Fred Harvey was famous for hiring young, single women to work in all of his restaurants, including those in remote places. It is said that these women did much to tame the west, bringing a bit of gentility to the lawless reaches of the railroad. - photo credit: Old Trails Museum - Winslow, Arizona

I’ve known about Fred Harvey for many years and always thought of him as a marketing guy, promoting “the West” to tourists in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This impression was furthered by an exhibit at the Heard Museum in Phoenix featuring his company’s art and promotional materials for western attractions and hotels. But I’m learning that’s not even half of the story!

I’m currently reading, Appetite for America by Stephen Fried. It is a 515-page tome that I highly recommend. It recounts several stories: Fred Harvey’s life; the business that carried his name long after his death; and perhaps most importantly, it is the story of hospitality in the United States. 

Fred Harvey came to America in 1853 at the age of 17 with two pounds in his pocket. Within days of his arrival, he had a job at Smith & McNell’s, a cafe turned full-service restaurant located at the edge of the Washington Street Market in New York. Harvey was a "pot walloper” or dishwasher (a term I think we should all embrace). It was here that his culinary training began.

Harvey quickly moved into management, owned and lost restaurants, lost money to a partner who joined the secessionist army taking everything they had ($1,300 or approximately $32,774 in today’s economy), and continued to move forward. He married, lost two sons and his first wife, remarried and had several daughters and sons. It was his oldest son, Ford, who carried the family business into the 20th century.

Gaunt and always sickly from a dangerous run with typhoid fever, Harvey was a powerhouse of determination. Sometimes working two or three jobs at a time, he was catching the attention of his supervisors and members of the community. He was a good salesman, of everything from newspaper ads, to train tickets, to river boat shipping services, and was apparently fearless when negotiating business arrangements.

At the time of his death in 1901, Harvey was managing hotels and restaurants for the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad all over the west. He was even providing meals on the trains themselves.

There are many different management styles, and Fred Harvey certainly had unique ideas about how to run grow and run a restaurant. Perhaps these tips will help you make management decisions in the future.

Imagine that in many of your restaurants, guests arrive in great hoards all at one time, and have exactly 30 minutes to eat, stretch their legs, and be back on the train. In many of his locations, Harvey faced this several times a day, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning or evening. Every aspect of service was oriented toward saving even fractions of minutes for the guests. As an example, while taking orders, waitresses arranged the cups and saucers on the table so that other staff members knew without asking what each guest wanted to drink and could seamlessly serve the desired beverage.

Fred Harvey did not allow for any deviation from the strict rules of service and decorum for his employees. If he felt someone had behaved in error, he would march through the dining room, grab the tablecloth and throw all of the dishes, cutlery and glasses into the air, letting them rain down and break on the floor. The offending employee was always in attendance for such a spectacle. But for Harvey, the experience let the employee know that the error was noticed. The error was absolutely unacceptable. And, it would not be tolerated again. Without a word, he would turn and leave the room.

On one occasion, Harvey was dining in the Montezuma Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico. It was a property he managed and he was enjoying the impeccable service and food. Hearing gun shots, he found a group of cowboys shooting up Indian relics in the billiard hall. He told them in no uncertain terms that guns were not allowed, only gentlemen were allowed on the premises, and if they didn’t behave they could never come back again. The event ended with the cowboys having drinks and a midnight breakfast as Harvey’s guests, complete with a fresh cup of Harvey’s fresh, black coffee.

Speaking of coffee. Harvey thought the weak, acid swill served in most restaurants, and on the trains, wasn’t real coffee. He had coffee freshly roasted for all of his restaurants and made a great showing when the staff cleaned out the urns every two hours to ensure that it was as fresh as promised.

Upon his death, William Allen White, a columnist for the Emporia Gazette wrote, “Men who have eaten at Fred Harvey’s eating houses have come home and insisted on having their meats broiled, not fried; their roasts roasted, not boiled; their potatoes decently cooked and their biscuits light.” He went on to say that “Fred Harvey was a greater man than if he had been elected to something.” 

Appetite for America is a wonderful romp through history, hospitality, and the importance of our nation’s railroads. Still reading, only on page 205…