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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: The Cafeteria

In 1885, the first cafeteria is believed to have opened. The Exchange Buffet in NYC, opened right across from the New York Stock Exchange, targeting stockbrokers and other male employees in the financial district. Food was purchased at a counter and patrons ate standing up.

The first mention of a "cafeteria"? It was during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Entrepreneur John Kruger built an American version of the smorgasbords he had seen while traveling in Sweden. Emphasizing simplicity and light fare, he called it a 'Cafeteria', Spanish for 'coffee shop'.

Let's talk a bit more about "smorgasbords"...the original buffet concept. The Swedish smorgasbord originated as a way to feed hungry out-of-town visitors who would just show up unexpectedly. The term translates as “buttered bread board” because at the beginning of the smorgasbord table was bread and butter.

The "cafeteria craze" was believed to have started in 1905 when Helen Mosher opened a downtown L.A. restaurant where people chose their food at a long counter and carried their trays to their tables. There was no tipping allowed at Mosher's "Cafeteria."

The original concepts worked on the honors system or different pricing by foods. Where did the concept of "all you can eat" first become popular? Las Vegas, of course! Herb McDonald, was a publicist at one of the first hotels on the strip, the El Rancho Vegas. One night in the mid 1940's, he wandered into the kitchen and brought out some cold cuts, cheese and bread, and spread them out along the bar for hungry customers. It was a hit and McDonald continued to add to the 24 hour all-you-can-eat buffet. For just $1, customers could choose from “every possible variety of hot and cold entrees to appease the howling coyote in your innards,” He called it, the “Buckaroo Buffet.”

Over the years, different concepts opened and gained in popularity. Chinese immigrant families found loopholes in racist immigration laws that allowed them to establish restaurants, catering their foods to American tastes and serving them buffet style. Shoney's and Sizzlers became favorites of truckers and travelers. Luby's opened its first cafeteria style buffet in San Antonio after WWII and became a Texas comfort food staple. Ponderosa and the Bonanza combined steaks with salad bars and buffet sides covered with "sneeze guards." By the 1970's and 1980's, cafeterias started to fade and filling its void, the growth of fast food and fast casual restaurants.


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