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Fred Harvey: Founder of the Chain Restaurant

In 1850, a 15 year old boy from London arrived in New York City with $10 in his pocket. He found a position as ìpot walloperî or dishwasher at an upscale restaurant and began a lifelong passion with fine dining. From this inauspicious beginning, Fred Harvey would change the way people West of the Mississippi dined, create a marketing tool that helped create the worldís largest railroad, champion women in the work force, and build an empire.

As Fred Harvey worked his way west, stopping in New Orleans, St. Louis, and Kansas City, he acquired knowledge of the restaurant industry. When he wasnít on the floor waiting tables, he was asking questions of chefs and learning everything he possibly could about every aspect of the industry. His goal was to own his own restaurant, and in that endeavor, he accepted a lucrative position as a traveling freight agent on the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad. Traveling conditions were frightful in the late 1860ís and early 1870ís. Trains were dusty and full of mice and flies. Experienced travelers packed their own picnic of fried chicken, hard boiled eggs, cheese and maybe a piece of cake. When that ran out, you were forced to disembark the train and take your chances on whatever was available at the station.

Along the way, anything was possible. At best, one could expect rancid, bitter coffee, brewed once a week. Rotten food was common as well as GI distress and illness from food, and the fear of being left behind in the middle of nowhere made travelers eat as fast as possible, scrambling to get back on the train. Scam artists negotiated with railroad workers to cheat travelers. Before reaching a stop, the conductor would take reservations requiring a 50 cent deposit. When the train arrived at the station, the food would be served just as the conductor called, ìAll Aboard!î As the travelers ran back, the restaurateur would scrape the food back into pots for the next train passengers and give the railroaders 10 cents per head as their take. These conditions and scams made train travel dangerous to oneís health, and as he worked his way across the West, Harvey realized that there was a market for clean restaurants serving good food at reasonable prices along the line.

In 1875, he approached officials at the Burlington Railroad with his idea of opening restaurants at the train depots. Railroad officials had no interest in supplying food and laughed him out of their office. But as he left the office, one of the officials commented that he should approach the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, which was the most rapidly expanding railroad in the West. Santa Fe liked the idea and a partnership was formed. Harvey opened the first restaurant, The Harvey House, in Topeka, Kansas in 1875. It was an immediate success, not only with travelers, but with local residents as well. Within 9 years, there were 17 Harvey Houses along the Santa Fe route, and the first restaurant ìchainî was born.

Because of Harvey, his restaurants and the rapid expansion of the West, Santa Fe became the premiere passenger railroad, as travelers could be assured of exquisite meals in clean dining rooms. Harvey was a shrewd negotiator. When he negotiated his second agreement with Santa Fe, he obtained exclusive rights to all restaurants along their line. Not only did he obtain exclusivity, but the railroad supplied the building and property, passage for Harvey employees, and fresh laundry, ice, meat, and produce shipped in daily.

Harveyís only problem was his wait staff. The waiters were undependable, coming to work drunk, picking fights, and destroying company property. No one civilized wanted to work out West. Where could he get decent, dependable help? Women.

In the 1890ís, the only women in the West were either saloon girls or married women with families and farms. It was truly the Wild, Wild West, full of cowboys, gunslingers, scam artists and roughnecks. An uncivilized place to be. So, Harvey did something truly revolutionary. He placed an ad in East Coast papers for women 18 ñ 30 years of age, attractive, educated, and decent. Harvey offered room and board, free train passage, and wages of $17.50 per month. No experience necessary. Harvey wanted to train them his way. But would they come?

They came like gangbusters. In the late nineteenth century, opportunities for women were very limited. The only suitable positions were as teachers, servants, dressmakers, or factory workers. Not only was being a Harvey girl an opportunity to make great money, it was an opportunity for adventure. But being a Harvey girl was not easy.

The standards set by Harvey were rigid. First, they were given a 6, 9, or 12 month contract during which time they were not allowed to marry. If they did, they would be financially penalized by half of their salary and lose their travel privileges. The dormitories were strict, with a house mother overseeing the girls and a curfew of 10 pm every night. If you broke curfew 3 times, you were summarily fired and sent home. The training process was a grueling 30 days of learning strict cleanliness, grooming and table service without pay. The training period was difficult and stressful, but many women spoke of how the experience gave them self-assurance and poise.

They were trained in the Harvey way. Because of the train schedule, timing was incredibly important. When the train arrived in the station, the first course was already on the table. One girl came through and took drink orders as another was right behind her pouring. A system of coffee cup placement was the key to communication. As the first course was being cleared, a manager would come in with trays of hot entrees which would be served by the girls. Generous portions and seconds were the standard. And so was the timing. The trains only stopped for 30 minutes and Harvey provided a refined, delicious dining experience on a schedule.

Cleanliness was also a key to success. If they werenít busy, the girls were expected to be cleaning; their station, polishing silver or brass, folding napkins or dusting. In spite of the dust and dirt of the West, Harvey Houses were known for their immaculate tidiness. This included the girlsí uniforms. They were expected to be well-groomed, spotless and ironed. If they got dirty during a shift, they were expected to change uniforms immediately. Gum chewing was ground for dismissal. Harvey himself would make surprise inspections and literally perform a white glove test.

Harveyís chefs were also the best. When Fred Harvey traveled, he would try to lure away the chef anytime he had a superb meal. He paid his people well and believed in the best quality ingredients. The chefs had the authority to create their own menus and pay handsomely for supplies and produce. Not unlike great restaurants today, Harvey Houses had the first choice and the best supply of meat and fresh vegetables. Hence, they had the ability to provide diners with first class meals.

Harvey was also a believer of promoting men and women from within. Many women started out as a waitress, became head waitress, and some even became managers. Another way he emphasized respect and respectability was in the name he chose for his wait staff. His girls were never referred to as waitresses. Rather, they were known by and proud to be called Harvey Girls. Being a Harvey Girl meant poise, respect, and independence.

Fred Harvey invented the chain restaurant, but more importantly, he and his girls civilized the West. Not only did they provide a service to the travelers and the communities through their restaurants and mere presence, they became the standard of civility and dining. Many Harvey girls did find marriage and adventure. Many had lifelong, fascinating careers in Harveyís empire that would have been impossible back East. Some paid for college and went on to become professionals in other careers. No matter what paths they found themselves on, the Harvey Girls became the matriarchs of the West.

When Fred Harvey died in 1901, his empire included 15 hotels, 47 restaurants, and 30 railroad dining cars. At its peak, the Harvey House restaurants were the most successful in the country, with 100 locations, and provided the Santa Fe Railroad with the marketing tool and support to become the largest passenger train company in the United States. During both World Wars, the Harvey House was instrumental in providing meals to the troops being moved across the country on trains. But the Wright brothers, the automobile, and the Great Depression led to the demise of the empire. Fine dining and civility in the West are legacies that Fred Harvey and his Girls bequeathed us all.

Mary Margaret Ambler is the Publisher and Editor of Black and Whites Magazine, a trade publication for wait staff, www.blackandwhitesmag.com.

This article was researched and references, The Harvey Girls: The Women Who Civilized the West by Juddi Morris. Published in 1994 by Walker Publishing, Inc.

Diets, Restaurants and Friends

When on a diet, it is wise to go out to restaurants less frequently, because you wonít always know the number of calories in everything you will be served, especially the secret sauces. But whom do you usually meet at the restaurants? Your friends, is the most likely answer. So if you cut back on restaurants, you might end up with too much free space on your social calendar. I find this unacceptable. I always want to have time to see my friends.

Realizing that I could not justifiably boycott dinner plans with friends, I decided to always have a backup plan. The reasoning behind this is that I wouldnít always know what restaurant we would eventually choose. My backup plan was to order the least complicated salad, with the dressing on the side. This allowed me to keep control over my calorie intake and see my friends as well.

I did not always believe that I could control my hunger when I frequented many different restaurants. Seven or eight years ago, I was very frustrated with myself over my failing diets. I felt like I needed to keep myself under control 24/7. When a friend would suggest that we meet up somewhere to grab a bite, I felt my control starting to slip. I would make up excuses like, ìOh, I just ate dinner,î or I would pretend that I had committed myself to a different dinner that night.

I even started to worry that friends might unexpectedly call me up for dinner on any given night. When my phone rang, I tended to let the answering machine pick it up as I listened to the caller leave a message. Suddenly, I didnít want to talk to my friends. What if they wanted to buy me dinner…Oh my, what a crime! I always had my standard excuses ready to tell my friends. It is interesting to note that these excuses are made because we donít want to eat. These are different than the excuses we make to explain why we ate something. Here are some of the excuses I use when I donít want to take in extra calories:

∑ Iím having a medical procedure tomorrow and I canít eat anything after 3:00 p.m.

∑ I just learned that Iím very close to becoming diabetic, and Iím on a very strict diet.

∑ Iím just so full right now, but I can take some home with me (then give it to a homeless person).

∑ Pretending to throw up in the bathroom (make sure someone hears you), and pretending to clean it up.

∑ Hiding some of the food where they might not find it (the oven, on top of the fridge). This way they donít realize how much food they actually have left.

I think most of my friends knew what was going on inside my head. They didnít call me on it. Iím sure they recognized that I was going through some pretty hard times, and luckily, I outgrew that phase.

When I ate with my friends at various restaurants, I noticed some recurring themes in the advice they offered. Almost all of my friends were very surprised to find that I was eating so little. They would say things like, ìJohnny, youíre a big guy. You have to eat more than that,î or ìYouíre not really fat, youíre just a big, husky guy.î To that I would say, ìOh yeah, youíve never seen me naked.î Sometimes that would draw laughter, other times silence.

These were times I had to reconcile what my friends were saying with the sanctity of my diet. I felt I had to take a side. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that most of my friends were just trying to make me feel better and save me from the misery of my diet. They really did like me just the way I was. The problem was that I didnít. I knew I had to hold my ground and order that Caesarís salad instead of that juicy steak nine out of ten times. Somewhere in this phase of my life, I learned how little I would have to eat, or how much I would have to exercise each day to lose weight. From that point on, it was up to me to perform.

Losing weight is an arduous battle that takes some time to accomplish. We can have our friends and our restaurants at the same time if we are willing to modify our thinking just a little. We all have habits we will need to change, patterns we will need to break, and emotions we will need to quell.