After a start in the 1950s, pancake houses made it big in the following decade.
Of course pancakes were not new to eating places. Far from it. They had long been a staple of short order restaurants, known variously as flapjacks, hoecakes, hot cakes, griddle cakes, flannel cakes, batter cakes, butter cakes, and just plain cakes. The mighty Childs chain had built its business by transfixing pedestrians with women flipping pancakes in its windows.
Cheap yet filling, it’s hardly surprising that pancakes grew in popularity during the 1930s Depression. The Childs Corporation reported in 1931 that pancakes with butter and syrup ranked as “the most typical American dish.” Pancakes were once again in the spotlight in the film Imitation of Life (1934) in which a white woman’s Black cook runs Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Shop which makes a hit on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The 1930s was also the decade in which The Pancake House opened in Portland OR – a restaurant which James Beard playfully nominated in the 1950s as one of the 10 best in America.
But what was new in the 1960s, with the spread of economic prosperity through (white) America, was the popularity of the “family restaurant.” Children, who had earlier been a minor element in eating out, became a new factor in restaurant success. Now included in dining plans, they often ascended to the role of lobbyist and de facto decision maker. And, while Mom might frown on high-calorie menus and Dad might wish for steak, the kids loved pancakes.
Pancake restaurants of the 1960s welcomed children with bright primary colors, cartoonish figures on menus and walls, and at least in one case with a rather alarming-looking costumed clown. If a child had not fully satisfied their sweet tooth with pancakes, they could raid the “old-time” candy barrels at Florida’s Kissin’ Cousins Pancake Inns. Meanwhile, an adjoining cocktail lounge beckoned parents with beer and bourbon.
What else was new about pancake restaurants? They were part of the advent of eating places focused on single foods, such as hamburgers or pizza. Like pizza, pancakes held special charm for restaurant owners because their ingredients were cheap and no skilled cooks were needed. Plus, they weren’t just for breakfast — customers were ready to order them all day and through the night. The trade journal American Restaurant mused in 1960, “Who ever dreamed that the lowly pancake would build a fortune . . .?”
Restaurant consultant George Wenzel asserted that pancake houses proved “that any one item, prepared with great care, and basically popular, can lead to fortunes especially if the menu price is reasonably low.” While regular service restaurants had food costs up to 48%, he figured they were only 35% in specialty restaurants such as pancake houses.
Chains built around pancakes spread rapidly. By 1961 the International House of Pancakes had opened 25 units in just three years, and was poised to expand into the Northeast. Uncle John’s Pancake Houses, begun in 1956, were doing business with 60 units in more than 20 states. Each of these chains may have been inspired by Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House that opened in Disneyland in 1955.
Despite the development of dozens and dozens of pancake varieties and their high profit margins, pancake restaurants gradually broadened their menus. The trade magazine Cooking for Profit noted in 1964 that pancake restaurants had found it necessary to put steak on the menu. The growing menus meant that the pancake restaurant boom would soon give way to a more general sort of family restaurant in the 1970s. Like pancake restaurants, full-service family restaurant chains such as Denny’s and Country Kitchen were also expanding.
Eating in restaurants continued to be popular with families in the 1970s. Reporting on a Gallup survey in 1975, Food Service Magazine observed that more working mothers, increased family income, and smaller families suggested “a more profitable family market than ever before.” The survey also found that preferences included table service restaurants that welcomed children, had moderate prices – typically $1.00 to $1.99 per person for breakfast — and a menu with a wide range of selections.
A 1978 New York Times story titled “Family Restaurant Booming” noted that dining out is extremely sensitive to economic conditions, a situation that is likely to be especially true for family dining.
So the current economy should favor patronage at IHOP, the reigning pancake kingdom.
© Jan Whitaker, 2022