Tag Archives: Schrafft’s

Automation, part II: the disappearing kitchen

automatedJay'sdrive-in1966beltThe dream of a robotized restaurant is an old one, first focused on service, then on the kitchen. It culminated in a system that automated nearly the entire operation, both service and food preparation. Sounds futuristic, but the pinnacle of automation took place around 50 years ago.

If the first stage of automating the restaurant involved getting rid of servers, the second stage involved eliminating kitchen personnel while streamlining food preparation. Kitchen tasks were mechanized and geared toward producing predictable results with standardized portion sizes and speedy cooking.

The modern automated kitchens of the post-WWII period, were either (1) absent altogether in the case of machines vending frozen dinners, or (2) filled with equipment that needed only a few employees to trigger the slicing, mixing, pouring, and frying of a limited selection of burgers, fries, shakes, and sodas. Gathering steam, by the 1960s automation took giant leaps in a number of high-volume drive-ins, the restaurant type that foreshadowed the fast food restaurant.

A fully automated push-button kitchen was available for lease or purchase in 1964, a product of the American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF), a large diversified company that developed and produced, among many other things, bowling alley pin spotters, power boats, guided missiles, and nuclear reactors for Israel, Iran, and Pakistan.

automatedJay'sdrive-insept1966OrbisconsoleDespite all the effort that went into its development, the fully automatic restaurant proved to be a failure. It was ridiculously expensive compared to how cheaply workers could be hired. And it broke down regularly, necessitating a well-paid, full-time technician on staff.

That full automation did not succeed should not obscure the fact that many restaurants today are highly automated compared to how they operated in the early 20th century. Plus in many chain restaurants tasks are so routinized and scripted that the humans who perform them might be considered quasi-robotized. As plans move ahead to raise hourly wages for workers in chain restaurants, it’s possible that restaurant automation will once again come into focus.

A sampling of projects:

1931 – Inventor H. Russell Brand’s automatic pancake machine is used at a Childs restaurant on West 34th St., NYC. Guests push a button on their table to start an automatic pancake machine that produces a stack of three pancakes which are, however, delivered by waiters. Possibly the earliest case of the automation of food preparation, nonetheless Childs removed the machines in 1938.

1939 – Meant to grow into a chain, a Roboshef restaurant with an automated cooker opens in San Francisco with the slogan, “Quality Food Cooked by Controlled Temperature, Not Temperament.” One employee can produce 120 meals per hour, producing perfectly timed steaks, seafood, fried potatoes, and biscuits.

automatic1948ILL

1948 – With the debut of the WWII spinoff radarange that cooks instantly by molecule-agitating sound waves, Popular Science magazine imagines a restaurant of the future in which customers push buttons at their table that send frozen dinners to microwave ovens and then on conveyor belts to their tables.

1949 – In San Francisco, Ott’s, billed as the world’s biggest drive-in, turns out meals in 6 minutes on average in its modern kitchen in which a machine molds 800 hamburger patties an hour while another slices 1,000 buns in the same time.

automatedPopMech19581958 – Popular Mechanics magazine proclaims that a revolution has taken place in restaurants, due to infrared ray grills, electronic ovens, timing devices, precision slicing and cutting machines, patty extruders [pictured], compression steamers, soft-drink mixers, and other wonders. Quoting a restaurant consultant, the magazine declares, “Food service has become an exact science.”

1959 – According to the Washington Post, the nation’s three largest hamburger chains – then McDonald’s, Burger Chef, and Golden Point – are set to revolutionize food vending through standardization, menu simplification, and “a good helping of automation.”

1961 – The increasing use of pre-portioned frozen food in restaurants heated with sophisticated high-speed fryers, pressure cookers, and electronic ovens shrinks preparation areas in kitchens even as freezers grow larger.

automatedSchrafft'sEssovendingnearBaltimore1963

1961 – Stouffer’s opens two short-lived automated vending restaurants with frozen food. The roadside restaurants are paneled with recycled wood from old barns to avoid a sterile appearance. Customers are unexpectedly confused about how to heat their meals, requiring an attendant to help them. Schrafft’s [pictured] and White Tower’s Tower-O-Matic, NYC, also experiment with vending machine operations.

1962 – The first of Pat Boone’s Dine-O-Mats opens, with coin-operated vending machines stocked with frozen dinners prepared off-site that are to be microwaved. The chain fails.

automatedJay'sdrive-in1966

1963 – The first fully automated kitchen is installed at the La Fiesta Drive-In, in Levittown NY. A test case for “AMFare,” the drive-in uses a computer-driven order and billing system that launches refrigerated items on a 4-minute journey to be cooked and trayed “without any handling whatsoever by restaurant personnel.” Alas, a live worker is needed for matching completed orders with checks [pictured]. The AMF system is installed secretly in the basement while a false kitchen in back is added “to satisfy customers.”

1966 – AMFare testing complete, Jay’s Brookdale Restaurant in Minneapolis MN becomes the first fully automated restaurant in the nation. Second is the Mustang Drive-In in Lexington KY.

By 1968, when the system is being tested by the Breese Terrace Cafeteria at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, it is employed by five restaurants. Then it seems to vanish.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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An annotated menu

One of my most-treasured menus is a grubby, dog-earned Afternoon Tea menu from Schrafft’s at 181 Broadway in NYC dated September 3, 1929. What makes it so great is that it was carried off from the restaurant by someone who took detailed notes concerning a number of dishes. Apparently (judging from the notation “Monday & Wednesday”) the “spy” made two visits to the restaurant. The menu has holes along the side as though it was kept in a binder for reference.

I have always imagined that the spy, who must have been accompanied by a few friends, was a rival tea room operator hoping to learn a lesson or two from a successful competitor. The notes really bring the menu to life, and also give a feel for just how scanty tea room dishes could be. I had read that tea rooms were often criticized for their high-priced “bird-like” portions. I see from this menu that there was some truth in the charge.

The prices are indeed high. It is difficult to be confident about today’s equivalents to the prices below, but keep in mind that in 1929 a full dinner could be had at a decent restaurant for 50 cents. So, clearly, the sense in which Schrafft’s was a middle-class restaurant essentially means that it was easily affordable only to the upper middle class and above, though lower-income patrons may have enjoyed an occasional splurge there.

Here are a few of my transcriptions of the difficult-to-read notations, with my punctuation and explanations added:

Cold Fresh Shrimp with Tomato Mayonnaise in Puff Shell – 55 cents
Cut top off a tea [?] puff; put a 40 sc. [presumably refers to scoop size] of tomato mayonnaise inside; put 5 large or 6 small shrimp in the puff; place 3 or 4 nice sprigs of watercress around puff; serve on T. P. [tea plate]; make Bread & Butter sandwich cut in [fourths]

Toasted Mushroom Sandwich, Stuffed Celery, Ice Cream and Cocoanut Crisps, Pot of Tea – 60 cents
Cut crusts off 2 sl. toast and ½ inch off remaining 2 sides; butter and cover with mushrooms, a nice piece of lettuce; cover with another sl. toast same size; spread with mayonnaise; cut in 3 oblong pieces; serve on a doily on a T. P. with 1 stalk of stuffed celery

Egg and Tomato Salad – 50 cents
4 pcs. crisp lett. laid on a salad pl.; 3 ½ slices of tomato, cut crosswise; in center ½ stuffed egg; between each slice of tomato, place a nice spray of watercress

Fruit Salad with Orange Cream Dressing – 65 cents
A small sl. pineapple on 2 sm. lettuce leaves; on 1 side 1 section orange, half on pineapple and half on plate; on other side between orange & grapefruit on a l. l. [lettuce leaf] put 30 sco[o]p of dressing

Cocoanut Crisps – 25 cents
2 ea. on the Tea [see Toasted Mushroom Sandwich above], 4 ea. ala carte

Chicken Salad Club (Sandwich) – 60 cents
Tea plates. 1 sl. toast; 30 scoop of Ch. salad, may[be?] 8 lettuce leaf. Another slice of toast, cut diag. on ea. half; place ½ sl. of bacon, ½ sl. tomato, sweet pickle & toast cover

Fresh Fruit and Pecan Salad – 55 cents
Tea plate. 1 sl. pine[apple]; 2 sec. orange; 2 sec. grapefruit, 8 pecans

Fresh Bartlett Pear and Roquefort Cheese with Special Dressing – 65 cents
Tea plate. 2 halves of pear, 50 sc. of cheese in ea.; sp. dressing, capers, pimiento

Creamed Potatoes with New Lima Beans (Plate) – 45 cents
Tea plate. 1 sp. cr. pot[ato]; 1 sp. of limas; sprig of parsley

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Good eaters: Andy Warhol

He certainly wasn’t from the same category of eaters as James Beard, yet both Beard and Andy Warhol celebrated American cuisine, even in its more humble pancake/sandwich/barbecue forms. Warhol was a typical American eater in many regards. He was conservative about his food, preferred simple dishes, and was happy eating in front of the TV.

As for restaurants, he explained in his 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol that he stayed thin by ordering things he disliked in restaurants — even fashionable and expensive ones such as La Grenouille. While his companions ate, he picked at his plate and then had the food wrapped up so he could leave it somewhere for a homeless person to find. He called this the “Andy Warhol New York City Diet.”

He much preferred “good, plain American lunchroom[s] or even the good plain American lunchcounter” to chic eateries. His favorites, already vanished by 1975, were the “old-style” Chock Full O’ Nuts and Schrafft’s. “The days were carefree in the 1940s and 1950s when I could go into a Chocks for my cream cheese sandwich with nuts on date-nut bread and not worry about a thing,” he wrote. He felt that people could not handle many challenges to their food habits without becoming upset. As he put it, “Progress is very important and exciting in everything except food.”

He came close to becoming a restaurateur himself when he announced the coming of the “Andy-Mat,” an unpretentious neighborhood restaurant serving homely comfort food at reasonable prices which was slated to open in fall of 1977 on Madison Avenue at 74th Street in NYC, perhaps launching a chain. (See photo with Warhol and his partners, [standing L to R] architect Araldo Cossutta, developer Geoffrey Leeds, and financier C. Cheever Hardwick III.) Described as “a tinker toy for sophisticates,” Warhol’s concept included pneumatic tubes through which customers’ orders would be whooshed into the kitchen. The meals served in Andy-Mats, in keeping with the times, were to be frozen dinners requiring only reheating.

For some reason — poor location or failure to raise capital or maybe because the whole plan was cooked up over “twelve stingers at El Morocco” — the restaurant did not materialize.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Men only

Men’s grills were often located in hotels or were set off as special preserves in venues heavily trafficked by women such as tea rooms and department stores. Schrafft’s, Stouffer’s, Mary Elizabeth’s, Marshall Field’s all featured men’s grills. Designed to resemble clubs, they were decorated in Elizabethan or Dutch style with dark wood paneling and sturdy tables and chairs, in stark contrast to the pastel garden look of women’s tea rooms. Women secretly referred to men’s grills as “tea rooms for men.”

There were plenty of grill-type restaurants in the 19th century – when they needed no gender preface because everyone knew they were men’s haunts. But in the 20th, with more women out and about and entering restaurants willy nilly, the words “men’s grill” were used deliberately lest a misguided female might wander in. Policies varied. In some men’s grills absolutely no women were allowed while in others men could bring women guests (see 1966 Schrafft’s ad). But women “alone” were not admitted. Not until the 1970s, that is.

In May 1970 a prominent NYC editor, a woman, walked into Schrafft’s on the corner of 47th Street and Third Avenue with another woman. They noticed that at the back of the restaurant there was a section that looked especially attractive, with more space between tables, tablecloths, and carpeting that cushioned noise. The hostess told them it was the men’s grill and they were not permitted to eat there. They left. The editor sent a letter to Schrafft’s saying that although she was no “stirred-up advocate of Women’s Lib,” she was offended by the restaurant’s policy which, she asserted, was illegal. She received a reply from a Schrafft’s VP who said that the restaurant no longer had a policy of reserving some areas for men. The hostess’s reaction, he said, was due to a breakdown of communication.

Stuffy as they may have been there was much to envy about men’s grills. As a Chicago woman remarked, they had “fast service, good food, and cheaper prices than a comparable restaurant.” She and a woman friend crashed the men’s grill at the Carson, Pirie, Scott department store in Chicago, noting that a male patron there asked the hostess, “Why don’t you throw them out?” They enjoyed their lunch even though their waitress said, “Don’t you know men come here to get away from you?”

The 1964 Civil Rights Law did not mention gender as a basis for discrimination in public accommodations, but after its passage some cities and states enacted laws that forbade it in restaurants and bars. Chicago passed legislation in 1969. McSorley’s ale house in Greenwich Village, with a 116-year tradition of serving men exclusively, gave way in 1970 after the NY city council passed a bill. Even in states without this legislation changing social mores soon brought about new policies. Men’s grills disappeared, to the consternation of some men who, like the lone dissenter on NY’s city council, lamented, “In this troubled world there has to be an oasis in the desert for men.” However, judging from a 1970 comic book, many men disagreed.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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When ladies lunched: Schrafft’s

Schrafft’s began as a candy manufacturer in Boston but over time morphed into a well-known restaurant chain. In 1898 Frank G. Shattuck, a salesman for the Schrafft company from upstate New York, opened a candy store at Broadway and 36th in New York. His sister, Jane Shattuck, was largely responsible for the introduction of light lunches into the stores. The first to serve food was the Syracuse store in 1906 where a “Japanese Tea Room” (shown here) was boldly advertised as “the daintiest luncheon spot in all the State.” By 1909 Jane also introduced meals to the second NYC Schrafft’s, at 54 West 23rd Street in the heart of a thriving shopping district. By 1927, when there were 25 units, most located in NYC, the Wall Street Journal estimated that around 75% of Shattuck’s business was in the restaurant trade, with the rest candy-related.

schrafft's1920Schrafft’s was known for reproducing an air of gentility typical of the upper middle-class WASP home. Cooks, supervisors, and even some executives were women. Menus of the 1920s and 1930s included many salads, more desserts than entrees, and non-restaurant-y vegetable selections such as creamed cauliflower and fried eggplant. Frank claimed Schrafft’s cuisine was inspired by his mother’s cooking. Repeated efforts to overcome connotations of a “women’s restaurant” and attract men met with disappointing results despite customers such as James Beard. Women dominated even after some units began to serve cocktails in 1934.

Rent cuts in the depression encouraged chain expansion and by 1937, when Frank died, there were 43 Schrafft’s, most in metro NYC but a few in Boston and Philadelphia. At its peak there were about 50 units in greater NYC. In 1961 the chain played briefly with the idea of selling frozen dinners on the roadside. In the late 1960s the Schrafft’s candy company was sold to Helme Products while Pet, Inc. took over the restaurants. Pet made a renewed effort to renovate Schrafft’s image and attract men. At the Fifth Ave location (between 45th & 46th) the soda fountain was removed and a bar installed. The second floor, men-only dining room was given dark wood paneling, zebra-stripe carpeting, and named “The Male Animal.” The 1970s saw confusion as a Schrafft’s opened in Los Angeles (sporting a Chinese room and an Elizabethan room), new ownership took control, and numerous NYC locations were shut down. In 1981 the candy company ceased while the few restaurants remaining were in various hands.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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