The Chick-fil-A controversy has arrived at my blog. A few days ago I heard from a reporter looking for restaurant history background on the subject of religion and restaurants.
Was there, she asked, ever a commercial restaurant chain similar to Chick-fil-A that took a strong religious stand evidenced by decisions such as closing on Sundays?
Why, yes, there was. It was the Dennett’s chain of the late 19th century. Founded in New York City by the crusading moralist Alfred W. Dennett, it sported religious slogans on the walls, held a mandatory daily prayer session for employees – and was closed on Sundays. Dennett failed in the Northeast in the 1890s but his successors followed his policies. Later, he made another attempt to run a chain of lunchrooms on the West Coast.
Chick-fil-A boasts of its personnel practices, but Dennett’s was scarcely a model employer as a waitress at a San Francisco Dennett’s discovered. Employees were fined so frequently for missing prayers or other minor infractions that most never took home a full pay envelope. She reported that she saw a placard on the wall that quoted Jeremiah: “Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercises loving kindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth.” As she read, another waitress came up behind her and remarked wittily, “So now you know that four dollars a week is right, and kind, and just.”
From the patrons’ point of view Sunday closures were generally not pleasing. Sunday was a popular day to eat in a restaurant beginning in the late 19th century and continuing into the 1960s. Not only did thousands and thousands of people living in rented rooms absolutely need access to restaurants all week long, for decades Sunday was the only day off for most working people.
Back when drinking was the social issue of the day, some temperance reformers thought it was advisable to keep restaurants open on Sundays since eating a meal in a decent place was preferable to getting drunk in a saloon. Critics found it outrageous that in the 1870s New Hampshire law ordered all restaurants closed on Sundays unless they also rented rooms.
By the 20th century it was fashionable to eat Sunday dinner out and many patrons filled their Sunday afternoons with dining and dancing to a live orchestra. In the 1920s, when car ownership spread, it became a Sunday treat for families to drive to the “country” (i.e., the city outskirts) to go to a tea room for chicken dinner. Service often was “family style,” with all the food on platters or in bowls to pass around.
I recall as a child going to such a place outside St. Louis, in Valley Park, called Madame DeFoe’s. It was a cottage with many screened windows, in a wooded setting. I thought it was terribly quaint and that Madame was foreign and exotic. Only recently did I discover that her first name was Cora and that she was a farmer.
The reporter also asked me if I knew of any restaurants in the past that, after coming under criticism for a controversial stance such as rejecting homosexuality, had politicians rally the public to show support for it through mass patronage (as is intended to happen August 1 at Chick-fil-A locations).
That one had me stumped.
© Jan Whitaker 2012