Tag Archives: Florida restaurants

Early bird specials

Recently I read a story that originated on Eater.com about the decline of early bird specials in parts of Florida populated by retirees. It said that fewer and fewer restaurants were offering these deals. Partly this was because the retirees who had once patronized early bird dinners were passing away, but also because baby boomer retirees rejected the custom which they associated with an antiquated idea of old age.

Early bird restaurant-going is popularly associated with Florida, but by no means has been confined to that state. A 1973 story about restaurants in Palm Springs CA commented that “early dining is almost a city ordinance in Palm Springs,” with 6:00 p.m. being the popular dinner hour and restaurants deserted by 9:30.

Jaya Saxena, who wrote the Eater story, talked with historian Andrew Haley, author of the book Turning the Tables. He said he knew of restaurants that had offered early bird specials as early as the 1920s and 1930s, but that the custom had really become popular in the 1970s.

I found scarcely any trace of early bird restaurant specials before the 1950s, but agree that the 1970s was when the custom became popular. It increased in the 1980s but may have declined somewhat after that, possibly because of the ever-growing competition of cheap meals in chain eateries.

The term early bird special itself was in use in the early 1900s if not before, almost always referring to morning clothing sales in stores. Of course the concept could be – and was – extended to almost anything including sparkplugs at Western Auto or family portraits at discounted prices if made before the Christmas rush.

Stores, especially drug chains, were probably the first to offer early bird meals, usually breakfasts or pre-noon lunches. This was clearly a tactic to draw customers into the store at times when it was least busy. The Owl Drug store in Riverside CA offered Early Bird Breakfast Specials at its soda fountain in 1951. About the same time Walgreen’s in Lexington KY had a similar before-11:00 a.m. deal on two pancakes and an egg for 29 cents.

Nightclubs were some of the first to use early bird specials to attract patrons for dinner. Their business seemed to need a lot of boosting, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when night clubs were not doing well. Often part of the bargain was that early diners who came before showtime were allowed to stay on for the night’s entertainment without paying an additional charge. In the case of San Diego’s Shalimar Club, the time for early diners is not specified but evidently was before 8:00. [shown below]


Discounting meals for early customers might seem mainly to be a way for restaurants to spread out dinner business rather than turning away customers at rush times. In 1967 Wolferman’s Biftec Room in Kansas City found that daylight savings time inclined customers to eat later, when it became dark, but that by offering discounts for earlier dinners, they could correct this tendency. Although it makes good sense to try to spread the arrival of customers, it is notable that it is rarely, if ever, fashionable restaurants that offer early bird specials. There is at least a hint that some restaurants adopting this tactic were simply trying to improve a generally lagging business.

It’s interesting to note what times have been considered early for dinner. Usually it meant before 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. The understanding was/is that fashionable dining began at 8:00, an hour generally considered late by older diners – as well as by families, who have also made up a portion of the early bird flock. Early bird dining often began as early as 4:00 p.m. and I’ve found one restaurant chain, JB’s Big Boy restaurants in Nebraska, where it started at 2:00 p.m.

I can’t help but reflect on 19th-century dining hours, when dinner was a midday meal. Then 2:00 p.m. was when dinner time in restaurants and eating houses typically ended. The fashionable hour for dining out for the few who had the luxury of arising late in the morning was 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., though they might have a lighter repast, supper, later in the evening.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

2 Comments

Filed under night clubs, patrons, restaurant customs

“Adult” restaurants

Anyone who knows American culture realizes immediately that the term “adult restaurant” would not even remotely imply an eating place that caters to mature or developed culinary tastes. Instead it would mean one deemed inappropriate for children because of some kind of sexually tinged goings on.

Historically the attractions in adult restaurants have not been what’s on the plate but are part of the female servers’ anatomy.

An unfamiliar restaurant concept to me is the “adult fast food restaurant.” This is how a Florida drive-in owner referred to his business in 1976. It didn’t serve adult fast food – what would that be? Crêpes? It served hot dogs, hamburgers, beer, and, oddly, wine. The manager called it “our answer to MacDonald’s,” reflecting the fierce competition drive-ins faced from big chains in the 1970s.

The “adult” aspect: servers at the “Jugs ‘n’ Suds” drive-in were costumed only in hot pants and tassles.

However, Jugs ‘n’ Suds waitresses got very little chance to “wear” their intended costume. The drive-in met with vehement disapproval from citizens and officials of New Port Richey who insisted that the waitresses cover up. One of the restaurant’s promoters admitted that business fell off once apron-like halter tops were adopted, saying “People aren’t as interested in seeing a topless waitress with fringe on.” [pictured] In very short order the drive-in closed. A second one – without carhops — then opened in an old A&W. I don’t think it lasted long. A fantasized  nationwide chain never materialized.

Jugs ‘n’ Suds was unusual in that it was a drive-in. Most topless restaurants have been positioned at the “nightclub” end of the restaurant spectrum. Typically they’ve been dark, bar-like spaces where business men congregate at noon and after work.

California was the birthplace of the topless restaurant with the pioneers opening in 1965 not long after the creation of Rudi Gernrich’s topless bathing suit. Many offered a business man’s lunch special accompanied by models strolling from table to table. In California, at Long Beach’s Kozy Kitten, kittens ambled while patrons downed 98c luncheons of Turkey, Ham, or Beef served with Potato Salad and Beans. (I didn’t say topless restaurants were glamorous.)

The topless restaurant fad, which combined gawking, drinking, AND eating, died out, but using women’s anatomy to attract restaurant patrons did not. Maybe it’s eternal. Even as the last Playboy bunny club closed in the 1988, a new crop of “breastaurants” (as they are mockingly known by critics) appeared, most of them flaunting scantily dressed servers. Following the success of Hooters, a slew of knock-offs opened in Florida, among them the so preciously named Melons, Knockers, and Mugs & Jugs.

Controversy is also eternal. Hooters’ aggressively suggestive advertising campaign has offended many and the chain was forced to remove billboards that hinted servers were prostitutes, an idea that, depressingly, has plagued female servers since the 19th century.

Legal challenges to topless restaurants and breastaurants have mostly not held up. But communities protest them anyway, occasionally successfully. Recently the Quincy MA Licensing Board denied permission to a unit of the Tilted Kilt chain because it was too close to a church that objected.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

7 Comments

Filed under drive-ins, food, women

“Hot Cha” and the Kapok Tree

What kind of career might the son of a junk dealer father and a mother who owned a restaurant end up with?

If he was Richard Baumgardner he would run restaurants raucously decorated with gilded and spray-painted objets d’art — wonderfully kitschy palatial junque bought by the ton in Europe (70 tons of statues in 1966). When his warehouse ran low on statues and urns, he would make plastic replicas with rubber molds.

His customers would find it all enchantingly “different.”

But first, he’d take a detour into the entertainment world as a jazz-era musician and bandleader known as Dick “Hot Cha” Gardner. As an introduction to his restaurant career in 1936, Dick inaugurated the Hot Cha Supper Club in conjunction with his mother Grace’s tea room, the Peter Pan Inn in rural Urbana MD. After she died in the 1940s, Dick took over the Peter Pan and transformed it into a let’s-drive-to-the-country mega-attraction for Washington DC families. In 1958, retired from bandleading, Dick opened his first Kapok Tree Inn in Clearwater FL, on the site of a tree planted in the 1880s.

It’s hard to know how to classify his restaurants. They fall into two of my classifications: 1) the high-volume restaurant, and 2) the curiosity-shop restaurant filled with quaint stuff.

The decor at the Clearwater Kapok Tree was a mix of light fixtures from Paris, chandeliers gathered from the DC Italian Embassy and old theaters in Baltimore and New York City, paneling from a De Medici compound replicated in plastic, and on and on.

Yet for all their madcap faux elegance, Dick’s restaurants followed a rigid formula designed for maximizing profits and minimizing costs. Magically, it worked. Despite ticket windows where customers were required to prepay their dinner tab, a teen-age staff, long waits for tables (in the bar), sticky sweet rum drinks, and limited menus with pedestrian cuisine, customers absolutely adored these zany buses-welcome eateries.

For years diners had just four dinner choices: fried chicken, ham, deep fried shrimp, and steak. When customers sat down at their tables, servers collected their receipts, knowing immediately by the prices what they had ordered. A complete meal included a typical 1950s melange of appetizers which never varied year in and year out, whether in Maryland or Florida — cottage cheese, (sweet) pickled vegetables, muffins, and apple butter. Sides were roast potatoes, peas in mushroom sauce, beets, and hush puppies. Ice cream for dessert and seconds on everything but the entrees. Boxes were provided for leftovers and the complimentary tall cocktail glasses. Few left empty-handed.

The Kapok Tree Inns prospered with the Pinellas County boom of the early 1970s. By 1978, two years after Dick died, there were three Kapok Tree Inns, in Clearwater, Madeira Beach, and Daytona Beach. The first remained the largest, seating at least 1,700. On really busy days upwards of 5,000 meals were served there.

Controlling interest in the Kapok Tree corporation, which also included the Peter Pan Inn and a couple of Baumgardner’s Restaurants in Florida, passed to Dick’s widow, a former waitress at the original Clearwater restaurant, who had largely been running the operation since he had a stroke in 1970. A year after his death, she told a reporter that hers was the most profitable publicly-held restaurant chain in the nation. The Daytona Beach Kapok Tree closed  in 1981, and the Clearwater restaurant closed ten years later.

I wonder what happened to all the wacky furnishings?

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

17 Comments

Filed under popular restaurants, restaurant decor