Childs Restaurants was one of the first national dining chains in the United States and Canada, having peaked in the 1920s and 1930s with about 125 locations in dozens of markets, serving over 50,000,000 meals a year, with over $37 million in assets at the time. Childs was a pioneer in a number of areas, including design, service, sanitation, and labor relations. It was a contemporary of food service companies such as Horn & Hardart, and a predecessor of companies such as McDonald's.
The first Childs Restaurant was launched in 1889 by brothers Samuel S. Childs and William Childs, on the ground level of the Merchants Hotel (current site of One Liberty Plaza, also previously the Singer Building), at 41 Cortlandt Street (between Broadway and Church), in New York City's Financial District. The brothers' concept for the establishment was to provide economical meals to the working class, quickly, with an unusually high emphasis – for the period – on cleanliness and hygiene. Their novel design format included white tiles, white uniforms, and waitresses instead of then-common waiters. In addition to these signature characteristics, Childs locations also featured their pancake griddles in the front window. Within five years, Childs had grown to five profitable locations. They also are credited as inventors of the "tray line" self-service cafeteria format, which they introduced in 1898 at their 130 Broadway location.
In 1898, the brothers, confident and ready for more aggressive expansion, combined with several investors to legally incorporate The Childs Unique Dairy Company, with capitalization of $1,000,000, and the stated intent to "establish and operate restaurants in New York City and elsewhere". It was widely speculated, and finally confirmed in 1912, that several officers of the Standard Oil Company were investors in the restaurant chain, including Henry Morgan Tilford and Charles Sweeney. At some point, "duPont interests" also gained a significant stock position, which would eventually cause problems for the family owners.
In 1899, F.O. Hendrick, a nephew of Samuel and William Childs, launched a casual luncheon restaurant at 142 Fulton Street, practically across the street from his uncles' first location on Cortlandt Street, which was by then 10 years old and highly successful. After a short period of family competition, Hendrick ultimately brought his restaurant under the Childs umbrella, and remained an operating executive of Childs Restaurants until the family lost control.
In 1906, fifteen similar restaurants (called "green doors") which were independently owned and operated by Ellsworth Childs (brother of Samuel and William) were consolidated into the company. Thereafter, Ellsworth remained an executive of Childs until his death in 1929, and is cited as a driving force behind the physical expansion during that period.
In September 1919, the company launched an employee stock ownership plan for its restaurant managers, and three years later, extended the plan to all employees. Within 10 years, employees would own almost 25% of the company's common stock.
By 1925, the chain operated 107 locations in 29 cities, served 50,000,000 meals every year, and was reporting consistent annual profits of $2,000,000. The company also grew to include other real estate interests. In March 1925, company President Samuel S. Childs died, although he had not been personally involved in the business for some time, instead focusing on his political career and many other civic and business activities. Operation of the restaurants had long been delegated to his brother and co-founder William, as Vice President and General Manager, and other family members.
The late 1920s witnessed a roller-coaster of events for the company. In November 1925, the Childs company became a major partner in the development of the landmark Savoy-Plaza Hotel, at Fifth Avenue and 59th Streets. Around 1927, William Childs began to impose his vegetarian dietary preferences on the chain's menu, which generated significant backlash from customers and his fellow managers and investors. The company's stock reached a low of $44 in 1928, and during a board meeting on December 12, 1928, William was pressed into resigning as President, but remained Chairman of the Board. At the following board meeting on January 30, 1929, William attempted to turn the tide by firing several executive officers and company directors, replacing them with family members. A proxy battle ensued, but on March 7, 1929, William and his supporters lost the fight to retain control of the company he co-founded 40 years before, by then valued around $37,000,000. He did retain a modest non-controlling equity position, which he eventually sold and/or bequeathed.
Decline and rebirth
In the 1930s, no longer under the direction of the Childs family, the chain returned meat to its menus, introduced alcohol at many locations (after the repeal of Prohibition), and launched a new subsidiary division called "The Host", meant to be lower-priced than Childs. The company also obtained the hot dog vending license for the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, which turned out a financial mistake.
In August 1943, under pressure of significant debt maturity, the company filed for bankruptcy reorganization. Childs emerged from bankruptcy in 1947, and continued to operate through the 1940s and 1950s.
By 1950, the company had shrunk to only 53 locations, and was losing money. Nonetheless, it managed to acquire the candy and ice cream maker Louis Sherry Inc., and announced several significant operational changes, including "returning to its old custom of flap-jack making in the windows" and the introduction of prepared meats, to eliminate the need for butchering on-site.
In 1955, a young hotelier named A.M. "Sonny" Sonnabend assumed the presidency of the Childs company, and pointed the enterprise in a new direction. In a series of coordinated transactions, the company's name was changed to Hotel Corporation of America, it acquired the Plaza Hotel in New York (across the street from the Savoy-Plaza Hotel, which Childs had developed), and entered into long-term leases for three other hotels in Boston, Cleveland, and Chicago. The company was then structured into three divisions: restaurants, manufacturing and distribution of packaged foods (via subsidiaries Receipe Foods, Fred Fear, and Louis Sherry), and hotels.
In 1961, substantially all of the remaining Childs restaurant operations, now greatly diminished in number and considered part of the company's past, were sold to the Riese Organization (National Restaurants Management Inc.), which as of 2009 operates more than 100 restaurants throughout New York City, including franchised units of Dunkin' Donuts, KFC, Pizza Hut, T.G.I. Friday's and Houlihan's. A number of the Riese properties are former Childs Restaurants.
In 1970, Hotel Corporation of America (formerly Childs) was again renamed, to Sonesta International Hotels Corporation (NASDAQ: SNSTA). As of 2009, the company operates 25 hotels on 3 continents, and owns several cruise ships, and is still led by the Sonnabend family.
Despite their market position, Childs Restaurants were distinguished for their architectural quality, and former locations continue to be appreciated by historic preservationists. In his design and construction efforts, William Childs and his internal architect of 30 years, John Corley Westervelt, consulted and engaged respected architects including William Van Alen (modernist designer of the Chrysler Building), Dennison & Hirons, Pruitt & Brown, and McKim, Mead, and White. One design critique from 1924 declared that Childs "...stands as a milestone marking an enormous advance in the taste of what we are pleased to describe as the ‘common people’ of America". In more recent years, celebrated architect Robert A.M. Stern described the Childs design as "austerely-elegant", and recognized their savvy in tailoring design to environment, such as in midtown Manhattan, where Childs was the first to make “dramatic use of large sheets of curved glass for corner windows", now a common technique.
- NEW YORK
- 41 Cortlandt Street, New York, NY (First Location)
- 604 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY
- 423-25 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY
- 26 Beaver Street, New York, NY (Site of Standard Oil Building)
- 194 Broadway, New York, NY
- 285 Broadway, New York, NY
- 391 Broadway, New York, NY
- 625 Broadway, New York, NY
- 1164 Broadway, New York, NY
- 1439 Broadway, New York, NY
- 1501 Broadway (at 43rd Street), New York, NY (below the Paramount Theater)
- 1551–1553 Broadway (at 46th St NW corner), New York, NY
- 1546 Broadway (between 45th & 46th Streets), New York, NY
- 2276 Broadway (at 82nd Street), New York, NY
- 300–304 W 59th St (SW Corner Columbus Circle), New York, NY
- 2102 Boardwalk, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY (designated landmark by New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission)
- 1208 Surf Avenue, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, 11224-2816 (Current home of Coney Island USA and the Coney Island Museum)
- WASHINGTON, DC
- NEW JERSEY
Although legally separate from the core Childs Restaurants chain, the founders and various family members operated a number of other businesses throughout the 20th century. Below are brief summaries of those operations.
In 1929, William Childs purchased a historic property near his home in Basking Ridge, NJ, and converted it – without making any structural modifications – to an inn and restaurant. The Olde Mill Inn and The Grain House Restaurant This upscale operation was distinctly different from the traditional Childs Restaurants, yet it also met with great success. The family continued to operate it for some time, but The Olde Mill Inn and Grain House Restaurant was eventually acquired by The Bocina Group, which continues to operate it as of 2009.
In December 1929, after being ousted from the core company, William Childs announced that the family had taken over the Archambault Restaurant at 2678 Broadway, and would relaunch it as "Old Algiers" – the first in a series of "old-world" themed restaurants. In this business, he partnered primarily with three nephews, Ellsworth E. Childs, William S. Childs, and Wallace A. Childs. The new company was soon organized under the corporate name Old London Inc., which was also the theme of their second 1,000-seat location, launched in 1931 at 130 West 42nd Street. This enterprise did not expand much further, likely due to William's advancing age. He died in 1938, and is buried behind the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church near his New Jersey estate, with a large number of other Childs family members.
As of 2009, the original F.O. Hendrick location is still an operating diner, now called the Anytime Cafe.
- Samuel S. Childs, Co-Founder and President (1889–1925)
- William Childs, Co-Founder, Vice President & General Manager (1889–1925), Chairman & President (1925–1929/30)
- Luther Childs, Director (? – 1929)
- Ellsworth Childs, Director (1906–1929), Treasurer (1929)
- William S. Childs, Director (? – 1929)
- F.O. Hendrick, General Manager (? – 1929)
- William A. Barber, General Counsel
- S. Willard Smith, President (1929–1931)
- William P. Allen, President (circa 1932)
- George D. Strohmeyer, President (1933–1941)
- Edward C. Field, President (1941–1948)
- John F.X. Finn, Court-Appointed Trustee (1943–1947)
- John L. Hennessey, President (1948–1949) (Former President of Statler Co., Inc.)
- John J. Bergen, Chairman (circa 1950)
- N. Clarkson Earl Jr., President (1950–1951) (Former executive at Howard Johnson's Restaurants)
- Charles Crouch, Executive Vice President (circa 1950)
- Abraham M. Sonnabend, President (1954–1963) (Converted Childs into Hotel Corporation of America, later Sonesta International Hotels Corporation)
We'll go to Yonkers – where true love conquers – in the wilds, And starve together dear – in Childs
The poem "Spain in Fifty-Ninth Street", written by E.B. White, tells the story of a brief but emotional interaction between a Childs hostess and a random customer (described as a "man of affairs") at the "Spanish Childs" location, presumably on 59th Street. White wrote a number of other short stories and poems that referenced or featured Childs, likely due to the daily presence of the establishments in his life during the late 1920s and 1930s in New York City.
Composer George Antheil, who also spent part of the 1920s in New York City, selected a Childs Restaurant as one of several iconic American locations (along with The Bowery and the Brooklyn Bridge) for the setting of his 1930 opera Transatlantic.
In the 1953 musical Wonderful Town, which depicted life in New York City during the 1930s, the song "What A Waste" (music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green) in Act I includes the lyrics:
Girl from Mobile,
Tragic or comic,
Any old play,
Suffered and starved,
He said the world would
Cheer her some day.
Came to New York,
Chekhov’s and Shakespeare’s and Wilde’s.
Now, they watch her flipping flapjacks at Childs.
What a waste,
What a waste,
What a waste of money and time!
- Austin, Kenneth L., "Childs Company Ups and Downs", The New York Times, August 29, 1943
- Women would work for lower wages than men.
- "Childs Restaurant Founder Is Dead: Samuel S. Childs", The New York Times, March 18, 1925
- Zuber, Amy, "William & Samuel Childs", Nations Restaurant News, February 1996
- "Childs Unique Dairy Company", The New York Times, November 27, 1898
- "Standard Oil Money To Extend Childs", The New York Times, June 6, 1912
- "Going Vegetable-wise", Time Magazine, March 19, 1928
- "Childs' War", Time Magazine, February 11, 1929
- "In The Real Estate Field", The New York Times, August 1, 1899
- "Ellsworth Childs Dies Suddenly At 60", The New York Times, Page 23, April 18, 1929
- "Ellsworth Childs Leaves Small Estate", The New York Times, Page 12, July 3, 1929
- "Owner-Employees Face Two Tests; Battles for Control of Childs and Standard Oil...", The New York Times, March 3, 1929
- "$10,500,000 Bonds for Savoy-Plaza", The New York Times, November 29, 1925
- "Childs Returns to the Restaurant Business; Buys the Archambault...", The New York Times, December 9, 1929
- "Childs Co Control Seized By Family", The New York Times, January 31, 1929
- "Childs Is Ousted At Stormy Board Session", The New York Times, Page 17, March 8, 1929
- "Business & Finance: Stewart Out, Childs Out", Time Magazine, March 18, 1929
- "William Childs Left Estate to Relatives", The New York Times, July 29, 1938
- "Repeal Cuts Price of Drinks In Half", The New York Times, December 5, 1933
- "Childs Plan Approved; Order of Confirmation Is Issued...", The New York Times, Page 29, December 24, 1947
- "Childs Executive Now Heads Sherry", The New York Times, May 25, 1950
- "Childs Co Changes Name"The New York Times, Page 42, February 23, 1956
- Sonesta Intl Hotels Corp Company History, retrieved April 25, 2009
- "Childs Vote Scheduled; Company Proposes Lease and Purchase of Hotels", The New York Times, Page 53, September 28, 1955
- "Childs Approves Plaza Purchase", The New York Times, Page 37, November 18, 1955
- Fowler, Glenn, "Irving Riese, 71, A Restaurateur Specializing In Fast Food Outlets", The New York Times, December 11, 1990
- The Riese Organization Corporate History, obtained April 23, 2009
- Entity Information for "Sonesta International Hotels Corporation", formerly known as "Childs Company", New York Department of State, Division of Corporations
- Report of New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, February 3, 2003, Designation List 344, LP-2106, obtained April 24, 2009
- Gray, Christopher, "Streetscapes: The Childs Building; Fast Food, Then and Now, On Stylish Fifth Avenue", The New York Times, November 6, 1988
- Gray, Christopher, "Streetscapes: The Former Childs Restaurant in Coney Island", The New York Times, July 1, 2002
- Gray, Christopher, "Streetscapes: William Van Alen; An Architect Called the 'Ziegfeld of His Profession'", The New York Times, March 22, 1998
- Dunlap, David W., "A Long Farewell to a Restaurant's White-Tiled Past", The New York Times, March 20, 2008
- "J.C. Westervelt, Architect, 61, Dies", The New York Times, April 9, 1934
- Laurence, F.S., The American Architect & The Architectural Review, September 10, 1924
- Stern, Robert A. M., et al, New York 1930, Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars (New York: Rizzoli, 1987), pp. 275–6.
- "Marquis Lunch", obtained April 23, 2009
- "NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission Report on Standard Oil Building", See Note 4, obtained March 5, 2010
- Dunlap, David W., "Fade From White: Memories of Pancakes at Childs", The New York Times, July 31, 2007
- Thurber, James, "The Talk of the Town, Childs in Paramount", The New Yorker, June 9, 1928, p. 9
- "Stench Bombs in Childs; Three Restaurants Raided, but Diners Are Not Affected", The New York Times, August 18, 1936
- "Times Square Plot Bought By Childs", The New York Times, Page 31, June 23, 1920
- "New Childs Restaurant", The New York Times, May 14, 1920
- Biederman, Marcia, "Journey to an Overlooked Past", The New York Times, June 11, 2000
- "In The Real Estate Field: Big Lease In Columbus Circle", The New York Times, Page 17, December 23, 1910
- "New Coney Island roller rink to skate into Childs Restaurant Building", New York Daily News, March 10, 2009
- "Historic Coney Child's Building Going Roller Skating", Curbed NY, March 10, 2008, obtained April 24, 2009.
- Baldock, Melissa, "From Food To Freak Shows: Coney Island's Unsung Childs Restaurant", Municipal Art Society of New York, April 14, 2009, retrieved on April 24, 2009
- "Childs Restaurant: 1917", Shorpy.com Blogsite, March 9, 2009, obtained April 24, 2009
- , Greater Greater Washington, November 30, 2010, obtained December 2, 2010
- Ristine, James D. & Pergament, Allen, Atlantic City (Arcadia Publishing, 2008, ISBN 0-7385-5704-8), Pages 61–62
- "Beach Skyscraper Open...", The New York Times, Page 12, March 4, 1906
- "William S. Childs, A Restaurateur, 52", The New York Times, Page 30, February 20, 1952
- "New Restaurant Chain: William Childs Opens 'Old Algiers'", The New York Times, April 30, 1930
- E. B. White, "The Talk of the Town, Newest Old Place”, The New Yorker, June 20, 1931, p. 7
- "William Childs Dead; Restaurant Man", The New York Times, May 23, 1938
- "William Barber, Legal Leader, 80", The New York Times, Page 28, February 9, 1950
- "S. Willard Smith, 77, Once Headed Childs", The New York Times, Page 13, July 9, 1949
- "Strohmeyer Heads Childs Company", The New York Times, Page 29, March 31, 1933
- "George D. Strohmeyer Is Dead, Lead Chain of Childs Restaurants, The New York Times, Page 39, February 11, 1965
- "Heads Childs Company, E.C. Field Elected President of Restaurant Chain", The New York Times, Page 25, June 27, 1941
- "New Chef At Childs", Time Magazine, December 13, 1948
- "Food Authority Elected Head of Childs Company", The New York Times, Page 41, November 30, 1948
- "Childs President Quits; John L. Hennessy Will Remain As Director", The New York Times, Page 19, August 27, 1949
- Smith, Gene, "Personality: Navy, Baseball and Business; Graham-Paige Chief...", The New York Times, Page F3, July 27, 1958
- "N. Clarkson Earl Dies at 68; Led Childs Restaurant Chain", The New York Times, Page 47, February 19, 1969
- "A.M. Sonnabend Is Dead At 67", The New York Times, February 12, 1964
- White, E. B., Poetry: “Spain In Fifty-Ninth Street", The New Yorker, June 15, 1935, p. 14
- "New Opera To Be Laid In Childs Restaurant...", The New York Times, February 16, 1930, Page 28
- Watson, Steven, Prepare for saints...the mainstreaming of American Modernism", (University of California Press, 2000, ISBN 0-520-22353-5), Pg. 327
- Lyrics from "What A Waste", Wonderful Town, 1953, based on life in New York City.