You’re driving along a long stretch of highway. You’re starving. Do you dare risk stopping at a greasy spoon, not knowing much about the cleanliness factor let alone the caliber of the food?
Suddenly a sign for a chain restaurant comes into view. Like water in an oasis.
It could be Denny’s, or I-Hop, or Coco’s. Whatever it is you know that this is a known entity. The food may not be gourmet, but it meets a uniform standard of hygiene and is subject to oversight.
One might not ordinarily choose to dine at a casual chain restaurant near home on a regular basis, but, man, do we welcome the sight of one away from home.
I’m not speaking here of fast food places such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s, but rather of the diner-style chain restaurant.
How did these all come about? One of the first of its kind was the Harvey House.
Fred Harvey, a native of England, immigrated to New York as a young man and in 1875 opened up a café. The restaurant didn’t work out too well for him so he began working for the railroads as a freight agent. Still, he never gave up his passion for the restaurant business and eventually, he came up with the idea of establishing a system-wide eating house operation at all railroad meal stops.
It should be remembered that before the inclusion of dining cars in passenger trains became common practice, a rail passenger's only option for meal service in transit was to patronize one of the roadhouses often located near the railroad's water stops. Fare typically consisted of nothing more than rancid meat, cold beans, and week-old coffee. In 1878, Harvey contracted with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and started the first of his eating house-hotel establishments along the AT&SF tracks in Florence, Kansas. The rapid growth of the Harvey House chain soon followed.
Harvey’s waitresses, young, adventurous women from back east eager for a new life out west, came to be known as ‘the Harvey Girls’. (You might recall the 1946 movie, The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland). These girls brought a sense of decorum and civility to a region otherwise known as ‘the wild, wild west’. In order to re-enforce this, girls hired as Harvey waitresses were held to a high level of moral accountability. (In other words, there were Harvey Girls and there were ‘saloon girls’ such as Miss Kitty of Gunsmoke fame.
The Harvey House, with its comfort food and friendly service, continued until the early sixties, but it can be looked at as a model for other eating establishments to follow.
Of course, we have a plethora of more upscale food chains including Cheesecake Factory and Olive Garden, but across the nation there still exists Denny’s, Coco’s, Chili’s, Applebee’s, Howard Johnson’s, I-Hop, Bob’s Big Boy, and Friendly’s.
Long live them all.
Hope you enjoy a great weekend, and thanks for joining me on Rhodes Less Traveled.
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