Tag Archives: Greek-American restaurateurs

Anatomy of a restaurateur: Charles Sarris

SarrisCandyKitchen1939

It is always a big deal to me when I find a restaurant proprietor’s memoir, all the more so when he or she conducted an “everyday” sort of restaurant. My Ninety-Five Year Journey, privately published by Charles N. Sarris in 1987, was a just such a wonderful, and rare, find.

The book illustrates a fairly typical restaurant career for thousands of Greek-Americans who opened restaurants in small towns which had few eating places in the early decades of the 20th century.

Charles was born in Lesbos, Greece, in 1891. At 19 he lived in dread that any moment he would be conscripted into the Turkish army and, possibly, spend the rest of his life in an occupied country. He decided to leave for the U.S. For the next six years he bounced around Connecticut and Massachusetts, working in Greek-owned confectioneries where he learned to make candy and ice cream. In 1916 he went to work in a new confectionery in Amherst MA, population 5,500. It wasn’t long before Charles and his partners, who included his brother James, took over the confectionery and expanded it into a lunchroom serving basic fare such as hamburgers and ham and eggs.

SarrisCandyKitchen1921ADVThe restaurant was named the College Candy Kitchen [1921 advertisement pictured], obviously aimed at student patrons from Amherst College and the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts). Candy Kitchens run by Greek entrepreneurs could be found throughout the United States in the early 20th century. Coincidentally, another “College Candy Kitchen” did business in Cambridge’s Harvard Square.

One of only three Greeks in Amherst when he arrived, Charles would not feel welcome in his new home for some time. He heard racial and ethnic slurs unfamiliar to him from his previous residency in Andover MA. He observed that many townspeople valued people from France, Germany, or England more highly than those from Italy, Poland, the Middle East, or Greece.

In 1927 he and two other merchants who occupied the three-story building located on Main Street across from Amherst town hall formed Amherst Realty Co. to buy the property. Yet not until 1939, after running a thriving restaurant for 23 years, did Charles finally gain admission into one of the town’s fraternal organizations, the Rotary Club.

SarrisCandyKitchenca1927

The College Candy Kitchen modernized and expanded in the 1920s [1920s Spanish-style interior shown], despite a disastrous fire in 1928 which necessitated moving to a new location for several months. Business slowed drastically but Charles and James got through the Depression ok.

Students, who made up the bulk of customers, balked when the restaurant introduced new foods such as yogurt and melons. Some greeted watermelon with the objection, “Gee, we’re not Alabama Negroes!” Charles reassured them that the menu would always include staples such as boiled dinners, baked beans, and meatloaf. For decades the restaurant continued to produce its own baked goods, ice cream, and, for holidays, candy.

Once again Charles encountered customer resistance when he hired Afro-Americans as staff or served them as patrons. “We had a lot of opposition from the students but we ignored it,” he wrote. Eventually they settled down and got used to it.

According to Charles, the restaurant closed in 1953 due to illness, parking problems, and customers’ demands for alcoholic beverages (which he did not wish to deal in). It was succeeded by the Town House Restaurant. A 1953 bankruptcy auction notice gave a fair idea of the size of the restaurant then. On the auction block were 30 leather upholstered booths, two circular booths, four showcases, a soda fountain with 12 stools, and kitchen, bakery, and ice cream equipment. I can just picture it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under lunch rooms, proprietors & careers

Busy bees

A 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Nick of Time,” was set in a restaurant outfitted with a devilish fortune-telling device. The restaurant, supposedly in Ohio, was ordinary and undistinguished, with booths and laminated table tops.

The story’s writer chose a common name for it, one found in practically every city and small town across the entire United States: the Busy Bee.

I “collect” this name. To me it resonates with the typical 20th-century eating place. Judging from advertisements for eateries called The Busy Bee, they staked their reputations on being clean, economical, briskly efficient, and friendly.

I also find the name interesting because it is entirely divorced from place, proprietor’s ethnicity, and type of cuisine. Yet I’ve found that many restaurants of this name had proprietors who were of Polish, Italian, or Greek ethnic origins.

In the 19th century it was typical for restaurants to go by their proprietor’s surname. Over the 20th century, by contrast, many restaurants adopted “made up” names that were intended to suggest something positive, appealing, or at least memorable. I suspect that one of the factors propelling this change was the chance to background the ethnicity of the proprietor, particularly around World War I when much of the country became intolerant of those not native born. Busy Bee became one of the most common names around.

Also, restaurants owned by Greek-Americans, of which there were very many, were often run by multiple partners. It would be somewhat unwieldy if, for instance, the proprietors of the Busy Bee in Monessen PA in 1915 had decided to call their restaurant Chrysopoulos, Boulageris, Paradise, & Lycourinos. They might have taken the liberty of dubbing their establishment Four Brothers from Mykonos but they chose Busy Bee instead. [pictured: Busy Bee in Winchester VA — its proprietor, James Pappas, was born in Greece ca. 1889]

I have yet to find a Chinese restaurant called the Busy Bee but I’ll keep looking – I know there had to be a few.

Among many locations, I’ve found Busy Bees in Mobile AL as early as 1898, in Bisbee AZ in 1915, and in New York City’s Bowery, for decades presided over by Max Garfunkel. It was at Max’s Busy Bee, in 1917, that alumni of the Short Story Correspondence Schools of North America convened to greet the author of “Ten Thousand Snappy Synonyms for ‘Said He.’” Many Busy Bees became headquarters for meetings of business, civic, and social clubs.

Busy Bees were not known for any particular culinary specialties, offering instead home cooking favorites plus the inevitable chili and other Americanized foreign dishes such as spaghetti and chop suey. The four popular Busy Bees in Columbus OH, nonetheless, had an attractive array of warm weather choices on their June 29, 1909, menu which included Spring Vegetable Salad (10 cents), as well as Blackberries or Sliced Peaches in Cream (10 cents) and Fresh Peach Ice Cream (15 cents).

The Busy Bee name lives on even today, though perhaps less robustly. I was surprised there was not a single Busy Bee mentioned in Joanne Raetz Stuttgen’s books on contemporary “down home” cafes in Wisconsin and Indiana.

Is there a common restaurant name all around us today that will come to characterize the 21st century?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Filed under lunch rooms, miscellaneous

Find of the day: Demos Café

It’s pretty cool when you can stroll over to an antiquarian book and ephemera show only a few blocks from your house and, barely 10 feet into the room, come upon a trove of restaurant memorabilia. That’s what happened a few days ago when I found a collection of photographs and water glasses from one of Muskegon’s premier cafés.

Judging from the hubbub in some of the photos of the bar area, the moderne-style Demos Café was a real Michigan hotspot in 1939 and 1940 when these were taken. Some of the patrons seem to be hiding from the camera and one man’s face was deliberately blacked out in the darkroom. Hmmm…

Located at 415-419 W. Western Avenue, the café was owned and run by the Greek-American Demos brothers, Spyros, Theodore (Ted), and John. Ted is shown behind the bar in two of these photos while John stands in the back of a crowded room in one and in another lights a cigarette for visiting Hollywood celebrity Buddy Rogers, husband of Mary Pickford. The café’s cocktail lounge often hosted touring jazz bands. And, as can be seen, it kept customers up to date on baseball scores.

The café’s wood veneer backbar was almost certainly a product of local industry. The Brunswick-Balke-Collender company’s main plant, which manufactured bar fixtures, was located in Muskegon. As soon as beer was legalized in 1933 the factory geared up with 1,500 new workers in anticipation of renewed business.

In addition to serving zombies (“only 2 to a person”) and frozen daiquiris, and apparently pouring quantities of Four Roses bourbon, the Demos Café specialized in steaks, chops, and sea foods. Signs placed in the front windows advertise a blue plate special for 50 cents, “genuine Italian spaghetti with Roman cheese” for 35 cents a plate, and “sizzling steaks,” a Depression-era culinary gimmick across the U.S. As was true of most Greek-American restaurants, the menu would have been thoroughly Americanized, without any dishes common to the owners’ native land.

During its heyday in the 1940s the Demos Café, along with the Causeway Café and the Lakos Café – all Greek-American owned – was one of the big three restaurants in Muskegon. But by 1951 or 1952 the café apparently went out of business after a tax investigation and lawsuit.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Filed under proprietors & careers