How Was The West Won? With Hospitality Fred Harvey was the Ray Kroc before McDonald's, the J.W. Marriott before Marriott Hotels. A new book by Stephen Fried looks at how Harvey civilized the West with his railroad restaurants and changed America's eating habits.
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How Was The West Won? With Hospitality

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How Was The West Won? With Hospitality

How Was The West Won? With Hospitality

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

And I've been thinking back on the glory days of train travel, when you could ride in grand style on the Santa Fe Railroad, get off at, say, Dodge City, Kansas, and step into the depot for a fine meal at a Fred Harvey restaurant.

I've been devouring the story of Fred Harvey in the new book "Appetite for America," where he is described as Ray Kroc before McDonalds, J.W. Marriott before Marriott Hotels, Howard Schultz before Starbucks, a titan of the service industry starting the 1880s.

Fred Harvey was 17 when he sailed to New York from England in 1853. He had two pounds in his pocket. By its peak, the Fred Harvey empire ran nearly 100 restaurants and 25 hotels from Chicago to Los Angeles, not to mention newsstands and bookshops in more than 80 cities.

He set an impeccable standard for service and quality, the Fred Harvey way. According to author Stephen Fried, Fred Harvey was convinced he could serve the finest cuisine in the middle of nowhere. Harvey had suffered culinary indignities along the rail lines himself.

Mr. STEPHEN FRIED (Author, "Appetite for America"): You know, the food was awful, and what they would often do is they would serve it to you so late that by the time you sat down, it was time to get back on the train. And so you would pay, hardly get to eat, and then they would actually scrape the food off the plate and then serve it to the next person who came in and got tricked the same way.

So it was very much bait and switch, the idea being that if a local person owned that restaurant, they're never going to see you again. They don't care if they rip you off.

So one of the innovations of Fred Harvey was to have one company that had all the restaurants along one railroad line, and they had to be accountable along the way because you were always going to see Fred Harvey.

The idea here was that these restaurants should be as good as the best restaurants in New York, in Chicago, in London, and that's where the chefs came from, and that was the level of ambition.

BLOCK: And the idea was, if you were coming through on the train, you could get off, have a great, full meal, and 30 minutes later, you would be back on the train, guaranteed.

Mr. FRIED: Exactly, and they actually had choices. There was a sit-down dining room where you actually had to wear a jacket - even cowboys were forced to wear a jacket to eat. Next to it was a lunchroom, sort of the prototype of our diners today, with stools and curved counters. And then they had take-out coffee like Starbucks, and it was considered the best coffee in the West. And so you could get coffee and sandwiches to take on the train.

BLOCK: And the hallmark, or at least one of the hallmarks of the Fred Harvey restaurants was beef, especially steak served rare. And as you describe it, there was a story that a cowboy who was served a rare steak didn't know whether to eat it or brand it.

Mr. FRIED: Exactly. I mean, rare steak was not something that people considered safe to eat in the West at that time. Same thing with fresh vegetables. Almost everything that was served in restaurants in the West was canned. So the idea that the chefs could go out - they literally went out to the refrigerator cars, opened them up with a special lock and took the vegetables that they needed off the train, that had just been picked.

So it was really - people had never eaten like this before. I think William Allen White, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lived in Emporia, Kansas, where there was a Harvey House and loved Fred Harvey, was personal friends with Fred Harvey, you know, he wrote about it as if, you know, Fred Harvey had transformed the culinary life of America not just in eating, but because people went into the restaurants. They understood that you could cook food in a more delicate, delicious way, that you didn't have to boil everything and ruin every piece of meat that you got.

BLOCK: You describe Fred Harvey going into the dining rooms of these restaurants and running inspections before the customers are getting off the train. What would he do?

Mr. FRIED: Yeah, what Fred would do in the early years, when they were still trying to get everybody to understand the importance of doing everything perfectly was he would go to the front of the train and hop off the train before it was even in the station. He would walk ahead. He would go into the restaurant and if he found the slightest thing wrong, he would basically take the tablecloth, yank it, and throw the entire table on the floor so that the people would have to pick everything up, clean everything up, and reset the table before people came into the restaurant.

Now, after a certain time, Fred didn't have to pull the tablecloths. People were so afraid that he would show up and pull the tablecloths that they just did everything perfectly, although they did use telegraphs to warn people that Fred was coming. They would use a - like, sack of potatoes - on next train.

BLOCK: That was the code?

Mr. FRIED: That was one of the many codes they had to let people know at the next station that Fred was on the train.

BLOCK: One other innovation that Fred Harvey put into effect was something called the Harvey Girls. And these were women who rode the trains to go out to work in Harvey restaurants along the rail line out West. And there is a movie from 1946 called "The Harvey Girls," and at the very beginning, it says they were conquering the West with a beef steak and a cup of coffee.

(Soundbite of film, "The Harvey Girls")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) A Harvey Girl is more than a waitress. Wherever a Harvey House appears, civilization is not far behind. You girls are the symbol and the promise of the order that is to come.

BLOCK: They're civilizing the West.

Mr. FRIED: Well, Fred Harvey really believed that, and I think that in many ways, it's true. I mean, the Harvey girls began in the 1880s in part because in New Mexico, as the company expanded West, things were rougher and rougher as you got further west. And in New Mexico, all waiters at that time were African-American men, and there was an incredible amount of racism. And they were under siege. There were stories in the newspapers about the waiters having to carry guns to protect themselves from their customers.

So, Fred Harvey and the people in his company decided that that they would only hire single women from the Midwest, train them in Kansas, and then they shipped them out to the different restaurant locations. They lived in barracks. They had to agree to not get married for six months, sign a contract to that effect. Some of them didn't make it.

This is the first real female workforce in America, the first opportunity for single women to travel, to make their own money, and the company continued this practice through the late 1930s.

BLOCK: And again, with "The Harvey Girls," the Fred Harvey standard, we see Judy Garland in this movie, in this song and dance routine, pulling on the Harvey uniform.

(Soundbite of film, "The Harvey Girls")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Actor): (Singing) Stout black shoes to keep a sense of humor. Please confine your underwear to camisole and bloomer. Black shirt, waist, cuffs neat and trim. The apron must be spotless from the collar to the hem.

BLOCK: And the uniform, Steve, is really quite something, a starched white apron all the way down to the floor.

Mr. FRIED: Yeah, with a black, you know, almost nun-like black dress that went from the top of the neck to the very top of your shoes, and they were wool. It was not an easy outfit to wear, but it was also - they were very hard to put on and put off. It's been suggested that part of the way the Harvey system made women bond with each other is because they had to help each other put their uniforms on.

The Harvey girls were incredibly close, and we're talking about - it's estimated 100,000 women had that experience.

BLOCK: You know, when you read the descriptions of this impeccable level of service and the incredible attention to detail in restaurants and in hotels, where design was everything and everything had to look beautiful, it just makes you want to cry because so little of that is left of his empire. If you really want to find shades of Fred Harvey now, where do you go?

Mr. FRIED: You go to the Southwest, where in Santa Fe, you know, the old Fred Harvey Hotel here in Santa Fe, La Fonda, is still doing very well. In Winslow, Arizona, a couple has completely restored La Pasada Hotel, which is a wonderful hotel, a great restaurant and the last place where you can do what people did in America for generations: walk off the train and literally walk into a delicious restaurant, something that every time my wife and I fly, and we get off the plane to the horror of being an air passenger and getting off the plane, she always just turns to me and says, you know, where is Fred Harvey when we need him?

And the last place, of course, is Grand Canyon, the historic hotels of the Grand Canyon, El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodge, and of course, Phantom Ranch, which is at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Those hotels are still run pretty much the way they were run in Fred's day, but interestingly, all over the Southwest and in the West, there are towns that are reclaiming their old Fred Harvey buildings, and some of them are trying to be used as restaurants and hotels, others for municipal buildings.

But the Santa Fe Railroad and Fred Harvey ran beautiful mission-style buildings, you know, from Kansas all the way across the country, and those that haven't been knocked down are being reclaimed in these communities. It's a very cool thing to see.

BLOCK: Well Stephen Fried, thanks very much.

Mr. FRIED: Thank you very much for having me.

BLOCK: You can read an excerpt from Stephen Fried's book, "Appetite for America," at npr.org. You'll also find photos of the Harvey Girls and old recipes from Fred Harvey restaurants.

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