Recently I interviewed someone who had cooked in a 24-hour restaurant located on the outskirts of a small Midwestern town in 1970.
He worked there one summer. He was the sole night shift kitchen staff from 10 pm to 6 am. Previous experience? One week as cook at a children’s summer camp the previous year.
He was 16 years old.
Although he gave it little thought at the time, he now suspects the restaurant was designed, owned, and operated by the food processing company that supplied the food, the menus, the “recipes” – in short, everything. Follow-up research revealed that the company supplied 1,500 restaurants, schools, and institutions in four states.
The building was new and blandly modern. It was surrounded by a parking lot. Through a big plate glass front window was a view of an interior with booths, formica-topped tables and chairs, and a counter with stools. The decor, as he remembers it, contained multi-colored hanging lights, fake stone, and grill work in a coordinated style he calls “corporate.” About 60 people could be seated. At night, except right after the bars closed on weekends, there were rarely more than a dozen patrons at any one time.
Most of the night customers were working men, traveling salesmen, work crews, people passing through town. It wasn’t much of a local hangout, unlike the bowling alley restaurant at the other end of town. It served no alcohol.
Was there a chef at this restaurant? Answer: prolonged laughter. The manager had preprinted forms on which he checked off what supplies were needed.
A popular order, particularly with the barflies, was steak and eggs ($2.50 with toast and coffee). Eggs were one of the few items of fresh food in the kitchen other than lettuce and tomatoes. “Everything was frozen so once you knew how to deep fry it or put it in the Lytton [microwave] oven, you were set,” he said. This included pies (“Served Hot from Our Electronic Ovens”), Cordon Bleu, Breaded Pork Tenderloin, Golden Fried Chicken, and Fillet of Perch. Potato Salad came in a tub, Soup of the Day in giant cans. Hard boiled egg came in a long tube so that every slice was the same. Home Baked Bread? Well, I think you know.
The food images shown in this post are stickers applied to the restaurant’s menu before the entire thing was plasticized. I take them to be generic, as I do the meaningless logo from the menu’s cover which looks like it was intended for a “steak & ale” eatery.
With some orders he got to do what he considered “actual cooking”: “Liver and onions. You have to make the bacon and onions – that was actual cooking. Denver omelet, that was actual cooking.” He enjoyed making sandwiches at the deli counter. One of his personal favorites was the Denver Sandwich — chopped ham, pickle, and scrambled egg made in a patty and served on toasted bread. He also enjoyed cottage cheese and pineapple.
Diners rarely sent food back to the kitchen. “It’s amazing how many different kinds of food that a 16-year old could cook and not ruin anything. I was feeding a lot of people with a lot of liability and it didn’t go wrong,” he said. The manager criticized him for one thing only: giving customers too many french fries. Limit them to a handful, insisted the manager. So he garnished the plates with parsley and “Never got in trouble for using too much parsley.”
Despite all, he had surprising praise for his old workplace, saying, “I was impressed with the efficiency of the kitchen. It was easy to work in. I liked that there was a ready supply of clean linens.” He added, “There were not many dining establishments. Before Applebee’s this filled a niche. It was more ambitious food than people had access to before.”
Did he ever return there as a customer? “No,” he said, “I had no warm fuzzy feeling for the place.”
© Jan Whitaker, 2014