Tag Archives: restaurant regulations

Dining during an epidemic

1918 was an extremely challenging year for restaurants. As if coping with the (so-called) “Spanish” flu weren’t bad enough, there were food shortages and rationing due to WWI, a shortage of employees, and looming national prohibition of alcohol.

And yet the proprietors of Gailey’s Lunch Room in Chicago look quite content in September of that year. Only six days later, on September 24, a headline in a Chicago newspaper would read “Influenza Hits City.” Then on Oct. 1 a story titled “Spreading Rapidly” reported that 372 cases had been identified in the past 24 hours. On Oct. 3 another story appeared warning Chicagoans that if they coughed or sneezed while on the street, they should expect a policeman to tap them on the shoulder and ask if they had a handkerchief.

Before it ended the Spanish flu, and its associated pneumonia, would kill as many as 675,000 Americans – many in the prime of life, including more soldiers than died in combat. The Gaileys, however, survived the epidemic and were still operating their lunch room in 1920.

All over the country municipal authorities enacted measures intended to halt the spread of the flu. Most of the orders and bans issued by cities were aimed at reducing congestion, particularly in downtown areas. They could range from staggering closing times in stores and offices to limit crowding on public transportation to completely shutting down businesses. Spitting on the street could bring a fine in Seattle. Shaking hands was advised against in New York City where the death rate recorded for week three of the epidemic was 1,972. As the flu spread, many theaters, pool halls, bowling alleys, ice cream parlors, and soda fountains across the country were summarily closed for the indefinite future. Some cities asked residents to stay away from downtown at night. In some places, public funerals were not permitted, courts were suspended, schools were closed, and sporting events and meetings were canceled.

Restaurants were sometimes ordered to close early, but they were not generally shut down unless they persistently violated the more stringent health department rules being handed down. Unlike now, when going out to eat is often regarded as a leisure activity, restaurants and lunch rooms of the early 20th century were primarily seen as essential services for people living in rooming houses, those working in central business districts, and transients. In Alliance, Nebraska, on October 20, 1918, when the city was placed under quarantine and patrolled by Home Guards, and all businesses were closed, restaurants — the one exception — remained open.

However, restaurants had to adapt to new health department laws. The most common one across the country was that all dishes, glasses, and silverware had to be sterilized by immersion in scalding hot water. Rather surprisingly, this had not previously been normal practice. Nor had the use of glass covers for food on display.

Other practices varied. In New Orleans and Fort Wayne IN, and probably other cities, restaurant workers were required to wear masks. New Orleans restaurant workers were supplied with only one mask, which was to be soaked in boiling water for 20 minutes each evening and hung to dry for the next day’s use.

Denver CO and Duluth MN were among the cities that ordered patrons to be given extra space. Duluth’s ordinance stated “That restaurants, cafes and eating houses shall be limited to accommodate one person to each 20 square feet of floor space.” Denver restaurant proprietors were not allowed to continue the practice of closing off part of the restaurant and seating all the patrons in one area. At the end of October, when Seattle officials ordered all non-essential employees to stay home from work, they considered further limiting the number of people who could be admitted to restaurants. At that time Seattle also required restaurants to leave doors open for ventilation. Because of the ban on overcrowding, patrons of some restaurants in Washington, D.C., were forced to wait in lines outside.

What restaurants could serve also came under scrutiny. Some cities did not allow restaurants to operate bars, or to serve alcohol at all, presumably because it encouraged congregating and lingering. It’s a puzzle to me why in Harrisburg patrons could not simply order pie and ice cream unless it was preceded by a regular meal. Maybe it was deemed too frivolous and a waste of space that could be occupied by serious eaters.

How effective all these measures were is unknown, although progress in restaurant sanitation was made. The sterilization rule was surely an advance over earlier dishwashing methods, as were glass cases.

It is also unknown how many restaurants suffered financially or closed during the months of 1918 that the flu raged in the U.S.A. Other than Rippeteau’s in Denver and White Way Drug Store in Tampa [above], in my fairly lengthy search I found no additional restaurants advertising that they were safe. It seems as though only a few places acknowledged publicly that anything abnormal was happening, perhaps because no one wanted to focus on the situation any more than they had to.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under restaurant issues, sanitation

Sawdust on the floor

Reformers of the 1910s would not have believed anyone who predicted that sawdust floors would make a comeback later in the century. But come back they did.

In the early 20th century, sawdust floors were seen as a vestige of disappearing filthy low-class eating places. Earlier they had been found in a great variety of places – English chop houses, French bistros, German, Italian, and Chinese restaurants, and saloons of every kind. In New York sawdust dealers of the 1880s made daily rounds selling 25-cent barrels to restaurants, saloons, and butcher shops (where sawdust collected blood).

But things were starting to change in the early 1900s as chains of sanitary lunch rooms with scrubbed white tile floors and walls became popular. In 1911, the Edison Monthly – a magazine devoted to promoting the use of bright lighting – confidently declared, “The old hole-in-the-wall lunch room, with its flickering lights, its smoky atmosphere, its greasy walls and sawdust carpeted floor, is a thing of the past.”

City health departments warned that cheap lunch rooms of the old sort rarely replaced sawdust, often covering one dirty layer with another and rarely cleaning the wood flooring below.

Concern with sanitation caused many municipalities to adopt ordinances forbidding the use of sawdust on floors anyplace food was produced or sold. San Antonio’s 1914 ordinance was typical, stating, “No person owning or managing any such business shall permit the use of sawdust, shavings, or other dust-creating or filth-collecting covering on the floor of any such room.”

Nonetheless sawdust had a strange appeal at the same time it was denounced as brimming with bacteria and vermin. Visitors to San Francisco were drawn to places such as Sanguinetti’s where they could earn cultural credits back home for inhaling its wild and crazy bohemian atmosphere. As a 1906 article put it, “No tourist could feel that he had really taken in all the sights of the city until he had sat at one of its tables and eaten of the very indifferent fare served there, and dropped his cigar ashes on the sawdust covered floor.”

And that was another thing about sawdust floors – they tended to catch on fire when cigar and cigarette butts were dropped on them.

Through the decades sawdust floors acquired strong associations with beef and beer – and male patrons. These associations formed a reservoir of meaning that theme restaurants of the future were destined to draw upon.

Steak houses were especially attracted to the winning beef-beer-men combination. The first inklings of sawdust’s return came with the legalization of beer in 1933. The Palm steak house in Manhattan, a man’s restaurant frequented by newspapermen, was one to use it. Steak houses were so strongly associated with men that it was newsworthy in 1947 when a woman restaurateur departed from their standard rough-edged ambiance which she characterized as “A smoke-filled room, too-bright lights and sawdust on the floor.” In order to please women customers, she instead chose oak paneling, sound-proofed ceilings, soft lighting, and window boxes with green plants.

Unsurprisingly, she did not start a trend. By the 1960s, if not earlier, the bad old days had been transformed into cheery “bygone days” when life was truer and simpler. Americans of the era hungered for amusement with their meat. “Historic decor, the chef who cooks his steaks on a bed spring or an anvil, and the place where ‘famous people dine there’ . . . all offer that ‘something extra’ a man needs to draw him out,” observed industry consultant George Wenzel, who also recommended sawdust floors.

Restaurants with sawdust floors proliferated, many adopting other nostalgic (might we say hackneyed?) decor features such as red-checkered tablecloths, gas lights, pseudo-Tiffany lamps, pot-bellied stoves, and elaborate dark wood bars. O’Henry’s in NYC used a “fun” butcher shop theme, with real carcass hooks hanging from the ceiling and butcher blocks for tables. In Phoenix AZ the notion of a “hole in the wall” was redeemed from the ash pit of history by a 1970s resort where everything in sight was designed to appeal to men. At the resort’s café named The Hole in the Wall there was sawdust on the floor, tintypes on the wall, fires in the fireplaces, mugs of beer, and a manly menu of beef and buffalo steaks, rattlesnake meat, “cowboy beans,” and corn on the cob.

Along with steak houses, versatile sawdust floors turned up at Gay Nineties restaurants, English pubs, Wild West eateries, barbecue joints, even Mexican restaurants.

It’s hard to figure just how many states and municipalities issued ordinances prohibiting sawdust floors. In 1976 the federal Food and Drug Administration banned sawdust in restaurants, yet the ban was not universally followed. Sawdust floors were permitted in San Francisco, but not in Washington, D.C., for instance. Some restaurant owners strenuously resisted health departments that advocated for a ban. In Arizona, the battle over sawdust became intense when state and county health departments cracked down on several dozen restaurants in Phoenix. The restaurants countered that they replaced sawdust daily and had never experienced problems with patrons becoming ill.

Today? I believe that restaurants are not allowed to use sawdust on the floors in the U.S. today – but I am not 100% sure about this. It seems that patrons who still long for that kind of atmosphere must content themselves with throwing peanut shells on the floor.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under atmosphere, decor, lunch rooms, restaurant controversies, sanitation