Tag Archives: Chicago

Women’s lunch clubs

Lunch clubs for working women appeared in American cities in the 1890s and early 20th century. In a fairly short time they stimulated the development of commercial cafeterias, as well as employee cafeterias in large companies.

Chicago was regarded as a prime incubator of the lunch club idea. In 1891 a group of alumnae of the prestigious Ogontz finishing school near Philadelphia opened a space for women workers on an upper floor of Chicago’s Pontiac Building. At the start the club charged 10 cents a year for membership, and sold sandwiches for 4 cents and milk, tea, or coffee for 2 cents each.

By the end of the nineteenth century, women’s lunch clubs could be found in other major cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, and San Francisco, but not in the South. Some, such as three in NYC, were affiliated with churches. In Indianapolis, temperance supporters – members of the W.C.T.U. — ran a lunch club.

The lunch clubs were meant to provide not only inexpensive noontime meals for working women, but also to give them a place to enjoy a little leisure in “rest rooms” supplied with sofas, rocking chairs and desks, as well as libraries and other amenities. Some offered evening lecture series.

The clubs came at a time when the number of office workers in cities was on the increase. The clubs mainly catered to “business women,” which then meant young white-collar workers in offices and department stores. Although women factory workers had a greater need for restful and inexpensive lunches than did office workers, their shorter lunch breaks and lower pay made it difficult to accommodate them.

The earliest lunch clubs were launched by elite women as philanthropic projects to assist workers with affordable lunches, give them a place to hang out at noon, and to uplift them culturally. The food was not cooked on site, but supplied by other kitchens, such as that at Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago. To avoid the cost of hiring servers, food was set out on counters and diners selected what they wanted, a novel arrangement in the 1890s. [Above: Chicago’s Ursula lunch club, 1891] Prices were meant to cover costs but not to make a profit.

Lunch clubs had to tread a fine line in terms of how philanthropic backers related to the working women. At least one of the philanthropic lunch clubs made its lunchers feel pitied and failed to attract enough women. Those who had stuck with it then took it over as their own co-operative enterprise. Some other lunch clubs were begun as co-operatives. [Above: postcard of a commercial lunch club that admitted men]

A humorous turn-of-the-century story characterized the uneasy feeling of some working women toward philanthropy. In it, a wealthy man approaches a young sales clerk in a department store to say that he is thinking of starting a Noon-Day Rest Club, “where you and the others may come and drink Tea and listen to me read Advice to the Young.” She replies, “That would be lonely Billiards, wouldn’t it? We don’t want to be rounded up and sozzled over. Not on your Leaflards. The Poor Working Girl draws a line on having a kind-hearted Gentleman pull the Weeps on her. I think I can struggle along without having you come around to hold my Hand.”

Despite this obstacle, lunch clubs proliferated. The Klio Club’s Noon-Day Rest expanded its menu, adding dishes such as soup, baked beans, and salmon salad. In 1899 a sample menu in one of Chicago’s six lunch clubs might have looked like this:
Two slices of bread or two rolls, with butter 5c
With jam or cold meat 6c
Extra butter 1c
Tomato soup, beef hash, Spanish stew 5c
Potato salad, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, cottage cheese 5c
Tea or coffee, with cream 5c
With milk 3c
Iced tea, buttermilk 3c
Raspberry ice, lemon ice 5c
Vanilla ice cream, tutti-frutti ice cream 5c

The success of serve-yourself lunch clubs spurred the development of commercial cafeterias. Over time it became harder for lunch clubs to attract large numbers of women patrons. Some began to accept men who, after all, tended to spend more for lunch. For-profit help-yourself businesses proliferated. In one case, a dispute at Klio’s Noon-Day Rest led its caterer, Kate Knox, to leave and start her own self-service lunch club business. [Mrs. Knox’s lunch club pictured above] Another enterprising woman, Mary Dutton, operated four cafeterias by 1915 after beginning with a single lunch club.

But the lunch clubs made an impact, for a time at least. Boston’s original noon-day lunch club closed because it felt it had elevated the standards of common restaurants. And businesses borrowed ideas from the lunch clubs. For example, The Harmony Cafeteria in Chicago, a commercial business, advertised in 1913 that it featured a basement rest area, with a drawing showing two women in rocking chairs reading books.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under cafeterias, food, Offbeat places, patrons, restaurant prices, women

Restaurant row

restaurantrow864

Search for the words “restaurant row” in old newspapers before WWII and you will become convinced that a restaurant was a prime spot to be stabbed or clobbered by flying crockery. Not as dangerous as a barroom, but close.

The other meaning and pronunciation refer not to a fight but to a happier state of affairs, namely a street lined with restaurants that has become a popular destination for diners.

restaurantrowChicago1909

The earliest use of the term I’ve found is a 1909 reference to Chicago’s Randolph Street where 39 busy restaurants lined up on a six-block stretch [illustrated]. A bit later Chicago’s Wabash Ave. was known as cafeteria row, reportedly aggregating the largest number of self-service restaurants in the world, while Clark Street with all its lunch rooms was nicknamed “toothpick row.”

The reason restaurants group together is not hard to see. As was true for downtown department stores that occupied several corners of a single intersection, groups of the same kind of businesses attracted flocks of customers who knew they were likely to find something they wanted. In the early 20th century, when chain restaurants were becoming common, lesser known restaurants were eager to locate near the winners to catch their overflow.

It’s also a marketing ploy. City officials may declare a street Restaurant Row to help boost the local economy, as NYC mayor John Lindsay did in the depressed 1970s with West 46th Street between 8th and 9th.  Actually New York had — and has — many restaurant rows, as is true of other large cities. Perhaps NYC’s first was Park Row in lower Manhattan where hungry politicians and newspaper workers crowded into Dolan’s, home of “beef an’” [corned beef and beans], which anchored the street’s concentration of lunch rooms.

RestaurantrowRichlor'sLos Angeles’ restaurant row on La Cienega Boulevard [illustrated at top] probably achieved more celebrity than did those of any other cities. Coming into prominence with the end of Prohibition in the 1930s it presented a mix of swanky restaurants and nightclubs alight with neon signs. In 1947 the row, centered at Wilshire and La Cienega, was enough of an attraction to inspire Southwest Airlines to offer a weekend jaunt built around it. One of the earliest restaurants in the row, Lawry’s The Prime Rib, established in 1938, continues today. Its owners also operated other La Cienega hotspots, Richlor’s [illustrated] and Steer’s.

Although the 1960s and 1970s were decades of decline on Los Angeles’ restaurant row, it made a comeback in the 1980s and continues to attract visitors today.

restaurantrowFramingham1965It didn’t take long for other cities, even small towns and suburbs, to realize that promoting a restaurant row was a way to bring people to town with money to spend. Restaurant rows with as few as four or five eating places began to advertise their attractions. [Route 9, Framingham MA illustrated]

With the spread of fast food eateries in the 1960s, people began to refer to fast-food rows where pizza, fried chicken, and burger emporiums clustered together. Competing chains kept a close eye on where McDonald’s opened, figuring the fast-food leader had chosen well after conducting extensive research on demographics and traffic patterns.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Bumbling through the cafeteria line

In 1931 the American humor magazine Life (not to be confused with the later photojournalism magazine of the same name) published “The Cafeteria,” an essay that described an inexperienced patron’s befuddlement in composing a meal item by item while being propelled forward by an ever-moving line. (The illustration by W. E. Hill is also from 1931.)

The essay, from which I have selected sentences to shape into a “poem” similar to Charles Green Shaw’s The Bohemian Dinner, was written by John C. Emery. It’s likely that at the time he wrote about his cafeteria experience he was a 27-year old editor with Railway Age, a trade journal located in Chicago. Chicago, it happens, was a city with plenty of cafeterias. In its early stages cafeterias were identified with women while men were notoriously resistant to them.

Turns out Mr. Emery had an interesting biography. As a naval commander during World War II, he was in charge of expediting air cargo. Following the war he founded Emery Air Freight, which began as a freight forwarder that leased space on existing airlines and grew into a major corporation. Alas, I know nothing about his further adventures in eating out, but I doubt he continued to go to cafeterias.

The Cafeteria
The trays.
The cutlery.
The selection of a knife, a fork and two spoons.
The selection of two pieces of bread and a roll.
The after-thought selection of another roll.
The sudden realization that you have a lot of bread.
The hesitancy to put any of it back, under the eagle eye of a waitress.
The great variety of salads.
The quick selection of one kind.
The immediate regret that you did not take another kind instead.
The inclination to make a change.
The nudge of a tray in the hands of a woman in line behind you.
The decision to move along.
The bowl of soup.
The meat order.
The potatoes.
The string beans.
The beets.
The realization that your tray is getting pretty full …
The decision to forego dessert.
The tempting pies.
The urgent desire for a piece of pie.
The selection of a piece of pie.
The difficulty of finding space for it on your tray.
The check, amounting to $1.32.*
The vast surprise.
The realization for the first time that you have enough food for about three hungry men.
The search for a table.
The unloading of your tray.
The vast array of dishes.
The growing conviction that other patrons are laughing at you.
The discovery that you forgot to take a napkin.
The consumption of every bit of food before you.
The gorged feeling.
The sluggish return to the office.
The surreptitious nap.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

* Equal to about $18.90 in 2010 dollars, probably about double what he usually paid for lunch.

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Chin Foin

In the early 20th century Chin Foin was considered Chicago’s foremost Chinese restaurateur, being affiliated with four of the city’s leading Chinese restaurants: the King Yen [above] and King Joy restaurants and the Mandarin Inn and New Mandarin Inn. His exact degree of ownership and management of the four over time is difficult to determine but it’s clear that his participation was significant. He also ran an import business in Chicago called Wing Chong Hai & Co.

His first restaurant King Yen Lo began inauspiciously in 1902 upstairs from a saloon, the notorious establishment of alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna on the corner of Clark and Van Buren. Operating above or behind a saloon was not uncommon for Chinese restaurants and may reflect difficulties the Chinese encountered in renting property. Additionally, having a restaurant nearby or physically connected may have served the interests of saloon keepers who wanted to evade early closing laws by funneling drinks through an eating place.

Whatever the case, the King Yen restaurant was better than it had to be. Like the other restaurants Chin Foin would run, it appealed to the non-Chinese after-theater crowd and featured orchestral music and steaks and chops alongside chop suey and “Mandarin” dishes. The kitchen was open for inspection and a special section was reserved for women unaccompanied by men, important since women shoppers were known to be fond of Chinese food. It’s not clear how long he was actively involved with King Yen but he was still an owner in 1907 when a Chinese envoy attended a formal dinner held there for the christening of Chin Foin’s infant son Theodore.

The King Joy restaurant on W. Randolph [pictured, ca. 1910] was a much bigger venture. It was a component of an international Chinese organization meant to raise funds for political and economic modernization in China. Investors included Chinese living in China and America as well as non-Chinese Chicagoans who supplied $125,000 [more than $3M today] to build the thoroughly modern restaurant. It opened in December of 1906 with Chin Foin as manager.

The investors in China must have heard that running restaurants in America was very profitable because little more than a year after the restaurant’s opening they began to complain about not receiving any dividends. I don’t know how all that was sorted out but clearly Chin Foin’s personal wealth was growing, enabling his family to move to a posh neighborhood in 1912. The newspaper reported he was a wealthy Yale graduate, which brought a grudging acceptance from a non-Chinese woman who said she could hardly object to a Chinese neighbor since, she observed, “We have Negroes out here now, and a few Goths and Visigoths.”

The very Americanized Chin Foin had ambitions of running a type of restaurant that was scarcely Chinese at all. After opening the Mandarin Inn in 1911 and the New Mandarin Inn in 1919 [pictured], both on South Wabash, he announced he had taken a 25-year lease on a Wilson Avenue property formerly occupied by a car dealer. To be called the Mandarin Gardens, the restaurant was supposed to open in 1921 but never did as far as I can tell. Reflecting on the upward arc of his restaurant career, he said in 1920, “Now we’ve cut out the far east features and operate a strictly American restaurant, and that’s what the Mandarin Gardens will be.”

The New Mandarin Inn had also shed some of its Chinese-ness. Since its opening in 1911 it had broken with Chinese restaurant tradition by using linens on the tables and serving European wines. Although it served Chinese dishes, it also offered Sunday chicken dinners and, in 1921, served a high-priced Easter dinner with choices such as Blue Points on the Half Shell, New Orleans Gumbo, Lamb with Mint Jelly, Whipped Potatoes, and Strawberry Shortcake.

Sadly, Chin Foin’s plans were abruptly terminated in 1924 when he stepped into an empty elevator shaft at the New Mandarin Inn. The subsequent owner of that restaurant, Don Joy, added “Chinese” features such as dragons on the front and a simulated temple roof. Don Joy’s Mandarin Inn closed in 1928, later to become a nightclub (Club Royale) and, eventually in 1959, Jimmy Wong’s Cantonese restaurant. The building occupied by King Yen was razed in the teens for a new location of the John R. Thompson’s lunchroom chain, while King Joy became the Rialto Gardens (Chinese), and then one of Dario Toffenetti’s cafeterias.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Footnote on roadhouses

Is Casablanca one of the unluckiest names a restaurant could have? Granted, there is a fair amount of mayhem surrounding restaurants and cafes generally, at least judging from newspaper stories, but places with this name seem to have attracted more than their share of violent crime.

There is a fascination with the dark side of restaurants, witnessed by interest in revelations of filth, chaos, and bad tempers in the kitchens, not to mention the popularity of such topics as  gangster affiliations. This post is inspired by a reader living near Palatine IL outside Chicago, the location of the old Casablanca referred to in an earlier post on roadhouses. He wrote that he would “love to hear about the old-school ‘joints’ that used to pepper the ‘quiet’ suburbs.”

He is not alone. When I recently posted a photo of an old no-tell motel, the Coral Courts, on my hometown’s Facebook page, interest was notable. Likewise someone’s FB post recalling a horrid massacre at a roadhouse called Cousin Hugo’s just outside the borders of that formerly dry and ultra-proper suburb attracted comments like a magnet.

The Casablanca on Rand and Dundee Roads in Palatine was begun by Loretta Cooper, daughter of Polish immigrants in Chicago. She may have opened it in the early 1940s, but under another, unknown name. She would have been about 25 years old and already 7 years into her restaurant career. She started her first cafe, the Star Tavern in Chicago, around 1935 when she was only 18. Being underage she needed her older brother to act as the nominal manager.

Loretta proved to be a “survivor” in the restaurant business, owning a number of establishments over at least a 30-year period. She didn’t run the Casablanca for long, though, because by 1943 she had taken over the old Eddie’s Castle Café on Evergreen in Arlington Heights IL and renamed it Loretta’s Castle Café. It stayed in business until the late 1960s when the building was demolished. She and her husband Edward also ran a place in Arlington Heights called Cooper’s.

Loretta sold the roadhouse to Michael Buny around 1944 and he renamed it Casablanca after the Humphrey Bogart film that had come out two years earlier (thanks to his family member for this piece of the story). In May of 1949 he was killed in a holdup. When two hooded men entered the roadhouse one night with shotguns, he attempted to foil them by sneaking outside through the kitchen and getting a gun, evidently planning to ambush them when they left. He was shot by lookouts watching from the getaway car. Although the police rounded up suspects who went on trial in the early 1950s no convictions were secured. Years later one of the suspects was apprehended for home repair fraud.

Michael Buny’s wife and daughter ran the Casablanca after his death. In 1951, about two years after her father’s slaying, daughter Darlene was shot in the shoulder as she struggled with a tall scar-faced robber who broke into the café one night. It’s uncertain how long she kept the Casablanca going after that.

Quite by coincidence, I assume, a nightclub restaurant opened on Dundee Road in Palatine in the 1980s called Bogie’s, with decor inspired by the film Casablanca. Local history would have made for a riskier theme.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Harriet Moody

It’s a good bet that there have not been many women, or men, who have opened their first restaurant at age 68 – and, furthermore, made a success of it.

Harriet Tilden (Brainard) Moody [pictured below at about age 20] was exceptional in many ways. She built a culinary reputation long before she opened Le Petit Gourmet in 1920 in Chicago’s Italian Court at 615 North Michigan Boulevard. She had been one of the city’s premier caterers since 1890 when she founded the Home Delicacies Association. Despite her status as a divorcée, she managed to stay afloat in Chicago society, catering teas for charitable affairs and remaining a member in good standing of elite clubs such as the Fortnightly, the Twentieth Century, and the Chicago College Club. Working with her friend Bertha (Mrs. Potter) Palmer, she was one of the “lady managers” of the Chicago World’s Fair.

When her father, a once-wealthy cattle shipper, died in 1886, the recently divorced Harriet was forced to put her Cornell degree to work to support herself and her mother. She took a job teaching high school English but found she needed more income. Although she had never cooked, she deployed her refined tastes to produce dainty salads and baked goods of the sort appreciated by women of the upper classes. She supplied delicate dishes to Marshall Field’s department store tea room, to dining cars in trains departing from Chicago, and to fashionable private clients. Rising at 4:00 a.m. she spent several hours before she left for the classroom each morning supervising the Home Delicacies crew which numbered about 50 by 1899.

She became so successful that she not only supported her mother’s household, but also bought a second house where she lived and ran the catering business on the top floor until transferring it to larger quarters. She also owned a Greenwich Village townhouse on Waverly Place and a summer place, the historic William Cullen Bryant homestead in Cummington MA.

Harriet married poet William Vaughn Moody in 1909 and after his death the following year began to befriend other poets, often putting them up at her places in Chicago, New York, and Cummington, sometimes for months-long stays. At Le Petit Gourmet in the 1920s she organized poetry nights at which Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many others, read their work.

In 1911 Harriet established a branch of the Home Delicacies Association in London. Harry Gordon Selfridge, who as former manager of Marshall Field’s had jump-started her catering business in Chicago by ordering gingerbread and chicken salad from her, now asked for dishes for Selfridge’s, his department store which opened that year in London.

Seven years after establishing Le Petit Gourmet, Harriet and a woman partner opened another Chicago restaurant, Au Grand Gourmet, in a modern setting on the ground floor of a new building at 180 East Delaware. But her luck changed and in 1929 financial exigency required her to sell out. She attempted to recoup her losses a couple of years later with the publication of Mrs. William Vaughn Moody’s Cookbook.

Le Petit Gourmet, known simply as Le Petit, survived for decades under various owners, most notably Grace Pebbles, who also ran similar restaurants in Oak Park, Miami, Denver, and Hollywood. The Italian Court, constructed from 1919-1926 as a complex of shops and apartments for artists, was razed in 1968 to make way for an office building.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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African-American tea rooms

When I wrote my book about the history of tea rooms, Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn, I knew very little about tea rooms run by and for African-Americans. There were few historical sources available on the internet then and even a research trip to Chicago turned up nothing. Since then I’ve discovered that there were many of these tea rooms and that they shared numerous characteristics with tea rooms run by and for whites, yet were also different in significant ways.

It’s easy to see why black women, and men, wanted to create their own tea rooms. For one thing, even in states where Jim Crow policies were not enacted into law it was common for white-run tea rooms and restaurants to engage in racial discrimination. Secondly, starting a business represented the fulfillment of the idea of self-help for blacks as advanced by leaders. Perhaps that was what inspired Mittie Burgess, a Georgia-born caterer in her late 30s, to name her newly opened 1916 place in Lexington KY the Booker T. Washington Tea Room. Although Mittie’s tea room was in the South, quite a few of the proprietors I’ve been able to trace were part of the 20th-century’s Great Migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities.

Like white tea room proprietors, blacks who took up this business tended overall to be of higher social status than the average restaurant owner, white or black. Proprietors I’ve come across included a woman who was a former pharmacist and a man who had been a college professor. Some of the more elite women who operated tea rooms were married to life insurance executives, ministers, doctors, and successful business men. Others were wives of porters, cabbies, and chauffeurs but still seemed to have achieved standing in their communities.

The advertisement for the 1922 opening of Mayme Clinkscale’s Ideal Tea Room [shown above] in Chicago said it was designed for club, society, and lodge banquets, and furnished with “the latest and best in silverware, linen, and glassware.”

A number of tea rooms were clearly meant for the black upper crust. Common phrases in advertisements and news stories include “exclusive,” “the elite of the city are found [here],” or “where the wealthier class of colored people dine.” Mentions of table appointments and decor often include silver bud vases, exotic themes, and carefully coordinated color schemes. Menus offered fried chicken and corn sticks as well as steaks and salads, but were less likely to list rural Southern favorites such as pigs’ feet or greens.

Tea rooms in African-American communities in the teens, 20s, and 30s, frequently hosted important social events. Community leaders hailed them as badly needed establishments. Groups such as the NAACP Women’s Auxiliary, black sports writers, and the Negro Business League held luncheons and dinners at tea rooms. Red Caps from Grand Central and Penn Station hosted their peers at the Gilt Edge Tea Room during a national convention in NYC. Newspaper people from the black newspaper The Amsterdam News celebrated a colleague’s college graduation at Harlem’s Jack and Jill Tea Room in 1928. They certainly received a warmer welcome than had Charlotte Bass, black publisher of the California Eagle, when she and several of her guests were refused service at the white-run Old Adobe in Ventura CA.

Since they were small and did not make money from alcoholic beverages (not legally anyway, during Prohibition) all tea rooms were hard to operate profitably. Yet I sense that owners of Afro-American tea rooms had to work even harder than whites to succeed. They seem to have been open much longer hours, covering meals that ran from breakfast until late into the night. They were also more likely than white tea rooms to offer entertainment such as music and dancing. Many took in table boarders, regular patrons who contracted to eat their meals there for a week or month at a time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Linens and things — part II

One trouble with the ideal of snowy white restaurant linens is, of course, laundry that piles up and must be washed. By the late 19th century huge steam laundries in big cities were able to handle up to 100,000 pieces a day. And about the same time a new idea in laundry service came along. Rather than owning linens a restaurant could, in effect, rent them from a service that would bring fresh supplies every time they picked up dirty laundry. Many of the first such businesses called themselves towel services, reflecting that their primary customers were factories using thousands of shop towels. Restaurants and hotels developed as the next customer base.

According to a book called Service Imperative, it was around World War I that the modern linen supply industry developed, with over 900 firms in the US. Most were in New York, followed by Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. At about the same time a national organization of linen supply companies was formed, the forerunner to the Linen Supply Association of America, renamed the Textile Rental Services Association of America in 1979 to better reflect the full range of member services – and to improve the organization’s public image.

It seems to me that the name change was mostly about public relations. While it may have been true that “linen supply” did not reflect all services, the difference between “textile rental” and “linen supply” is a bit subtle. Why the change? On the face of it the words “linen supply” sound completely innocent. Yet by the mid 20th century they had acquired a negative tinge thanks to mob infiltration in the business coupled with widely publicized congressional hearings, particularly the U.S. Senate’s McClellan committee which investigated organized crime in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Linen supply was one of a number of services to restaurants, along with garbage hauling, that attracted the mob in the 1920s and even more so in the 1930s when Prohibition ended and bootlegging profits dwindled. It offered itself as a legitimate business in which it was possible to gain dominance rapidly as well as a way for mobsters who had migrated into narcotics to launder money. In Kansas City, a mob magnet in the 1930s, gangs made handsome profits in linen supply. Running the industry as a monopoly, they reportedly divided up the city, agreed not to compete, and set prices high.

Certainly not all linen supply companies were, or are, mob affiliated or engaged in illegal activities, yet in some places – notably NYC, Chicago, and Detroit — many have been. In 1958 New Jersey linen supply corporations charged with violation of anti-trust laws were said to control 85% of business in that state. Linen supply racketeering continues today. In 2003 the NY Times reported that the president of White Plains Coat & Apron Co., doing business with restaurants in NYC, Westchester, and parts of Connecticut and New Jersey, pled guilty to conspiring to restrain trade over a ten-year period in which sales had totaled better than $500M.

The cost of monopoly linen services does not affect consumers enough that they notice it. Restaurant owners, on the other hand, experience higher operating costs. And, as Patricia Murphy found out long ago, they are likely to be paid a visit by a “plug-ugly” if they try to switch suppliers. “I chased him out the door with a broom,” she said, adding, “I suppose I was too insignificant a client for him to carry out threats of reprisals.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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The (partial) triumph of the doggie bag

I can’t remember when restaurant servers began automatically asking if you wanted to take home food left on your plate but I know it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. It used to be that food was wrapped up only if patrons asked.

Probably some customers have always smuggled away food from restaurant tables, usually in napkins. Maybe to stop this, the custom of furnishing diners with bags in which to take home leftovers began after the second World War when upward mobility widened the dining public. Doggie bags went into production around the mid 1950s and their use increased tenfold in Chicago in the 1970s, according to a Chicago Tribune story.

But what is interesting is how many people were embarrassed by the practice. Well into the 1970s etiquette columns in newspapers got letters from restaurant patrons asking if it was ok to ask for a doggie bag if they didn’t have a dog. Usually the writer cited a spouse or friend who objected to the custom. A typical query is the one in 1964 from a wife whose husband “looked aghast” when she asked for a bag and told her it was in poor taste to take home table scraps. Nonetheless, with the exception of Elizabeth Post, Emily Post’s granddaughter by marriage, advice columnists invariably approved of doggie bags as sensible if not downright virtuous.

Doggie bags and other containers grew more acceptable in the 1970s – but not in all restaurants. The most expensive and elegant places, such as the Four Seasons and upscale French restaurants, showed a distinct dislike of the custom. Many would only provide a container if asked, and then often fashioned a swan of aluminum foil as if to say, “We don’t make a habit of this – this is just for you.”

There are a number of explanations why taking home leftovers has not always been universally accepted by restaurants or their guests. Some restaurants cite health concerns. French restaurateurs are offended by the idea of someone microwaving their cuisine; they believe food should be eaten just at the moment the chef sends it to the table. Diners who are the least bit intimidated by a restaurant or its servers are unlikely to ask to take food home. I was recently in a restaurant that does not permit guests to place jackets or coats on the back of their chairs. I am certain they would cringe at a request to take away uneaten food (and I’ve never seen it done there). In any event, the small portions served in this and other upscale restaurants do not allow any provision for future meals. Other restaurants handle the matter discreetly. In a power lunch spot in Los Angeles, diners must pick up their leftovers, packed in a tasteful tote bag, at the front desk as they leave. No styrofoam box sitting on tables through the dessert course there!

On a deep socio-psychological level the reasons doggie bags carry a degree of embarrassment and often are not accepted by elite restaurants are the same as why it’s considered poor manners to smack or gobble. Higher status accrues to those who disguise hunger by eating slowly, who appreciate small portions, and whose delicate appetite requires “appetizers” and little dainties with names such as “amuse bouche.” Leaving food on the plate communicates the absence of animal neediness. It is a version of Thorstein Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption” in that it flaunts the diner’s ability to walk away from perfectly good food.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Early chains: John R. Thompson

Although it is largely forgotten today, the Chicago-based John R. Thompson company was one of the largest “one arm” lunchroom chains of the early 20th century. We so strongly associate fast food chains with hamburgers that it may be surprising to learn that Thompson’s popular sandwiches included Cervelat, smoked boiled tongue, cold boiled ham, hot frankfurter, cold corned beef, cold salmon, and Herkimer County cheese, served on “Milwaukee Rye Bread” baked by the chain’s bakery. Thompson was proud that his meals were suited for sedentary office workers of the 1900s and 1910s. A 1911 advertisement claimed that lunch at Thompson’s “won’t leave you logy and lazy and dull this afternoon.”

Thompson, an Illinois farm boy, ran a rural general store as his first business. He sold it in 1891, moved to Chicago, and opened a restaurant on State Street. He proved to be a modernizer in the restaurant business as well as in politics.

He operated his restaurants on a “scientific” basis, stressing cleanliness, nutrition, and quality while keeping prices low. In 1912 he moved the chain’s commissary into a premier new building on North Clark Street (pictured, today). Thompson’s, then with 68 self-service lunchrooms plus a chain of grocery stores, became a public corporation in 1914, after which it expanded outside Chicago and into Canada. By 1921 there were 109 restaurants, 49 of which were in Chicago and 11 in New York (with a commissary in NYC). By the mid-1920s Thompson’s, Childs, and Waldorf Lunch were the big three U.S. chains, small by comparison to McDonald’s but significant nevertheless.

In politics Thompson served as a Republican committeeman and managed the campaign of a “good government” gubernatorial candidate in 1904. A few years later he failed in his own bid to run for mayor, promising he would bring efficiency to government while improving schools and roads. In the 1920s he financed a personal crusade against handguns.

Despite John R. Thompson’s progressive politics, his business would go down in history as one that refused to serve Afro-Americans. Or, as civil rights leader Marvin Caplan put it in 1985, “If the chain is remembered today, it is not for its food, but for its refusal to serve it.” J. R. died in 1927. Where he stood on the question of public accommodations is unclear but the chain faced numerous lawsuits by blacks in the 1930s. However the best known case occurred in 1950 when a group of integrationists led by Mary Church Terrell was refused service in a Washington D.C. Thompson’s. The group was looking for a case that would test the validity of the district’s 19th-century public accommodations laws. After three years in the courts the Thompson case (for which the Washington Restaurant Association raised defense funds) made its way to the Supreme Court which affirmed the so-called “lost” anti-discrimination laws of 1872 and 1873 as valid.

Over the years the Thompson chain absorbed others, including Henrici’s and Raklios. At some point, possibly in the 1950s, the original Thompson’s concept was dropped. By 1956 Thompson’s operated Holloway House and Ontra cafeterias. In 1971, as Green Giant prepared to buy Thompson’s, it had about 100 restaurants, including Red Balloon family restaurants, Henrici’s restaurants, and Little Red Hen Chicken outlets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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