Tag Archives: chain restaurants

Taste of a decade: 1980s restaurants

1980srestaurantsfourseasonshotellosangelesDespite an off-and-on economy, the 1980s was a decade in which Americans ate out more often than ever before. Gone were the days when people indulged in a nice restaurant dinner only when traveling or celebrating a birthday or anniversary. Now no reason was needed at all. Restaurants were for convenience, but also for entertainment, pleasure, new experiences, and sometimes only incidentally for nourishment.

A food elite emerged, composed of frequent restaurant-goers with insatiable hunger for new cuisines and unfamiliar foods. Paralleling the growth of the food elite were chefs who became famous as they gave interviews, dashed off cookbooks, and demonstrated cooking techniques on the dais and the small screen. “Food is now the stuff of status,” said wine and restaurant critic Robert Finigan in 1983, comparing the public’s adoration of chefs to their awe of fine artists.

1980srestaurantfoodA growing interest in healthier diets influenced restaurant menus, which began to feature less red meat and more pasta, fish, and chicken dishes. Concern with smoking and drunk driving brought changes too, as restaurants set aside non-smoking sections and saw their liability insurance premiums rise even as drink orders declined.

The food fashion cycle quickened as diners discovered a taste for arugula, radicchio, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, sushi, crab cakes, Pad Thai, mesquite grilling, and fresh ingredients. Meanwhile old favorites such as steak and baked potato, tossed salad, and cheesecake seemed dull.

1980svictoriastn1981morechoiceterryakichickensalmonstuffedchickThough shunned by the food elite, corporate chain restaurants continued to grow and thrive. By the middle of the decade 540 chains managed 60,000 fast-food restaurants, employing over half of the nation’s restaurant workforce. Restaurant groups proliferated, ranging from those that owned a dozen or fewer restaurants in one city to groups controlling hundreds of franchises throughout a region. Independent restaurateurs, too, found it increasingly attractive to operate more than one restaurant.

Traditional eating places, from the humblest to the grandest, suffered from intense competition. Losers included coffee shops, Cantonese Chinese and red-checkered Italian restaurants, and even sanctums of haute French cuisine.

Black men, who formed the basic waiter corps of the 19th century, largely disappeared from restaurant dining rooms and kitchens, replaced by immigrants, white college students, and white women. A 1981 study conducted in NYC found that Black workers rejected the low pay and poor conditions typically found in restaurant kitchens, preferring to take better jobs in industry if they could. Racial discrimination also kept them from waiting jobs in some instances and the limited number of Black-owned restaurants prevented widespread training in kitchen skills and entrepreneurship.

Though conditions were improving, women also faced continuing discrimination in restaurant work. Many luxury restaurants rejected them as waitstaff in the belief that patrons attributed higher status to male servers. Other objections were their alleged “boyfriend problems” and lack of “tableside” skills such as meat carving and salad making. An article in the trade journal Restaurant Hospitality noted that while more women had become bartenders, chefs, and managers by end of the decade, “For women, the American foodservice industry is still rife with barriers.” In the kitchen, women tended to be confined to pastry and pantry. Some women chefs said the solution was to open their own restaurants even though they might have to take on a male partner to get financing.

Highlights

1981 Social indicators – small families, working women, projected long-term increases in real income and leisure, and more single-person households — promise growth in restaurant going according to a Bank of America Small Business report.

1980srestaurantsspagomenu19811982 Having introduced nouvelle cuisine at Ma Maison in Los Angeles, Chef Wolfgang Puck presents “California cuisine” to patrons of his new chic-casual Sunset Strip restaurant, Spago. Pizza with Duck Sausage wins quick stardom.

1983 The Food Marketing Institute reports that 2/3 of all fish consumed in the U.S. is eaten in restaurants. In Seattle, Colonial-themed 1980srestaurantsmadanthonysMad Anthony’s executes a style and cuisine turnabout, replacing a beefy Steak & Kidney Pye-style menu with seafood. Onto the auction block go pewter plates, crocks, jugs, and replica muskets, along with a Nacho Cheese Dispenser.

1984 With the opening of Spiaggia in Chicago, Chicagoans learn that Italian doesn’t inevitably mean spaghetti and candles in Chianti bottles, as they sample pumpkin-stuffed pasta and goose carpaccio with shaved white truffles. With dinner for two easily totaling $100 [about $228 now], they learn it often means higher prices too.

1985 Even as restaurant patrons in much of the country search out new restaurants and cuisines, Southerners remain loyal to cafeterias, with five major chains operating from 84 to 149 units each. In Milwaukee, taverns continue to do brisk business serving deep fried fish on Friday nights.

1980srestaurantsmariani1986 Most restaurant reviewers contributing to John Mariani’s Coast-to-Coast Dining Guide report that their towns have better restaurants and a wider selection of ethnic cuisines than ten years earlier. A number of cities lag behind, though, including Minneapolis and Chicago where many cling to meat and potatoes, and Columbus OH which has the dubious distinction of serving as a test market for fast food chains.

1987 With new laws holding restaurants responsible for customers who cause drunk driving injuries, rising numbers of liability lawsuits against restaurants, and ballooning insurance premiums, American Express promises protection to restaurants that accept its charge card.

1980sshoneysmenucover1989 The “largest ever” bias lawsuit involving a restaurant chain is filed against the 1,500-unit Shoney’s and its head Ray Danner. The suit by the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund charges that Shoney’s sets limits on how many Black workers can be hired in each outlet, keeps them in jobs out of public view, and punishes white supervisors who refuse to go along with the program.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under cafeterias, chain restaurants, elite restaurants, ethnic restaurants, food, menus, patrons, racism, women

B.McD. (Before McDonald’s)

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In most towns and cities across the USA the landscape is filled with fast food eateries that belong to chains, McDonald’s obviously being only one. Chain restaurants make up close to half of all restaurants today, and many of them can be classed as fast food places. A large proportion of the meals people eat away from home come from this type of eating place.

Where did people grab a quick bite before the fast food chains came along? What was the ordinary, inexpensive eating place like for so much of the last century, B.McD.?

Let’s peer back into the first half of the 20th century. There were some “quick lunch” chains in existence, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Although high-traffic locations in larger cities were quickly grabbed up by chains such as Baltimore Lunch or John R. Thompson, less desirable sites in cities and on Main Streets in smaller towns were populated with small independent eateries.

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Many, perhaps most, lunch rooms and cafes – not likely to be called restaurants then – occupied storefronts or freestanding one-story buildings of very basic construction. Often they were “mom & pop” operations with one of the pair handling the cooking, the other running the food service side of things. Very likely the proprietors knew most of their customers on at least a first name basis.

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Most lunch rooms shared a basic floor plan in a standard storefront space 18 to 25 feet wide and 75 to 100 feet deep. About 2/3 to 3/4 of the space was devoted to the dining room, the rest making up the kitchen which was hidden behind a wall, partition, or just a curtain.

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Usually seating would include both a counter and some tables or booths along the side or arranged toward the back. Very narrow storefronts had counter seating only. Shelves behind the counter or glass display cases might hold baked goods, packaged groceries, cigars, or candy. A cash register was often a prominent feature.

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In many cases during Prohibition, a café’s or lunch room’s previous status as a barroom was plainly evident.

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Decor, such as it was, was frequently provided by posters and stand-up signs advertising national brands, particularly soft drinks.

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What was gained and what was lost when the old lunch rooms disappeared? It’s a mixed picture. I doubt that their food was much to brag about. Some were clean, some were dirty. Often their menus were limited — but rarely as limited as the fast food chains. Food was served on dishes, not in paper wrappings. They provided service and often friendliness and a sense of community, though it was sometimes circumscribed by race, gender, and familiarity.

I recall walking into a local café in Hannibal MO about ten years ago. The few customers at the counter all turned to stare openly as we came though the door. The proprietor screeched, “Where are YOU from?” We were horrified when the chili came with a big scoop of sour cream on top. She seemed offended when we failed to order pie. I hate to admit it but, all in all, I would have preferred the anonymity of a chain for lunch that day. On the other hand, if we had gone to a chain I wouldn’t remember being in Hannibal at all.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Name trouble: Sambo’s

SambosGoletaCA

You might imagine that chain restaurants would spend vast amounts of time and money researching potential names in order to pick one that would convey exactly the desired associations and nuances. Certainly one that would not insult a portion of its intended customers.

I’m sure most do. Sambo’s was not among them.

Wouldn’t the founders of Sambo’s, in the late 1950s, dimly perceive that the name Sambo was not beloved by everyone, especially African-Americans?

Why would they decorate with images from the book “Little Black Sambo,” the American editions of which were filled with racist caricatures?

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Evidently they had no idea that Sambo had been – and still was – a derogatory word for black males for over 100 years; that the name and ridiculous images of Sambo were used on many consumer products in the early 20th century; and that after WWII school libraries had complied with requests by African-Americans to remove the book from shelves.

Even if they didn’t know any of this, when protests erupted they might have realized they had made a terrible mistake. Regardless of whether “Sam-bo” originated from the first name of one of them combined with the nickname of the other.

Nope, nope, nope, and double nope.

Instead the founders, their successor, and the corporation that finally took over the chain all insisted right up to the bitter end that no harm was intended or implied. Even as they renamed some units in the East where there had been boycotts, the company insisted the change was purely in order to market their new menus.

sambo's216CabrilloHwy1960The first Sambo’s was opened in Santa Barbara in 1957. [pictured] By 1977, when the son of one of the founders was heading the company, the chain was the country’s largest full-service restaurant chain, with 1,117 units.

But trouble was looming. Protests during the West Coast chain’s expansion into the Northeast had already resulted in renaming units in the Albany NY area “Jolly Tiger.” Eventually there were 13 Jolly Tigers in various towns. Protest would spread to Reston VA, New York, and New England including at least 9 towns in Massachusetts. In 1981 the Rhode Island Commission on Human Rights ordered the company to change its name in that state because indirectly the name violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by denying public accommodations to black persons.

SambosNoPlaceLikeSam'sLogo1981The company responded that it would rename 18 of its Northeastern units “No Place Like Sam’s”; in fact according to an advertisement a few months later they actually renamed 41 units.

Soon thereafter the company began to collapse. In November 1981 it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, closing more than a third of its units. In Leominster and Stoughton MA, early morning customers had to pick up and get out immediately so the restaurants could be padlocked.

In 1982 all, or most, remaining Sambo’s were renamed Seasons. By 1984 most of the Seasons restaurants had been sold to Godfather’s Pizza and other buyers.

The successive name switches undoubtedly hurt business, but a more serious problem was that Sambo’s, like other chains using a coffee shop format with table service and extensive menus, had been steadily losing out to fast food chains.

The chain is kaput yet the beat goes on. The original Sambo’s in Santa Barbara continues in business under new ownership – still using the thoroughly discredited name. On its website it also continues the threadbare tradition of justifying the name as a compound of the founders’ names.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Famous in its day: Dutchland Farms

dutchlandHackensackThe Dutchland Farms story parallels that of Howard Johnson’s, its competitor and eventual conqueror. Both were chains of ice cream and lunch shops that began on Massachusetts roadways in the 1920s. But they experienced the Depression very differently. Howard Johnson’s expanded while Dutchland Farms shrank. Though Howard Johnson triumphed over its competitor, there is no doubt that Dutchland Farms strongly influenced HoJo’s development.

Unlike Howard Johnson’s, the Dutchland Farms chain grew out of a real dairy farm, established in 1897 by shoe manufacturer Fred F. Field. Years before the first Dutchland Farm dairy store – not yet a restaurant – opened in 1928, the dairy farm of the same name in Brockton MA had become nationally famous for its prize-winning herd of Holsteins. The ice cream produced by the farm in “28 flavors,” sometimes 30, was advertised as the only Grade A ice cream made in Massachusetts. (Most ice cream then was made from Grade B milk which has a higher bacterial count; now Grade B milk is mostly used for making cheese.)

By 1933 the newly incorporated company had 50 roadside stores that sold milk, butter, and eggs, and also served toasted sandwiches, frankfurters, and fountain treats, as well as “Chinese Chop Suey” supplied by Hung’s Food Products Co. of Boston. Soon the menu expanded to include complete dinners. Menus displayed Dutchland Farms “registered” colors, orange, blue, and white, which also formed the color scheme for buildings. The canvas awnings on the white building depicted on the South Easton MA postcard below would have been in eye-catching orange and blue stripes.

DutchlandSouthEastonFifty was probably the greatest number of Dutchland Farms units in operation at any given time. In addition to eastern Massachusetts where most units were located, the company did business in  New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Some restaurants were operated by the company itself but most were franchised, as was true of  Howard Johnson’s. Women formed 10 to 15% of Dutchland Farms proprietors, a large percentage for a restaurant chain.

In addition to colorful awnings, Dutchland Farms buildings had two outstanding visual characteristics: orange roofs and decorative windmills which sat atop the roof or formed part of the building front. The roadside restaurants were situated on busy thoroughfares and both features were intended to attract motorists’ attention. Additional evidence of positioning for mobile customers were Dutchland Farms’ ample parking lots.

dutchlandfarmsIceCreamThe Depression was rough on Dutchland Farm operators. A dozen or more of the restaurants went out of business. Some proprietors shifted their allegiance to Howard Johnson. A Fairfield CT operator who opened a Dutchland Farms in 1935 switched to Howard Johnson’s after only a few months. Another, Louise Prout, co-proprietor of a Dutchland Farms in Lakeland NH and another in Pocasset MA, decided to go with Howard Johnson’s when she opened a restaurant in Cambridge in 1936.

Still other Dutchland Farms restaurants became independents. A proprietor near Newport RI rechristened his The Mile Post, while a Dedham MA Dutchland adopted the name of its proprietor, Mary Hartigan. The same fate would one day befall Howard Johnson’s. Louise Prout turned her Cambridge HoJos into The Clipper Ship, disguising the cupola, sheathing the front with dark paneling, and decorating the entry with wrought iron.

Dutchland Farms tried to reorganize its debts in 1939 but was sold to Howard Johnson’s in 1940. Johnson kept the orange, blue, and white colors but was barred from using the Dutchland Farms windmills on restaurants operating as Howard Johnson’s, and chose cupolas instead. However, some of the restaurants he acquired continued to do business as Dutchland Farms and, presumably, kept their windmills. The last Dutchland Farms restaurant I could find evidence of was in Quincy MA in 1951.

It is not obvious why Howard Johnson succeeded and Dutchland Farms failed. Was it because after Repeal Howard Johnson restaurants served alcoholic beverages whereas Dutchland Farms did not? Or was it due to how well the businesses were conducted? Or just luck?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Putting patrons at ease

How many readers have thought about how very cleverly table-service chain restaurants engineer their establishments so that patrons feel no unease while eating out? They have relieved patrons of the embarrassment so many have felt historically – and which can still occur in formal restaurants today.

It doesn’t take much for restaurant patrons to become tense or self-conscious. They may feel that other guests are staring at them and judging their appearance or table manners. Or that their server is sizing them up. The menu can be mysterious, especially if it contains foreign or unfamiliar culinary terms. They fear they will mispronounce something and be sneered at for their lack of sophistication. Or order a dish they don’t like the looks of (does that explain why I once encountered a South Dakota menu that described salads as made up of “non-intimidating greens”?). If patrons have brought their children, they may worry they will misbehave and earn the wrath of all the tables around them.

Their fears are not entirely unfounded. I have a vivid memory of extreme discomfort I experienced in a restaurant considered among the top in the 1980s. Although the small dining room was fully occupied, it was almost totally silent. There were expensive arrangements of flowers everywhere. They, along with the preternatural quiet, conspired to create the ambiance of a funeral parlor. The waiter never smiled. I felt as though I was dressed for a barbecue. The melon ball-sized food was hard to identify and oddly assorted. I longed to flee to another room where I heard people laughing and imagined them eating real food.

Intimidation has a long history in restaurants. In 1859 a patron complained about his discomfort in the class of elite restaurants represented by Delmonico’s, admitting “we are made nervous by the sneerful smirk of the waiter, if we order the wrong wine . . .”

Snobbery was assessed as being greater in the East than the West. It’s certainly true that Eastern eateries did not run advertisements like the one in Portland OR in 1873 that greeted potential customers with “Hi You Muck-A-Muck and Here’s Your Bill of Fare. Now’s the time to get the wrinkles taken out of your bellies . . .”

Of course there were always casual eating places, but as some Americans grew wealthier in the late 19th century more foreign terms appeared on menus, leading to great puzzlement by diners. Even Easterners had to admit “a feeling of trepidation when confronted with an elaborate menu composed in the artistic and intricate terms of culinary French.” Jokes circulated about the bumpkin who randomly pointed to things on the menu and was dismayed when the waiter returned with two bowls of soup and some toothpicks.

Women were afraid to eat spaghetti in public lest they look foolish. No such worries at The Old Spaghetti Factory in the historic section of _____  [fill in the blank]!

Most sources of intimidation have been eliminated by chain restaurants (See 1973 Jacks Or Better advertisement). A circus-like sense of fun, raucous decor, and auditory buzz distracts everyone from other guests and blanks out children’s tantrums. The ethos is “come as you are.” Service is by relentlessly cheerful teenagers who reply to every request with a “No problem.” There are no pristine white tablecloths or carpets to ruin with spills. No foreign terms appear on menus. In the unlikely event that a menu contains unfamiliar items they will be carefully explained or illustrated. Even today a chain of Mexican theme restaurants in the South supplies a guide letting patrons know how to say the names of dishes, including Nachos (Nah-choz) and Chile Con Carne (Che-lee con Car-nay).

It is interesting to reflect on the deep message conveyed by mass market restaurants. Is it that the American public is juvenile in their tastes and easily manipulated? Or is it the more democratic thesis that Americans will accept being talked down to as the price that must be paid so that no one feels excluded?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Famous in its day: Pig’n Whistle

One of the strange appropriations of the early 20th-century involved using old tavern signs and names for distinctly non-alcoholic eateries, often tea rooms or confectionery restaurants appealing primarily to middle-class women. One of these was the Pig’n Whistle chain which began in California in 1908.

The name originated with ancient British taverns. Many believe that “whistle” was a corruption of wassail, an alcoholic concoction drunk from a small bowl or cup called a “pig.” But an early advertisement for Pig’n Whistle (shown below) gives no suggestion that patrons could get anything stronger than a cup of tea.

Although there is some disagreement about whether Pig’n Whistle started in San Francisco or Los Angeles, it seems likely that the first one was opened in San Francisco by Frank L. Callebotta, in 1908, perhaps growing out of a candy store he established earlier. In 1912 there was one unit in downtown San Francisco and another in the H. C. Capwell department store in Oakland.

By December of 1908 there was a store in Los Angeles, the city that was destined to become the chain’s headquarters. In 1914 the third LA Pig’n Whistle opened on South Broadway with an ivory baked enamel front displaying the trademark fife-playing pig which also decorated interior walls. In 1916 Pig’n Whistle was known for hanging original artworks on the walls, a custom it would continue into the 1930s. Patrons liked the idea so much they asked to be seated in booths where their favorite paintings appeared.

In 1926 the chain made a public stock offering and began an expansion drive. It absorbed Melody Lane restaurants in Los Angeles and Ennor’s in Berkeley. By 1929 it had opened its 20th store and had restaurants in Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, Pasadena, Hollywood, and Los Angeles, including one planned for Grauman’s Egyptian Theater. It acquired the Mary Louise Tea Rooms as part of its Elite Catering subsidiary. Operating three factories, it made its own baked goods, candy, and ice cream. In 1931 passengers traveling on Transcontinental-Western Air, Inc. out of LA and San Francisco had lunches furnished by Pig’n Whistle.

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Pig’n Whistles made a specialty of appealing to children and created menus and booklets for them. Although the restaurants were casual, they were also considered refined and somewhat elegant. Menus were elaborate even though prices were moderate. In 1934 it was possible to order a “De Luxe” six-course dinner for $1.00 that included dishes such as “Braised Saddle of Rabbit, Chasseur” and “Grilled Boned Loin of Spring Lamb” with fresh mushrooms and mint jelly. The dinner came with additional courses and accompaniments such as seafood cocktail, soup, spaghetti, avocado salad, and asparagus Hollandaise. To finish, there were 23 desserts to select from.

Profits declined in the 1950s and the chain shrunk. In 1952 it was reduced to five locations in LA and Hollywood, and one each in Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Long Beach, and San Diego. When an Illinois corporation, King Kastle, bought the company in 1968 there were only three units remaining, all in Los Angeles. King Kastle planned renovations and expansion but I don’t think they materialized.

Coming full circle, the name Pig’n Whistle can now be found on several drinking places around the country, as well as one of the original units at 6714 Hollywood Blvd. (interior pictured above) which has been restored and is operated as a restaurant.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Filed under chain restaurants, confectionery restaurants

Burger bloat

Check out the size of the White Tower hamburger as served by a “Miss Towerette” ca. 1950 and then consider how things have changed over the decades. In the 2000s  a couple of obscenely high-calorie burgers were introduced by fast food chains. Out came the Big Carl from Carl’s Jr. (920 calories) and the Monster Thickburger from Hardee’s (1,420 calories). Makes you wonder how the patrons of White Tower survived on those little morsels of yore.

The sandwiches are mentioned as two “proudly obnoxious fast food options” of the last decade. They rank #6 in Christopher Borrelli’s “10 worst dining trends of the last decade” in The Chicago Tribune.

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