by Alexandra Rasic
Hey Hollywood! Need an untapped setting for a period drama? Look no further than the cafeterias of Los Angeles in the early 1900s. Their origin stories are filled with determination, innovation, spying, politics, crime, intrigue, family drama, clever marketing schemes, and so much more!
How can I make such a claim? Two objects in our collection are to blame for sending me down the rabbit hole of research: a little folder from the Stillwell Cafeteria from 1923, and a magazine titled Southern California Combining “California Food Facts,” published by the Boos Brothers Cafeteria Company in 1925. The Stillwell and Boos brothers were a busy bunch. This first post will look at what we know about the history of cafeterias in the US, the popularization of cafeterias in Los Angeles, and what I could uncover about the Stillwell brothers. The next post will explore the California cafeteria empire created by the Boos brothers and coveted by Clifford Clinton who went on to create Clifton’s, the most iconic chain of Los Angeles cafeterias that remained on the culinary landscape of greater LA until 2018.
Many times in our From the Homestead Kitchen blog series, my colleagues and I have used a phrase similar to “It’s exact origins are unknown, but…” And here I go again. Wikipedia’s entry on the history of the cafeteria talks about the Exchange Buffet in New York City, where starting in 1885, patrons could purchase food at a counter and quickly eat standing up as “perhaps” the first self-service restaurant in the US. Next, the authors go on to talk about the American version of the Swedish smorgasbord created by entrepreneur John Kruger at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Kruger called it a “cafeteria,” the Spanish word for coffee shop, and this was the first time that a large number of Americans heard the word. The Childs brothers, Samuel and William, come into the story next. These two had five successful locations in New York City by 1894 where they perfected the concept of providing quick, reasonably priced meals for the working class with an emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene, subjects that were becoming of greater interest and importance to consumers. By 1925, they had over 107 locations in 29 cities across the US and Canada—including Los Angeles. Childs’ Restaurants are often credited with the innovation of adding trays and a “tray line” to the self-service format, but they did not abandon the concept of sit-down dining. This model soon became the standard for cafeterias across the US. And where did cafeterias soon become more popular than ever, setting a new gold standard? Los Angeles.
In doing research for this post, I came across three Los Angeles Times writers who credit Helen Mosher with popularizing cafeterias in LA: Charles Perry in 2003, Cecilia Rasmussen in 1998, and Ira Berthelot Wood in 1927.
In the second of a series of articles about the impact that early business ventures played in helping Los Angeles grow, Wood wrote: “Los Angeles’ first cafeteria came about in 1853, but it wasn’t exactly like the places we know by that designation now. It was a resort for imbibing and eating, but mostly for the former and had its suggestion in tiny restaurants thus named in Mexico where wine is served with meals. The first cafeteria of the type so extensively patronized today by Angelenos was established in 1905 by Miss Helen S. Mosher in the basement of the Hafen House on Hill street between Third and Fourth strets [sic].”
Rasmussen noted, “Observing the efforts of Helen Mosher, who took over the defunct Hafen House, a favorite German resort, and turned it into the city’s first cafeteria, a hole in the wall on Hill Street between 3rd and 4th streets,” entrepreneurs like the Boos brothers expanded on her idea. “She advertised: ‘All Women Cooks–Food That Can Be Seen,’ and best of all, ‘No Tips.'”
Perry flat out credits Mosher with starting a cafeteria “craze” in Los Angeles. “The word ‘cafeteria’ wasn’t first used in Los Angeles, but it was tailor-made for L.A. In 1905, all things Latino seemed long ago and far away around here. They conjured up dreams of California’s romantic past: the Mission Days, the fabled Days of the Dons! Hard though it may be to imagine now, Mosher might have chosen the name ‘cafeteria’ because it sounded…colorful. In any case, the cafeteria phenomenon that swept the country in the ‘20s was acknowledged to come from California, not New York or Chicago.”
The Stillwell family was one of a great many who got into the restaurant business in Los Angeles in the early 1900s. Starting with our little folder, I had two names to work with: G.W. and J.E. Stillwell. A quick search through newspapers revealed more Stillwells and more businesses, but for a while all I had to work with were initials! Along with G.W. and J.E, I found F.A. and C.H. It wasn’t until I found an article from the Los Angeles Times about the passing of C.H., Charles Henry Stillwell, that the family history started to come together. Next I went to Find A Grave to see if there was a listing for Charles, and there was. Fortunately it contained the full names of his parents and siblings, too.
John and Maria Stillwell married in Ontario, Canada, in 1851. Ten children are attributed to them on Find A Grave: 6 sons, and 4 daughters. Eight lived well into adulthood, and all of them, including their mother, Maria, lived out their lives in Southern California. The family moved from Ontario to Michigan, settling in Big Rapids, which is where John died in 1894. Here is what I was able to piece together on the four sons noted at some time or another as having been in the restaurant business from Find A Grave, newspapers, and census reports.
Charles H. Stillwell (1861-1944)
The article following Charles’ death in 1944 noted he was a “hotel builder and operator credited with bringing the cafeteria and the automobile rental agency to Los Angeles…” It mentioned that his None-Such Cafeteria on South Main Street opened around 1911, but an ad that appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News in 1924 noted the cafeteria was opened in 1908, though it may have been owned by someone else before the family acquired it. The article stated that the None-Such was “said to be the first eating place of its kind,” and that four years later he built the Stillwell Hotel at 838 South Grand Avenue, which still operates as a hotel today. The building does in fact date to 1912, so the numbers are adding up so far…but I can’t say that evidence suggests that Charles and his brothers should be credited with bringing the cafeteria to Los Angeles.
Census records show that in 1910, Charles was listed as a keeper of a restaurant. In 1920 and 1930, he was listed as a hotel proprietor/manager, and in 1940, a proprietor of an auto court. An article from the Long Beach Daily News in 1923 provided a story about how Charles got into the auto business. “Ten years ago C.H. Stillwell, capitalist and owner of the Stillwell hotel of Los Angeles, conceived the idea of the automobile livery and originated what is today one of the most profitable lines of the automobile businesses in California. Purchasing two automobiles Mr. Stillwell placed them at the disposal of the guests of his hotel to be rented without drivers. Today the Stillwell Auto livery is the largest concern in the country in this field, operating nearly 200 cars without drivers, with branch offices in Long Beach and San Pedro.” Now here is where some bragging rights might be due to Charles as the Wikipedia page on the history of car rentals credits the US auto rental business starting in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1916. If Charles’ story stands, he started in 1913, a year after the Stillwell Hotel opened.
John Edward Stillwell (1864-1938)
Find A Grave noted that John engaged in the family business in Michigan, which was furniture-making for a time; ended up studying literature at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1888; and then studied law, being admitted to practice in the state of Kansas in 1889. Family members note that John, his wife, and four children moved to Pasadena in June 1906. In February they moved to Pomona, but that June, they moved back to Kansas due to the Panic of 1907, a global financial crisis that walloped the economy and led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System. By June 1908, however, they were back in the Southland. John, along with his younger brother George, are the G.W. and J.E. noted on the Homestead’s Stillwell Cafeteria pamphlet from 1923. 1910 and 1920 census reports noted John’s profession as a lawyer. In 1930, he was listed as the proprietor of a cafeteria. So it looks like the restaurant business was a side job for John until later in life.
Frank Alfred Stillwell (1867-1950)
In 1910, Frank was listed on the census as the keeper of a hotel restaurant. He did not appear on the 1920 or 1940 census, and while listed in 1930, he had no profession. Based on a newspaper ad from the Daily News in the mid-1920s, he was running a Stillwell Cafeteria at 215 South Spring Street. The write up in the Times following Charles’ death noted he was an apartment house manager in 1944. That was the last bit of detail I was able to find on him, the last surviving Stillwell brother who died at the the age of 82.
George Wesley Stillwell (1876-1936)
In 1910, George’s profession was listed as “Restaurant.” He, too, did not appear on the 1920 census, and in 1930 he was listed as the owner and manager of a cafeteria. A newspaper search on G.W. in the 1920s reveals that in addition to being in the cafeteria business he sold and leased oil wells near Fillmore and used the cafeteria at 633 South Main Street as his point of contact for the endeavor.
So bottom line, John and George were in it for the long haul. Frank came and went. Charles started in the cafeteria business but moved on to bigger, equally innovative, endeavors.
The exact number of cafeterias owned by the family is unknown, but there were at least four: the None-Such Cafeteria, which was renamed the Stillwell in 1924 on South Main Street, a Stillwell Cafeteria at 441 South Hill Street that was sold in 1920, a Stillwell Cafeteria on 215 South Spring Street, and a Stillwell Cafeteria at 428 South Spring Street. Curiously, in December 1924 a small blurb and ad appeared in the Daily News announcing the change in ownership of the 428 South Spring Street location from Frank, the brother who eventually left the cafeteria business, to John and George, the brothers who were in the business for the long haul. The advertisement placed by John and George started, “We have purchased from F. A. Stillwell the ‘Stillwell Cafeteria’ at 428 Spring street [sic] and will operate it in connection with our ‘Famous None-Such Cafeteria’ 633 So. Main street.” The very bottom of the ad also noted that Frank would continue to operate the cafeteria at 215 South Spring Street. “He solicits a share of your patronage,” it concluded…in a smaller font size. The formality of the ad got me wondering: Did these brothers have a falling out? Why the formality? Why not say “We have purchased from our brother…,” or “Proud to still be affiliated with the Stillwell family…”? Maybe there was some family drama, or maybe it was just not seen as professional to be casual. Who knows.
What we do know of the Stillwell family’s story indicates that they looked for opportunity, worked hard, and were rarely idle—much like the working class people they served in their cafeterias. The business model created by the Childs brothers was embraced and expanded on in numerous ways in Los Angeles, starting with Helen Mosher and soon followed by the Stillwell and Boos brothers and others that we’ll explore in part two of this series. But before then, enjoy a few more tidbits related to this post!