Tag Archives: restaurant corporations

An early French restaurant chain

Sometimes you need to leave your own country in order to get some perspective on it. Along with going back in time, that is what I’ve done. I’ve gone to France — though only through texts and pictures — to explore a restaurant chain begun in the 19th century known as Bouillon Duval.

I tend to think of the United States as the home of restaurant chains, and that they are quintessentially American. There is some truth to this, but it is also full of blind spots as the existence of the Duvals shows. They came before American chains, and showed that a highly rationalized, business-like approach to running restaurants is not solely American. [pictured, rue Poissonniere, 1882]

Looking at Bouillon Duval, which began as a soup restaurant, also dispels a bit of romanticism about French restaurants. As much as Duvals emphasized quality, they were eating places for the frugal masses, not temples of haute cuisine. In the beginning they were meant for poor workmen, but soon they became popular with the middle class. To put it in the language of the day, the “black coats drove out the blouses” who were embarrassed to be in the presence of the better dressed.

The Bouillons were the idea of Baptiste Adolphe Duval. He had a butcher shop in Paris and came from a family that ran a brasserie in the north of France. According to legend, around 1857 he opened a small soup restaurant near his shop using the unsalable meat scraps, and went on from there to become fabulously successful and wealthy. By 1867 he had eight Bouillons Duval in the city as well as at least one at that year’s world’s fair.

Of course it wasn’t quite that simple, and he might have failed if it hadn’t been for his wife’s assistance. According to the most thorough account of the chain’s development, the business was headed for failure as soon as it expanded beyond the small shop. With an enlarged menu and a lot of ideas, M. Duval had moved to a location in a former ballroom on the rue Montesquieu [shown at top of page in 1882, when it had reinstated male waiters]. There he installed a steam-heat system of cooking, along with elaborate piping that served every table with seltzer water. Both innovations were disastrous failures that cost a fortune to tear out. Add to this the lack of an accounting system that made it hard to calculate sales and permitted chiseling on the part of employees and the business was soon drowning in debt.

His wife Ernestine helped set up an accounting system and suggested replacing the questionable male servers with married women of irreproachable character who she dressed in uniforms resembling nuns’ habits [pictured, 1902]. The business began to show a profit and soon expansion was underway. Not surprisingly, when M. Duval died in 1870 shareholders chose Ernestine to take over the corporation and expand it further.

The Duval company had incorporated in 1868, by then consisting not only of eating places but also its own butcher shops, slaughter houses, bakery [pictured, 1882], large laundry, and caves that stored wine.

The company achieved heroic status in 1870 when it somehow managed to stay open during the “Siege of Paris” when German forces surrounding the city cut off food supplies. Their continuing in operation was significant not only for providing meals but also in boosting morale. In 1900 the French government awarded the Duvals’ son Alexandre, then manager, with the medal of the Legion of Honor. By then the company ran 32 restaurants.

The Duval system was based on keeping prices low while serving a large volume of customers quickly and efficiently. It was thoroughly a la carte right down to an extra charge for a tablecloth if wanted. During the Siege a London man recorded what he ordered at one of the 14 Duvals. He and his companion ordered bread for 1 cent, potato soup for 2 cents, as well as roast mutton, puréed potatoes, green beans in white sauce, and a pint of Mâcon wine. The total bill – with tablecloth – came to 18 cents. [Above, a menu that was to be filled out by the customer, ca. 1882; See The American Menu blog for several Duval menus.]

Needless to say, the fact that wine and other alcoholic beverages appeared on menus set the Bouillons Duval apart from most early chains that later developed in the U.S., such as Childs.

Numerous Americans as well as English citizens frequented the Bouillons when visiting Paris [above, diners at the 1878 Paris International Exposition; the objects with handles on the tables are menus], and expressed a wish to have something like them in their own countries. In addition to serving quality food and decent wine at low prices they were known to be spotlessly clean, quite unlike most of the cheap fixed-price cafes that working people had frequented before the Bouillons came along. The major criticism against them was that portions were small. Some critics said that if a hungry diner ordered all they wanted they would find that their bill was as expensive as in a finer restaurant. Other guests complained about the crowds and the “deafening din of knives and forks clinking against plates and dishes.”

Nonetheless the Bouillons Duval were invariably recommended in guide books for visitors to the international fairs held in Paris in 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900. In 1878 the Duval restaurants were said to have served 5M meals that year. Pictured above is one of several Duval locations at the 1889 Exposition.

At some point a Bouillon Duval was opened in London, and in the 1880s there was one advertised in Los Angeles that offered “hot soup and schooner lager beer, five cents.” I couldn’t determine whether it was connected to the Paris restaurants or not.

The last mention of the Paris Bouillons Duval I found was in 1924, when the chain was still said to be all over the city.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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“Hot Cha” and the Kapok Tree

What kind of career might the son of a junk dealer father and a mother who owned a restaurant end up with?

If he was Richard Baumgardner he would run restaurants raucously decorated with gilded and spray-painted objets d’art — wonderfully kitschy palatial junque bought by the ton in Europe (70 tons of statues in 1966). When his warehouse ran low on statues and urns, he would make plastic replicas with rubber molds.

His customers would find it all enchantingly “different.”

But first, he’d take a detour into the entertainment world as a jazz-era musician and bandleader known as Dick “Hot Cha” Gardner. As an introduction to his restaurant career in 1936, Dick inaugurated the Hot Cha Supper Club in conjunction with his mother Grace’s tea room, the Peter Pan Inn in rural Urbana MD. After she died in the 1940s, Dick took over the Peter Pan and transformed it into a let’s-drive-to-the-country mega-attraction for Washington DC families. In 1958, retired from bandleading, Dick opened his first Kapok Tree Inn in Clearwater FL, on the site of a tree planted in the 1880s.

It’s hard to know how to classify his restaurants. They fall into two of my classifications: 1) the high-volume restaurant, and 2) the curiosity-shop restaurant filled with quaint stuff.

The decor at the Clearwater Kapok Tree was a mix of light fixtures from Paris, chandeliers gathered from the DC Italian Embassy and old theaters in Baltimore and New York City, paneling from a De Medici compound replicated in plastic, and on and on.

Yet for all their madcap faux elegance, Dick’s restaurants followed a rigid formula designed for maximizing profits and minimizing costs. Magically, it worked. Despite ticket windows where customers were required to prepay their dinner tab, a teen-age staff, long waits for tables (in the bar), sticky sweet rum drinks, and limited menus with pedestrian cuisine, customers absolutely adored these zany buses-welcome eateries.

For years diners had just four dinner choices: fried chicken, ham, deep fried shrimp, and steak. When customers sat down at their tables, servers collected their receipts, knowing immediately by the prices what they had ordered. A complete meal included a typical 1950s melange of appetizers which never varied year in and year out, whether in Maryland or Florida — cottage cheese, (sweet) pickled vegetables, muffins, and apple butter. Sides were roast potatoes, peas in mushroom sauce, beets, and hush puppies. Ice cream for dessert and seconds on everything but the entrees. Boxes were provided for leftovers and the complimentary tall cocktail glasses. Few left empty-handed.

The Kapok Tree Inns prospered with the Pinellas County boom of the early 1970s. By 1978, two years after Dick died, there were three Kapok Tree Inns, in Clearwater, Madeira Beach, and Daytona Beach. The first remained the largest, seating at least 1,700. On really busy days upwards of 5,000 meals were served there.

Controlling interest in the Kapok Tree corporation, which also included the Peter Pan Inn and a couple of Baumgardner’s Restaurants in Florida, passed to Dick’s widow, a former waitress at the original Clearwater restaurant, who had largely been running the operation since he had a stroke in 1970. A year after his death, she told a reporter that hers was the most profitable publicly-held restaurant chain in the nation. The Daytona Beach Kapok Tree closed  in 1981, and the Clearwater restaurant closed ten years later.

I wonder what happened to all the wacky furnishings?

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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