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Schrafft's

In Eating My Words Mimi Sheraton fondly remembers childhood visits  to Schraftt's where the “stern and precise schoolmarm waitresses” had Irish brogues. Mimi's standard lunch was an egg salad or cream cheese sandwich with the crusts cut off, washed down with hot chocolate with whipped cream in the winter or a peach ice-cream soda in summer. She also liked the hot butterscotch sundaes with vanilla ice cream and toasted almonds.

In April 1946 there were 34 Schrafft's in the metropolitan area. Work had begun on a new one at E. 57th and Third Avenue in Manhattan, the first to be built since the war. According to The New York Times, it had translucent glass blocks on the exterior and light mahogany wood inside. The restaurants had been in Brooklyn as well since 1915. There was one on Flatbush Avenue and another downtown. Schrafft's also had a factory in the borough that turned out the wafer thin mints sold at the retail counter. But the main candy factory was in Boston. The bakery was on West. 23rd St. in Manhattan next to the executive offices,

“Overheard at Schrafft's” was a frequent introduction to a humorous anecdote in The New Yorker in the day. They can be found here at the magazine's archives. Schrafft's was where the portly matrons that Helen Hokinson satirized in her cartoons in the magazine lunched. But the patronage was broader. In 1946 businessmen came in for oysters and theatergoers stopped in for a bite before or after a show. Matinée days particularly bustled. Taking the kids to Schrafft's for ice cream or for a mother/daughter lunch was a tradition in many middle-class families. At dinner time, you might find solitary women of modest means who had come in for a frugal night out. It was a popular spot for breakfast for both genders, a place to read the paper over eggs and bacon and a cup of coffee. Shoppers picked up candy or pastries from the retail counter to take home.

The image Schrafft's sought to project was of a genteel place that served “plain, clean, wholesome American cooking,” in the words of Frank Shattuck who had started the company's restaurant business. They had no ethnic dishes on their menu. Many Schrafft's had dark wood paneling and Colonial furniture. There were bud vases on the tables. But gentility in the first half of the 20th century had its dark side. Schrafft's discouraged black patrons. They would be seated politely without comment and then ignored by the wait staff. White women did not wait on black people back then. This was slowly changing.

A dainty, ladylike sandwich was a common lunch choice for Schrafft's patrons. The most popular were the chopped egg sandwich cut into thirds with the crusts removed and the chopped chicken sandwich with a thin layer of filling on crustless bread cut into quarters. Chicken a la king was a popular alternative. This was standard tearoom fare. The meal often would be followed by an ice cream sundae or other indulgent dessert. This disconnect did not escape commentators and wags of the time. It had a lot to do with the schizoid nature of the company. Schrafft's began as a Boston-based candy company but around the turn of the 20th century its New York sales representative Frank G. Shattuck recognized the business opportunity in creating a place for women to dine economically and comfortably. The result was a cross between a tearoom and a soda fountain. Schrafft's candy and baked goods were available at a retail counter in the front of the store and the candy was displayed in the windows.

Most Manhattan Schrafft's also had bars. Earlier in the century the Temperance Movement promoted soda fountains as an alternative socializing opportunity to bars. Can you just see the guys meeting at a soda fountain after their shift at the factory or day at the office for a round of banana splits? In time the management of Schrafft's recognized that some Manhattan women wanted a respectable place to meet their lady friends for cocktails. The place bustled at cocktail hour, filling the business gap between lunch and dinner. Popular cocktails including Manhattans, martinis, grasshoppers, golden fizzes, pink ladies and old fashioneds.


The waitresses, many of whom were hired straight off the boat from Ireland, wore black dresses with crisp white collars and cuffs, dainty white aprons and hair nets. They carried food to the table on trays balanced on extended arms. The stores, which was what Schrafft's called their establishments, also had hostesses who wore street clothes rather than uniforms. One hostess stood in the front. The floor hostess would hold up fingers to show how many seats were available. She was also in charge of making sure the tables were quickly cleaned and reset. At the swanky, five-story Schrafft's at Fifth & 46
th St. the hostesses wore long gowns. At every store the waitresses had a morning lineup when they would be inspected for cleanliness and neatness. The company ran a tight ship. Chipped tableware was not tolerated. Coffee had to be discarded after 30 minutes.

Schrafft's was one of the first restaurant chains to hire women managers and most of the cooks were women, who Shattuck believed were better able to prepare food that tasted homemade, although they had to strictly follow the authorized recipes. A diner could not special order at Schrafft's. During the Depression the city instituted a regulation forbidding women from working in restaurants past 10 PM. As a result Schrafft's hired male waiters for the dinner shift. John Forsythe and Kirk Douglas were among the aspiring young actors who waited tables there. Men already had been employed at the bar and soda fountain. Schrafft's also ran company cafeterias and executive dining rooms. The rules were strict and there were no tips, but the hours were shorter. That's where some of the older waitresses ended up.


Not all Schrafft's followed the standard design. The one at 61 Fifth Avenue that opened in 1938 had a curved facade with windows in assorted sizes, a two-level interior decorated with murals and leather-covered chairs. The company also had a men's grill at their Bond Street location. There was a Schrafft's across the street from “21” and an elegant one in the Chrysler Building . Here is the one on West 57th.

The stores continued to flourish during the War although they had to make menu revisions to accommodate shortages. Sometimes honey was used to sweeten baked goods. On the city-mandated meatless Tuesdays and Fridays in 1945, Schrafft's served vegetables a la king on hot johnny cakes with a slaw of shredded cabbage and orange sections. They reduced the butterfat content in their ice cream. Like Horn & Hardart they had a problem with patrons walking off with the sugar packets.

On October 1945, two months after the war had ended, the company announced it was reducing the work week for hourly personnel to 44 hours from 48 at the same weekly pay, with time and a half for overtime. They said this was expected to lead to more hiring. A help wanted display ad that ran in the Sunday News on April 14, 1946, offered positions in the dining room, kitchen and steam tables. Unlike most establishments, Schrafft's provided the uniforms. No experience was necessary.

In 1946 some foods were returning after a postwar absence. Jane Nickerson's food column in The New York Times in March noted the availability again at Schrafft's of Martha Ann spiced almonds and mint almonds. She also wrote in another column that month that hot cross buns were on sale through the Lenten season on Wednesdays and Fridays at the retail counter for 41 cents a dozen. Meat was an issue as it was everywhere. Restaurants were required under federal price control laws to maintain the same price on meat dishes that they had in 1943. Schrafft's would continue to grow in the postwar era through the 1960s then slowly fade away like many institutions of the era in the 1970s.

See When Everybody Ate at Schrafft's:Memories, Pictures, and Recipes from a Very Special Restaurant Empire by Joan Kanel Slomansen for more on the company and its history.

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