From the Homestead Kitchen: The Cafeteria Craze of Los Angeles, Part 3

by Alexandra Rasic

This post is the last of a three-part series exploring the history of some of Los Angeles’ early cafeterias. “Intriguing” is not a word I would have associated with researching the cafeteria business before embarking on this succession of posts, but that’s exactly what it has been—and why there are three parts to this story. Two objects in the Homestead’s collection served as inspiration: 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 covered 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 second post looked at the California cafeteria empire created by the Boos brothers and the surprise connection to Alfred Schaber, of Schaber’s Cafeteria fame. This final post will further explore the connection between the Boos and Schaber families, and introduce 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.

In part two, I noted that following the death of Horace Boos, the de facto patriarch of the Boos family, his three remaining brothers Cyrus, Henry, and Orlando (who often went by his middle name John) sold the family’s chain of seven cafeterias to the Childs Company for a hefty sum in 1927. Six cafeterias were located in downtown Los Angeles, and one was on Catalina Island. From about 1912 to 1924, the brothers also had two restaurants in San Francisco, but they were sold to Bay Area restaurateur E.J. Clinton, father of Clifford Clinton, so that the brothers could better focus on the presumed limitless growth of the Los Angeles market.

A Boos Bros. cafeteria on Catalina Island was a selling point for tourists as seen in this ad promoting the opening of the new Catalina Island Casino. While not owned by the Boos family in 1929, Henry Boos would reacquire this location at the start of the Great Depression. From the San Pedro News-Pilot, May 15, 1929.

I have yet to uncover the reason why the brothers sold their cafeterias. Did things fall apart after Horace’s death? Did Childs simply make them an offer they could not refuse? Did the brothers want to explore new opportunities? I don’t know. The Boos Bros. company magazine, Glancing back along the cafeteria trail, published a few months after Horace died in 1926, certainly did not indicate that big changes were on the horizon. “Like members of other large concerns,” the brothers “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.” The magazine noted that Henry had assumed the role of president; John became vice president; Cyrus filled the position of treasurer; and Alfred Schaber, described as a long-time buyer and head of the office force, would assume the position of secretary.

The executive staff of Boos Bros. as noted in the company magazine, Glancing back along the cafeteria trail, in 1926.

“Wait a second…” I thought. “Is Alfred Schaber connected to Schaber’s Cafeteria?” The answer was yes. He was the Schaber who started it all in 1928, one year after the Boos brothers sold their cafeterias. But even more interesting to learn was that he was also related to the Boos family. I stumbled across a personal family genealogy website indicating that Alfred was the nephew of Mathilde Boos, nee Schaber, the Boos brothers’ mother. Further, it stated “In Los Angeles, Alfred had found his entrance into the restaurant business as a boy cleaning in the dining area of the Boos Brothers Cafeteria. Horace Boos found many of his same attributes (with the accounting background and all) and soon promoted Alfred to help in the office. Horace and Alfred got along well.” With that bit of information, off I went to Ancestry.com, where I was able to confirm some of these details. (I also reached out to a person associated with the family genealogy page. If I hear back, I’ll share what I learn.) 

Alfred Schaber’s WWI Draft Registration Card.

Alfred Theophile Schaber was born in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, in 1893. The town is located far north, surrounded by Germany on three sides. Schaber immigrated to America as World War I was raging in Europe. He arrived at Ellis Island on January 25, 1917, a critical time in the war as Germany took action that led to the US joining the Allied powers. In fact, while Schaber was en route to the US, the British intercepted the infamous Zimmerman Telegram where Germany proposed an alliance with Mexico if the US entered the conflict. Continuing to trace him on Ancestry, the next record I found was Schaber’s World War I Draft Registration Card, signed and dated June 5, 1917, from Billings, Montana, where he was employed as a bank clerk. By 1920, census records showed him living in Los Angeles with Horace and his family. While he had no occupation listed, my guess is that he was already learning the ropes of the cafeteria business. In 1923 he filed a Petition for Naturalization that was witnessed by cousins Orlando and Cyrus. That petition was denied, with “Loyalty not satisfactory” listed as the reason. He successfully re-filed his naturalization papers in May of 1926, with cousins Henry and Cyrus signing off as witnesses. His Naturalization Index Card was filed in September, one month after he married Madelene McKenna, and two months after Horace died. What Schaber needed to do to prove his loyalty is unknown. He certainly had a paper trail of his whereabouts in the US after his arrival, but maybe the location of his place of birth near the German border was a factor as anti-German sentiment certainly existed following the war.

Top and bottom from the Los Angeles Evening Express, April 24, 1928.

Schaber’s Cafeteria opened on April 26, 1928. On the 24th, a series of articles and ads ran in the Los Angeles Evening Express featuring write-ups about Schaber; his finely appointed new Spanish Renaissance-style cafeteria designed by Charles F. Plummer (who also did design work for the Boos brothers, and Clifford Clinton); and what diners could expect to enjoy at the establishment, including music provided by Pryor P. Moore’s 10-piece orchestra. Moore was cousin Cyrus’ son-in-law who performed for Boos Bros. diners for many years before the chain was sold. (You can read a bit about Moore’s orchestra in part two of this series).     

From the Los Angeles Evening Express, April 24, 1928.

In the opening paragraph of the article about Schaber, the author said he represented “the great popular idea of the self-made business man.”  Starting at the bottom of the ladder with Boos Bros., he “worked himself up through every department until his energy and personality placed him as executive head of the entire Boos Bros. organization. This position, which he filled with distinguished success for years, has now been superseded by this appointment to the presidency of the great new cafeteria that bears his name.” 

The notion of self-made manhood came about as social, political, and economic realms widened in the 19th century to allow for a rise in individualism. Men created their positions in society based on demonstrated ability, not status at birth. Personal achievement and upstanding personal character were increasingly valued. Character, which emphasized a strong work ethic, became one of the most defining virtues of self-made manhood. Men who worked in the business world, in particular, were taught that upstanding character led to economic prosperity and success. Maybe explaining the family connection and the help he received from his family would take away from Schaber’s narrative of being a self-made man? With a different last name, he could stand out as his own man.

While times were challenging during the Great Depression, Schaber’s Cafeteria survived, and by all accounts, thrived, even with a new competitor in town, Clifford Clinton, who had been chomping at the bit, waiting to establish himself on the cafeteria scene in Los Angeles.  

In 1946, Schaber’s was acquired by Forum Cafeterias of America for approximately $517,000. And then Alfred retired. A short obituary ran in local papers when he died in 1962, which is the first time I found any mention of family in Europe. Erhard Schaber, a cousin from Germany who immigrated to the US in 1928 and worked for Alfred, opened another Schaber’s Cafeteria in North Hollywood in 1955, which was sold in the mid-1970s, and closed in 1998. So why did Alfred sell his successful downtown cafeteria? Like his cousins, did he receive an offer that he could not refuse? Did he anticipate that the cafeteria business model would soon fall out of fashion? I don’t know. Might there have been more Schaber’s cafeterias if the stock market had not crashed in 1929? Maybe. And maybe the timing of the sale, which came on the heels of the end of WWII, felt like the right time for him to simply focus on enjoying the rest of his life out of the spotlight.  

From the Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1962.

As market outlooks changed once the Great Depression started, Childs Company realized it needed to change course to remain viable. Two of the former Boos Bros. cafeterias were reacquired by Henry Boos (one at 530 South Hill Street in downtown LA, and the restaurant on Catalina Island). “Back in business,” journalist Cecilia Rasmussen explained that Boos Bros. “offered inexpensive fare of a ’40-cent dinner’ that made the cafeterias especially popular with the starving artists and angry intellectuals of Los Angeles during the Depression.” But by the late ’40s, however, Henry was out of the restaurant business. Another two former Boos Bros. locations were acquired by Clifford Clinton. 

From the Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1935.

In 2015, Clinton’s grandson, Edmond J. Clinton III published Clifton’s and Clifford Clinton: A Cafeteria and a Crusader, documenting the story of his grandfather’s life in the restaurant business, civic engagement and politics, and philanthropy. He explained that his grandfather’s “unpublished memoir, penned in 1957 while on a round-the-world trip with his wife Nelda and preserved by his family, is the source for many of the details and quoted material” in the book. It was a fascinating read, and I’m only going to touch on the origins of his cafeteria chain in LA, so if your interest is piqued, get a copy of the book! 

Beginning the story, Edmond writes that into the “economically depressed dystopia” of Los Angeles “ventured Clifford Clinton and his fledgling family, full of hope for a new business and a new life. Like many Angelenos, he was a transplant and might have subconsciously viewed the city as a larger metaphor for rebirth and rejuvenation. In 1931, with only two thousand dollars in his pocket, his first move had been to take over the Olive Street cafeteria of his longtime rivals, the Boos brothers. He called this new cafeteria Clifton’s, a portmanteau of his first and last names, to emphasize a clean break from his father’s ‘Clinton’s Cafeteria Company’ up north in the Bay Area.” 

Edmond notes that in 1911, his great-grandfather, E.J. Clinton, traveled to Los Angeles specifically to see a Boos Bros. cafeteria in operation. Upon returning home, he began adapting his business model to be more like what he had seen in LA. But soon came news that the Boos Bros. were going to open their first cafeteria in San Francisco. Working with architect Charles F. Plummer, they created a spectacular modern restaurant, the opening of which was attended by E.J. and his children, “marveling” at its beauty. E.J. did his best to compete with the Boos Bros., opening a nicer location and hiring an all-girl orchestra. Clifford, who often had a tumultuous relationship with E.J., eventually set his sights on doing business completely separate from his father. In the early 1920s, he went to Los Angeles to deeply study the competition. He got a job at the Boos Bros. cafeteria on 618 South Olive Street bussing tables, but “He was also taking notes on operations, policies, and management.” Clifford “was so diligent that he was offered a job in the storeroom. He declined it, seeking to peer behind the veil of yet another cafeteria…where he held various jobs before being recognized by the manager, a former San Francisco restaurateur.” As much as he wanted to start his own business in Los Angeles at that time, he did not have the means to do so and returned home just about the time that his father purchased the two San Francisco Boos Bros. cafeterias and the brothers retreated to LA. 

Following the stock market crash in 1929 and a failed effort to open a new restaurant in San Francisco with partners other than his father, Clinton made it known to architect Charles F. Plummer, who by this time had made a great career of working for restaurateurs throughout the state, that if he ever came across a good location for Clifford to open a restaurant in Los Angeles, he’d like to hear about it. Not long passed before Clinton received a telegram from Plummer asking if he’d be interested in the 618 Olive Street property, the former Boos Bros. Cafeteria he worked at briefly in the mid-’20s. This was the lease that started it all. 

Trying to compete with other cafeterias, Clifford begrudgingly offered “all you can eat” prices for a time, but the way he really came to stand out from the crowd was by creating unique themed dining experiences. His first cafeteria was transformed into a tropical paradise complete with palm trees, birds, and flowers. 

Clifford was not enthusiastic about the “all you can eat” plan, but to keep up with the competition, he embraced it for a while. At the same time he communicated other things that made him stand out, including the cafeteria’s décor, how he treated his employees, entertainment, and their willingness to host groups and clubs. Indeed, they did become a type of meeting HQ and local papers featured announcements of meetings daily for a variety of groups. From the Los Angele Times, December 9, 1931.

Deeply religious, Clifford vowed his business would be of service to others, always expressing Christian philosophies. “The Manual of Operations laid out polities, all based on the Golden Rule: ‘Do ye therefore unto others that which ye would have them do unto you.'” He also implemented a policy of “Pay What You Wish” and “No Guest Need Go Hungry for Lack of Funds.” He believed in equality and broad benefits for his employees including a medical plan, “a groundbreaking concept in the restaurant industry at the time. The plan paid for all surgical, medical, and prescription costs, as well as a week’s free hospital care for each year of service.” Clifton’s was also known as an establishment that served people of all races and was listed as such in the Green Book, a travel guide for Black travelers in America that was published between 1936 and 1966. 

As Clifford’s policy of feeding the hungry became more widely known, people in need flocked to his restaurant on Olive Street. So many came that it became difficult for paying customers to dine there. This was not good for business, so Clifford leased an old cafeteria at Third and Hill Streets and opened a Penny Cafeteria in the basement in 1932. Because of its location, it was dubbed a “caveteria.” 

From the Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1932.

By 1935, Clifford was doing well enough to acquire the former Boos Bros. location at 648 South Broadway, which became the iconic Clifton’s Brookdale following a major renovation and reimaging of the restaurant by himself and Plummer. Edmond explains that “Clinton fondly remembered the Brookdale Lodge near Mount Hermon in the Santa Cruz Mountains where he spent much time in his early days. The lodge had a real brook laden with trout flowing through its dining room.” New murals of redwood forests and a real waterfall gave guests the “sensation of dining in the middle of a forest. On shelves around the room were forest animals including a grizzly bear, a raccoon, and a deer. In one corner was a cross section of a 1,400-year-old redwood tree trunk, with its rings labeled to show historic events, including the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.” 

The cafeteria experience and setting were like no other. “To select their food, guests walked through a tunnel on the left of the entry that took them past backlit photographs of sequoia trees to a stainless steel tray line. As guests moved along the line, they encountered individual food items arranged on beds of ice. Different flavors of Jell-O were displayed near salads of cottage cheese, lettuce and carrot, and coleslaw. Baked apples were next, then fruit cocktails and desserts. Choices of pie included apple, custard, and lemon meringue, and, when in season, strawberry. Guests then turned a corner to the hot food aisle…” Staying true to his belief that no one should go hungry, a version of the Penny Meal was put in place at this location when the “caveteria” closed in 1935.

Interestingly, Clinton officially got out of the cafeteria business around the same time as Schaber when he and his wife sold their interests in the cafeteria chain to their children in 1947. He remained active in other personal and philanthropic endeavors including the founding of Meals for Millions, which is now part of Freedom From Hunger, an organization that focuses on fighting against chronic hunger and poverty. He died in 1969.

So accurately described as a restaurateur and reformer in his obituary that ran in the Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1969. Clifford was greatly impacted by his time in China with his missionary parents “where he had seen people so hungry they ate dirt.”

From the mid-1950s through the late 1980s, themed, but less extravagant branches of Clifton’s cafeterias opened throughout greater Los Angeles. (My family frequented the West Covina location known as “The Greenery” for its garden theme, which closed in 2003. I loved going there as a kid because it was the only restaurant where I was allowed to order dessert!). Just as downtown LA lost its luster for a while, so did cafeterias as fast food restaurants took hold. The last Clifton’s branch to close was Brookdale, however, locals and tourists can still get a feel for the magic and whimsy of this location at the reimagined Clifton’s Republic, a high-end, multi-story bar (with fantastic cocktails!) that serves food, but nothing like the old days. Fortunately some details of the Brookdale era survive (including the 1904 building facade!), and more have been added to pay homage to the history of the chain in downtown LA, such as the Pacific Seas side bar, a nod to the décor of the first Clifton’s Cafeteria on Olive Street.

The Stillwell folder and Boos Bros. magazine that inspired this series are two of over 30,000 objects we have in our collection at the Homestead. Time and time again, we are amazed at the stories that we can extract from items like these, items that could easily have been tossed or discarded years ago. In this case, they have helped us tell a story of what it was like to operate some of the earliest cafeterias in Los Angeles. They helped us tell the stories of the people who created these establishments, one building off of another, learning, innovating, competing, scheming, and doing their best to survive and thrive. So think twice about recycling that take-out menu or food magazine during the pandemic. They might serve as inspiration for someone at a museum, a student, or a researcher to tell a great story in a few years. 

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