Tag Archives: restaurant chains

Dining sky-side

airportO'Hare

Although a number of superior restaurants have opened in airports in the past several years, their run-of-the-mill food purveyors are often just passable. Customer comments reveal praise for certain restaurants, but opinions overall sound a negative note, rising to weak compliments such as “actually somewhat good” or “standard innocuous restaurant/hotel fare.”

In the beginning, there was no food at all. In the 1920s airports had no restaurant facilities. There were scarcely any commercial flights, facilities consisted mainly of fields and a hangar or two, and the few commercial passengers were lucky if they could get a cup of coffee.

By the mid-1930s more commercial flights were offered and airport conditions improved. The number of passengers multiplied more than 100 times between 1926 and 1935. To win greater traffic, bigger cities vied to create terminal facilities that could match those of their transportation rival, trains. Restaurants figured prominently among the amenities offered.

Most passengers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were businessmen or wealthy travelers who were unwilling to settle for bad food. Even though all air travel was essentially first-class then, passengers frequently rejected what was served on the plane and tried for something better in the terminal. Their demands, combined with the need to put airports in the black financially, brought about efforts to create first-rate airport eating places.

airportburbankskyroom (2)

The earliest image of an airport restaurant I’ve found is that of the Sky Room in Burbank CA’s Union Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport), in 1940, showing tables with white linens, goblets, and boudoir-style table lamps.

Airports were costly for cities and towns to build and run so income from concessions was needed badly. Managers expected income from non-aviation concessions at New York’s Idlewild airport to make up one third of revenues in 1949. Restaurants and coffee shops were the biggest single contributors of concession revenue in most airports.

But restaurants found it hard to operate profitably when serving only “captive customers,” particularly when their numbers were still relatively small. Beyond pleasing airline passengers, the solution for many airports was to reach out to customers living nearby. In 1947 the airport restaurant in Albuquerque NM went so far as to hire a chef who had studied with Escoffier and cooked for US presidents and royal families in Europe. His mission was to make the terminal restaurant one of the nation’s best known restaurants.

The early 1950s saw the debut of what might have been America’s premier airport restaurant, The Newarker in the Newark NJ terminal. With Joe Baum as manager and Albert Stockli as chef, it soon became famous, launching Restaurant Associates which owned many of NYC’s top dining establishments. Duncan Hines lauded The Newarker for its “flaming sword specialties, authentic East Indian curries, [and] regional Swiss specialties.”

airportCleveland1965Seattle1941

Evidently the tactic of pulling in locals worked, partly because even through the 1960s people were thrilled to see planes take off and land. Dining rooms typically overlooked the airfield. In 1953 Fort Worth’s new terminal at Amon Carter Field was touted as “a wonderful, quiet spot to have a leisurely evening meal and then sit on the observation deck and look at the bright lights of booming Dallas nineteen miles away.” Now it may seem an odd idea to go to an airport restaurant to celebrate a birthday or, even stranger, a holiday such as Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve, yet these festivities did indeed take place [advertisements: Cleveland, 1965; Seattle, 1941].

airportClevelandshreiberrestaurantSome airport restaurants were operated by local restaurateurs. Among them was Marie Schreiber, who became a restaurant operator for Statler hotels after providing meals in Cleveland’s airport restaurant [pictured] as well as on-board meals for departing United Airlines flights. Food service operations of two Chicago departments stores, Marshall Field and Carson, Pirie & Scott, handled meals at O’Hare for years.

At the same time, chains that ran airport restaurants and prepared meals for service during flights developed rapidly. Some, such as Skychef restaurants, were operated by the airlines (in this case American Airlines), but existing chains such as Dobbs House and railroad caterers Fred Harvey and Interstate Hosts also migrated into airports. Dobbs House units in airports from Wichita to Miami also earned praise from Duncan Hines in 1959 for dishes such as pompano en papillote and Colorado mountain trout.

Southern airports were protest sites because of their discriminatory treatment of Black passengers. Until summer of 1961, Blacks were not served in Interstate Hosts’ main dining room or the coffee shop in New Orleans’ Moisant International airport, but only at the snack bar. After lawsuits, Black customers gained equal patronage at all airport restaurants in recognition that airports, like bus terminal facilities, were fundamental to interstate commerce.

In the 1980s theme restaurants – often flight-themed – began to locate in the vicinity of airports. But that’s a subject for a future post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under family restaurants, Offbeat places

“Time to sell the doughnuts”

donutsMayflower796Doughnuts are a food that has rarely been taken seriously by the media. After encountering loads of silly stories about doughnut holes and dunking I have decided the reason is that throughout the last century the doughnut industry was amazingly successful in promoting its products, often through humor. Most of what appeared in papers and magazines was the work of publicity agents for the manufacturers of doughnuts, equipment, and mixes.

No doubt people would enjoy doughnuts even without publicity, but the endless promotional events and stories helped make their consumption year-round rather than concentrated in fall and winter.

donuts1939World'sFair

Starting in the 1930s the publicity directors of one of the largest producers, The Doughnut Corporation of America, organized dunking contests, created a National Dunking Association, sponsored displays at World’s Fairs [1939 advertisement shown], and planted photos of celebrities eating doughnuts in newspapers and magazines along with cartoon-illustrated stories such as one about a character named “Ima Dunker.”

One of the corporation’s publicity directors claimed that doughnuts were the first food to have a week proclaimed for it. National Doughnut Week began in the 1930s. To the annoyance of some who felt it was frivolous, mayors of cities and towns around the country would receive a kit with a membership card for the National Dunking Association and a bib along with a request to proclaim doughnut week.

The Doughnut Corporation of America grew out of a small baking business in NYC owned by Adolph Levitt. He is often credited with inventing the first automatic doughnut machine in 1920, but in fact there were numerous machines on the market then as well as in earlier years. Doughnut making machines were popular with bakeries and lunch rooms which placed them in their windows so that people on the street could see the (cake) doughnuts being made and feel drawn to buy some. But Levitt was clever and soon his rapidly growing company was supplying the whole country with machines as well as Downyflake doughnut mix, and backing it all up with publicity support.

donuttimessquaremenu1949In 1931 the Doughnut Corporation created a Mayflower Coffee Shop in Times Square. It was followed by one each in Boston and Chicago the next year, and another in Springfield MA in 1934. By 1936 there were 15 around the country, and in 1949 there were 24. The Mayflower Shops menu featured popular dishes such as Hamburgers, Corned Beef Hash, and fountain specialties, but also Waffles (the company made waffle mix too), Pancakes, and of course Donuts (as they came to be spelled). Plain, sugared, and cinnamon donuts cost 5 cents each in 1949, 10 cents for a frosted donut, and a Donut a la Mode came to 15 cents.

donutdownyflakeADV1932The Doughnut Corporation also franchised Downyflake Shops. In 1931 there were 36 in Boston and surrounding towns in eastern Massachusetts, out of a nationwide total of about 400. They appear to have been sandwich shops for the most part, but some may have only sold doughnuts. The Doughnut Corporation also built doughnut plants around the country. A plant in Fort Worth TX in 1932 produced an important doughnut ingredient, dried egg powder, a product which had for decades come exclusively from China.

I am unsure how long the Doughnut Corporation’s restaurants stayed in business, however by the mid-1970s the company, now DCA Food Industries, still produced doughnut making equipment. By then the doughnut-plus-coffee shop business was led by Dunkin Donuts (750 franchises) and Winchell’s Donut House (530 units).

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under chain restaurants, food

Toddle House

toddlehouseca1940

The Toddle House chain occupied “cozy cottage” style buildings that were quite popular as restaurants, gas stations, and cabin camps in the Depression. On the outside Toddle Houses projected an exaggerated Colonial doll-house version of domesticity, with two oversized chimneys and a primly manicured lawn.

toddlehouseinteriorca1939Inside, though, a very functional, almost clinical interior greeted customers: A back wall of stainless steel kitchen equipment, a counter with a dozen comfortless, backless stools (“in and out in 12 minutes”), bare windows, bathroom-tile wainscoting, and NO fireplaces. Open 24 hours, their menus were limited and featured hamburgers and breakfast at all hours.

ToddleHouseStedmanpatentAdding another touch of no-nonsense modernity was the “cashier machine” invented by founder and co-owner J. C. Stedman. Designed to keep the countermen (later women) from handling money, a mechanical box near the door received meal checks and payments in coins. After a counterman observed, via a mirror inside the box, that the customer had deposited the correct amount, he lifted a treadle behind the counter and the money and checks fell through trap doors into locked bins below (nos. 14 and 15 in the patent diagram).

As awkward as the contraption was – not giving change, easily circumvented by cheating employees, etc. – it remained in use at least until the 1940s and customers liked it. In Evanston IL customers felt let down, their trustworthiness in doubt, when the cashier machine was replaced by a standard cash register in 1945. Today, the old drop box system — in my view mistakenly considered an honor system — has become an object of nostalgia.

toddlehouseca.1953

The first Toddle Houses were opened in Southern states, principally Texas and Tennessee, in the 1930s. The chain never made it farther west than Omaha. In 1945 the company expanded northward with the acquisition of 46 Hull-Dobbs Houses, which resembled Toddle Houses to a remarkable degree. Toddle Houses built later were larger and of a style referred to as “New South” shown here that was plainer and even more symmetrical. Some had dining rooms and the front entrances with copper-clad canopies were enclosed by glass vestibules.

In 1946 Toddle Houses created Harlem House, for Black customers who were not otherwise welcome. Eventually there were 12 such units in Memphis, the company’s headquarters. An Atlanta Toddle House was the site of a prominent civil rights sit-in demonstration in December of 1963, in which demonstrators including comedian Dick Gregory were taken to jail.

toddlehouse1938Memphis

The original 24 × 12-ft Toddle Houses were prefabricated and shipped to their sites on flatbed trucks. It has been reported that their exteriors were of porcelain-coated steel for portability. Since this material is inappropriate for Colonial architecture and they do not appear to be shiny in pictures, I find the description given in Philip Langdon’s Orange Roofs and Golden Arches more convincing. He says that some Toddle Houses were “veneered with a cement coating scored to resemble brick.” Others were built of brick on site. Langdon also observes that because early Toddle Houses could be transported so easily, the possibility of moving them presented advantages when negotiating land leases. I discovered a number of them that were in fact moved.

In 1962 the Toddle House company was bought by Dobbs House which turned most of them into Steak N Egg Kitchens. In the 1980s, after another company, Carsons, bought out Dobbs, an attempt was made to revive the Toddle Houses, which by 1984 had dwindled to 11 units. Carsons built at least 45 new Toddle House units.

Though Toddle Houses no longer exist, many of the buildings continue as eating places or have been adapted for other uses, as shown in a blogpost by Dinerhunter.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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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

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Filed under chain restaurants, lunch rooms

“Adult” restaurants

Anyone who knows American culture realizes immediately that the term “adult restaurant” would not even remotely imply an eating place that caters to mature or developed culinary tastes. Instead it would mean one deemed inappropriate for children because of some kind of sexually tinged goings on.

Historically the attractions in adult restaurants have not been what’s on the plate but are part of the female servers’ anatomy.

An unfamiliar restaurant concept to me is the “adult fast food restaurant.” This is how a Florida drive-in owner referred to his business in 1976. It didn’t serve adult fast food – what would that be? Crêpes? It served hot dogs, hamburgers, beer, and, oddly, wine. The manager called it “our answer to MacDonald’s,” reflecting the fierce competition drive-ins faced from big chains in the 1970s.

The “adult” aspect: servers at the “Jugs ‘n’ Suds” drive-in were costumed only in hot pants and tassles.

However, Jugs ‘n’ Suds waitresses got very little chance to “wear” their intended costume. The drive-in met with vehement disapproval from citizens and officials of New Port Richey who insisted that the waitresses cover up. One of the restaurant’s promoters admitted that business fell off once apron-like halter tops were adopted, saying “People aren’t as interested in seeing a topless waitress with fringe on.” [pictured] In very short order the drive-in closed. A second one – without carhops — then opened in an old A&W. I don’t think it lasted long. A fantasized  nationwide chain never materialized.

Jugs ‘n’ Suds was unusual in that it was a drive-in. Most topless restaurants have been positioned at the “nightclub” end of the restaurant spectrum. Typically they’ve been dark, bar-like spaces where business men congregate at noon and after work.

California was the birthplace of the topless restaurant with the pioneers opening in 1965 not long after the creation of Rudi Gernrich’s topless bathing suit. Many offered a business man’s lunch special accompanied by models strolling from table to table. In California, at Long Beach’s Kozy Kitten, kittens ambled while patrons downed 98c luncheons of Turkey, Ham, or Beef served with Potato Salad and Beans. (I didn’t say topless restaurants were glamorous.)

The topless restaurant fad, which combined gawking, drinking, AND eating, died out, but using women’s anatomy to attract restaurant patrons did not. Maybe it’s eternal. Even as the last Playboy bunny club closed in the 1988, a new crop of “breastaurants” (as they are mockingly known by critics) appeared, most of them flaunting scantily dressed servers. Following the success of Hooters, a slew of knock-offs opened in Florida, among them the so preciously named Melons, Knockers, and Mugs & Jugs.

Controversy is also eternal. Hooters’ aggressively suggestive advertising campaign has offended many and the chain was forced to remove billboards that hinted servers were prostitutes, an idea that, depressingly, has plagued female servers since the 19th century.

Legal challenges to topless restaurants and breastaurants have mostly not held up. But communities protest them anyway, occasionally successfully. Recently the Quincy MA Licensing Board denied permission to a unit of the Tilted Kilt chain because it was too close to a church that objected.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Filed under drive-ins, food, women

Steakburgers and shakes

After recently reading Roger Ebert’s wonderful book Life Itself, I decided to write this post and dedicate it to him. I loved his depictions of his childhood, which included his first restaurant meal, a steakburger at Steak n Shake, near the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign where his father worked as an electrician. He has also written about the restaurant on his Sun Times blog.

Even though I grew up in St. Louis, where there were many Steak n Shakes, most with curb service in the early years, I knew nothing about the chain’s history then and mistakenly believed it originated in St. Louis. I’m embarrassed to admit that I held a widespread St. Louis prejudice that few good things came from Illinois, the chain’s first home.

The chain was founded by Gus Belt and his wife Edith. Their basic problem was the Depression. The gas station Gus operated in the town of Normal, Illinois, was not thriving. In 1932 he and Edith decided to extend into the restaurant business by converting a house on the property to an eating place serving Edith’s fried chicken and beer, which was about to become legal in the first stage of Repeal. They called it the Shell Inn.

According to Robert Cronin’s Selling Steakburgers, beer was a bigger hit than chicken. Because Normal was the home of a state college that trained teachers, who were supposed to be morally upright, the town had a long history of forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages. After a brief wide-open period following Repeal, the town voted 2 to 1 to remain dry. Seeing what was about to befall their eatery, Edith and Gus decided to turn it into a hamburger joint.

They followed an honored tradition in the restaurant business of studying the successful practices of others and copying them like crazy.

The Shell Inn’s prime customers were the students at the nearby teachers college. No doubt the Belts had observed how much college students in the neighboring town of Champaign enjoyed hamburgers at the White Spot, the White House Lunch, Wimpy’s, and Maid-Rite. With the switch to burgers, the Belts renamed their place “Whitehouse Steak n Shake.” Later, they would adopt another idea from Champaign’s hamburger sellers, that of selling burgers by the bag (“Buy ‘Em by the Sack” advertised White Spot), borrowing the “Takhomasak” slogan from a Colorado restaurant. The idea of advertising that your hamburgers contained higher grades of steak was not unique to Steak n Shake. In Detroit during the Depression, there were a couple of places advertising this: the Marcus All Steak Hamburger Restaurant chain, and Meyers Real Steak Hamburgers. I wonder too if the Belts got the idea of serving food on china from Champaign’s Wimpy’s.

Their timing was good. Led by youthful first adopters, hamburgers, once shunned by the middle class who associated them with poverty and adulteration, were gaining respectability. Also reassuring was Steak n Shake’s squeaky clean white tile interior characteristic of 1920s lunch rooms and hamburger chains such as White Castle.

Theirs was among a number of hamburger chains that proliferated in the Midwest and other non-coastal areas during the Depression. Among the chains that got their start then were Little Canary Castle (Winston-Salem NC, 1931), Krystal (Chattanooga TN, 1932), Wimpy Grills (Bloomington IN, 1934), White Hut (Toledo OH, 1935), and Rockybilt (Denver CO, 1936). So the 1930s, which had begun so poorly for the couple, turned out well for them.

By 1940 the Belts had units in Normal’s twin city of Bloomington, as well as Champaign [1937 advertisement above], Decatur, E. Peoria [pictured at top], Galesburg, Danville, and Springfield. In the late 1940s Steak n Shake moved into St. Louis and in 1959, five years after Gus’s death, with Edith at the helm, there were 14 units in that city. Indianapolis [pictured 1965] and Florida were other early markets. By the time Edith sold the family’s controlling interest to the Longchamps corporation in 1969, there were 50 or so units.

After that the story shifts to corporate history, with decades of ups and downs, aborted openings in Chicago and Texas, modernizations and returns to roots, changes in ownership, and further expansion until today when there are almost 500 units in 22 states.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Confectionery restaurants

A little-recognized restaurant type that has had considerable influence historically was the restaurant that grew out of or was associated with a confectionery business. The closest this type of eating place came to public acknowledgment was in the 1920s when the weird term “confectaurant” popped up in the West, mainly California. As silly as that might sound, confectionery restaurants as a class ranked among America’s finest and most elegant eating places.

For instance, Delmonico’s, the country’s finest restaurant in the 19th century, began as a confectionery shop serving chocolate, candies, and petits fours, then expanding into more substantial food. Peter Delmonico who founded the shop with his brother John in 1827 was a Swiss confectioner.

The list of well-known restaurants with confectionery connections is long and includes Fera’s, Maillard’s, Sherry’s, Rumpelmayer’s, Schrafft’s, Mary Elizabeth’s, and a number of early 20th century chains. These restaurants were known for being ultra-respectable – and clean — and they were especially popular with women.

Going back to the 18th century, Samuel Fraunces of New York’s landmark Fraunces Tavern produced confectionery. He advertised in 1766 that he could supply “Syllabubs, Creams, Blamois [Blanc Mange], Custards, Cakes and Pastries of all Sorts … Wedding Cakes … and a universal Assortment of Sweetmeats.” Catering and supplying wedding cakes were already  hallmarks of the confectionery restaurant.

At that time confectioners produced not only candies but fancy pastries, ice cream, and preserved and frozen fruits. These foods were distinctly different than those of the English tradition that dominated the eating-out scene up until about 1840. English eating places were  mostly about meat and alcoholic drinks. In strong contrast, the early confectioners who came to this country from France and Haiti were skilled practitioners of the more refined culinary arts.

Colonials and early Americans understood that consuming confections was somehow Parisian, certainly Continental. In 1773 M. Lenzi arrived upon the scene in New York straight from London and announced that he had catered “Balls, Masquerades, etc. in most of the principal cities of Europe.” He intended to sell “all sorts of fine French, English, Italian and German biskets, preserved fruits; also in brandy, jams, pates, and jellies” as well as “sugar plumbs.”

Up until the 1850s, a confectionery was more than a place to buy sweets. It was equally a restaurant for more discriminating diners. In 1790s Boston, French confectioner M. LeRebour furnished meals in “American, English, and Paris style.” New York’s Mrs. Poppleton, “Restaurateur, Pastry Cook, and Confectioner” supplied delicate items for discerning palates such as Savory Patties, Puff Pastry, Italian Sallads, Fish Sauces, Ornamental Hams, and Anchovy Toasts. In short, she advertised in 1815, she aimed to please “Persons inclined to indulge in the height of European luxury.”

The caterer-confectioner-restaurant complex continued throughout the 19th century and was found across the country. In 1889 Kansan J.C. Hopkins claimed to be the “Maillard’s of Topeka.”

Some interesting twists to the old traditions occurred in the 20th century when Greek immigrants flooded into the confectionery business shortly before it collapsed. Faced with competition from mass produced branded candy many of them expanded into the confectionery-restaurant-luncheonette-tea room business. About the same time the “chain store age” commenced and regional chains of tea room-like confectionery restaurants such as Schrafft’s, Loft’s, DeMet’s, Huyler’s, Reymer’s, Puritan, Priscilla, Pig’n Whistle, etc., grew. Another new twist was that many of the 20th-century places featured soda fountains. Many of these eating places were owned by Greek-Americans who often expanded their candy-making confectionery into a lunch  or tea room when packaged candy bars came to market in the 1920s.

Although the confectionery restaurants of the 20th century were more informal than many of their predecessors, they often had expensively decorated interiors with hardwood paneling and handsome fixtures. This was particularly true of confectaurants such as California’s Paulais. Even though many chain confectioneries became primarily places to grab a quick sandwich, something of their Continental heritage lingered on.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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