Tag Archives: high-volume restaurant

High-volume restaurants: Hilltop Steak House

Until I moved to Boston in the 1980s and took a whale watch tour I hadn’t heard the boastful term “biggest grossing” thrown around. In pointing out the highlights of the Boston Harbor, the tour operator singled out several booming enterprises including Anthony’s restaurant. Had we been on a tour of Route 1 north of Boston, I’m sure he would have shouted the praises of the Hilltop Steak House, another mega-volume eatery, where a team of in-house butchers carved up millions of steaks a year, the parking lot held 1,000 cars, and customers waited in long lines outside the door.

I never went there. I was not one of the 2,350,000 or so customers who patronized the Hilltop in 1985, for example, one of a number of years when it ranked as the #1 independent restaurant in the USA from a high-grossing perspective, with over $24 million in annual sales.

Established in 1961 with seating for 125, the Western-themed restaurant continued to grow in subsequent years, with more dining rooms brightened with the standard steakhouse blood red color scheme, seating 1,100 by 1970, with an enlarged parking lot, and a huge 68-foot high lighted cactus sign out front.

Dining rooms were adorned with totem poles, reproductions of Remington and Russell paintings, and life-size Indian figures. The rooms had names meant to conjure up the Wild West such as Sioux City and Kansas City. No doubt the names rang true to diners from New Hampshire and Massachusetts but would have amused residents of those Iowa and Missouri cities which are conspicuously lacking in Western symbology.

Guests appreciated big steaks, low prices, and free parking. Prices were premised on sales volume, rapid table turns, cash-only payment, no reservations, and limited menu choices. Steaks could vary in grade, customers could not send back too-well-done steaks, orders could not be split, and there were no tablecloths. There was only one salad dressing and appetizers and desserts were uninspired – Jello was one of the three desserts on a 1981 menu. “I have nothing against lobster thermidor,” owner Frank Giuffrida told a reporter in 1984, “but don’t come to the Hilltop Steak House and expect to find it.”

The restaurant was prominently visible on Route 1’s tacky, wacky restaurant row where other high-grossing restaurants were also located, making the roadway a New England phenomenon in its own right. The Hilltop’s location was conveniently near the Mystic Bridge, the Callahan and Sumner Tunnels, Logan Airport, the Southeast Expressway, and Routes. 128, 28, 3, and 93. Busses were welcome!

The Hilltop’s founder, Frank Giuffrida, owned the restaurant until 1988, retiring as a rich man despite never having attended high school. In 1940, when Frank was 23, he was a butcher in the family meat market. His parents were born in Italy and had once toiled in a Lawrence MA woolen mill. In the 1950s he owned a tavern-style eatery called the Hilltop Lounge not far from where the steakhouse would be located.

Frank sold the Hilltop corporation in 1988 though he held onto the building and the large plot of land it occupied. The sale came with an agreement that the Giuffrida family would eat at the restaurant for free for the rest of their lives and that they would never have to wait in line for a table.

By the late 1990s restaurant competition on Route 1 had grown fierce. Weylu’s, another Route 1 top-grosser serving as many as 5,000 meals a day at its peak, went into bankruptcy in 1999 and closed. The Hilltop shrank its seating capacity to a mere 850 guests, but carried on until 2013. Both Weylu’s and the Hilltop have been demolished.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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“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

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