America’s First Restaurant Chain wasn’t the burger joint your father told you about from the 1950’s or the diner Grandpa described once from the 1930’s. It came much earlier and had much more to offer than anything today.

One of the things that has always intriqued me is the history of dining in America. As a nation and a people, we’re generally very poor eaters. ‘If it’s fast, it has to be good’ seems to be the philosophy not only of this generation, but of several generations before. As a result we eat at fast fooderies like McDonald’s, the local diner, Kentucky Fried Chicken, while in places like Mexico, Canada and Europe, old ways of dining are still very popular.

So, how did we go from the long meals and extended dinner hours of the 17th and 18th centuries to ordering our meals by talking into a box from a car window? The answer has much to do with the railroads.

In the beginning days of the railroads, there were few dining cars, even on extended trips which took considerably longer than today by train, and much longer than our modern air travel. For a traveler to eat, the trains would make dining stops every 100 miles or so. If you were lucky, the dining room was right there at the station. You had a limited time.. let’s say an hour, to get to the restaurant, order your meal, wait for it to be cooked and served, then eat it, pay your bill and get back onboard.

When the train was ready to leave the station, it was ready to leave… with or without the passengers, some stuffed from gulping down a four or five course meal in 15 minutes or less. So many people missed their trains that a national problem started to develop with family members not arriving at the station as scheduled and being presumed dead or missing by loved ones. There being no proper passenger manifests, it was impossible to account for a person’s whereabouts.

In 1850, an enterprising Englishman named Fred Harvey came to these shores. In New York, he worked as a dishwasher for $2 per day. On those meager earnings, he saved enough to move to New Orleans. There, he continued to learn the restaurant trade from the bottom up, accumulating not only savings, but a wealth of experience and knowledge. In 1853, after suffering from Yellow Fever, he moved to St. Louis and six years later, at the eve of the Civil War, Harvey opened a restaurant with a partner. When the war broke out, his partner went to fight for the Confederacy while Harvey found himself broke. Taking a succession of jobs on the riverboats, then in the St. Joseph Post Office, he ended up sorting mail for the first railway post-office, ending up as a freight agent for Chicago, Burlington & Quincy RR out of Leavenworth, Kansas.

Combining the knowledge he gained working in the restaurant trade with his keen observations of the difficulties in train travel in the 1870’s, Harvey chanced upon an idea of how to successfully feed the passengers without loosing either time or the passengers themselves.

Interior Fred Harvey Restaurant, Union Station, LA

Interior Fred Harvey Restaurant, Union Station, LA

With a new partner, Harvey opened three new restaurants along the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Approaching his employer with to build a network of restaurants, he was summarily knocked down. But his tenacity and drive… his stiff-upper-lip attitude won the day as he approached the Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Actually, the person at Burlington that turned him down said “Why don’t you peddle this to that new line” in a sarcastic tone.

Well, Charles Morse, Santa Fe Superintendent was himself a gourmet and loved the idea of having a chain of restaurants where he could enjoy a decent meal. He fully supported Harvey and before long, the Harvey House chain… America’s first fast food restaurant chain was born. The first of these was in Topeka Station. This became the training base for all others in the chain.

It was so well organized and operated… well, let me give you an example. When the train pulled out of a station, the conductor would announce the next dining stop. He would also announce that eating in the dining room at the restaurant was 6 bits and that the counter was paid from the card. At the next stop, a trainman would wire the orders into the restaurant so that the staff could be ready to accommodate all the passengers within their 1 hour stop. As the train neared, a Harvey employee would ring a gong that alerted everyone and put the final touches in motion. When the customers entered orders for beverages were taken quickly and glasses arranged on the table in a coded layout so that any waitress could tell who got what drink.

Now about those waitresses. Fred Harvey was amazing in this regard. His second contribution to American history was the Harvey Girls. Will Rogers once quipped that Harvey had “kept the West in food and wives”. Harvey hired young ladies between 18 and 30 and made them conform to a strict set of moral and ethical guidelines. Mrs. Harvey met each girl as she was hired. Paid $17.50 a month, this was a dream job for many who were unable to cope with the burgeoning populations of big cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Many a Harvey girl, always respectable, became the wife to a customer. One railroad baron said “The Harvey House was not only a good place to eat; it was the Cupid of the Rails”. It is estimated that more than 100,000 girls worked for Harvey House restaurants and hotels and of those, 20,000 married their regular customers.

Harvey brought decent, respectable women to work in his restaurants at a time when “there were no ladies west of Dodge City, and no women west of Albuquerque”. Harvey Girls wore plain black floor length skirts, shirtwaists, shoes, stockings, ties and white bib aprons. And did they work. Sometimes serving dozens of guests at a seating.

Fred HarveyThe Harvey Houses owed their amazing success to the symbiotic relationship with the Santa Fe Railroad. Today, we call it co-branding, but in those days it was simply mutual support. Santa Fe Railroad supplied Harvey with buildings, coal, water, foodstuffs, staff transportation, etc. In turn, Harvey provided Santa Fe’s passengers with first class, clean dining with impeccable service, excellent food and reliably high standards throughout the chain.

Fast food? Yes, but not necessarily fast cooked. Harvey Houses were famous for their steaks, ribs and chops. It may well be that “steak and potatoes” was a Harvey invention like the Big Mac belongs to McDonald’s. The speed came from that marvelous system or organization.

Bravo! to Fred Harvey, the English father of the American chain restaurant. “The Harvey Girls” a film by MGM, was a rather accurate depiction of the lives of Harvey Girls in the American Southwest. It is highly recommended as a pictorial depiction of the lives of these courageous women.

Visit the official National Harvey Harvey Museum in Kansas.

Visit the Harvey House Museum in New Mexico.

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