Tag Archives: self-service restaurants

Speed eating

Since the early 19th century, observers have commented on how fast Americans eat. Visitors from other countries were especially apt to notice the speed with which people, particularly men, gulped down their food and hurried away from the table as quickly as possible.

In the 1843 book Men and Manners in America, the author observed that “all was hurry, bustle, clamor, and voracity, and the business of repletion went forward with a rapidity altogether unexampled.” He described how at breakfast he had barely arrived at the communal table as others were rushing off, leaving behind a terrific mess of chicken bones, an upset mustard pot, and a tablecloth with egg, coffee, and gravy stains. Dinner was no better: “the same scene of gulping and swallowing, as if for a wager.” Many of his fellow diners left the dining room before the second course and few waited for dessert.

His observations were ratified by many others, continuing throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. New York’s inexpensive “slam-bang” places with counters were especially noted for their customers’ speed of eating. Viewed from the back, wrote an essayist in 1865, a row of 30 men with heads bent down and elbows moving rapidly looked as though they were weaving or fiddling. They finished in about 8 minutes.

A Scribner’s story in 1874 described the typical American restaurant as a place where men “do not eat – they feed,” without even removing their hats. It reported that the average mid-day “dinner” time lasted 6 minutes and 45 seconds. At New York’s Astor House of the 1880s – scarcely a low-class eatery – many of the male customers ate standing up at a counter, a practice that was by no means rare. A visiting French economist attributed the popularity of 5-minute counter lunches in saloons to the wish not to interfere with business — a convenience “that does not cut the day in two.” Or, as another writer put it in 1895, “The ammunition is put in, with a wad of dessert on top, and in ten minutes the man who is going to be a millionaire in less than ten years is back at his desk, loaded and pointed at his work . . .”

By the late 1890s, women had also become speed eaters, “stopping in restaurants when shopping and being in such a hurry that they don’t care what they eat and do not even remove hats and coats.” The so-called “new woman” was ready to sit at lunch counters “like a man and eat her pie and drink her coffee in a hurly-burly.”

The late 19th century also witnessed the development and spread of new restaurant types organized around speed – the cafeteria, the automatic restaurant, and the quick lunch, all of which were based on the abolition of table service. They also did away with the much-hated custom of tipping that was widely viewed as a foreign importation from old and dying Europe.

Through the 20th century speediness was made into a science, increasingly applying not only to how fast customers ate, but how quickly food could be prepared, how quickly customers could be presented with food, and how they could be induced to leave as soon as possible. The hot noontime “dinner” gave way to the sandwich lunch. The number of menu choices was reduced. Chains developed that produced food in central commissaries, doing away with the need for full-scale restaurant kitchens. Cafeterias discovered they could speed up the serving line by wrapping silverware in a napkin. Uncomfortable seating could be designed to stop patrons from lingering.

After the second World War, in which the military had developed rapid methods of feeding troops, speed-up technology advanced in restaurants. A California drive-in had machines that could mold 800 hamburger patties per hour and slice 1,000 buns in the same time. In 1956 an automatic broiler was advertised to drive-ins that broiled approximately 300 burgers an hour. The franchise system began to spread quickly to drive-in eateries across the country, but now without curb service because it was much too slow even if carhops wore roller skates. Even table-service restaurants, catering to the relatively leisurely dinner crowd which was on the increase in the 1960s, improved their speed with frozen foods, boiling bags, and microwave ovens.

By 1965, more than 70% of the more than 378,000 commercial eating places in this country were quick-service restaurants, according to a marketing research study.

No one comments about Americans eating fast anymore. It has become normal.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

6 Comments

Filed under cafeterias, chain restaurants, patrons

Early chains: Baltimore Dairy Lunch

baltimorelunchDetroitAPeople liked to say that the names of lunch room chains in the early 20th century offered a lesson in geography. There were Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Hartford, Iowa, Manhattan, Maryland, Milwaukee, New York, Pennsylvania, Pittsburg, St. Louis, and Utica Lunches, or Dairy Lunches as some were known. Los Angelenos patronized a New York Lunch in 1905, while customers in Duluth MN, Lexington KY, and San Francisco enjoyed their sandwiches in a Boston Lunch. Detroit had its Manhattan Lunch, while Manhattan had a Detroit Lunch. And so on.

baltimorelunchDetroitBBut before the 1920s no lunchroom chain was as popular as the Baltimore Dairy Lunch which at that time outnumbered Childs. Founder James A. Whitcomb began the business in the late 1880s in Washington, D.C., where he was a federal postal clerk, then opening a lunch room in Baltimore. Along with four quasi-franchisers, he controlled about 140 units by 1920. The largest branch, under the ownership of Harry Bowles in Springfield MA, consisted of a couple dozen units. Few large cities were without a Baltimore Dairy Lunch, as Whitcomb’s were named, or a Baltimore Lunch, the name used by Bowles.

baltimorelunchDetroitCWhether they belonged to large or small chains or were independents, Baltimores or Buffalos,  all Lunches were similar. As someone put it, “It’s an age of standardization, and one restaurant is now much like every other, barring minor differences.” A humorous story in Everybody’s Magazine in 1914 featured a cranky elderly man who went around from lunch room to lunch room asking the local wits, “What is the difference between a Hartford Lunch and a Baltimore Lunch.” Their answer was always the same, “Search me.”

Regardless of their similarity, dairy lunches were regarded as characteristically and proudly American, so much so that during battle in World War I, after U.S. soldiers took control of an improvised clubhouse used by German troops, they tore down a sign the Germans had posted over the door that said “Hindenburg Rathskeller” and replaced it with “Baltimore Lunch.”

baltimorelunchDetroitBaltimore Lunches shared many features in common with the fast food chains that arrived in the 1960s. Their offerings were simple and inexpensive. No alcohol was served. Customers got their food at a counter and carried it to their seats. Seating – one-armed wooden chairs — was uncomfortable and did not encourage lingering. Patrons didn’t mind, though, because they were interested in expediting the entire getting and eating process so they could go about their business.

baltimorelunchDetroit710Unlike fast food architecture of the 1960s, though, Baltimore Lunches were built as solidly and luxuriously as Grecian temples. Interiors used marble lavishly for counters and fixtures. Was it because both Whitcomb and Bowles were natives of Vermont, the state where so much marble is quarried? Maybe, but I think that marble was an expression of cleanliness and investment in a growing economy’s ability to efficiently mass produce affordable, nutritious meals. A standard feature of the Baltimore Lunch – a large marble bowl filled with sugar set on a marble pedestal — can easily be seen as a representation of democratic abundance.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

24 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, lunch rooms

Taste of a decade: 1910s restaurants

Like the decade following World War I, this was an eventful period in the development of the restaurant. Social and economic changes favored the growth of eating out. Even before the U.S. entered the war in April of 1917 restaurant patronage was on the rise and by the following year the Food Administration, under the direction of future president Herbert Hoover, estimated that more food was consumed in restaurants than in homes.

It was a schizophrenic decade. It opened with an accent on the high life but ended in austerity mode. Luxurious cabarets and “lobster palaces” of the early decade would sink into oblivion near its close. But at the same time urbanized speed-up and intense modern work regimes inclined people to seek more outlets for pleasure. Increasing numbers of single male and female white-collar workers in cities abandoned the old home-based courtship tradition; the new custom of middle-class dating brought a search for entertainment and swelled restaurant going. With better public transportation and the feminization of downtowns, more and more women patronized tea rooms and restaurants in and around department stores.

Due to growing sentiment against drinking, the saloon free lunch was on the skids by mid-decade. State-wide prohibition spread and the majority of the nation’s population soon lived in areas where the sale of alcohol was illegal. Saloon keepers remaining in the larger cities saw that their days were numbered and began to take out restaurant licenses. Authorities suspected that many of the restaurants did not actually serve meals but just wanted to evade laws which forced saloons to close on Sundays. Nevertheless, the trend would increasingly become genuine and bars would be turned into lunch counters and soda fountains.

In a tight labor market accompanied by Food Administration conservation measures that discouraged frills, most of the new restaurants were lunch rooms of the self-service type. In them customers avoided tipping and enjoyed lower prices for simple ready-to-eat meals.

American involvement in the war encouraged anti-ethnic sentiment, particularly toward Germans. Many restaurants took steps to appear more American, such as changing their names. Patrons expressed a wish to see menus with no French or other foreign terms. With the sudden end to European immigration, culinary labor unions took the opportunity to strike for shorter hours and higher wages. Frequently restaurant owners responded by replacing striking male waiters with women, who were believed to be more docile.

Highlights

1910 Measured as a ratio of restaurant keepers to total population, the nation’s top five restaurant cities are: 1) Seattle (1:434); 2) San Francisco (1:449); 3) Los Angeles (1:560); 4) Kansas City (1:580); and Manhattan (1:583)*. Los Angeles claims the reason for so many restaurants is its wealth of tourists and single men.

1911 Until legal counsel advises this would be a discriminatory misuse of police powers, the Massachusetts Legislature bandies about the notion of making it illegal for women under 21 to enter Chinese restaurants.

1912 New York City’s first Horn & Hardart Automat opens. – Speedy service is prized even at Casebeer’s Lazy J Cafeteria in Waterloo, Iowa, where the slogan is “One minute service – We don’t waste your time.”

1913 The diary of an executive secretary in NYC shows her eating in restaurants over 100 times during the year, including her first-ever restaurant breakfast. Among her favorites are Childs, Schrafft’s, The Goody Shop, and The Vanity Fair and The Rip Van Winkle tea rooms.

1913 NYC’s cabarets and “lobster palaces” such as Murray’s, Martin’s, and Shanley’s, formerly open all night, take a hit as the mayor orders 1:00 a.m. closings.

1914 Despite earning only $5.85 a week, a woman working in an Ohio playing card factory spends 30% of her food budget on restaurant meals, most costing 25 cents.

1915 An exact replica of a white-tiled Childs lunchroom is featured in a scene of a Broadway play directed by David Belasco.

1916 On one short block near Boston’s Newspaper Row, twelve restaurants serve 40,000 meals daily. – In the novel The Thirteenth Commandment a young couple gets engaged after a “a typical New York courtship [in which] they visited restaurants of all degrees.”

1917 Although the managers of Chicago’s Bismarck Hotel station an American flag at the entrance to the dining room (the Berlin Room), it is damaged by dynamite just a few months after the U.S. enters war with Germany. — The Kaiserhof Cafe in NYC changes its name to Cafe New York.

1918 Restaurants place glass on tabletops to save linens and laundry for the duration of the war. They remove sugar bowls, take cheese dishes such as Welsh rarebit off their menus, and feature more hors d’oeuvres, fresh vegetables, salads, fruits, seafoods, and organ meats.

1919 In response to labor agitation, restaurant men organize and hold the first National Restaurant Association convention in Kansas City MO. – Louis Sherry announces he will close his deluxe Fifth Avenue restaurant due to hardships imposed by Prohibition and “Bolsheviki waiters.”

* By comparison a recent NYT story reported that the U.S. city with the highest number of restaurants per capita is San Francisco, where the ratio is 1:227. NYC is 1:347.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1850 to 1860; 1860 to 1870; 1870 to 1880; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970

4 Comments

Filed under miscellaneous