Tag Archives: racism in restaurants

Reservations

reservationsJPGtablejpgRestaurant reservations are mainly a 20th century innovation, and yet for the best of customers tables have always been available, no reservations required. A visitor to a Chicago hotel noted in 1888 that a nearby table had chairs tipped, a sign that it was reserved. A number of business men led by packing house magnate Philip Armour walked in and sat down. “Waiters scurried to serve them, and in a twinkling they were attacking their thick steaks as if the meal were a business problem to be solved immediately,” the onlooker recorded in her diary.

It was a common practice to save tables for prominent business men who gathered at the same table daily. In cities with numbers of German-American settlers, such as St. Louis and Washington D.C., the table was known as a Stammtisch and the diners as Stammgäste. At a restaurant in St. Louis conducted by Detlof von der Lippe, tables in alcoves were reserved for different professions. An inset in the 1906 postcard below shows an alcove named The Grind Stone. In the background is The Roost, reserved for tailors, while lumber men sat in The Hoo-Hoo. Which profession met in The Grind Stone is anyone’s guess.

reservationsLippe's

As late as 1957, Harvey’s and the Occidental restaurants in D.C. kept tables for regular groups, as did others in that city. A table at La Salle Du Bois was reserved on Saturdays for businessman Milton S. Kronheim and his “Saturday 12″ composed of Congressmen, civic leaders, and judges. Richard Nixon, then VP, reserved a table there during the week for cabinet members and White House staff.

Of course luxury restaurants such as the Colony automatically reserved tables for wealthy and celebrity regulars too. For them, as for business groups, the rule was that if the party did not arrive within 15 to 30 minutes of their usual schedule, the table would be given to someone else.

reservationsJPG1913Greensboro

If saving tables for the toffs is a longstanding practice, so is resentment by the public when told no tables are available even as they gaze upon a dining room with empty spaces. The problem intensified as taking reservations became more common in the early 20th century with the spread of telephones in restaurants. [1913 advertisement]

reservationsJPGNewYorker1940Reserved tables have often implied to people without them that they were being snubbed and regarded as inferior. And in the case of Afro-Americans this was literally the case. No matter how well dressed, how well mannered, how able to pay, they were likely to be told no tables were available.

Although many Northern states had enacted civil rights laws in the 1880s when the South was instituting segregationist Jim Crow laws, they were rarely enforced. However, an 1889 case in Michigan stands out because of the appeals court judge’s decision for the plaintiff who had been told he could be seated only at a table in the back reserved for Black patrons at a restaurant in Detroit. Usually things did not work out so well. In the 1920s a Chicago restaurant discontinued taking reservations by telephone after they discovered that a women’s club who had booked tables for 40 was Black. Even the federal Civil Rights Law of 1964 failed to eliminate discrimination. Activist Dick Gregory and others were turned away at an empty restaurant in Tuscaloosa AL in 1965 when the hostess showed them a reservations list with 1,000 names on it.

Whose interests do reservations  primarily serve – the restaurant’s or the guest’s? This is a tricky question, but on balance I’d say restaurants are providing a service that is mostly in the guest’s interests. Although it benefits restaurants to have an idea of how many are coming to dinner, in terms of staffing and provisioning, there are also drawbacks. A popular restaurant may actually lose money by taking reservations because tables are not constantly producing revenue throughout a busy mealtime. With reservations, tables are bound to sit empty between guests. What’s worse, a percentage of reservations will not show up nor call to cancel, despite a restaurant’s telephoned confirmation or penalty charges.

reservationsJPGrestaurantpagersThe no-show problem developed into a major headache for restaurants in the 1980s. Restaurants that normally got a lot of tourists and sporting event fans suffered the most, and some reported they went into the red on nights when up to 30% of reserved tables went unfilled. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that so many popular dinner-house restaurant chains take no reservations on busy nights. As long as there are plenty of guests willing to wait up to an hour and a half, the decision is 100% rational. Most of these restaurants – such as the Cheesecake Factory – hand out pagers that permit people to stroll around or go shopping until they are buzzed, a system that came into use in the late 1980s.

For those of us who prefer to go to restaurants that still take reservations comes the dawning realization that we are very likely paying a premium for the privilege. And soon we might be paying for the reservation itself, according to a recent story in the Atlantic.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Famous in its day, now infamous: Coon Chicken Inn

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The long-gone Coon Chicken Inn restaurant chain claimed in its advertising that it was “nationally famous.” I believe that was a bit of an exaggeration – then – but it might be true now. Its present-day fame, more accurately its notoriety, is based on its objectionable name and use of a grotesque racist image on buildings, delivery trucks, china, glassware, and printed advertising pieces.

To whatever degree it was nationally famous it can only have been for its racist depictions. Certainly it could not have achieved fame for its food. The menu of the Coon Chicken Inn reveals selections only a few degrees more ambitious than the drive-ins of the 1930s. Other than chicken dinners, the menu included chili, burgers, and ice cream desserts.

coonchickeninnphoto1947

Nonetheless, in its time it was a popular chain of four roadhouse restaurants with one each in Salt Lake City (est. 1925), Seattle WA (est. 1929), Portland OR (est. 1930), and Spokane WA. According to one account there were also Coon Chicken Inns in Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco but I’ve been unable to find any trace of them.

In 1930 Seattle’s NAACP protested against the restaurant’s racist imagery. Under threat of prosecution the chain’s owners, Maxon Lester Graham and Adelaide Graham, repainted the grotesque black faces on their restaurants’ entryways blue. They also obliterated the words “Coon Chicken Inn” painted on the figures’ teeth.

coonchickeninnSLCDec291926Having avoided prosecution they changed nothing else, keeping the chain’s name and logo, all of which seemed not to bother the restaurants’ white patrons at all. I would guess most people gave little thought to the large grinning heads, having already accepted the caricatures as merely another instance of the widespread “comical” portrayal of black Americans. They probably also saw them as just another example of an eye-catching building feature employed by roadside restaurants to attract motorists’ attention. Few white people perceived the restaurants as racist.

The Coon Chicken Inns regularly hosted meetings of clubs, civic organizations, and sororities ranging from a Democratic Club to the Junior Hadassah. They were the sites of wedding, anniversary, and birthday parties. In 1942 they were listed in Best Places to Eat, a nationwide guidebook published by the Illinois Auto Club. I can’t help but think that the restaurant in Portland was a peculiarly appropriate location for an Eastern Star group that chose it for their “Poor Taste” party in 1937.

mammy'scupboardLike the word “mammy” and its stereotyped image, “coon chicken” was supposed to communicate that the restaurant specialized in Southern cuisine, in this case fried chicken. Mammy names and images were widely used by restaurants in the early and middle 20th century. The crudely constructed Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez MS was another example of roadside “building as sign.” There was a Mammy’s Shanty in Atlanta, Mammy’s Cafeterias in San Antonio TX, and others in the South. Nor was the East without its Mammys: in Atlantic City was Mammy’s Donut Waffle Shop while Brooklyn had Mammy’s Pantry.

Several good articles have been published analyzing the Coon Chicken Inn’s everyday racism and the white public’s blithe tolerance of it. I recommend Catherine Roth’s essay for the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. Because of the volume and quality of what’s been written I hesitated at first to publish this post. I also hate the thought of increasing the desirability of Coon Chicken Inn advertising artifacts. Although there are good reasons to preserve historic racist ephemera, the extreme popularity of these images is disturbing. So great is the demand for them that the marketplace is flooded with fakes, including newly dreamed-up objects that were never used by the chain. Black faces have made a comeback along with “Coon Chicken Inn” on the teeth.

The Portland and Seattle branches of the Coon Chicken Inn closed in 1949 but the Salt Lake City unit remained in business until 1957.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under racism, roadside restaurants

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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