Tag Archives: Depression businesses

We burn steaks

ptomainetommyMB

While most restaurant advertising tends to exaggerate the subject’s merits, some takes the opposite tack, declaring that the restaurant’s food and service are horrid. The reason is simple, a wish to stand out from the crowd.

ToughSteaksShermanOaks1950How well this works is questionable. If a restaurant has nothing going for it in food quality or service, a gimmicky promotional attitude isn’t going to make it successful. For instance, the humor of Hawley’s Tough Steaks, Sherman Oaks Ca, displayed in the slogan “Famous for Dining Discomfort” wears thin almost instantly. After you have read through the menu once, and maybe smiled wanly at its jokiness – Tired T-Bone, 25 cents, With Meat, 2.25 – you might not ever want to see it again. I haven’t been able to determine how long Hawley’s stayed in business.

I sense a degree of desperation in the advertisement for The Garret in Greenwich Village. In 1922 when this ad appeared, The Garret’s proprietor was Grace Godwin, single mother of four who ran it to support her family. It was located near the spot in the Village where all the tour buses parked, which should have given it an edge despite the fact that it was housed on the second floor of a dumpy old building. The ad played off the Village’s reputation for zaniness that was so attractive to tourists. Grace gave up the business not much later.

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But sometimes it seems to work.

Ptomaine Tommy’s in Los Angeles fared quite well and was around at least from 1913 to 1940 if not longer. It multiplied, “dotting California roadsides,” according to newspaper columnist O. O. McIntyre who mentioned the restaurant’s name often enough even if he wasn’t terribly flattering. He called them “hastily constructed” and comparing them to the Shanties, Shacks, and Food Hutches that sprang up in the Depression serving bean soup and hash.

Perhaps partly because McIntyre made the name known, it became a popular one. Ptomaine Tommy’s appeared in San Francisco, Portland OR, Reno NV, and even Eau Claire WI. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if restaurants with that name are in business today.

I think that the self-denigrating approach appeals to a sense of humor among those, historically men, who aren’t especially fond of eating out unless they can be reassured that they won’t be expected to pay much, dress up, or display refined manners.

Restaurants that make fun of themselves give off a message that they aren’t pretentious. Patrons can be sure they won’t meet up with haughty servers. Or, as Newman’s in Amarillo and Dalhart, TX, put it, “Terrible Service, But We’re Friendly.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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“Eat and get gas”

EatandGetGasMO

When I first encountered that jokey phrase as a child I thought it was amazingly clever and funny. So did many adults, evidently, because over the decades numbers of roadside eateries adopted it as a catchphrase. Even as late as 1976 Stuckey’s was using it on a billboard near Dallas. A roadside gas station/café outside Omaha bore the equally cornball name Tank and Tummy.

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It wasn’t long after thousands of Americans acquired cars and took to the roads in the 1920s that all kinds of roadside businesses popped up to serve them. They ranged from campgrounds in farm fields to tourist homes and cabins, gas stations, tea rooms, and cafés. The Depression failed to stifle the urge to travel by car while inspiring thousands to try to make a living from passing traffic. Among the ideas included in a dispiriting little 1937 pamphlet called The Roadman’s Guide (“A Valuable Book of Money Making Formulas, Recipes, Ways, Plans and Schemes”) were carnival games, refreshment stands, and “eating joints.”

AncestryOzarkTavernWestphaliaMO

The gas station/restaurant combination was a popular one, often further combined with a gift shop or rooms for overnight guests. The logic is the same one-stop-shopping idea used by department stores: get customers to stop in for essentials and they may buy other things they didn’t even know they wanted. In Taunton MA in the 1920s, the Marvel Lunch and Filling Station not only had chicken and duck sandwiches on offer but also advertised “Stop and See the Trained Bears.”

Although it did tend to render them less refined, some tea rooms were linked to gas stations. Yet Duncan Hines’ 1937 edition of Adventures in Good Eating for the Discriminating Motorist gave a slightly grudging nod to The Old Elm Tree near Fremont OH, indicating “Just a wayside place with filling station adjacent but they serve a mighty good steak and chicken dinner, as well as all kinds of sandwiches and salads.”

Among those who tried combining gas and eating in the Depression – and succeeded – were Harlan Sanders and Gus Belt, respectively founders of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Steak ’n’ Shake.

AncestryTrouttCafeWoodlawnIL

Which came first in these combined ventures — the gas station or the restaurant? I’ve decided that in most cases it was – and still is – the gas station. And that might account for why so few roadside dining spots earn a reputation for fine food. Consider chains such as Stuckey’s, Nickerson Farms, and Dutch Pantry.

With superhighway construction in the 1950s and 1960s, highway stops institutionalized paired restaurants and gas stations, though by this time they were housed in separate buildings. In 1961 the Stouffer Corporation teamed up with Standard Oil of Ohio to test automat-style restaurants. They were not a success, but generally highway self-service food courts have proved acceptable to the motoring public.

Like many of the eat-and-get-gas highway oases before them, interstate service plazas also do duty as truck stops. But that is the subject of a future post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under roadside restaurants