Tag Archives: meal tickets

The ups and downs of Frank Flower

frank's15HarrisonEveryone knows that being a restaurant proprietor is chancy. This is amply illustrated in the life of Frank Flower, born in England in 1854, and working as a Boston waiter in 1878. He staked his career as a restaurateur on Harrison Avenue in Boston where he ran a restaurant from about 1880 to 1895, moving twice.

The reason for his failure in 1895 is unknown, but it may have had something to do with shifts in the neighborhood beginning just as he opened at 13-15 Harrison in 1880. That was the year that the first property lease was made to a Chinese person in Boston, on Oxford Place, very near to Frank’s restaurant. Frank had catered to patrons whose tastes ran to fish balls and baked beans. But, little by little by the 1890s Harrison would become a business street in Boston’s Chinatown. Boston’s first Chinese restaurant would open at 36½ Harrison in 1890.

In 1882 Frank advertised that he sold a week’s worth of meal tickets to men ($3) and women ($2.50). He also had rooms for rent, both “box rooms” and “side rooms.” I remember some years ago when I read about single working people who rented small kitchenless rooms in Boston’s South End in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While visiting a friend’s apartment in that area one day, I suddenly realized that her cramped and oddly-shaped three-room apartment was in fact made up of one box room and two side rooms.

frank's21Harrison770By 1884 Frank was doing well enough to buy a nearly new 11-room Queen Anne house in Dorchester. He moved his restaurant to 19-21 Harrison about then. That location soon became problematical when the block was sold off to a developer who planned to raze the buildings and construct a large office building.

That same year, 1890, Frank won the contract to feed 10,000 Civil War veterans coming to Boston for a week-long reunion. In other words, he would need to furnish about 210,000 meals in the space of a week, rather than his usual not-too-shabby 10,500.

Though he claimed he nearly went crazy making all the arrangements, Frank felt confident he could handle the job by feeding 2,000 diners in five shifts for each meal. He contracted with a local baker for bread and the all-important baked beans; bought 3,000 new plates; had all the meat delivered to his door in a refrigerated car by Armour Co. of Chicago; bought four immense boilers that would steam 2,400 eggs at a time; hired 100 waiters; found a professional coffee maker who would turn 9,000 pounds of beans into endless streams of hot coffee; and paid 35 scullions to clean up. When the encampment was over the G.A.R. executive committee commended him on how well he had fed the multitude.

Frank'stradecardmenuEvidently the veterans were pleased with what they were served. Nonetheless, Frank’s menu, repeated each day, gives a fair idea of why Boston restaurants of that time were not known for their fine cuisine.
Breakfast: cold meats, baked beans and brown bread, boiled eggs
Dinner: cold meats, baked beans and brown bread, boiled potatoes
Supper: cold meats and doughnuts

Frank’s Dining Room moved to 79 Harrison in the early 1890s, just about the same time that his original location became a Chinese store. But soon he hit the wall, declaring in 1894 that he was unable to pay his bills. His Dorchester mansion went back on the auction block.

Following his fall, he continued in the restaurant business as manager of Munro’s restaurant on Eliot Street. Always fond of boastful advertising, the irrepressible Frank took out newspaper ads claiming “1000 boarders needed” and “dinner, 20c, the finest on earth.”

In the decades after Frank left Harrison Avenue, Chinese restaurants such as the Chinese Royal and The Red Dragon took over several of his locations.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Never lose your meal ticket

“Meal ticket” is a term known better for its metaphorical meaning than for its original usage. It’s easy to conjure up a gangster in a 1940s film noir complaining that someone thinks he’s their meal ticket. Meaning, of course, that the person (probably a woman, alas) believes s/he has a found someone who can be manipulated into picking up the tab. This meaning came quick on the heels of the introduction of meal tickets around 1870.

Meal tickets were a way of life for young single people typically employed as department store clerks or office workers of the 1890s and early 20th century. They probably carried a meal ticket with them all the time. They lived alone in furnished rooms without kitchens, ate all their meals in restaurants designated for “ladies and gents” (see below), and were known as “mealers.” Periodically they would buy a meal ticket good for a week’s worth of restaurant meals. Because they paid in advance, they received a discount. A ticket for 21 meals costing 25 cents each might sell for as little as $4.00 rather than its face value of $5.25, giving the purchaser several “free” meals. If they could afford it, mealers would keep more than one ticket on hand so they could enjoy a little variety. Living lives of stupefying monotony and near-poverty, most needed all the variety they could come by.

Tickets did not have to be used up within a week, but their owners knew that holding a ticket for too long ran the risk that the restaurant would go out of business before it was all punched out. The unused meal ticket from the White Front Café of Joplin breaks down quarters into smaller sums thereby allowing that some meals might cost less, some more. It appears to be from the 1930s, a time when meal tickets were no longer being used in larger cities.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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