Tag Archives: tips

Carhops in fact and fiction

The word “carhop” is almost certain to bring to mind a teenage girl dressed in a brief costume, possibly on roller skates. Ever since the George Lucas movie American Graffiti in 1973, the female carhop has become an icon. She is an object of nostalgia, even for those too young to have experienced drive-ins with carhops.

It’s not certain when she appeared on the scene. Curb service, usually for soda fountains in pharmacies, goes back to the turn of the 20th century. Usually boys were hired to rush orders while the driver of a car, or horse-drawn wagon, waited impatiently along the curb in front. In the 1920s Pig Stands selling sodas and sandwiches in Texas offered the same service. The Hot Shoppes also came along in the 1920s. In 1931 they advertised in Washington, D.C. for “girls for tray service.” In 1933 a Miami Beach drive-in looked for an “attractive curb waitress.”

By the late 1930s teenage girls and young [white] women (25 at the very oldest) were commonplace in Texas and California drive-ins and were the subject of quite a bit of turmoil. They worked long hours, often until late at night. In many cases, they not only delivered sandwiches to customers, but also beer, sometimes working for drive-ins that were more tavern than restaurant.

Issues surrounding female carhops came to a head in Texas and California in 1940. In January California’s chief of the Division of Industrial Welfare ordered 30 drive-ins to pay carhops the state’s legal minimum wage for women which was $16 a week. The drive-ins reacted negatively, being accustomed to paying no wages at all – carhops worked for tips only — as well as charging carhops for uniforms and meals. The Industrial Welfare head, a woman, threatened to arrest drive-in operators who failed to comply.

Meanwhile, in Texas the press was aglow with publicity about its carhops in LIFE magazine. The magazine’s cover showed an attractive teen dressed in a drum majorette outfit with what were then considered very short shorts. Stories in the Dallas press about carhops at that time were flippant, like one about the couple thrown out of a surrey. The sheriff, the story related, said “the horse probably had shied at the girl carhops in shorts who are employed at a near-by beer tavern.”


Although the drive-in featured in LIFE was in Houston, I wonder if all the publicity generated by that story was responsible for the blossoming movement of Dallas women who objected to carhops dressed in “scanties.” One letter-to-the-editor charged that if drive-in owners had to rely on “cheap chorus comedy cavortings” then the carhops “should be paid show house wages.” But when another letter writer suggested male carhops should also be dressed in short shorts and boots, the drive-in burlesque heated up as a few roadside places complied, attracting mobs of women. [illustration shows carhop interview]

Over time the campaign for modest dress for carhops met with more success than did the attempts to win wages for California carhops, or to unionize carhops in Dallas. In Texas, the state Restaurant Association denounced skimpy outfits and declared bare skin a violation of the state’s sanitary laws. The public, led by women and church leaders, grew more supportive of reform. With drive-ins in Houston and Dallas, one of the state’s largest operators, Sivils, agreed in 1942 to abandon shorts and bare midriffs for knee-length skirts and waist-long jackets. Other drive-ins followed their example, many dressing carhops in blouses and slacks. Meanwhile, drive-in owners in California went to court for a permanent injunction against the minimum wage order issued by the Industrial Welfare Commission. A judge ruled in their favor after they brought in more than a dozen carhops who testified they made from $25 to $70 a night in tips. A campaign to organize carhops at Sivils in Dallas likewise met defeat. Although the carhops voted for unionization, demanding a salary of $3 a week, a daily meal, and free uniforms, Sivils flatly rejected their vote.

In the course of the struggles new facts about carhops emerged. Far from carefree many of them were parents who, even if married, needed to work to support their families. A bitter letter testifying to this appeared in May, 1940, signed “two former carhops.” The women wrote that carhops dressed in shorts and grass skirts “are at least coming nearer to making a living wage than at any other time of their existence” while the women who complained about their outfits did not have to work for a living. They argued that without big tips, some carhops would become streetwalkers.

Big tips or not, serving customers in cars could be a trying experience, and the turnover rate among carhops was high, with many lasting only a few weeks. A 1957 column in Drive-In Restaurant, a trade magazine, revealed how carhops characterized customers: The Food Refuser, The Horn Blower, The Souvenir Seeker, the Breakage Fiends, The Deadbeats, The Wolves. As the last implies, attention from men was not always enjoyable, and sometimes it was dangerously hostile. In 1953, there was an instance of boys driving by a drive-in pelting girl carhops with gravel in Sacramento CA. A few carhops even met their deaths from obsessed customers.

By the mid-1950s, some drive-ins looked for ways to speed up service with automated ordering, usually from intercoms mounted on poles. Carhops’ only job then was to deliver food. Other drive-ins eliminated car service entirely, requiring customers to walk up to a window to order their food and carry it back to their car. When Ray Kroc took over the McDonald brothers’ drive-ins, he continued their practice of walk-up service. In the late 1950s Kroc reportedly attributed his company’s expansion to “no tipping, no jukebox, and no carhops.”

Although drive-ins with carhops can still be found today in some places, elegies for them began in the 1970s, American Graffiti being a prime example. Carhop fiction is more entertaining, but recognizing the difficulties carhops experienced in doing their jobs is, in my opinion, a better way to acknowledge them.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017


Filed under drive-ins, patrons, roadside restaurants, uniforms & costumes, women

Behind the kitchen door

behindthekitchendoor482Although restaurant patrons often question servers about the sources of the food on the menu – whether it’s organic, local, or fresh – they rarely think about the work life of their server or other restaurant personnel. In the words of Saru Jayaraman, author of Behind the Kitchen Door, most “are totally unaware of the horribly exploitative working conditions in restaurants, which affect the quality of our food and, ultimately, our health.”

They do not know, for instance, that many restaurant workers earn less than poverty-level incomes in jobs that are ranked among the nation’s worst paying, are often cheated out of their earnings, and often feel compelled to work when sick. Or that female restaurant workers and all workers of color face discrimination pushing them into the lowest ranks of restaurant jobs where their chances of rising are often blocked.

Jayaraman, one of the founders of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) in 2002, wrote Behind the Kitchen Door to make the restaurant public as thoughtful about restaurant employees as they are about restaurant food, and to engage them in the movement to better workers’ pay and opportunities. The book intersperses facts about restaurant working conditions with moving stories of individuals.

If you read this book it’s true that you will probably not be quite as carefree about future restaurant experiences as you were before. You may become more selective about which restaurants you patronize. On the bright side, you may decide to help change things.

Consider the following, much of which is from surveys conducted by ROC:

● Restaurant workers made, on average, an annual income of $15,092 in 2009, one third of what other workers in the private sector made on average.

● The $2.13 federal minimum wage for tipped workers, originally calculated as one half the minimum wage (when it was $4.25), has not risen since 1991. (Restaurants are allowed to apply tips to workers’ hourly wages to meet the current $7.25 federal minimum wage.)

Waitstaff● The National Restaurant Association, “dominated by large multinational restaurant corporations that have a lot of money to spend on lobbyists,” such as the Darden group (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and others) firmly opposes increases in the minimum tipped wage of $2.13.

● States can set a minimum wage for tipped workers, and seven (Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington) have the same minimum wage for tipped as for non-tipped workers. The NRA claims raising the minimum wage for tipped workers would create a hardship, yet the seven states “all have thriving restaurant industries,” according to Jayaraman. Look at the Department of Labor’s 2013 table “Minimum wages for tipped workers” to see how states compare.

● ROC surveys of more than 4,000 restaurant workers found that 90% had no paid sick days and most could not afford to take off work when sick. According to Jayaraman, the National Restaurant Association “has spent years lobbying to prevent restaurant workers from winning paid sick days. In Washington, D.C., the NRA struck a closed-door deal with the city council to exempt all tipped workers from a local paid sick-leave law.”

● In ROC’s national survey, “three-quarters of all white workers held a position in the front of a restaurant, while less than half of all African American and about one-third of all Latino workers held a front of the house position.” When African Americans and Latinos do work in the dining room they are most likely to be bussers – and to find it hard to get promoted to server with the chance to multiply their earnings times five or more.

These are but a few of the revelations in Behind the Kitchen Door. If the book has a single message about what to do, it is, “Adopt a definition of ‘sustainable food’ that includes sustainable labor practices.”

ROC puts out an annual National Diners Guide. Although it contains relatively few restaurants, it is worth looking at.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under miscellaneous, proprietors & careers