Tag Archives: drive-in restaurants

Clown themes

Have you ever felt that clown themes, characters, and motifs in restaurants were a mistake? A good number of Americans – estimated as many as 12% of children and adults — experience fear that clowns are deranged maniacs in disguise.

But that wasn’t always true. The 1950s and 1960s were the era of jolly clowns. Several clowns, particularly Bozo, won a children’s audience on TV, redeeming a character that had a sometimes dark history in past centuries. In 1963 Ronald McDonald got his start on television, played by Willard Scott who became better known in subsequent years as a weather forecaster.

Scott’s Ronald, a character he claims to have created, was costumed differently than later and more familiar Ronalds. Ronald has, in fact, gone through numerous costume changes over the years — as have many corporate mascots.

Whether because of clowns’ popularity on TV or some other source of inspiration, quite a few drive-in restaurants (and some drive-in movies) of the 1950s and 1960s adopted clown names, signs, and motifs. Taking on a clown theme suggests a wish to attract children in hopes they might bring the whole family along. The drive-ins’ menus of hamburgers and ice cream were certainly in tune with children’s tastes.

As was true of drive-ins generally, clown-themed drive-ins got their start in the warmer climates of California and Texas. The original Jack In The Box, previously called Oscar’s, was one of the first, opening in 1951 in San Diego, California, with the Jack figure looming over a low roof.

Another early California drive-in of the 1950s was the Big Clown Drive-In, again describing itself as a “hamburger operation.” The Clown Burger, in Fort Worth TX, opened in 1959 serving what are now regarded as surprisingly small, thin burgers and fries.

The innocent appeal of clowns began to wane in the 1970s.

It was a blow to the clown image when juvenile and teen-age murder victims of John Wayne Gacy began to be discovered in 1978. Gacy sometimes wore a Bozo the Clown costume to aid in luring his victims. After his conviction he sold crude paintings of himself dressed as Bozo that he painted in prison.

The disclosure of Gacy’s crimes didn’t put a total end to the clown theme, but it may have accelerated its decline. A year earlier Jack In the Box had already simplified and stylized its clown logo which had been in use for nearly a decade (shown here as a charm).

Somehow, though, Ronald McDonald survived. In 2011 the chain’s mascot was criticized for peddling an unhealthy diet to children, but the company decided to keep him nonetheless.

In the 2000s, around two dozen movies with scary clowns were released. Then, in 2016 clown fears increased due to a number of incidents where knife wielding men wearing clown masks marauded in public. After that Ronald became less visible.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under atmosphere, chain restaurants, drive-ins, family restaurants, restaurant fads

Deep fried

deepfriedfrymax1961As I read the morning newspaper a sentence by the head of a local restaurant dynasty caught my attention. “We all have fryolator oil running through our blood veins,” he said.

The speaker was Andrew Yee. His family enterprise includes a newly acquired retro diner, several popular bars & grills, a sushi restaurant, and a venerable Polynesian showplace, the Hu Ke Lau, begun by his father in the mid-1960s.

I was delighted to find the quotation because I was in the midst of researching deep-fried food in American restaurant history. Also because it is rare that topics such as cooking oil come up in reviews and discussions of restaurants. Yet nearly every restaurant kitchen contains a bubbling vat of it.

And always has.

deepfried1941PrimexADV

Think about how often you have been enveloped in a miasma of aged cooking oil fumes while passing a restaurant’s outdoor ventilating fan. In 1978 restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman visited a regional restaurant expo filled with demonstrations of deep frying; she subtitled her Washington Post story “The smell.” Her experience was nothing new. In 1887 neighbors complained about the odor coming from a Cleveland OH “French fried cake baker” using cottonseed oil, which had recently come on the market as a replacement for high-priced lard.

Not that lard fumes would have smelled much better. In 1849 a journalist’s plan to survey the flourishing “eating houses” of lower Manhattan was cut short by the overpowering “smell of fried grease before we got through the first street.” Not surprising when you consider that fried oysters were a top menu attraction and had been for at least a century, probably longer.

The number of deep-fried foods eaten in the 19th century was extensive, including oysters, doughnuts, fish and fish balls, clams, potatoes, all kinds of fritters, “corn dodgers,” brains, chicken, and even parsley.

Deep fat frying in the home in the 1800s was frequent, as far as I can tell. But that changed as kitchens were transformed from rough workrooms to adjunct living areas. For some time now the restaurant industry has benefited from the fact that most home cooks dislike deep frying in their own kitchens and would rather have restaurants prepare their French fries and onion rings.

deepfried1929BostonWhen the Pitco Frialator was invented in 1918 it quickly became standard equipment in restaurant kitchens because it extended the life of cooking oil, reducing costs and improving food quality. Oils were developed that would not break down under high temperatures. Then frying kettles came out with built-in thermostats adjusted to type of food.

deepfriedprimex1938Profits from the value added to inexpensive foods by deep frying in the 1930s were a boon to  struggling restaurants. A 1938 article in The American Restaurant, a trade magazine, estimated that many deep-fried dishes – among them sole, potatoes, oysters, and croquettes – could be priced at four or five times their cost. A restaurant in Duluth MN, The Flame, boasted in an advertisement (to the trade, not the public!) that it had built an “enviable reputation” for fried food through using “tons and tons of Primex.”

deepfriedmelvoshortening1968The successful marketing of frozen foods in the 1960s expanded restaurants’ deep-fried selections. Breaded, frozen French-fried shrimp became a top seller. Once only available in Gulf Coast restaurants, by 1960 shrimp appeared on restaurant menus all over the U.S. In 1969 a Gallup Survey rated it America’s favorite deep-fried food in the fish category; in 1973 it ranked #1 among all deep-fried foods.

deepfriedchicken&potatoes1968Deep-fried chicken ranked third favorite, after shrimp and potatoes, to the disappointment of fans of pan-fried chicken, which was becoming a rarity in restaurants in the 1960s.

Drive-in restaurants relied heavily on deep frying. According to a 1961 Drive-In Magazine, “There was a time not long ago when a deep fat fryer and a neon sign were practically all you needed to put yourself in the drive-in business.” But competition was becoming fierce as fast food chains challenged drive-ins’ popularity with young diners, the customers most attracted to deep-fried food and least afraid of its dietary consequences.

Despite the profitability of deep-fried food, two perils faced restaurants: dark breading and sogginess. Both were due to incorrect frying temperatures, and frying kettles and oil that had not been maintained properly. Customers had a strong preference for fried food that was “golden brown,” but not too dark or hardened into a shell. As an article about “lethal” truck stop fare put it: “You strike a chicken leg and the crust falls away in a curved sheet to disclose a sight best forgotten.” The problem of greasy, limp French fries was cited by Gallup as customers’ second biggest complaint.

deepfriedappetizersFroggy'sCafe1980

But neither darkness, greasiness, nor calories dampened the popularity of deep-fried food. Deep-fried appetizers dominated menus of 1980s chain restaurants designed to appeal to a young adult demographic. At West Coast Froggy’s Cafés (specializing in “food and fun” – and fat) seven out of eight appetizers on a 1980 menu came out of the frialator.

It’s likely we all have oil in our veins.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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A fantasy drive-in

carl'sviewparkMenu

I am fascinated by restaurants that are bizarrely at odds with their location, climate, and cultural environment. Such as Polynesian restaurants in Arizona.

Drive-ins make sense in car-obsessed Southern California, but a grandiose drive-in such as Carl’s “Colonial” with an Old South theme in Depression-era Los Angeles? With architecture inspired by Southern plantations and white female servers costumed as Southern belles and top-hatted coachmen? With an ornate mahogany doorway leading from the staid dining room into a streamlined moderne barroom? [see below] And a thoroughly modern, thermostatically controlled stainless steel kitchen turning out spaghetti and turkey with New England dressing?

Carl'sViewparkdiningroomwithbar

All societies offer some form of escapism, traditionally wild festivals where revelers are released from everyday roles and inhibitions. But restaurants such as Carl’s offered a different kind of  escapism that shored up inhibitions and insured that roles were strictly adhered to. Far from allowing revelry or role reversal, gracious Southern dining took place in a forbidding room decorated with murals of slaves picking cotton and a portrait of George Washington looming from above the mantle. [shown above; the murals are barely visible]  Only white girls were allowed to dress as Southern belles; ice water and rolls were dispensed by dark-skinned “mammies.”

carlsViewparkservers

Yet in another way Carl’s was totally in sync with its environment. A Los Angeles Times story in 1940 noted, “Los Angeles restaurants serving American food often reflect the architecture of other lands.” Undoubtedly part of the explanation for the scenographic quality of Carl’s – and many other unusual theme restaurants in Southern California – was that they played to tourists’ fantasies. And why not, since a hefty 25% of restaurant revenue was estimated to come from tourists?

carl'sViewparkMarch1938The “Colonial” Carl’s, on the corner of Crenshaw and Vernon, was built by the Los Angeles Investment Company and leased to its operators, Carl B. Anders and A. V. Spencer. The area was under development with about 13 new stores on Crenshaw skirting the residential subdivision of Viewpark. When Carl’s opened in 1938 there were close to 1,000 homes in Viewpark with more underway following the company’s acquisition of acreage that had housed the Olympic Village in 1932. Under restrictive covenants, houses could be sold only to white buyers.

Despite serving up to 4,000 customers a day, many of them groups such as women’s and businessmen’s clubs, Carl’s Colonial in Viewpark went out of business in 1953. After a brief run as Martha’s Restaurant, it was torched in 1954, destroying the building that had cost the fabulous sum of $115,000 when it was constructed.

Carl’s in Viewpark was one of five in the Carl’s chain (not to be confused with Carl’s, Jr.). The first was opened in 1931 on Figueroa and Flower as a simple hamburger stand built to serve people attending the 1932 Olympic Games. It was so successful it was enlarged three times in four years, serving up to 5,000 people daily in 1937. The chain became known for its multi-purpose restaurants that included a drive-in component as well as full-service dining rooms, banquet facilities, outdoor dining patios, and cocktail lounges. Other Carl’s included one on the Plaza in Palm Springs, one on the Pacific Coast Highway that was featured in the movie Mildred Pierce, and one on East Olympic Blvd. at Soto Street.

According to John T. Edge, Southern theme restaurants have recently resurfaced in Los Angeles.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under drive-ins, racism, restaurant decor

Automation, part II: the disappearing kitchen

automatedJay'sdrive-in1966beltThe dream of a robotized restaurant is an old one, first focused on service, then on the kitchen. It culminated in a system that automated nearly the entire operation, both service and food preparation. Sounds futuristic, but the pinnacle of automation took place around 50 years ago.

If the first stage of automating the restaurant involved getting rid of servers, the second stage involved eliminating kitchen personnel while streamlining food preparation. Kitchen tasks were mechanized and geared toward producing predictable results with standardized portion sizes and speedy cooking.

The modern automated kitchens of the post-WWII period, were either (1) absent altogether in the case of machines vending frozen dinners, or (2) filled with equipment that needed only a few employees to trigger the slicing, mixing, pouring, and frying of a limited selection of burgers, fries, shakes, and sodas. Gathering steam, by the 1960s automation took giant leaps in a number of high-volume drive-ins, the restaurant type that foreshadowed the fast food restaurant.

A fully automated push-button kitchen was available for lease or purchase in 1964, a product of the American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF), a large diversified company that developed and produced, among many other things, bowling alley pin spotters, power boats, guided missiles, and nuclear reactors for Israel, Iran, and Pakistan.

automatedJay'sdrive-insept1966OrbisconsoleDespite all the effort that went into its development, the fully automatic restaurant proved to be a failure. It was ridiculously expensive compared to how cheaply workers could be hired. And it broke down regularly, necessitating a well-paid, full-time technician on staff.

That full automation did not succeed should not obscure the fact that many restaurants today are highly automated compared to how they operated in the early 20th century. Plus in many chain restaurants tasks are so routinized and scripted that the humans who perform them might be considered quasi-robotized. As plans move ahead to raise hourly wages for workers in chain restaurants, it’s possible that restaurant automation will once again come into focus.

A sampling of projects:

1931 – Inventor H. Russell Brand’s automatic pancake machine is used at a Childs restaurant on West 34th St., NYC. Guests push a button on their table to start an automatic pancake machine that produces a stack of three pancakes which are, however, delivered by waiters. Possibly the earliest case of the automation of food preparation, nonetheless Childs removed the machines in 1938.

1939 – Meant to grow into a chain, a Roboshef restaurant with an automated cooker opens in San Francisco with the slogan, “Quality Food Cooked by Controlled Temperature, Not Temperament.” One employee can produce 120 meals per hour, producing perfectly timed steaks, seafood, fried potatoes, and biscuits.

automatic1948ILL

1948 – With the debut of the WWII spinoff radarange that cooks instantly by molecule-agitating sound waves, Popular Science magazine imagines a restaurant of the future in which customers push buttons at their table that send frozen dinners to microwave ovens and then on conveyor belts to their tables.

1949 – In San Francisco, Ott’s, billed as the world’s biggest drive-in, turns out meals in 6 minutes on average in its modern kitchen in which a machine molds 800 hamburger patties an hour while another slices 1,000 buns in the same time.

automatedPopMech19581958 – Popular Mechanics magazine proclaims that a revolution has taken place in restaurants, due to infrared ray grills, electronic ovens, timing devices, precision slicing and cutting machines, patty extruders [pictured], compression steamers, soft-drink mixers, and other wonders. Quoting a restaurant consultant, the magazine declares, “Food service has become an exact science.”

1959 – According to the Washington Post, the nation’s three largest hamburger chains – then McDonald’s, Burger Chef, and Golden Point – are set to revolutionize food vending through standardization, menu simplification, and “a good helping of automation.”

1961 – The increasing use of pre-portioned frozen food in restaurants heated with sophisticated high-speed fryers, pressure cookers, and electronic ovens shrinks preparation areas in kitchens even as freezers grow larger.

automatedSchrafft'sEssovendingnearBaltimore1963

1961 – Stouffer’s opens two short-lived automated vending restaurants with frozen food. The roadside restaurants are paneled with recycled wood from old barns to avoid a sterile appearance. Customers are unexpectedly confused about how to heat their meals, requiring an attendant to help them. Schrafft’s [pictured] and White Tower’s Tower-O-Matic, NYC, also experiment with vending machine operations.

1962 – The first of Pat Boone’s Dine-O-Mats opens, with coin-operated vending machines stocked with frozen dinners prepared off-site that are to be microwaved. The chain fails.

automatedJay'sdrive-in1966

1963 – The first fully automated kitchen is installed at the La Fiesta Drive-In, in Levittown NY. A test case for “AMFare,” the drive-in uses a computer-driven order and billing system that launches refrigerated items on a 4-minute journey to be cooked and trayed “without any handling whatsoever by restaurant personnel.” Alas, a live worker is needed for matching completed orders with checks [pictured]. The AMF system is installed secretly in the basement while a false kitchen in back is added “to satisfy customers.”

1966 – AMFare testing complete, Jay’s Brookdale Restaurant in Minneapolis MN becomes the first fully automated restaurant in the nation. Second is the Mustang Drive-In in Lexington KY.

By 1968, when the system is being tested by the Breese Terrace Cafeteria at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, it is employed by five restaurants. Then it seems to vanish.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Filed under chain restaurants, technology