It strikes me that much more has been written about and by chefs than those restaurant personnel who mostly work behind a desk. Business people lack the glamour of knife wielding chefs. They are not surrounded by flames. They have no dishes named after them.
But Frederick Rufe’s career in restaurants was as interesting as many chefs’ and he was undoubtedly more influential in shaping the dining experiences of countless restaurant patrons over his career of nearly 40 years. His entire working life had a single focus. In a 1974 interview he stressed, “Everything I’ve ever done has been with food.” As a management executive he was closer to the soul (or soullessness, depending how you see it) of both the upscale and the midscale American corporate-owned restaurant of the 1960s and 1970s.
Born in New Jersey in 1922 he came from a humble background, growing up in a one-parent household with his mother, who was a factory worker, and a brother. While a student at a teachers’ college, he spent one summer as a waiter for a Pennsylvania resort, leading him to detour from a teaching career to one in food service. Following WWII army duty (working in food supply), he obtained a degree from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, which excelled in turning out top hospitality industry executives.
He then went to work in Miami Beach as food and beverage manager at large hotels there, among them the Monte Carlo, Algiers, and Deauville. He was not shy about promoting himself. Aiming for a catering manager job in a hotel without such a position, he “invented” it for himself. He took over a vacant room, bought a desk, put up draperies, and hung out a “Catering Manager” sign. When challenged by his boss, he successfully convinced him that the hotel needed someone – him – in that position.
He joined Restaurant Associates in New York in the mid-1950s as the company was entering its most creative phase. RA was going from managing coffee shops and cafeterias to developing theme restaurants, some in the luxury class. In 1956 Rufe was made general manager of RA’s Newark Airport restaurants which included the famed Newarker, its kitchen headed by the inventive Swiss chef Albert Stöckli who would go on to the Four Seasons [pictured here]. Rufe helped develop the Four Seasons, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and La Fonda del Sol. At a time when out-of-season fruits and vegetables equalled the height of luxury, he obtained shipments of melons and new asparagus from the West for the Four Seasons, as well as miniature vegetables that allowed power-lunching VIPs to minimize awkward bites. With James Beard’s help he brought the blind cook Elena Zelayeta from California to plan Mexican and Spanish dishes for La Fonda del Sol.
Amiable and worldly, Rufe could be mistaken for a European sophisticate. He was on James Beard’s holiday dinner guest list, and had easy access to the food columns at major newspapers where he promoted RA’s restaurants with recipes and interviews. While manager of the Latin-themed La Fonda del Sol, he explained to a reporter that a “broiling wall” of revolving stuffed flank steaks was based on a setup he had observed at an inn in Peru on a menu-collecting tour of South America with La Fonda’s chef John Santi. He was known for focusing on detail, so much so that his travel notes were said to look like research for a doctoral dissertation.
In 1964 he took on the task of rescuing the Top of the Fair, a failing de luxe restaurant atop the Port Authority’s heliport building adjoining the World’s Fair grounds. He was made a RA vice-president in 1967 and two years later put in charge of food operations at LaGuardia and Kennedy air terminals, as well as other airports in the Northeast. “Our places are genuine restaurants,” he insisted, “not just places to grab a quick meal and dash to your plane.”
After a shift in RA’s direction, Rufe left for the Marriott Corporation where he was soon made VP of its dinner house division of moderate-priced theme restaurants in the DC area. The recession of the 1970s was on and Rufe explained in the press that Americans wouldn’t pay for $25 French dinners any more. Marriott’s new dinner houses were geared to more modest lifestyles. Phineas Prime Rib, Joshua Tree, Franklin Stove, Port O’Georgetown, and Garibaldi’s were management-driven eating places where every detail was arrived at through consumer research and economic calculation. Lunch was not profitable, so dinner only. No reservations because that resulted in less than 100% occupancy. Short menus with only America’s favorites, beef and seafood. All-you-can-eat salad bars. Fireplaces and ceiling beams evoking old-time hospitality. Friendly college student servers speaking from scripts. Cooking by step-by-step recipe cards. No chefs.
At first the formula was wildly popular with modal guests – suburbanites with $15,000 annual incomes who ordered $6.95 meals and cleared out in 1.5 hours. “Seventeen million dollars and no chefs,” Rufe boasted in January of 1975. However, by 1978 competition was up and profits were down. Marriott decided to sell off its dinner house division and some of the restaurants closed under the new owner.
After a few years as director of food and beverage planning and development for Hilton International, Rufe retired, returning to Stroudsburg PA where he continued as a consultant.
Needless to say, the chain dinner house formula he helped develop prevails today, demonstrating that there is a sizable market for restaurants with pleasant decor, parking, clean bathrooms, and palatable fare that is affordable.
© Jan Whitaker, 2016