Usually when we think “restaurant chain,” McDonalds and Applebees come to mind. But starting in the 1870s, the nation’s first chain restaurants, Harvey Houses, were beacons of fine dining along the Santa Fe Railroad.
Recent “Key Ingredients” host, the International Sonoran Desert Alliance in Ajo, Arizona, featured a program by Ann-Mary Lutzick, “Don’t Cut the Ham Too Thin, Boys,” which explained how Harvey Houses reinvented the food industry and added a pinch of class to a still-rugged Southwest. Back when the steam engine necessitated a stop every 100 miles for a water refill, English entrepreneur Fred Harvey contracted with the Santa Fe Railroad to establish his restaurant in many of these “tank towns.” Soon these measured pit stops guaranteed both train and passenger would be satiated, the Harvey House a signal that good food was on the way. There’s nothing like the comfort of some boiled pig knuckles and a slice of coconut cream pie.
Fred Harvey demanded the best. Even at a peak number of 84 restaurants, each dining room shone with polished silver and fine china—far different than the paper wrappers and the plastic utensils that litter the floors of today’s road-tripping cars. Service was prompt and food at its finest. As legend has it, the namesake of Lutzick’s presentation are Harvey’s dying words.
The waitresses themselves were more than just food carriers; they needed to have an eighth grade education and be articulate, clean, and of good moral character. Paid $17.50 an hour with free room, board, and uniform, “Harvey Girls” had to sign a six-month contract of service. These upstanding women, who often married Western settlers, are said to have helped “civilize” the West.
Eventually Harvey's restaurants serviced the Santa Fe dining cars, and as the company expanded their business to cater to tourists to the Southwest, the hotels that were attached to the restaurants became destinations of their own. “He was like the first Walt Disney,” said Lutzick. Even though demise of railroad tourism forced many Harvey Houses to close, they always received rave reviews.
And so, too, did Lutzick’s talk. According to Mimi Phillips, programming director in Ajo, “I was fascinated by the history of how the restaurants started—what a small piece of the history of food in Arizona that not many people are aware of! Even better was the fact that an original Harvey waitress was in the audience. It was such a special moment to watch history become so personal and real.”
-- Alexandra Charleston, Museum on Main Street, Washington, DC