Fred Harvey’s Railroad Restaurants

[BOOKS5] Denver Public Library

The Fred Harvey restaurant at Dearborn Station in Chicago opened in 1899.

In 1946, when Judy Garland starred in a movie called “The Harvey Girls,” no one had to explain the title to the film-going public. The Harvey Girls were the young women who waited tables at the Fred Harvey restaurant chain, and they were as familiar in their day as Starbucks baristas are today.

In many of the dusty railroad towns out West in the late 1880s and early decades of the 1900s, there was only one place to get a decent meal, one place to take the family for a celebration, one place to eat when the train stopped to load and unload: a Fred Harvey restaurant. And the owner’s decision to import an all-female waitstaff meant that his restaurants offered up one more important and hard-to-find commodity in cowboy country: wives.

It was a brilliant formula, and for a long time Fred Harvey’s name was synonymous in America with good food, efficient service and young women. Today, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone aware of the prominent role Harvey played in civilizing the West and raising America’s dining standards. His is one of those household names now stashed somewhere up in the attic.

[BK_Cover4] Helen Harvey Mills

Fred Harvey in the early 1880s.

In “Appetite for America,” Stephen Fried aims to give Fred Harvey his due, making an impressive case for this Horatio Alger tale written in mashed potatoes and gravy. Fred Harvey restaurants grew up with the railroads in the American West beginning in the 1870s, with opulent dining rooms in major train stations and relatively luxurious eating spots at more remote railroad outposts. Eventually, the Fred Harvey brand spread to 65 restaurants and lunch counters, 60 dining cars and a dozen large Harvey-owned hotels. And Harvey understood that the reputation of his brand depended on his own personal standards for excellence—which is why he called his company simply “Fred Harvey,” not Fred Harvey Co. or Harvey Inc.

He built “the first national chain of anything,” writes Mr. Fried. He tells his story in crisp prose and delightful detail, from staggering statistics—in 1905, when moving fresh food across the country was still a challenge, Harvey restaurants served up 6.48 million eggs and two million pounds of beef—to savory recipes, including those for “Plantation Beef Stew on Hot Buttermilk Biscuits” and “Finnan Haddie Dearborn” (smoked haddock). Mr. Fried also deftly captures the significance of how Harvey remade the American rail experience: For the first time in the U.S., a traveler could step off his train and know exactly what to expect: hot coffee, good food and friendly service—all of it delivered in time to get him back on the train before it pulled out of the station.

When Harvey left his home in England at age 15 in 1850, he later recalled, he had two pounds in his pocket and no particular plan of action. He soon found work as a “pot walloper,” or dishwasher, at a restaurant on the Hudson River piers in New York. And like so many pot wallopers, then and now, he worked his way up: busboy, waiter, line cook.

Eventually, in another classic move, Harvey headed west. In Kansas he worked two jobs, as a railroad ticket agent and as a newspaper ad salesman. With the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 and the arrival of a postwar business boom, rail commerce thrived—as did Fred Harvey. He became a freight agent, traveling the countryside and arranging with farmers, manufacturers and miners to ship their goods.

Appetite for America

By Stephen Fried
Bantam, 518 pages, $27


Read an excerpt from the book.

Enduring the endless smoke, soot, stale air and unappetizing food that typified train journeys of the era, Harvey decided that he at least could do something about the food. In the 1870s George Pullman was building elegant sleeping cars and handsomely appointed dining cars, but the dining cars were unsuccessful: On trains of that time passengers couldn’t walk between cars, so hungry travelers were unable to reach the dining car except when the train stopped—and diners long finished with their meals had to wait to go back to their seats. Passengers unable to afford the expensive fare were at the mercy, as Mr. Fried writes, “of stomach-turning depot meals.” Harvey believed there was money to be made: “Fred was certain it was possible to serve the finest cuisine imaginable along the train tracks in the middle of nowhere.”

It was this ambition—to serve not just fast food but the best possible fast food—that would mark his true contribution to American business. Before there were four-star hotels or restaurants, he set out to create a brand that delivered the goods quickly without cutting corners on quality. He ran his railroad-restaurant business, operating along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe lines, like a military operation. His waitresses lived in company housing and kept curfew. On and off the job, they were expected to follow rules: “Have a Sincere Interest in People” was the first on a list that Mr. Fried reprints. Another reminded employees that “Tact is an Asset and HONESTY is still a Virtue.” Harvey’s decrees didn’t necessarily apply to Harvey: A newspaper in 1881 reported that when he fired the manager of a train-station restaurant in Deming, N.M., Harvey threw the man out the front door onto the train platform “and the dining room equipment followed after him in quick order.”

As his empire expanded, Harvey built the first national chain of hotels and the first chain of bookstores. He also helped establish the Grand Canyon as a major tourist destination and sparked some of the country’s early appreciation and preservation of Native American culture.

The tale of Harvey’s rise, as told by Mr. Fried, is a business story and a sweeping social history populated with memorable characters. We meet, for instance, David Benjamin, who was a 22-year-old bank teller in Leavenworth, Kan., Harvey’s base of operations, when the businessman offered him a job in 1881. Soon the matter-of-fact Benjamin was the mercurial Harvey’s right-hand man, “creating elaborate systems to put Fred Harvey’s demands and dreams into memo and manual form, making ‘the standard’ easier to understand.”

[book6] University of Arizona Library

A ‘Harvey Girl’ in Emporia, Kan., where the restaurant opened in 1888. Fred Harvey also owned a farm in Emporia.

When Harvey dies in 1901, we watch his son, Ford Harvey, execute such a smooth transition and maintain such a low profile that hardly anyone knows the company’s namesake is gone. Ford Harvey has all of the old man’s obsessive attention to detail. When he receives a letter from a patron claiming that another establishment serves better olives than Fred Harvey’s, Ford is taken aback and writes to the rival, asking for a bottle of the olives. When the bottle arrives, he announces to his top staff the good news: The olives are the same as the ones served in the Harvey chain—the letter-writer “just thought those olives tasted better.”

The Fred Harvey company lasted the better part of a century and through three generations of family management, but as automobile travel rose in popularity in the 1930s and 1940s, the age of the passenger train began to wane, taking with it the Harvey empire.

When Judy Garland played an onscreen Harvey Girl in 1946, the movie was a great success, and one of its songs, “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” became a No. 1 hit. There were hopes that the movie might somehow spark a revival in the Fred Harvey fortunes, but by then another hospitality genius was on the scene, and Howard Johnson had set up shop beside the nation’s highways.

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