Tag Archives: lunch rooms

Lunching in a laboratory

Bertha Stevenson was born at a time when a woman’s interest in chemistry, or any scientific field, could only be channeled into the limited confines of women’s realm. That was the same era in which Ellen Richards, the first woman admitted to MIT, became “the mother of home economics.”

Even though Stevenson was younger than Richards, she ended up directing her postgraduate study of chemistry to bread making. On the bright side, she was quite successful, not only at marketing bread but also in creating a string of high-quality lunch rooms with prices low enough that young working women could afford them.

She began making bread in Cambridge MA around 1902. Her shop was quite fashionable in a refined way. According to one description, “The furniture is of the hand made order, simple in line, artistic in design. A few big copper vessels, gleaming red, a few palms, a rug or two, good, but not extravagant, a Ruskin portrait in a black oak frame, one or two Millet pictures, numerous quotations from Ruskin, Tolstoy, Morris.” About a year later, stories appeared in newspapers around the country describing her Samore Bread Laboratory, and congratulating her and her female associates for finally showing the world that college-educated women were good for something after all.

The following year they moved the bakery to Boston. A lunch room was opened with it, sponsored by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (WEIU), a non-profit organization in Boston founded in 1877 to advance the well-being of women.

The lunch room, known as the Laboratory Kitchen, was on Temple Place in Boston’s shopping district where it could serve women workers and shoppers. It carried over the Arts & Crafts style of the former Cambridge bakery, with muted greens and browns and touches of copper and brass. Servers dressed in Puritan costumes with white caps and kerchiefs. In addition to producing bread and inexpensive lunches, the plan was to set up a hot dinner delivery service that would free homemakers from kitchen drudgery.

Problems cropped up almost immediately. The Laboratory Kitchen was located on the 2nd and 3rd floors of an elevator building. Unfortunately the elevator often was out of service. Next, another restaurant physically resembling the Laboratory Kitchen opened on the ground floor, causing many lunchers to patronize it thinking they were in the Laboratory Kitchen. Meal delivery turned out to be much more difficult than expected and the delivery zone had to be cut back. As far as I could determine the delivery project was abandoned after the three-year WEIU contract expired.

But the lunchrooms proved to be successful. When Temple Place started up, a second Laboratory Kitchen, not under WEIU sponsorship, was opened on Bedford St. It was operated as a cafeteria, a type of eating place popular in Chicago but then unknown to Bostonians. Ellen Richards and a group of Boston’s progressive women pioneers attended an opening luncheon there where they learned how to handle a cafeteria tray.

Subsequent lunchrooms of the chain – of which there were eventually five or six — were all based on self service or counter service and were less expensive than the full-service Temple Place location. Stevenson used technological advances to cut costs and speed service. At one address outfitted with a lunch counter [location shown above on Bedford St., viewed from Kingston St.], guests ordered by number. Waitresses then relayed the number to kitchen workers on the floor below by punching the number in a machine and the order was sent up via a dumbwaiter under the counter. At another of the lunch rooms, she employed a simplified “Automat”-style set of heated or cooled boxes that she patented. Workers filled them from the back while patrons lifted a glass window in front and removed what they wanted. [see patent illustration]

I stumbled across a story of someone who was a regular at one of the Laboratory Kitchens in the early days. She began working at the Filene’s department store at age 15, getting $4 a week, which barely allowed her to pay for a ride on the “T” and a 15-cent lunch at the Laboratory Kitchen. Eventually she became a department store buyer and a women’s rights activist.

As popular as the lunch rooms were with women, they also attracted men, particularly after one opened in 1919 on Washington Street in the stretch then known as Newspaper Row.

The dishes served at Laboratory Kitchens, such as vegetable plates, chowders, and beefsteak pies, were not fancy. Bertha Stevenson was dedicated to providing lunches that were hot, healthful, and hygienically prepared. In one of the articles she wrote for Good Housekeeping magazine she chided young office workers who ate sweets for lunch, asking, “How can a girl who feeds herself on cream puffs be anything but mercurial?”

She retired in the 1940s but the last Laboratory Kitchen, on Lincoln St., survived until the late 1960s, still advertising its “real lunch without frills.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

5 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, cafeterias, lunch rooms, proprietors & careers, women

Image gallery: business cards

businesscardRestaurants began using business cards back as far as the 1840s, but most of the early ones in the antiques and collectibles market date from the 1870s and 1880s. Although they are referred to as Victorian trade cards that people saved in scrapbooks, they are essentially business cards that give the restaurant’s name and address, sometimes with a short menu on the back side. I present here some of my favorites, from the late nineteenth century up to today. [above, a ca. 1950s die-cut card] These are some good ones “we think” (see Tom’s Drive-In below).

businesscards870

businesscard2The Senate Cafe, ca. 1915, was almost certainly a drinking spot first and foremost but the dour Mr. Smith probably provided the boys with light refreshments too.  — From around the same time or a little later, Boldt’s, Seattle. The “Cosy Boxes” were for baked goods to take home.

businesscards875

businesscards871

 businesscards869

BusinessCardNEWHouseCarLunch

businesscards872

BusinessCardTom'sDrive-in

Below: cards I’ve picked up in recent years. Clockwise from top left: Northampton MA; Webster Groves MO; City Cafe, Rochester MN; Girl & the Goat, Chicago [turned on end to fit]; Greenfield MA; NYC.

businesscards874© Jan Whitaker, 2015

2 Comments

Filed under restaurant customs

Early chains: Baltimore Dairy Lunch

baltimorelunchDetroitAPeople liked to say that the names of lunch room chains in the early 20th century offered a lesson in geography. There were Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Hartford, Iowa, Manhattan, Maryland, Milwaukee, New York, Pennsylvania, Pittsburg, St. Louis, and Utica Lunches, or Dairy Lunches as some were known. Los Angelenos patronized a New York Lunch in 1905, while customers in Duluth MN, Lexington KY, and San Francisco enjoyed their sandwiches in a Boston Lunch. Detroit had its Manhattan Lunch, while Manhattan had a Detroit Lunch. And so on.

baltimorelunchDetroitBBut before the 1920s no lunchroom chain was as popular as the Baltimore Dairy Lunch which at that time outnumbered Childs. Founder James A. Whitcomb began the business in the late 1880s in Washington, D.C., where he was a federal postal clerk, then opening a lunch room in Baltimore. Along with four quasi-franchisers, he controlled about 140 units by 1920. The largest branch, under the ownership of Harry Bowles in Springfield MA, consisted of a couple dozen units. Few large cities were without a Baltimore Dairy Lunch, as Whitcomb’s were named, or a Baltimore Lunch, the name used by Bowles.

baltimorelunchDetroitCWhether they belonged to large or small chains or were independents, Baltimores or Buffalos,  all Lunches were similar. As someone put it, “It’s an age of standardization, and one restaurant is now much like every other, barring minor differences.” A humorous story in Everybody’s Magazine in 1914 featured a cranky elderly man who went around from lunch room to lunch room asking the local wits, “What is the difference between a Hartford Lunch and a Baltimore Lunch.” Their answer was always the same, “Search me.”

Regardless of their similarity, dairy lunches were regarded as characteristically and proudly American, so much so that during battle in World War I, after U.S. soldiers took control of an improvised clubhouse used by German troops, they tore down a sign the Germans had posted over the door that said “Hindenburg Rathskeller” and replaced it with “Baltimore Lunch.”

baltimorelunchDetroitBaltimore Lunches shared many features in common with the fast food chains that arrived in the 1960s. Their offerings were simple and inexpensive. No alcohol was served. Customers got their food at a counter and carried it to their seats. Seating – one-armed wooden chairs — was uncomfortable and did not encourage lingering. Patrons didn’t mind, though, because they were interested in expediting the entire getting and eating process so they could go about their business.

baltimorelunchDetroit710Unlike fast food architecture of the 1960s, though, Baltimore Lunches were built as solidly and luxuriously as Grecian temples. Interiors used marble lavishly for counters and fixtures. Was it because both Whitcomb and Bowles were natives of Vermont, the state where so much marble is quarried? Maybe, but I think that marble was an expression of cleanliness and investment in a growing economy’s ability to efficiently mass produce affordable, nutritious meals. A standard feature of the Baltimore Lunch – a large marble bowl filled with sugar set on a marble pedestal — can easily be seen as a representation of democratic abundance.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

21 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, lunch rooms

B.McD. (Before McDonald’s)

ArmstrongMOcafe

In most towns and cities across the USA the landscape is filled with fast food eateries that belong to chains, McDonald’s obviously being only one. Chain restaurants make up close to half of all restaurants today, and many of them can be classed as fast food places. A large proportion of the meals people eat away from home come from this type of eating place.

Where did people grab a quick bite before the fast food chains came along? What was the ordinary, inexpensive eating place like for so much of the last century, B.McD.?

Let’s peer back into the first half of the 20th century. There were some “quick lunch” chains in existence, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Although high-traffic locations in larger cities were quickly grabbed up by chains such as Baltimore Lunch or John R. Thompson, less desirable sites in cities and on Main Streets in smaller towns were populated with small independent eateries.

ConeyIslandCafecropped

Many, perhaps most, lunch rooms and cafes – not likely to be called restaurants then – occupied storefronts or freestanding one-story buildings of very basic construction. Often they were “mom & pop” operations with one of the pair handling the cooking, the other running the food service side of things. Very likely the proprietors knew most of their customers on at least a first name basis.

LaCrosseWI2

Most lunch rooms shared a basic floor plan in a standard storefront space 18 to 25 feet wide and 75 to 100 feet deep. About 2/3 to 3/4 of the space was devoted to the dining room, the rest making up the kitchen which was hidden behind a wall, partition, or just a curtain.

MagnumOK2

Usually seating would include both a counter and some tables or booths along the side or arranged toward the back. Very narrow storefronts had counter seating only. Shelves behind the counter or glass display cases might hold baked goods, packaged groceries, cigars, or candy. A cash register was often a prominent feature.

BaltimoreCafeoysterHouseAberdeenWA1921

In many cases during Prohibition, a café’s or lunch room’s previous status as a barroom was plainly evident.

AuburnWAcoffeeshop

Decor, such as it was, was frequently provided by posters and stand-up signs advertising national brands, particularly soft drinks.

GreenLeafCafeTX

What was gained and what was lost when the old lunch rooms disappeared? It’s a mixed picture. I doubt that their food was much to brag about. Some were clean, some were dirty. Often their menus were limited — but rarely as limited as the fast food chains. Food was served on dishes, not in paper wrappings. They provided service and often friendliness and a sense of community, though it was sometimes circumscribed by race, gender, and familiarity.

I recall walking into a local café in Hannibal MO about ten years ago. The few customers at the counter all turned to stare openly as we came though the door. The proprietor screeched, “Where are YOU from?” We were horrified when the chili came with a big scoop of sour cream on top. She seemed offended when we failed to order pie. I hate to admit it but, all in all, I would have preferred the anonymity of a chain for lunch that day. On the other hand, if we had gone to a chain I wouldn’t remember being in Hannibal at all.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

12 Comments

Filed under lunch rooms

What would a nickel buy?

frankslunch

At a self-service restaurant in the town where I live, the menu includes a simple dish of beans and rice for only $1.25. It’s not steak but it’s better than a candy bar for anyone who is hungry but short of money.

It’s interesting to see typical restaurant prices from the past and to try to figure out if their prices were low or high. I remembered running across old advertisements for 5-cent dishes which I estimate might equal the $1.25 rice and beans of today. What, I wondered, did 5 cents buy in lunch rooms and restaurants of the past?

1869 – One quarter of a pie costs 5 cents in cheap and lowly New York City restaurants. (Five cents then would equal 87 cents today.)

1878 – Boston’s saloon eateries charge 5 cents for a schooner of beer. In some places the beer entitles the purchaser to free cheese and crackers. (Five cents then would equal $1.25 today.)

1880s – At the Old Albany Oyster & Eating House, patrons can take their choice of vegetable soup, meat stew, 1 dish of pickles, 4 slices of bread, or 1 dish of butter, each for a nickel.

1882CTlunchroomm

1880s – Visitors to the circus in Hartford CT can get a meal very cheaply [see menu], just as they can at Frank’s Dining Rooms in Boston [see above].

halfdime1890 – At the Half-Dime Lunch in Springfield MA, as in Hartford, every dish costs only a nickel. Half dimes were replaced by nickels in 1866 and are suggestive of the olden days.

1894 – Chicago’s sandwich wagons sell ham and egg sandwiches for 5 cents to patrons who don’t mind eating on the curb. In Worcester, night lunch wagons price all sandwiches at 5 cents except for sardine sandwiches which cost double. (Five cents then would equal $1.38 today.)

1894 – Five cents doesn’t buy much except a little something to eat. A Boston restaurant that covers its walls with folksy signs has one that says, “No napkins served with 5¢ orders. See?”

1905 – Five cents at the J.S. Mill’s Lunch and Sandwich Room in St. Paul MN will buy a sandwich of egg, wienerwurst, cheese, or pigs’ feet. (Five cents then would equal $1.35 today.)

1914 – About 1/4 of drug store soda fountains charge 5 cents for an ice cream soda.

1921 – At Thornton’s Cafeteria in Atlanta, fried oysters are 5 cents apiece. (Five cents then would equal 64 cents today.)

1929 – Following the stock market crash, a roadside stand in Great Falls MT named The Barrels slashes the price of a 10-cent glass of root beer in half.

1950 – The Horn & Hardart Automats finally raise the price of a cup of coffee from 5 to 10 cents. (Five cents then would equal 48 cents today.)

1979 – At a New Jersey surf & turf barn called The Wooden Nickel, nickels are valued only for their nostalgic aura. The Wooden Nickel’s specialty dish costs $12.95.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

4 Comments

Filed under lunch rooms

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

6 Comments

Filed under lunch rooms, proprietors & careers

Greek-American restaurants

GreekrestaurantMarlboroMA

Ethnic restaurants are generally seen as places where people from cultures outside the U.S. provide meals similar to what they ate in their homelands. A high degree of continuity between restaurant owners, cooks, and cuisines is presumed, as in: the Chinese run Chinese restaurants in which Chinese cooks prepare Chinese dishes.

Questions are sometimes raised about whether, for example, Chinese restaurants in America have adapted to American consumer’s tastes to the point where the Chinese cuisine is not “authentic,” but few question how obviously true or historically accurate it is to assume that Chinese always cooked or served Chinese food.

History is rarely tidy. Chinese, Germans, and Italians cooked French food. Germans ran English chop houses. And people of almost all ethnicities — Irish, Italian, German, Croatian, Greek — cooked American food and owned American restaurants.

GreekPaul'sLuncheonette233Greek immigrants, in fact, have been especially inclined to run American restaurants which serve mainstream American food, with little suggestion of the Mediterranean. Typically they’ve been  the independent quick lunches, luncheonettes, coffee shops, and diners that are open long hours, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to working people. Many have been run under business names such as Ideal, Majestic, Elite, Cosmopolitan, Sanitary, Purity, or Candy Kitchen, rather than the proprietor’s name.

The emphasis on names suggesting quality or cleanliness is explained by the tendency of Americans in the early 20th century to brand Greek-run eateries as “greasy spoons” or “holes in the wall.” A negative attitude to Greek eating places is evident in the following piece of rhyme published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1926 entitled “Where Greek Meets Greek”:

The other day I wandered in where angels fear to tread –
I mean the well known Greasy Spoon, where hungry gents are fed;
Where eats is eats and spuds is spuds, and ham is ham what am –
And the pork in the chicken salad is honest-to-goodness lamb.

GreekConstantineDrive-In

Certainly there were substandard Greek restaurants, but I’ve found that Greek-American proprietors had a propensity to plow profits into modern equipment and fixtures whenever possible.

Greek immigrants showed strong affinity with the restaurant business since the beginning of the 20th century when they began coming to the U.S. in large numbers. The reason for this is often attributed to a lack of English skills, but the first Greek restaurants, actually coffeehouses where patrons could linger, probably had more to do with the absence of women among early Greek migrants. Coffeehouses furnished community. Although in big Eastern cities many Greek restaurants continued to focus on Greek immigrants, many enterprising Greeks took the step of expanding beyond their compatriots. Some, such as Charles Charuhas who established the Washington, D.C. Puritan Dairy Lunch in 1906, were expanding or transitioning from the confectionery and fruit business.

While heavily invested in the New England lunch room business, especially in Providence RI and Lowell MA, Greek immigrants spread to many regions of the U.S, bringing restaurants to the restaurant-starved South. It is impressive that a Raleigh-based Greek trio opened its 15th restaurant in North Carolina as early as 1909. At that time, Greeks were said to be “invading” the lunch room trade in Chicago, operating about 400 places. Because of the simplicity of American cuisine, it was said that two months spent shadowing an American cook was all it took for Greek restaurateurs to pick up the necessary skills.

GreekTorchofAcropolisDallasOther successful Greek restaurateurs of the past century included John Raklios who at one point owned a chain of a couple dozen lunch rooms in Chicago. In New York City Bernard G. Stavracos ran the first-class restaurant The Alps on West 58th, established in 1907. The Demos Cafe in Muskegon MI was one of that city’s leading establishments. In Dallas The Torch of the Acropolis (pictured) had a 36-year-long run, closing in 1984, while the College Candy Kitchen was an institution in Amherst MA.

The children of successful Greek restaurant owners often preferred professional careers, but a new wave of Greek immigrants arrived after WWII, gravitating to diners, particularly it seems, in New Jersey. In 1989 the author of the book Greek Americans wrote that according to his estimate about 20% of the members of the National Restaurant Association had Greek surnames. And, as if demonstrating a flair for adaptation, according to a 1990 study, Greek-Americans were then dominating Connecticut’s pizza business.

GreekdinerDrimonesBrosNJ

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

45 Comments

Filed under lunch rooms, proprietors & careers, sanitation