Tag Archives: women restaurateurs

Restaurant-ing with Mildred Pierce


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


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

Anatomy of a restaurateur: Kate Munra

With her Early-American-style ringlets and silk gowns, already outdated by 1900 when this portrait was taken, white-haired Katherine Sterrett Munra scarcely looks like a highly skilled hospitality professional. And yet she was.

She was a pinch hitter for the Oregon Rail & Navigation Company whose trains ran across Oregon through the rugged Blue Mountains. She worked at many of their establishments, plus oversaw food facilities at Oregon’s hotels and resorts as well as at a university and a department store.

In the 1870s, at the then-advanced age of 44, she moved to southern California from her hometown of Erie PA where she ran a boarding house and raised three children single-handedly. Her marriage had ended, probably through desertion or divorce. In the seven years she lived in California she married twice and ran two boarding houses. After her second husband’s death she married an accountant, Selkirk Munra, and they took a steamer to Oregon, assuming management of a hotel in Eugene.

Next they managed the O. R. & N.’s dining facility at Bonneville. When the railroad closed it down, they returned to Eugene as managers of another hotel there. We then find Kate running the student dining halls at the University of Oregon, Eugene. Next, in December of 1894 she went back to work for the railroad, choosing furnishings for the new log hotel and restaurant in Meacham. She managed it from its inauguration in January 1895 until it was destroyed by fire in 1902.

A publicity agent for the O. R. & N. may have been responsible for dubbing Kate “Grandma,” a dubious title commonly bestowed on women past 60. He heaped praise upon the Log Cabin, calling it a “frontier Delmonico’s” and a “mountain-gulch Waldorf ” where the rugged West melded with the “refined luxury of the metropolis.” “Cabin, tables, linen, china, silver, glass and waiter-girls are all the perfection of neatness and cleanliness, and the cookery is as dainty as that of the daintiest old-time private family,” he wrote. Although Kate learned to cook as a child and could have prepared the meals, her role was to supervise the kitchen and dining room staffs.

After the Log Cabin burned Kate managed the railroad’s hotel at Huntington OR, and then a private resort at Hood River called the Country Club Inn. In the winter of 1904, when the inn was closed for the season, she presided over the opening of a tea room at Portland’s Olds-Wortman department store. She might well have retired at this point, but in 1905 came an announcement that she would act as housekeeper for the Hotel Sommer in La Grande OR. She was 75.

Eventually she did retire, joining her daughter’s household in Portland and living until age 92. She was a suffragist and friend of Oregon suffrage leader Agnes Lane. In recognition of her pioneering role in Oregon’s development a peak in the Blue Mountains was named for her in 1915.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

Other posts on restaurant women:
Richards Treat cafeteria
Miss Hulling’s cafeteria
Anna de Naucaze
Harriet Moody
Romany Marie
Mary Alletta Crump
Afro-American women
The Maramor
Mary Elizabeth’s
Women culinary professionals
Alice Foote MacDougall


Filed under proprietors & careers, women

Famous in its day: Richards Treat Cafeteria

With its ham loaf and chicken pot pie, the Richards Treat Cafeteria on South Sixth Street in downtown Minneapolis was akin to other cafeterias and restaurants run by women, such as The Maramor in Columbus, Miss Hulling’s in St. Louis, and the Anna-Maude in Oklahoma City. Like its sisters, the Richards Treat was not known for culinary innovation but for preparing home-like dishes from scratch using fresh ingredients cooked in small batches.

The Richards Treat was opened in 1924 by two home economics professors at the University of Minnesota, Lenore Richards and Nola Treat, who ran the successful enterprise until 1957. The two met in 1915 when they both taught at Kansas State Agricultural College in Manhattan KS. They became close and decided to arrange their lives so they could work and live together from then on. “I am not and never have been married,” each wrote in 1923 when applying for passports prior to a European tour.

Nola Treat [pictured, 1923] had some experience in running cafeterias before 1924. She had set up a high school cafeteria in Decatur IL in 1911 when many schools provided no meal service. Following that she inaugurated student cafeterias and institutional management programs at several Midwestern state colleges and universities. Apparently she was well aware that many people disliked cafeterias, publishing an article titled “Why Cafeterias Fail” just months before opening her own. In it she said that it was unusual to find the sort of cafeteria which was “so attractive in appearance, and which serves such good food, that the most fastidious people will go to it.”

Perhaps that was why Richards and Treat always paid such close attention to their restaurant’s decor, which had little in common with the typical cafeteria’s institutional appearance. Theirs more nearly resembled a tea room with its antique cupboard of curly maple, pewter objects from the couple’s collection, and other decorative pieces brought back from their travels. Each table in the main dining room, including the one where they ate their own dinner nightly, held glowing candles in candlestick holders or candelabra.

In their cafeteria they attempted to provide a home substitute for patrons who might be unable to get home for meals or who lived in efficiency apartments. “The atmosphere of the dining room – its quiet, order, cleanliness – contribute to a feeling of well-being and satisfaction in the food,” observed Lenore [pictured, 1923] in a 1941 address to the Home Economics Association.

Their menus featured American cooking as understood by the middle-class American-born mainstream in the mid-20th century. An April 1933 menu offered a special 50-cent dinner of Veal Loaf with Mushroom Sauce, Buttered New Asparagus and Carrots, and desserts such as Fresh Strawberry Shortcake or Devils Food Cake, accompanied by Coffee, Milk, or Buttermilk.

For 15 or more years the cafeteria supplied cakes for dining cars of the Great Northern Railroad. When they learned, quite by accident, that the cakes’ top layers had a habit of sliding off when trains went over mountains en route to Seattle, they substituted sheet cakes. Cakes, cookies, bread, and house-made candy were popular sellers at the cafeteria’s bake counter where, in the 1940s, they also sold Laguna Pottery from California.

The cafeteria became a place where lawyers, judges, professional men and women, and newspaper reporters gathered, leading restaurant guidebook publisher Duncan Hines to characterize it as “Educated Food for Educated People.” The slogan was adopted by the Richards Treat.

They expanded several times, seating 300 by 1944, and winning loyal patrons despite stiff competition from other cafeterias such as The Forum and Miller’s Cafeteria. They also ran a coffee shop in the Northwestern Bank Building. Throughout their career they received many accolades, served on the editorial board of Restaurant Management magazine, and held top positions in the National Restaurant Association. Their book Quantity Cooking, published in 1922, with three subsequent editions, became a basic text used by the US military in World War II and restaurants throughout the country into at least the 1970s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012


Filed under cafeterias, proprietors & careers, restaurants, women

Anatomy of a restaurateur: Harriet Moody

It’s a good bet that there have not been many women, or men, who have opened their first restaurant at age 68 – and, furthermore, made a success of it.

Harriet Tilden (Brainard) Moody [pictured below at about age 20] was exceptional in many ways. She built a culinary reputation long before she opened Le Petit Gourmet in 1920 in Chicago’s Italian Court at 615 North Michigan Boulevard. She had been one of the city’s premier caterers since 1890 when she founded the Home Delicacies Association. Despite her status as a divorcée, she managed to stay afloat in Chicago society, catering teas for charitable affairs and remaining a member in good standing of elite clubs such as the Fortnightly, the Twentieth Century, and the Chicago College Club. Working with her friend Bertha (Mrs. Potter) Palmer, she was one of the “lady managers” of the Chicago World’s Fair.

When her father, a once-wealthy cattle shipper, died in 1886, the recently divorced Harriet was forced to put her Cornell degree to work to support herself and her mother. She took a job teaching high school English but found she needed more income. Although she had never cooked, she deployed her refined tastes to produce dainty salads and baked goods of the sort appreciated by women of the upper classes. She supplied delicate dishes to Marshall Field’s department store tea room, to dining cars in trains departing from Chicago, and to fashionable private clients. Rising at 4:00 a.m. she spent several hours before she left for the classroom each morning supervising the Home Delicacies crew which numbered about 50 by 1899.

She became so successful that she not only supported her mother’s household, but also bought a second house where she lived and ran the catering business on the top floor until transferring it to larger quarters. She also owned a Greenwich Village townhouse on Waverly Place and a summer place, the historic William Cullen Bryant homestead in Cummington MA.

Harriet married poet William Vaughn Moody in 1909 and after his death the following year began to befriend other poets, often putting them up at her places in Chicago, New York, and Cummington, sometimes for months-long stays. At Le Petit Gourmet in the 1920s she organized poetry nights at which Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many others, read their work.

In 1911 Harriet established a branch of the Home Delicacies Association in London. Harry Gordon Selfridge, who as former manager of Marshall Field’s had jump-started her catering business in Chicago by ordering gingerbread and chicken salad from her, now asked for dishes for Selfridge’s, his department store which opened that year in London.

Seven years after establishing Le Petit Gourmet, Harriet and a woman partner opened another Chicago restaurant, Au Grand Gourmet, in a modern setting on the ground floor of a new building at 180 East Delaware. But her luck changed and in 1929 financial exigency required her to sell out. She attempted to recoup her losses a couple of years later with the publication of Mrs. William Vaughn Moody’s Cookbook.

Le Petit Gourmet, known simply as Le Petit, survived for decades under various owners, most notably Grace Pebbles, who also ran similar restaurants in Oak Park, Miami, Denver, and Hollywood. The Italian Court, constructed from 1919-1926 as a complex of shops and apartments for artists, was razed in 1968 to make way for an office building.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

1 Comment

Filed under proprietors & careers, women

Anatomy of a restaurateur: Romany Marie

Marie Marchand, whose business name was Romany Marie, was taken aback in the 1950s when a Greenwich Village restaurateur declined to host a dinner for Marie’s artist friends on the grounds they would occupy the tables too long. In a 1960 interview recorded in Romany Marie, Queen of Greenwich Village by Robert Schulman, Marie reflected, “It was a little shock to me. Poor dear, she felt she had to have turnover, she was in the restaurant business, not in the venture of maintaining a center for lingering tempo.”

For someone such as Marie who had herself been in the restaurant business for over 30 years, this would seem to be an odd reaction. But hers were odd restaurants – she preferred to call them centers – where patrons were encouraged to linger. If they lacked money for a meal, and they fit her criteria as creative spirits, she let them eat for free. Luckily, she had a brother who helped her out financially because hers was not a lucrative business. On the other hand, she encouraged and helped sustain dozens of artists and creators such as Buckminster Fuller, Burl Ives, Stuart Davis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Sloan (one of the many artists who painted her portrait – pictured above).

Marie, who as a teenager came to the US from Romania in 1901, said she patterned her taverns (so-called though she served no alcoholic drinks) after the inn her mother ran for gypsies in the old country. To honor her mother, Marie dressed as a gypsy and usually decorated in rococo style with peasant scarves, batiks, pottery, and her patrons’ paintings. Several of the 11 locations she occupied over the years featured fireplaces, which to the horror of health inspectors she used for broiling steaks.

After working initially in the garment industry Marie brought her mother and sisters to New York. The family lived on the lower East Side near the Ferrer School which offered workers free adult education. She became involved with the school where she met artists and thinkers who later became her patrons and, sometimes, volunteer waiters. In 1914 she opened her first place in the Village’s Sheridan Square. Amenities were sorely lacking, with both stairway and toilet facilities located outdoors. For years she had no electricity, candles furnishing the only lighting.

AtmosphereRomanyMarieSummer1921In 1915 she moved to 20 Christopher Street and it was at this location, the one she occupied the longest, that her name became well known. Another location of renown was 15 Minetta Street, with an interior designed by Buckminster Fuller in the late 1920s. In the 1960 interview Marie quoted Fuller as saying, “I’m going to fix up this place in a Dymaxion way.” He outfitted the restaurant with canvas sling chairs, “aeroplane tables,” and aluminum cone lights. Instead of the darkness her patrons were accustomed to, Fuller lit the place up by painting the walls silver. Sculptor Isamu Noguchi assisted (“Bucky got me to help him with painting the place up solar.”). Everyone disliked the brightness, the tables wobbled when food was placed on them, and the chairs collapsed when sat on. The experiment failed but Marie promised Fuller one free meal a day for the rest of his life, a benefit that carried him through the Depression.

In addition to Romanian dishes such as meat pies and cabbage rolls, Marie specialized in strong coffee which she advertised as Café Noir à la Turque. Her signature dish was ciorbă, a soup of vegetables, meatballs, eggs, lemon juice, and sour cream. Marie’s husband Arnold, a difficult man who was known to deliberately break dishes and otherwise sabotage her efforts, rendered this dish on his phonetic menu as “Tchorbah, peasant soop.” A menu by him also listed “Boylt Beeph wit been’s & hors radish,” and “Lone Guy Land Greens.”

Marie continued in the restaurant business until 1946 when she retired to care for Arnold. Each time Marie moved her restaurant she announced it with a sign which said “The caravan has moved.” Its last move was to 49 Grove Street.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under Offbeat places, proprietors & careers, women

Famous in its day: The Maramor

maramormaprevImagine a restaurant management style diametrically opposed to Gordon Ramsay’s (as he takes command in nightmarish kitchens on TV), and you might well be picturing how Mary Love ran her restaurant, The Maramor in Columbus, Ohio.

Mary was a home economist who had previously managed the tea room at the F & R Lazarus department store in Columbus. Single, 29 years old, and a lodger in a family’s home, she opened a small place at 112 E. Broad in 1920. Not much later she married Malcolm McGuckin and for a few years they lived in California where he ran a Wills Sainte Claire auto dealership. When the car plant shut down in 1927 the McGuckins moved back to Columbus to run the restaurant, now at 137 E. Broad.

Malcolm was president of the company which also included a candy shop, while Mary, mother of four by 1928, managed the restaurant. She believed in supervising employees in a non-conflictual way. Sociologist William Foote Whyte presented her method of conducting staff meetings in a 1946 article. Mary’s style of management, which Whyte characterized as the “open-minded exploratory approach,” stressed listening, participation, and sensitivity to others’ feelings. “Make sure there is no personal embarrassment to any individual,” she insisted. Also, “Guide the meeting so that an … overemotional person does not take the reins.” (Gordon?)

homeecon-ramsay2-copyIn 1941 Mary described to a home economics conference how she ran her kitchen. She avoided frying and stressed the nutritional properties of food, preparing fresh vegetables to retain flavor and vitamins. Each day her planning department presented the production manager with the day’s menus, while a weighing and measuring specialist prepared trays with complete ingredients for every dish. The trays were given to the cooks, along with detailed instructions for cooking. “This,” Mary said, “helps them to keep their poise and self-respect through the working day, and a cook with poise and self-respect has a better chance of turning out a good product.” (Gordon?)

Thanks to testimonials from theatrical personalities appearing in plays in town, such as Helen Hayes and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the restaurant earned a national reputation. Lunt and Fontanne, who ate there often, were so pleased with the restaurant’s “Lamb Luntanne” that they declared in the guest book that The Maramor was “the best restaurant in America.” Hayes, a queen in “Victoria Regina,” praised the Maramor’s vichyssoise, calling it “A soup to a queen’s taste.”

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas may have eaten at The Maramor during their 1934 visit to Columbus. It seems likely that Alice was referring to it when she wrote: “In Columbus, Ohio, there was a small restaurant that served meals that would have been my pride if they had come to our table from our kitchen. The cooks were women and the owner was a woman and it was managed by women. The cooking was beyond compare, neither fluffy nor emasculated, as women’s cooking can be [Oh Alice!], but succulent and savoury.”

Duncan Hines named The Maramor one of his favorite eating places in an early 1947 interview, singling out its incomparable stewed chicken: “The chicken is so delicate in flavor, tender, the dumplings light as thistledown, cooked in the rich, creamy gravy.” In 1945 the McGuckins had sold the restaurant to Maurice Sher and moved to California, so it’s not clear exactly whose stewed chicken Hines meant. In 1948 the restaurant was listed in Gourmet’s Guide to Good Eating. The Shers operated the restaurant until 1969. Next it had a short run as a music venue, the Maramor Club. The building was razed in 1972.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009


Filed under proprietors & careers, tea shops, women

Building a tea room empire

bluewhiteteacupHistorically, few tea rooms have enjoyed financial success. So, while “empire” may be a bit grandiose, it’s hard not be impressed by the tea rooms enterprise Ida Frese and her cousin, Ada Mae Luckey, built in New York City in the early 20th century. Ida and Ada, both from a small town near Toledo OH, struck it rich by winning the patronage of wealthy society women. Over time they owned six eating places: the Colonia Tea Room (their first), the 5th Avenue Tea Room, the Garden Tea Room in the O’Neill-Adams dry goods store, the Woman’s Lunch Club, and two Vanity Fair Tea Rooms.

How they did it is a mystery not fully explained by the reputed deliciousness of their waffles nor the coziness of the Vanity Fair’s fireplace. I have not been able to find anything about their backgrounds that explains what prepared them for business success. Although contemporary publications cited them as the founders of one of NYC’s first tea rooms, it’s not clear exactly when they got their start. In 1900 Ida, 28 years old, was still living with her family in Ohio, however only ten years later she and Ada were well established in New York, running at least four tea rooms.

vanityfair278Clearly they valued a good location. The Vanity Fair at 4 West Fortieth Street began in 1911, bearing a notice on its postcard (pictured) that it was across the street from the “new” public library which also opened in 1911. The tea room’s upstairs ballroom was the site of many a party, such as a Shrove Tuesday celebration in February 1914 attended by 150 masked guests.

fresetearoomsAdding to their financial success were several real estate coups. In 1914 Ida somehow obtained a lease on a coveted Fifth Avenue property. Her feat astonished everyone who followed real estate deals since the owner, a granddaughter of William H. Vanderbilt, had turned down repeated offers from would-be lessees and buyers. The house at #379 was one of the last residences on Fifth Avenue between 34th and 42nd streets which had not been turned into a store or office building. Ida and Ada moved the Colonia, previously on 33rd Street, to this address and rented the remaining space to retail businesses, dubbing the structure the “Women’s Commercial Building.”

In 1920 they constructed a building at 3 East 38th Street, planning to relocate the Vanity Fair Tea Room because they feared – incorrectly as it turned out – that they would lose the lease for the old Vanity Fair on West 40th. Just four years later Ida took an 84-year lease on the five-story office building at the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 33rd Street. Eventually she bought this, as well as the Fifth Avenue property which was at some point replaced by a 6-story building. By 1926, in addition to the three pieces of Manhattan real estate, Ida and Ada had also acquired a farm in Connecticut where they grew vegetables and flowers for the tea rooms.

I don’t know the eventual fate of the tea rooms, but Ida and Ada, both in their late 80s, died in Los Angeles in 1959.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009


Filed under proprietors & careers, tea shops, women

Restaurateurs: Alice Foote MacDougall

Alice, shown in this 1929 book frontispiece at least 20 years younger than her true age at the time, was one of the most carefully crafted restaurant personas of her day. Due to numerous magazine stories spun by her publicity agent, she was widely known as the poor widow with three children who built a coffee wholesaling and restaurant empire on $38. Even she had to admit (or was this PR also?) that the story was overplayed. “How tired I did get of that woman and those interminable three!” she confessed. Quite honestly, I’ve always felt her much-vaunted opposition to suffrage for women was a publicity stunt too.

She was from a distinguished New York City family. Her great grandfather, Stephen Allen, was mayor of New York City in the 1820s, while her wealthy father Emerson Foote was a charter member of the Union League. Alice, her daughter, and her two sons were listed in the city’s Social Register in 1918. Her career in the coffee wholesaling business began in 1909 with the death of her husband Allan MacDougall. In the 1920s she was said to be the only woman expert in coffee grading and blending in the U.S.

She opened her first eating place, The Little Coffee Shop, in Grand Central Station in New York in December 1919. Waffles were the specialty in her homey café which was decorated with a plate rail and shelves holding decorative china. (Evidently tips were good, because MacDougall had the nerve to charge her waitresses $10 a day to work there.) By 1927 she had signed a $1 million lease for her fifth coffee house, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street. Her places became known for their Italian-Spanish scene setting. The reason, she said, was that it provided a way to disguise long, narrow spaces, as was clearly the case with the Cortile (shown here).

At Firenze, reputedly used as a movie set, she dressed her black servers like Italian peasants in bright uniforms and head scarves and had them go about filling copper jugs with water from a stone well. Tables were set with imported pottery which she sold as well, along with her Bowling Green Coffee. The Mediterranean village style mimicking courtyard interiors became wildly popular throughout the U.S. in the 1920s and countless women were inspired by MacDougall to open tea and coffee shops of their own. The chain went bankrupt in the depression and new management took over for a time, lowering prices and adding cocktails to the menu.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008


Filed under tea shops, women

Drinking rum, eating Cantonese

Will the real Don the Beachcomber please stand up and mix me a Zombie? As is true with so many business histories it’s difficult to lock down the true story. Confusion in the case of Don the Beachcomber mainly arises from a divorce between the principals, Don (or Donn) Beach (born Ernest Beaumont-Gantt) and his one-time wife Cora Irene Sund. Both were involved in the development of the original Don the Beachcomber, begun in 1934 as a bar serving exotic drinks in Hollywood, California. Cora, a Minnesota schoolteacher turned model, arrived on the scene shortly after Don launched his business. She invested in it and became president, while Don acted as general manager. She focused on the food side of things, hiring a Cantonese chef and expanding the bar into a restaurant with “South Seas” cuisine. They married in 1937 and divorced in 1940, the year Cora opened a branch in Chicago. When Don came back from the Air Force after WWII they split up as business partners, she keeping the mainland operations while he concentrated on Hawaii.

According to Vic Bergeron, creator of Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber provided his inspiration for transforming his Oakland CA bar and sandwich spot Hinky Dink’s into a Polynesian restaurant in 1938.

beachcombertrunkDon ran into trouble with the postwar longshoremen’s strike and decided to limit his Honolulu Beachcomber to a drinking spot. By the early 1960s he was also in the restaurant business, operating a South Seas Cabaret Restaurant, a Colonel’s Plantation Steak House, a Colonel’s Coffee House, and at least one restaurant boat. Cora’s popular Chicago Don the Beachcomber was named one of the top 50 US restaurants in 1947. She soon opened another location in Palm Springs and by 1972, when it was acquired by Getty Financial, the chain had 6 or 7 units.

The greatest growth occurred under Getty management, eventually building the chain to a total of 16. An architect gave the Beachcombers a new look. The interior of the new 1973 Dallas Beachcomber, like others to follow, featured a full array of tropical effects such as a bridge over a reflecting pool, a waterfall, rain forest, thatched roofs, palm trees, and outrigger canoes suspended from a firefly-studded ceiling. But the public’s love affair with Polynesian restaurants began to fade and by 1989 only three Don the Beachcombers remained.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008


Filed under Polynesian restaurants