Jim Sullivan is an NRN contributor, a keynote speaker at foodservice conferences worldwide and author of the best-selling books “Multiunit Leadership” and “Fundamentals.” You can get his product catalog and additional insight at Sullivision.com.
Sullivision.com chief executive Jim Sullivan
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.
One of the great things about foodservice is that it’s America’s most democratic industry. Everyone uses it. It has no barriers to entry or success based on color, creed, race or education. It is America’s most tolerant and least class-conscious industry. The American dream shines here, not in hyperbole, but in reality. This industry began as a small cabbage and has sprouted into a cauliflower of growth and opportunity for countless immigrants, hard workers, and both mavens and misfits. Count me among its citizens. But how did we get here?
Commercial foodservice in North America as we know it originated in the latter part of the 19th century, and it was almost wholly a to-go business model. The Industrial Revolution and the plethora of factory jobs it created took people away from their homes to work. Since they couldn’t get to their houses to eat during lunch breaks, these workers either packed something or patronized the many pushcarts that set up outside their factories and, later, their office buildings. Interestingly, most of these noontime pushcart vendors spent their mornings delivering bulk meat, produce and fruit to neighborhood butchers, grocers, restaurants and well-to-do families, simultaneously creating both the fast-food industry and foodservice distribution.
While there were a few well-known sit-down restaurants in big cities, like the legendary Delmonico’s in New York, they were few in number and served mainly the wealthy. Dining out while sitting down and being served was a luxury many aspired to but few could afford in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On the very rare occasion when a middle-class or lower-class worker dined in a restaurant, they were renting an aspirational upper-class experience of service – being waited upon. (The upper class was used to this, having an average of three servants for every family member in their homes.) Restaurants provided an escape from one world into another, a unique characteristic among businesses that they still provide today.
As the 20th century dawned, the U.S. became increasingly mobile, and so did the mass merchandising of food. Arguably the first foodservice chain operator was Fred Harvey, whose exclusive partnership with the Santa Fe Railroad began in the 1870s. He provided quality, safe food on the trains and in their stations. Eventually he operated 84 restaurants with near-identical menus spread over some 30 states in a 1,500-mile-wide area. Traveling brought many income levels together in one place, and Harvey’s operations were patronized by all classes of travelers. Harvey employed genteel waitresses known as “Harvey girls” instead of rough-hewn waiters, and was a stickler for cleanliness and fair portions. His reported deathbed words to his sons were, "Don't cut the ham too thin, boys."
A class always emulates the ones above it. And so, as wages and hours improved, a yearning for sit-down restaurants they could afford was born among the working masses. Early retail giant Frank Winfield Woolworth noticed that the younger crowd had disposable income for both goods and socializing – not enough to buy a suit at Woolworth’s, perhaps, but enough to buy an ice cream soda at the local soda fountain, where they were gathering in ever-increasing numbers with their families and friends. A fan of Harvey’s restaurants, Woolworth was convinced that adding lunch counters to his store design would not only attract more customers, but also be a significant new revenue source.
He decided to put a long, fixed sandwich counter along the wall of each store. The counters offered affordable hot meals, pie and coffee to local workers both at lunch and after work. He then added an ice cream soda fountain to appeal to women and children. Like Harvey, he hired only waitresses, but he made sure his “soda jerks” were young, hip males. His team of restaurant managers figured out how to make the menu offerings identical and systems scalable across 600-plus stores, in effect defining the sit-down foodservice experience for millions (and generations) of Americans.
Quick-service restaurants grew along a parallel path, also fueled by innovative entrepreneurs. And as always, necessity is the mother of invention. Middle-class lunchrooms and restaurants did not have a reputation for the safest food or cleanest facilities in the early 20th century. Billy Ingram wanted to get rid of that image when he opened the Wichita, Kan.-based White Castle concept in 1923. He made the brand’s theme cleanliness and food purity, dressing his employees in white, firing managers on the spot for dirty counters, and borrowing the building’s castle design from Chicago’s famed Water Tower to give the effect of permanence and might.
Today, companies like Denny’s, Dairy Queen, Culver’s, IHOP, Panera Bread, TGI Fridays, Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, Starbucks and Chili’s Grill & Bar all share a common legacy, and systems first designed long ago by visionaries like Woolworth, Ingram and Harvey – with some refinements by the likes of Ray Kroc, Jim Collins, Norman Brinker, Howard Schultz and Steve Ells, of course.
What went around is still around. But I can’t wait to see what Gen Next will bring to our table.