On May 25, 1927, car manufacturer Henry Ford announced that he would stop building the Model T, more commonly known as the Tin Lizzie. He had built 15 million of them. On the same day, Mr. and Mrs. George Sampson announced the birth of their son Fred; that’s me. As a result I will, on May 25th of 2017, have the privilege of celebrating my 90th birthday. If doctors knew then what they know now, I’m sure they would have said, “He has foodservice in his DNA.”
In 1939 I was 12 years old, and went to work after school and on Saturdays in my parents’ restaurant in Philadelphia. That was 78 years ago. When I measure it against where the industry was then and is now, it seems like 178 years. Take a ride with me in my time machine and keep your eyes on the rearview mirror while I describe some of the career highlights and people that had a major impact on the foodservice industry over those seven decades plus eight years.
The year 1939 marked the beginning of what was to become World War II. The United States would not enter until December 7, 1941, so prices in the USA were still relatively stable. A loaf of bread cost 8 cents; a gallon of gas, 10 cents; hamburger meat, 14 cents a pound; a pound of cabbage, 3 cents; and Wisconsin cheese, 23 cents a pound. The median family income was $1,500 a year. I can remember brewing coffee in 5-gallon urns and serving it in green band cups for 5 cents per, with little glass creamers (real cream) with lids, all of which had to be washed and filled by hand after each usage—talk about labor costs! Bagels were still a predominantly Jewish bakery product and not competing with doughnuts. Speaking of doughnuts, the Mayflower Coffee Shops were making doughnuts on small machines in their front windows, which in turn created large crowds out front. Their motto was: “As you ramble through life, brother, whatever be your goal, keep thy eye on the doughnut and not the hole.” Who could possibly ever forget prose of that literary quality!
Cafeterias were still very much in vogue, as were the equivalents of today’s QSRs: Bickford’s, Chock Full o’ Nuts, White Tower Hamburgers, and White Castle (still growing strong). Horn & Hardart was operating cafeterias in New York City and Philadelphia and their automats were not only the original food vending machines, but they also became a tourist attraction for out-of-town visitors. F. W. Woolworth Company and its 5- and 10-cent stores were the largest foodservice company in America, having lunch counters in all of their 1,200 stores. The Childs Restaurants company operated what might be called, by today’s standards, upper-middle-class tablecloth restaurants, in about 25 cities throughout the Northeast. Sardi’s and the 21 Club were at the top of the game. “McDonald’s” was a farm operated by an old man and “subway” was something you rode and not ate.
The war brought with it rationing of gas, which affected the highway eateries, and the rationing of all foods changed America’s eating habits. Unfortunately, it also gave birth to the black market, leading to inflation. This occurred despite the fact that the government formed the Office of Price Administration, whereby all pricing and increases had to be approved. Some folks maintained that rationing was just a ploy by the government to make the population more sensitive to the war. Don’t believe it. I was there. Young men and women were not only putting their lives on the line, but to this day thousands of Americans are buried all over the world as testimony to our involvement.
The end of the war found the country anxious about its future and there was general agreement we would never be the same. One of the unforeseen events was how many service men and women would take advantage of the GI Bill of Rights, one of the greatest Acts that Congress ever passed. By 1947, applications for both college and home loans were changing both the housing and education businesses. The explosion of suburbs was about to take place, and new communities meant new foodservice establishments and opportunities.
Having weathered the impact of war, Howard Johnson, the “Host of the Highways,” was ready to expand. Not only was he opening new company stores, but his franchising program met with great success and orange roofs were appearing everywhere including in the new postwar phenomenon of suburbia. Howard Johnson became a pioneer in the toll-road feeding segment when he was awarded with the mother of all toll roads, the Pennsylvania Turnpike. In a few short years, Howard Johnson’s orange-roofed units were serving their frankforts (that’s not a typo; that’s what they were called), Ipswich clams, and 28 flavors of ice cream in about one third of 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii were still waiting in the wings for statehood).
In addition to the housing boom taking place across the country, Congress was about to pass another life-altering bill, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, which approved the building of 40,000 miles of interconnecting roads to cover the entire United States. The Act’s major purpose was to allow for the deployment of troops and war materials in the event of a national emergency. The roads were fashioned after Germany’s autobahns. One of the by-products was to create hundreds of interchange villages consisting of food service, lodging, and service station facilities. In many instances these interchange villages eventually attracted office buildings, truck terminals, outlet centers, and new housing. This was the beginning of transforming the face of rural America.
We’re now going to park our time machine until next time, when we will visit the Spectacular Sixties, the Sensational Seventies, and the Enlightening Eighties. I’ll save you a seat.