saloon normally charged only 5c for food and drink, an amount for which most restaurants could not furnish a decent meal.

The anti-saloon movement grew stronger with the approach of World War I. Alcohol-free quick lunch chains such as Thompson’s and Child’s — the McDonald’s of their day — learned that by doing a high-volume business they could serve lunches almost as cheaply as saloons. With national prohibition in 1920 the restaurant industry, freed from saloon competition, blossomed and took its modern shape.

Reformers from the 19th century would be thrilled to learn that cheap lunches today are no longer normally washed down with a beer.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Filed under lunch rooms, restaurant customs