Tag Archives: restaurant failures

Famous in its day: the Public Natatorium

Sometimes a brilliant idea hits you, but then you wake up the next day and see why it won’t work. But other times you don’t see why it won’t work until much, much later – after you’ve lost a lot of money.

That’s what seems to have happened with John and Margaret Garlic’s plan to turn a 19th-century public bathhouse in Milwaukee into a restaurant with dolphin shows. The future looked bright when they bought the building from the city for a mere $4,000, but then things became more complicated.

They hoped to open the restaurant one year after their January 1978 purchase, but the actual opening date was delayed by a year by city regulations, trade unions, and late equipment deliveries. Gutting the building and reconstructing the interior purportedly cost upwards of $800,000. And then there were unexpectedly high costs of leasing dolphins and providing for their care and feeding, as well as for federal inspections and trainers’ salaries.

It was not the Garlic’s first foray into the food and restaurant business. Around 1976 they had opened J. J. Garlic’s, a casual restaurant that soon gained popularity in Milwaukee for its cheese fondue, soups, burgers, and jumbo shrimp. Around 1973 the Garlics had pioneered the industrial production of the now-ubiquitous gyro cone, beef and lamb scraps blended and pressed into a Spam-like substance supplied to concessionaires, roadside carts, and restaurant operators.

But then in 1978 J. J. Garlic’s received a devastating review by none other than the celebrated writer Herbert Kubly who wrote restaurant reviews for The Milwaukee Journal from 1970 to 1984. According to G&G Enterprises, Ltd., the official owner of Garlic’s, the review caused a 25% drop in business, amounting to a loss of half a million dollars.

As it happened, the menu at the Public Natatorium – as the new 1979 restaurant was named — borrowed heavily from J. J. Garlic’s. This was especially the case on the Natatorium’s “gourmet” second level where prices ran considerably higher than on the lower level.

While the lower-level menu had sandwiches in the $4 to $5 range, the upper level was meant to provide an elegant dining experience, with chilled golden salad forks, marble-topped tables, and a parchment-like menu. Yet even the lower level was deemed too expensive by some Milwaukeeans. A review that appeared shortly after the opening pointed to skimpy servings such as the Peel & Dip Shrimp at $7.50 which a reviewer described as “five small shrimp . . . with cocktail sauce, a slice of lemon and a lot of ice.” The writer also grumbled about a $1 entrance fee assessed on all customers.

Nonetheless, the Public Natatorium became a must for tourists attracted by the dolphin shows and as far as I can tell did reasonably well overall. At some point after its opening, G&G Enterprises opened a third place with the characteristically jocular 1970s name Fried Eggs & Tootsies, aka F.E.A.T.S. Located near the Milwaukee campus of the state university, F.E.A.T.S. was mostly a drinking spot with bands.

Still, the fine dining concept at the Public Natatorium showed signs of consumer resistance. A 1980 review in a Racine WI paper titled “Taking a bath at the Natatorium” was extremely negative. It described in great detail how, despite high prices, the wine glasses were dirty as were some raw appetizer mushrooms, while several main dishes were submerged in thick, tasteless sauces. The reviewer also cited a shrimp dish that “reeked of the freezer.” He found a small loaf of warm bread the best food served to his table. A 1982 Los Angeles Times story about places to visit in Milwaukee advised visitors to take the children there for the dolphin show but “certainly don’t go for the food, which is mediocre.”

It’s likely that the Natatorium was not doing too well by 1983, the year in which G&G Enterprises filed a $1.1 million lawsuit against The Milwaukee Journal for the 1978 Kubly review of J. J. Garlic’s and to forestall a forthcoming review of the Natatorium by Kubly which they believed would be negative. The suit, which went nowhere, claimed that the paper, an editor, and Kubly were “engaged in a conspiracy to put plaintiff out of business with yet another defamatory article.”

Kubly’s review came out anyway and was indeed negative, detailing slow service, cold food, and a high degree of inept pretentiousness. He included inauspicious quotations from the menu such as “Wild Boar Chasseur, cousin of the domestic sow” and “Hippopotamus Bordelaise, chewier than beef.” What was appealing about Lion le Blanc, Buffalo Navajo, or Veal Chop Andrea Doria (“once served on the famous ship that had the unfortunate collision”)? Kubly must have recognized some of the same dishes he had been served at J. J. Garlic’s, namely the cold fondue (“incorrigible, starch-laden, over salted”), cold consomme (“contained tough bits of meat, a few peas and carrot lumps”), and baked potatoes (“cold and had an unappetizing scorched taste”). A lengthy two and a half hours after arriving, he and his companions made their way out of the then-empty restaurant as the staff brought out a cake – which they took home in its Pepperidge Farm box supplied by the waitress.

The following year John Garlic announced he would sell J. J. Garlic’s and F.E.A.T.S. and move to Florida, while The Public Natatorium would remain open under a manager. But that didn’t last long. By January 1985 the remaining dolphin, Soda, was in peril due to a heating breakdown. A bankruptcy judge ordered that he and two sea lions be sold immediately as part of the restaurant’s liquidation proceedings.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under atmosphere, food, guides & reviews, menus, odd buildings, Offbeat places

Restaurant-ing with Mildred Pierce

mildredpierceaswaitress

Many Americans are familiar with the story of the fictional Mildred Pierce, the mid-century wife and mother who kicks out her unemployed, philandering husband and becomes the family’s breadwinner so she can support her two daughters, especially her musically talented older daughter Veda.

Mildred Pierce was the main character in James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, the star of a melodramatic 1945 black & white film-noir with Joan Crawford, and the protagonist in a color HBO miniseries with Kate Winslet.

Lacking experience other than housewifery, Mildred turns to restaurants for work. Starting as a waitress, she builds a home-based business as purveyor of pies to restaurants, then opens a restaurant of her own, building it into a small chain in greater Los Angeles.

Although the three renditions of the story differ, they all feature Mildred’s restaurant career. Why did Cain choose this line of work for Mildred? I suspect he wanted something that readers would believe a woman could succeed in. Though I have no direct evidence, I feel sure he based Mildred’s career on that of the much-publicized Alice Foote MacDougall of 1920s fame whose success story was told repeatedly in magazines and syndicated newspaper columns. In the 1927 column “Girls Who Did,” MacDougall, then pushing 60, was headlined as “A Girl Who Never Expected to Enter Business and Who Has Become a Dealer in Wholesale Roasted Coffee and Owner of Four Restaurants.”

But – oh dear – MacDougall’s empire went into receivership in the early Depression, shortly after Mildred Pierce launched her restaurant chain. Of course most movies demand suspension of disbelief on the part of viewers, but let’s just admit that 1931 was not a favorable time to go into business. The 1935 National Handbook of Restaurant Data dismally reported that “75% of the women who open restaurants fail within the year.” Mainly, it said, due to lack of capital and knowledge of business management.

mildredpierceherrestaurarantMaybeCain, who stuffs his novel with copious details about running restaurants, must have been aware of this problem because he had Mildred, er, entertain her husband’s former business partner Wally to insure a favorable start-up. In the book she builds up to a total of three restaurants. The first, located in a house and specializing in chicken and waffles, actually conforms to the path many women of the 1920s and 1930s took starting small restaurants and tea rooms that served home-like dishes in domestic settings. Her second, a luncheonette in Beverly Hills, is somewhat believable despite being in a high rent area. Her third, on the other hand, a swanky beachside resort, is a reach.

Advancing farther on the unlikelyhood scale, the 1945 movie threw caution aside and had Mildred with five restaurants in only four years. Even the fantabulous Alice took 10 years to get to four! What’s more, all but one of Mildred’s had drive-in curb service, even though women rarely owned drive-ins. Plus, many drive-ins closed during the war because of gasoline rationing that limited driving.

Of the five restaurants depicted in the 1945 film, three are identifiable as actual restaurant locations, while the identity of the other two is unclear.

MildredpierceDoloresdrive-inInset#1 – the new Dolores drive-in on Sunset Blvd. & Horn (inset top left; movie still in b&w)
MildredPierceexteriorofRestaurant4#2 – supposed to be Beverly Hills, but location unknown and possibly not an actual restaurant at all (movie still)

mildredpierceExteriorofRestaurant3 – unidentified but appears to be a real drive-in (movie still)

MildredPierceexteriorofrestaurant5#4 – exterior shot filmed at Carl’s Sea Air on the Pacific Coast Highway (movie still on left; Carl’s postcard on right)

mildredpiercecarpenter'sGlendale1938E.Colorado#5 – Carpenter’s restaurant on Glendale & Colorado shown fleetingly (not a movie still)

The slow-moving HBO series follows Cain’s book more closely than the 1945 movie. (As in the book, there is no murder.) There are only three restaurants, all movie creations: 1) the model house from the Pierce Homes development once owned by Mildred’s ex-husband; 2) the Beverly Hills luncheonette; and, 3) a seaside estate which doesn’t look a bit like it’s in California.

In the book and at several points in the 1945 movie Mildred, who we are told comes from the lower-middle class, runs up against the upper class, always getting bruised in the encounters. As a restaurant historian, one of the most interesting lines to me occurs when she meets the snobby mother of her daughter’s boyfriend. Mildred recognizes her but forgets that she had once interviewed to be her housekeeper and was humiliated by the woman. She tries to place her, asking if she has ever been to her restaurant and the woman replies haughtily, “But I don’t go to restaurants, Mrs. Pierce.” It would have been more believable in the East, around 1900, but still an interesting comment on the unexalted status of restaurant-ing.

Cain, who was also a gourmet, an amateur cook, and a magazine food writer on topics such as “Midnight Spaghetti,” “Crepes Suzette,” and “Carving Game Duck,” befriended Alexander Perino when he was headwaiter at The Town House and suggested Perino open his own restaurant which he famously did in 1932. Restaurants also figured in Cain’s books The Postman Always Rings Twice and Galatea, both of which involve the betrayal and murder of husbands.

In Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Mildred ends up broke, restaurantless, alienated from Veda, and living with her ex-husband, both of them ready to pursue a life of heavy drinking.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under drive-ins, proprietors & careers, roadside restaurants, women

Celebrity restaurateurs: Pat Boone

PatBooneDine-O-Mat

Few celebrities become deeply involved in the restaurants that bear their names. That was true of the singer Pat Boone, who was known to visit his namesake restaurants occasionally and to sing and sign autographs at openings. How much good his – or any celebrity’s – connection does for a restaurant is debatable. Neither Pat Boone’s success as a performer nor his pro-family, clean-cut, Christian image saved the ventures he lent his name and money to.

Pat Boone’s Dine-O-Mat appears to have barely gotten off the ground despite what publicity referred to as its “space age” design. “This . . . new type of fully automatic roadside restaurant is destined to be an important landmark on highways all over America,” boasted a 1963 advertisement aimed at investors. The initial plan was to build 100 of the restaurants by summer of 1964, but few seem to have been constructed.

PatBooneCountryInn1959An earlier disappointing experiment in restauranting, Pat Boone’s Country Inn, in Denton TX, closed a mere four years after opening in 1958, even though Boone was connected to the town because of attending North Texas State College there.

While the Country Inn was a conventional restaurant, Dine-O-Mats were designed to be “revolutionary.” Perhaps the New Jersey entrepreneurs who cooked up the Dine-O-Mat concept were inspired by Stouffer’s 1961 foray into selling frozen food from vending machines to Ohio turnpike motorists who reheated it in microwave ovens.

Little could Pat Boone and company know when they launched Dine-O-Mats in 1962 that Stouffer’s would announce less than a year later their intention to phase out the roadside restaurants after realizing that travelers only wanted “speed and price.”

Both Stouffer’s highway restaurants and Dine-O-Mats might be called automats. But unlike Horn & Hardart automats, coins put in a slot did not call forth ready-to-eat selections. Dine-O-Mats had only one employee on the premises, an attendant whose job was to keep the machines loaded with frozen food. Rather comically, the postcard above shows customers (and Pat) dressed in their Sunday best, yet they are “dining” in a dismal geodesic-domed hut surrounded by vending machines and two microwaves sunk into an imitation hearth.

Similar to Stouffer’s restaurants, Dine-O-Mats were to be located near “motels, service stations, shopping centers, bowling alleys, country clubs, amusement parks, factories, air and bus terminals and along major highways,” according to a 1962 prospectus. How many were ever built, other than the prototype on Route 46 in Little Ferry NJ, is unclear. There may have been a few additional ones in New Jersey and Georgia.

Since kitchenless Dine-O-Mats relied on cooked food supplied by an offsite commissary, the scheme made sense only if deliveries could reach multiple outlets easily. In 1964 construction was to begin on a unit in Augusta, Georgia, but the project was delayed because of company “reorganization.” It was to be part of a group of Dine-O-Mats in Albany, Macon, and Savannah, but whether any of the Georgia restaurants opened I cannot determine.

PatBooneDunkinDonutsNPlainfieldNJIn 1965, when the Augusta construction was slated to begin, a newspaper report announced, “The Pat Boone Restaurant Corp. has revised all plans and has just now completed reorganization with new, modernized plans for its restaurants.” Though it’s hard to imagine what could be more modern than “space age,” it’s possible the geodesic dome had been scrapped and that the North Plainfield NJ Dunkin Donuts pictured here was once a Dine-O-Mat as some people believe.

The company’s confusing advertisements for prospective investors required differing minimum investment amounts ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 for a “limited (inactive) partnership” in April of 1963, to $15,000 to become an “area controller” in October, then asking $10,000 for an “investment opportunity” in March of 1965. Did anyone ever get the 10% to 13% returns that were estimated?

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under chain restaurants, proprietors & careers, roadside restaurants, technology

Celebrity restaurants: Evelyn Nesbit’s tea room

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of celebrities have gone into the restaurant business when their careers waned. Their level of direct involvement may be high or low but all these ventures bank on the idea that a famous name will attract customers.

When Evelyn Nesbit opened her NYC tea room in May of 1921 she made sure that her name was prominently displayed. Located on West 52nd street just off Broadway, the sign saying “Evelyn Nesbit’s Specialty Shop” was visible from the theater district’s Great White Way.

She was then in her mid-30s, years away from her peak as a teenage artist’s model [above, age 16], “Gibson Girl,” Floradora showgirl, and millionaire’s wife. Her fame derived not only from her former good looks – from the years her image was displayed everywhere – but also from her involvement in a romantic triangle with prominent architect Stanford White and her insanely jealous husband Harry Thaw. After Thaw shot and killed White in 1906, she became notorious as a witness during the sensational “trial of the century.”

By 1921 she had divorced Thaw, had a son, returned sporadically to the stage, taken up sculpture, published a memoir, and married a second husband from whom she was estranged. Characteristically, she was in debt, owing the equivalent of a year’s income to a dress shop.

Her tea room enjoyed such a short, unsuccessful run that it is hard to learn much about it. Presumably she raised funds from friends to furnish it and pay the $300 monthly rent. She lived in two rooms upstairs. One account described the 100-seat tea room as “super-beautiful” and furnished with rich carpets, Oriental tapestries, and exotic plants, a description at odds with the homey scene in a 1922 photograph shown here.

In several interviews Evelyn made what sound like preposterous claims that she served food available nowhere else. “I am revolutionizing the restaurant business in New York,” she boasted. Her specialties included deep dish apple pie and ice cream which she said she made herself. “I amazed the chef, let me tell you, with what I know about cooking,” she said.

I found it surprising that she claimed to be a good cook; however I did discover that when she left the US for Paris in 1910, surely pregnant with her son, she told friends that she planned to rent a modest apartment on the outskirts of Paris, study sculpture, and do her own cooking.  Although she evidently hired someone else to cook for the tea room she said she furnished the recipes and did all the buying.

Things went wrong fast. During the first six months she (barely) survived three robberies, one kidnap attempt, one suicide attempt, and eviction for nonpayment of rent. On a second try in January of 1922 she was successfully evicted, after which she returned to cabaret dancing. In 1926, while performing at Chicago’s Moulin Rouge, she tried to kill herself again by swallowing Lysol. Her troubled brother took his own life two years later.

But Evelyn achieved happiness in later life and lived on to age 81. She moved to Southern California near her three grandchildren and their father, a pilot for Douglas Aircraft. She returned to her lifelong interest in art, teaching sculpture and ceramics at a community center. Easing her constant need for money, she received a $10,000 bequest when Thaw died in 1947 and was paid more than $50,000 for use of her life story in the 1955 movie “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.”

After many years away, she visited New York in 1955, reflecting on the great meals she had eaten during her heyday. Passing the former location of Sherry’s, she recalled “the wonderful terrapin they served.” She expressed surprise that she had managed to stay slim in her youth. “I ate so much in the old days I still wonder why I didn’t get fat,” she said referring to another performer’s, Lillian Russell’s, “upholstered” appearance. Heading off to a restaurant dinner, the ever-unsentimental Evelyn confessed, “You know what I really want to see most in New York? A nice big broiled Maine lobster.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Filed under proprietors & careers, tea shops, women

The Craftsman, a model restaurant

The restaurant operated by Gustav Stickley on the 12th floor of his retail house furnishings store on 39th street in NYC was a brave but brief experiment in pure food, sanitation, and “progressive living.” It opened in May of 1913 and was out of business a few months short of three years later when the entire retail business failed.

The restaurant’s ability to attract patronage was undoubtedly limited since it was intended to appeal to the same people who admired Arts & Crafts furniture and house fixtures. This did not include most Americans, particularly new immigrants who populated big cities such as New York. Additionally, restaurants located in stores, even big department stores which can attract hordes of shoppers each day, typically lose money.

The restaurant followed the same aesthetic, both in its decor and its approach to food preparation, that defined the Craftsman Workshop’s project generally. The Workshop’s ambitions were captured in the motto which appeared on furniture labels and the restaurant’s china: “Als ik kan.” In its quaint Dutch formulation, it was a pledge to do one’s very best work.

When applied to food this meant pure and fresh ingredients straight from the source, simply prepared by cooks using modern appliances in a pleasant work environment, and consumed slowly in a restful setting. “Style,”whether in house furnishings or a meal, was supposed to emerge organically from an honest approach to materials and workmanship. A 1910 article in the influential Stickley publication The Craftsman identified a type of ideal restaurant, the down-to-earth “marketman’s” café (such as New York’s Smith & McNell or Boston’s Durgin-Park) which used fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, and fowl that had never seen the inside of a factory or cold-storage warehouse.

Provisions such as eggs, dairy products, vegetables, and spring water served for lunch[eon], teatime, and dinner at the Craftsman Restaurant were trucked in daily from Stickley’s 600-acre Craftsman Farms in Morris Plains NJ. As food reformer and “real food” proponent Alfred W. McCann argued, the restaurant was a model for the entire industry. “The legalized chemical preservatives, chemical bleachers, chemical glazes, chemical flavors, inert fillers and extenders, coal tar dyes and grossly impoverished foods, however popular, can find no place on the Craftsman bill-of-fare,” he wrote in 1915.

The Craftsman Restaurant was a haven for people of “good taste” wishing to avoid the show-off culture of champagne and loud music exemplified by lobster palaces and cabarets. It was the polar opposite of the garish Café de l’Opera, though ironically each in its own way was a spectacular failure. The Craftsman appealed to patrons such as well-to-do club women and college alumni groups. Shortly before it closed, the restaurant hosted Columbia University’s class of 1902. They enjoyed their dinner but were sorely disappointed to find out that the restaurant served no alcoholic beverages.

The dining room was decorated in earth tones: browns, deep reds, oatmeals, and creams. Plates, bowls, and cups were rimmed with a pinecone design. Bread was served in handmade willow baskets. The wood floor was mostly left bare while the tables were covered with criss-crossing Irish linen runners. A focal point of the room was a Germanic-looking hearth covered in Grueby tiles, with a hammered copper hood.

In keeping with the subdued decor, quiet and low-key service was accomplished by what one visitor described as “soft-treading little men of Nippon,” while stringed instruments softly played “something familiar from Grieg or [Edward] MacDowell.” This was most definitely not a restaurant for rowdies.

The store and restaurant closed early in 1916. In August the entire stock of the Craftsman Workshops store was sold at Gimbels Department Store at reductions of 35% to 50%.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Filed under alternative restaurants