by Alexandra Rasic
As described in the first post of this series, the origin stories of Los Angeles’ early cafeterias are filled with drama, ingenuity, and intrigue. I came to this realization as I dug into the history behind two objects in our collection: 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 first post looked 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. This post will explore the California cafeteria empire created by the Boos brothers, and while I thought it would also include mention of 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, I’m saving that for part 3…along with a look at Schaber’s Cafeteria, which was a surprise addition to this series. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started.
The Ohio-born Boos brothers, Horace, Cyrus, Henry, and Orlando (who often went by his middle name John) opened their first Los Angeles restaurant in 1906 at 211 West Second Street. (In 1935 that block became part of the sprawling Los Angeles Times building that was closed in 2018, very close to City Hall.) They settled in Los Angeles just about the same time as the Stillwell brothers, who were also from the Midwest. (Great numbers of Midwesterners settled in California between 1900 and 1910. You can look at some statistics here.) According to an article published in the Cincinnati Enquirer after his death, Horace, the eldest of nine children, became head of the family “while little more than a child himself” following the death of parents Mathilde—whose extended family will enter the story later—and Josef. He moved the family from Moscow to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1890. He worked as a printer for The Enquirer and entered the restaurant business. With John, Cyrus, and Henry, he opened a grocery store. Later, the four became owners of a local hotel. After selling the hotel a short time later, the family moved to Buffalo, New York, and then to New York City where they continued to operate restaurants, “later transferring their activities to St. Louis during the World’s Fair.” As to why they moved to Los Angeles, the article does not say, but it does note that in 1900, the four brothers purchased a ranch near Los Angeles, which was where Horace “conceived the idea of his cafeteria-plan restaurant on a large scale.”
Writing for the 1925 company publication in our collection, marketing manager Harvey E. Westgate described that although many years had passed since the first cafeteria opened, “the four brothers still are on the job—not occasionally but every day of the week—superintending the details of the business—watching the quality of the food—guiding the good ship.” This is one example of how the Boos and Stillwell brothers were quite different. The Boos brothers made sure that everyone knew they worked together in a very hands-on fashion. This was literally how they marketed themselves as a company.
Westgate reminisced about the novelty of the first Boos Bros. cafeteria as it was described to him by a friend: “You pick up a tray, walk along a counter, see dozens of different kinds of tempting food, select what you want and as much as you want, carry it to a table and start operations.” He continued, “There was a time, too—but happily that time has passed—when some looked with disfavor upon the cafeterias. First of all they made fun of the ‘grabeterias,’ as they called them; then they predicted they would fail; but as time went on and the chain of cafeterias grew, and other cafeterias were opened in Los Angeles and other cities, it became apparent that they had come to stay… As a matter of fact almost all of the leading hotels of the country today have installed, or contemplate installing, cafeteria dining rooms. The general public—from shop girls to attorneys, physicians, merchants and bankers—has placed its stamp of approval on the self-service plan, and it has come to stay.” Indeed it had!
Exactly how many magazines like the one we have in our collection were printed by the Boos Brothers Cafeteria Company is unknown. At least one more was published in 1926 because it has been digitized and made available online. I found an article about the 1926 issue in the Daily News noting that the magazine had been printed annually by the company since 1902, but they did not exist until 1906, so something is amiss there…
1926 was a memorable year for Boos Bros. for good and bad reasons. Let’s start with the good.
1926 marked the brothers’ 20th anniversary in business, and Westgate, once again doing his job as marketing manager, sold that milestone as he explained the title of that year’s publication: Glancing back along the cafeteria trail. “All of us are wont, from time to time, to glance back along the trail we have followed…The man who made the first steamboat, the fellow who invented the first telephone, the bird-man who first soared in the air—these and countless others have blazed trails,” he wrote. “Four brothers—Horace, John, Cyrus and Henry Boos—also blazed a trail, although of a different kind. Theirs was the cafeteria trail. But I must be careful to add that another had conducted a cafeteria for a short time previous to the opening of Boos Bros. first dining room on Second street… This I do because many have given the credit to the four brothers, whereas they would be first to explain that some one [sic] else actually started to blaze the cafeteria trail.” While the Boos brothers might have seen fit to set the record straight in person, they and Westgate certainly did not not do so in print. The actual head of the “cafetera trail” in Los Angeles was Helen Mosher who operated what is documented by numerous sources as Los Angeles’ first cafeteria at the Hafen House. (See the first post in this series for more on Mosher.) But while they weren’t first in line to blaze the trail, they most definitely were the first to create a cafeteria empire in Los Angeles! But how?
First off, we know the Boos brothers had experience in the industry from their time in Ohio, New York, and Missouri. But more importantly, they embraced marketing and publicity. Maybe because of his time working in the newspaper business in Ohio, Horace understood the impact that regularly appearing in print could have on their business. This could be why the brothers employed someone like Westgate who had years of experience in the newspaper business, himself. The chain held contests for customers paying cash rewards for improvement suggestions. Time and time again, ads and articles in the local papers focused on the benefits of value, choice, cleanliness, and efficiency–all centerpieces of late teens and 1920s society.
It was not uncommon to find eating establishments that offered regular entertainment at the time the Boos brothers were building their cafeteria empire, and it became yet another selling point for them. As early as 1923, there was a Boos Brothers Cafeteria Orchestra under the direction of Pryor P. Moore, who was married to Cyrus’ daughter Virginia. Good old marketing manager Harvey Westgate even occasionally sat in with the orchestra as a featured harmonica soloist! Ben A. Markson wrote numerous articles about the local music scene and radio for the Los Angeles Times in the early 1920s and mentioned the Boos Orchestra in articles with clever titles such as Gormandizing Music Served and Radio Serves Hungry Fans (no surprise that with that kind of creativity he ended up becoming a Hollywood screenwriter!). Describing a performance the orchestra gave for the paper’s KHJ radio station he wrote, “The members of Boos Brothers’ Cafeteria Orchestra seated themselves quietly in The Times studio, unfolded their napkins and each placed a menu on his music rack. ‘Remember,’ admonished Pryor Moore, violinist and leader, ‘to chew your music slowly.'” In another article he quoted Westgate describing how patrons eat to the beat of the music being played, “When a cafeteria is crowded the orchestra plays dance music to make patrons eat faster. When there is plenty of room and no hurry the selections are of slower tempo.” Markson’s colorful descriptions of performances made me sorry I never got to hear such numbers as Why is a Waffle, and When? and If the Way to a Man’s Heart is Through His Stomach, Who Wants to Go There?
The brothers made the experience of dining in their cafeterias enjoyable for locals and tourists, alike. Locals knew what to expect in terms of food, service, and amenities. As time went on, locations became more atmospheric. They were places you wanted to spend time in and show off to your friends from out of town.
Many tourists came to take in the spectacle sending home postcards provided by the restaurant or dining there before or after taking part in a free tour of the region as provided by entrepreneurs/hustlers such as self-proclaimed “human dynamo,” Victor Girard.
By 1926 Boos Bros. had seven locations: six in downtown Los Angeles and one on Catalina Island. From about 1912 to 1924, they also had two restaurants in San Francisco that were eventually sold to Bay Area restaurateur E.J. Clinton, father of Clifford Clinton, who created the Clifton’s chain of cafeterias. An article in the San Francisco Examiner on June 14, 1924, noted the sale and Boos Bros.’s intent to focus on their Los Angeles-area holdings. The brothers were often quoted singing the praises of Los Angeles’ presumed limitless growth, strong economic base, and good weather. In 1925, Horace Boos wrote, “The remarkable development of Los Angeles and Southern California, which have swept to a pre-eminent position among the leading centers of the world, finds no parallel in all American history. No city in the United States ever enjoyed such miraculous growth in population, in business, in industry, in commerce—in each and every phase and factor of community development—as has Los Angeles in recent years. And each new year sees a steady, consistent continuation of Southern California’s march toward greater progress and greater achievement, with the new population in ever-increasing numbers the all-important force that is impelling expansion in every direction.”
So what was the downside to 1926? Horace died unexpectedly following a stroke and a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 54. (Sadly, his son would also die suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in 1956 at the age of 38.)
Following Horace’s death, Westgate wrote “Glancing back along the cafeteria trail for twenty years brings a flood of memories. The saddest event to be recorded, of course, was the passing of Horace Boos, on July 25 of this year. Henry Boos takes up duties of the president of this company; John Boos becomes vice-president; Cyrus Boos fills the position of treasurer; and Alfred Schaber, buyer and head of the office force for many years, is the new secretary. Horace, with his brothers, had planned for just such an emergency. Like members of other large concerns, they had their business affairs in such shape that even death could not interfere with the carrying out of their life’s work and their vision of a fifth of a century ago.”
So here enters the name Alfred Schaber, a cousin of the four Boos brothers on their mother Mathilde’s side of the family who immigrated to America from Switzerland in 1917 as World War I was raging in Europe. This is the Schaber of Schaber’s Cafeteria, which opened its first location in downtown Los Angeles in 1928…one year after the three remaining Boos brothers decided to sell their chain of restaurants to the Childs Company for a hefty sum of money. Exactly how much, I could not determine. Writing about the Boos brothers in 1998, journalist Cecilia Rasmussen noted the sale was valued at seven million dollars, but I don’t know her source. An article in the Oakland Tribune dated February 16, 1927, estimated the purchase would add four million gross to Childs’ business. So while the exact figure might not be known, it’s safe to say it was a heck of a lot of money.
So why did the brothers sell? Did the empire crumble without Horace at the helm of the “good ship?” Did Childs make them an offer they couldn’t refuse? Did the brothers and their newly appointed Secretary and cousin Alfred Schaber want to explore new opportunities? Sadly, I don’t know. Not even a month before the sale, an article in the Daily News with the headline Cafeteria Refuses Bids for Expansion ran proclaiming, “Although chambers of commerce have offered special inducements and thousands of letters are on file from almost every state in the union asking when they might expect to have a Boos Bros.’ cafeteria in their city, the local field has claimed all of the company’s attention, stated Henry Boos, president…” Was the article a plant by the brothers and Westgate to drive up the sale price of the chain? I wish I knew.
I wish I knew a lot more about many things in part 2 of this series! But the biggest question that remains for me so far is why didn’t the four Boos brothers or their cousin, Alfred, talk about their family connection? In the 1926 magazine, the company made a point of telling many of the backstories of employees who had been with them for years. “William Schell, who started with the company as a bus boy, and rapidly earned promotions until he reached the position of manager,” was with them from the start in 1906. “P. R. Conrad (Ben Conrad for short) has been with us sixteen years.” His first job was driving a delivery wagon and he worked his way up to manager of one of their finest dining rooms. “Chris Hagman, also on the payroll for sixteen years, was head butcher all by himself in the early days.” By 1926, he was head buyer of meat, fruit, and vegetables. I could go on and on.
So that’s where we’ll leave things for now before embarking on part 3, the final post in this series. Next time we’ll look at the life and business dealings of Alfred Schaber, what became of the remaining Boos Bros. restaurants and some of the Boos brothers, and the next man to tread on the cafeteria trail of Los Angeles, Clifford Clinton.