It goes without saying that there are many, many restaurants using locally sourced ingredients. Farm to table restaurants, many trying to create a flavor of the region they reside in or in an attempt to stick to keeping only what is in season on their menus, are found in most places in the country these days. There are locovore advocates out there who wonder if there will be a day when corporations see the light. They pine for the day when large chain restaurants start using more locally sourced ingredients.
Although several chains have made some commitment, notably Chipoltle, the idea of a chain restaurant is to have uniformity and consistency in all locations. In fact, this is what has driven out the local flavor in many regions of the country and was part of the impetus of the local food movement in the first place. There was a famous restaurant chain though that bucked this paradigm and did it long, long before there ever was a local food movement. In fact, this company did it back when most food was local and during a time when the distribution of food on an industrial scale was just getting off the ground. It also did it to celebrate the diversity of food and food tastes across America, in contrast to the corporate mentality today that stresses uniformity.
Fred Harvey was an immigrant from England who arrived on America’s shores in 1853 at the age of 17. With only a little bit of money in his pocket he needed a job fast and took a job as a pot scrubber and busboy at Smith and McNell’s restaurant, a popular New York city restaurant. There from the restaurant’s proprietors Henry Smith and T. R. McNell, he learned the restaurant trade from the bottom up. They taught him the importance of quality service, fresh ingredients and the handshake deal. Harvey quickly worked his way up to busboy, waiter and line cook. He moved on to New Orleans and then on to St. Louis.
In St. Louis he held a variety of jobs but wished to get back into the restaurant business. He started a café with a partner. The Civil War started and the partner, a confederate sympathizer, stiffed Fred and ran off with all of the money the two had earned. Fred was out of business and took a job with Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad which was eventually purchased by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, i.e. The Burlington. Rising quickly through the company, he was transferred to the company offices in Leavenworth, Kansas. As a railroad executive, he found the food along the rail lines very unsatisfactory to say the least, and monotonous, as well. This was especially true out west where most of his business took him.
After several attempts to get The Burlington to allow him to open restaurants in stations along their line, Fred got an offer from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway that he could not refuse. Charles Morse, a friend who was with the Santa Fe, got him a deal, where in 1876 he opened eating houses along the railroad and was not charged rent. The deal was sealed only with a handshake and, at the peak, there were 84 Harvey Houses, all of which catered to both the wealthy and middle-class visitors and Harvey became known as “the Civilizer of the West.” Harvey also eventually provided the food service on the Santa Fe trains themselves as well.
Fred stocked his “Harvey House” restaurants with the finest ingredients served by the “Harvey Girls,” waitresses recruited from all over to work in the Harvey House restaurants. They were made famous by Judy Garland in the 1946 movie of the same name along with the Johnny Mercer song sung by the cast, “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.” Small disclaimer… my Grandmother was a Harvey Girl. She left the farm in Wisconsin that she grew up on to work in Harvey Restaurants in places such as Needles, California. She moved from Harvey House to Harvey House, eventually winding up at the Fred Harvey concession at the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. She later worked at the Harvey House Restaurant in Chicago Union Station, where she stayed until the 1970’s.
When Fred Harvey first experienced the food offered to rail travelers he noted that it was not only bad but it was basically the same dish offered over and over. The railroads were way ahead of their time in stressing corporate uniformity over taking advantage of what the unique locales the railroads passed through had to offer. This fact was not lost on Fred Harvey especially since the railroads he worked for had opened up the west to the American nation and represented a gold mine. It took several days to travel out to the West Coast and The Santa Fe traversed what were then very exotic places such as New Mexico, Arizona, and California and all major stops along the line were serviced by a Harvey House.
Fred set out to take advantage food-wise of all these places had to offer. According to authors George Foster and Peter Weiglin, in their book The Harvey House Cookbook, local Harvey House managers had the authority, indeed the duty, to keep track of local food producers and to purchase local eggs, poultry (including quail), vegetables and other items if they were of high enough quality. The aim was to ensure that a traveler on the Santa Fe would not see the same choices a second time on his or her trip on the railroad. The menus at the Harvey House restaurants offered what foods were available locally and were in season.
Even in the late 19th Century, Fred’s insistence on using local was going against the grain. By that time, beef and pork were being hauled into Chicago to be slaughtered and packaged, and fruit and vegetable shipments were beginning to arrive from California and Florida to points east and north. Fred himself took advantage of this to some extent too, but there was a plan behind his locovore interests and, as industry was stamping out the local flair all over the country, Fred’s move was really an act of genius.
In one fell swoop, he lifted the railroad dining experience and introduced Americans to foods of the Southwest and California (such as enchiladas, sopaipillas, and other Southwestern delights). This helped make him a household name. The food and accommodations provided by Fred Harvey (which, by the way, the company was called. No Inc. or Corporation in the name, just “Fred Harvey”) boosted the towns and other locations (including the Grand Canyon) where the Harvey Houses were located which, in turn, boosted tourism to these places. This boosted the bottom line of the Santa Fe as rail traffic and ridership increased. The economy of the west then got off the ground, “civilizing” what was known prior to this time as the Wild West.
The Harvey Houses chugged along fine as long as passenger rail service was popular. Once the automobile became the dominant mode of transportation one-by-one the Harvey Houses began to close. The company tried to change mode and opened Harvey House restaurants in places that served the automobile. In fact, Harvey Houses were the first restaurants to occupy the Illinois Tollway Oases that were built over the Tri-State and Northwest Tollways in the Chicago area. The partnership Harvey had with the Santa Fe lasted until 1963 . The company itself was eventually gobbled up in corporate takeovers.
What Fred Harvey strived for, was to give a sense of place to local stops, making them more than just stations along the line. As a way to boost local economies and to promote local food, modern companies and civic groups can take note of what Fred Harvey set out to accomplish nearly 140 years ago. Next time you eat at a chain restaurant, look at the menu and know that there are people eating at the same chain, looking at the same menu, and ordering the same fare from Chicago to Seattle to Dubai. Then imagine a chain where the local outlets took pride in what their location had to offer in both food and ambience and maybe you will hear a Harvey Girl singing about the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.
The Harvey House Cookbook: Memories of Dining Along the Santa Fe Railroad by George H. Foster & Peter C. Weiglin
Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest by Richard Melzer
Opportunity Bound a documentary about The Harvey Girls