Note: An “Eph Bookshelf” entry with neither an Eph author nor an Eph principal subject, but Ephs nonetheless:

Appetite for America, Stephen Fried.

Few things are as quintessentially American as the chain restaurant. Like jazz music and Hollywood hits, chain restaurants have helped knit the fabric of a cohesive American culture, spreading sets of tastes across the nation, and eventually, the world. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Wolfgang Puck: their story all starts with Fred Harvey — not just an entrepreneur, but a brand. Where Jelly Roll Morton and D. W. Griffith are well remembered for their roles in history, Fred Harvey is nearly forgotten, which is what makes Stephen Fried’s vivid and thorough account of the Fred Harvey empire so rewarding.

The short version of the Fred Harvey story is this. A failed St. Louis restaurateur, Harvey became a railroad ticket agent during the hard economic times of the Civil War. He quickly grew his business, traveling the railroad lines to establish the ability to sell through tickets on multiple rail lines and marketing freight services for cattle, lumber, ice, and coal. Traveling the rails, he quickly observed the limitless demand for the early Pullman service: luxurious sleepers and reliable dining cars offering something more than the trackside slop of downscale railroad depots. Yet dining cars suffered from a key flaw: trains of the 1870s did not yet permit passage from one car to another, so they were impractical for the long western railroad runs where stops were far apart.

Opportunity seen turned quickly to opportunity seized. Harvey took over three railroad eating houses, and put his managerial and partnering skills to work. Discovering that the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe railroad had aggressive ambitions and a willingness to experiment, Harvey struck a series of deals to fund and operate the railroad’s eating houses as it pressed west — and proceeded to develop those restaurants pursuant to his own set of principles. His “Fred Harvey Way,” a set of systems and manuals for doing everything, brought about many firsts: a branded restaurant chain, a quick-service meal, a high-quality standardized menu, a “boot camp” to train staff nationwide, a central purchasing system.

The challenge was immense: within minutes of the arrival of a Santa Fe train, each restaurant needed to begin serving dozens of multi-course meals, with fancy trimmings, homemade ingredients, and fastidious service. This task was repeated multiple times daily in dozens of facilities up and down the rail line — and required the logistics support hitherto reserved for armies.

At the suggestion of one manager, Fred Harvey recruited women as servers: not locals, but single, well-mannered, “respectable” women from the east and Midwest. Breaking with the aphorism that there were “no ladies west of Dodge City and no women west of Albuquerque,” these “Harvey Girls” became one of the first large-scale female workhorses in America, and notwithstanding the assigned chaperones and codes of conduct, enjoyed a grand degree of freedom in the part.

As the railroad grew, so too did Fred Harvey, adding hotels and resorts, quick-service eateries, newsstands, specialty shops, and museums, and even hired Indians to relocate to the trackside depots and add a veneer of western authenticity. And as Fred Harvey aged and the next generation of Harveys took over the management, they stuck with the brand: “Fred Harvey” remained the name.

Given its breadth, perhaps it’s inevitable that we find some Ephs in the narrative. The second generation of Harveys included Fred’s daughter, Minnie. Just as she asserted herself in the business, she married John F. Huckel (class of 1885), scion of a prominent family of Brooklyn Episcopalian clergy. Rather than preach, Huckel published, first as an editor at Harper’s and then as assistant publisher of the New York Evening Post. At the behest of Minnie, Huckel became a Harvey, putting his knowledge to work atop the company’s newsstand business – soon to become the largest in the West. It was Minnie and Huckel who sparked Fred Harvey’s move into Indian art — first through museums and then through retail, most famously at the still-existing El Tovar hotel and shops at the Grand Canyon. Their art interest fits neatly not only with the “art mafia”, but with two centuries of Eph outreach. As Fried notes, “the Huckels also hoped they might ignite public interest in the Indians of the Southwest and help to elevate their status,” a quest they continued with massive exhibits in Indian ethnography at the 1915 World’s Fairs in San Francisco and San Diego. As a  Harvey executive, Huckel also helped make the company the largest publisher of postcards in the United States.

Meanwhile, fellow Eph alum Herbert Hall (class of 1891) romanced and married Minnie Harvey’s younger sister, May. The only son of New York’s post-Civil War mayor Abraham “Elegant Oakey” Hall, Herbert had seen his father brought down as a patsy in the Boss Tweed scandals of 1870. Herbert Hall’s career in commercial real estate proved even less successful, and soon after their 1902 marriage, the couple began requesting advances on their inheritance. The prospects of a “Hall Hall” in the Purple Valley quickly faded from view. Although Fried doesn’t hit this detail, the Halls remained in New York and were known for traveling to the Berkshires. Perhaps they were the ones who brought “La Fonda Pudding” — one of the many Harvey recipes included in “Appetite for America” to the attention of chefs at Williams, where it remained an occasional menu item in the 1990s.

Fried’s telling soars in its depictions of the sights, sounds, and tastes of the Fred Harvey era. Once Fried puts the reader in a frontier mindset, his description of a headwaters emerging from the kitchen with “a silver platter of sizzling steaks” becomes positively mouthwatering.

Fried also excels at linking Fred Harvey to his better-known and extant descendants. So many of Fred Harvey’s innovations are commonplace today, it can be astonishing to find out that Fred Harvey was first. Any reader who starts skeptical of the claim that this Midwestern entrepreneur was a key progenitor of Burger King, TWA, and Disney World is unlikely to remain so at the end. And Fried’s work is even more valuable for the depth of his research into primary sources, including many of Fred’s own documents and even rare, early audio recordings.

Today, although Fred Harvey’s legacy is everywhere, his name lives on in only a few places. There’s the song “On the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe,” the Johnny Mercer penned song from the now rarely-performed musical “The Harvey Girls.” (A 1946 film version stars Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury). Fred Harvey’s landmark hotels at the Grand Canyon still greet visitors — mainly those thoughtful enough to book their inside-the-park rooms 6 months or more in advance. And maybe there are a few Midwesterners like me who remember when “Fred Harvey” was the toll road concessionaire in Illinois, serving as the unknown brand 9-year olds begged their parents to bypass in favor of a Whopper or a Frosty. Thanks to Stephen Fried, however, you can now journey back to the days when chain hospitality was an innovation to be welcomed rather than a commonplace to be avoided.

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