Childs Restaurants

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Childs Company
Industry Restaurant
Fate None in operation since late 1960s
Founded New York, NY, United States (1889 (1889))
Founders Samuel Childs, William Childs
Number of locations 107 locations in 29 cities in 1925
Area served New York City and other northeastern U.S. cities
Products Pancakes, American cuisine

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.

History[edit]

A Childs menu, circa 1907

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] They also are credited as inventors of the "tray line" self-service cafeteria format, which they introduced in 1898 at their 130 Broadway location.[4]

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".[5] 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.[6] At some point, "duPont interests" also gained a significant stock position, which would eventually cause problems for the family owners.[7][8]

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.[9] 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.

Childs Company Stock Certificate – 1908

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.[10][11]

Peak years[edit]

Exterior of a Childs on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC, in 1917
Interior of a Washington, DC location, circa 1920

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.[12]

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.[3]

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.[13] 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.[7] The company's stock reached a low of $44 in 1928,[14] 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.[8][15] 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.[16] He did retain a modest non-controlling equity position, which he eventually sold and/or bequeathed.[17][18]

Decline and rebirth[edit]

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),[19] 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.[1] Childs emerged from bankruptcy in 1947,[20] 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.[21]

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.[22][23][24] 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.[25]

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.),[26] 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.[27]

In 1970, Hotel Corporation of America (formerly Childs) was again renamed, to Sonesta International Hotels Corporation (NASDAQSNSTA).[28] As of 2009, the company operates 25 hotels on 3 continents, and owns several cruise ships, and is still led by the Sonnabend family.[23]

Architecture[edit]

Boardwalk, Coney Island
Surf Avenue, Coney Island
Roosevelt Avenue, Woodside: a similar seahorse motif is found on several Childs buildings
Roosevelt Avenue, Woodside: terracotta detail
Queens Boulevard, Woodside
Queens Boulevard, Woodside: terracotta detail

Despite their market position, Childs Restaurants were distinguished for their architectural quality, and former locations continue to be appreciated by historic preservationists.[29][30][31][32][33] In his design and construction efforts, William Childs and his internal architect of 30 years, John Corley Westervelt,[34] consulted and engaged respected architects including William Van Alen (modernist designer of the Chrysler Building), Hirons & Dennison, Pruitt & Brown, and McKim, Mead, and White.[30] 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".[35] 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.[29][36]

Notable locations[edit]

The table that follows is an incomplete list of locations that were built for Childs and reflect the company's style. Note that references often have pictures and more detailed histories, and links in the Address column, where provided, link to individual Wikipedia articles about the buildings listed:

Place Address Completed Notes and 2014 Status References
Manhattan, NY 815 Broadway 1897 By John C. Westervelt. In use as a small commercial building. [37]
Manhattan, NY 36 West 34th Street 1904 By John C. Westervelt (alteration of 1885 building). In use as a commercial building. Westervelt's office was here until his death in 1934. [38]
Manhattan, NY 194 Broadway 1911 By John C. Westervelt. Demolished in 2007 to build the Fulton Center at the existing Fulton Street station. [39]
Brooklyn, NY 1208 Surf Avenue 1917 By John C. Westervelt. Closed 1943. Designated New York City landmark, home of Coney Island USA arts organization. [40][41]
Toronto, ON 279 Yonge Street 1918 By John C. Westervelt. Closed by 1963. In use as a Hard Rock Cafe. [42][43]
Brooklyn, NY 530 Fulton Street 1919 By John C. Westervelt. In use as a commercial building. [44][45][46]
Manhattan, NY 377 Fifth Avenue 1921 By Severance and Van Alen. In use as a commercial building. [47][48][49]
Brooklyn, NY 219 South 4th Street 1922 Has plaque with Childs logo and year built, but historic use and connection to Childs is not clear. Presently a commercial building. [50][51][52]
Brooklyn, NY 2102 Boardwalk 1923 By Dennison & Hirons. Closed 1952. Designated New York City landmark, vacant but soon to be redeveloped as an events venue. Prototype for later nautical themed buildings. [53][54]
Manhattan, NY 604 Fifth Avenue 1925 By William Van Alen. Altered, in use as a T.G.I. Friday's. [55]
Queens, NY 63-19 Roosevelt Avenue 1925 Nautical theme. In use as a commercial building. [56][57]
Manhattan, NY 421 Seventh Avenue 1926 By William Van Alen. 14 story building housed a restaurant on ground floor and some corporate functions above. By 1940 restaurant had moved next door to 425 Seventh Ave. Altered, in use as an office building with ground floor retail. [58][59][60][61]
Washington, D.C. 2 Massachusetts Avenue NW 1926 By William Van Alen. Closed 1955. In use as a bank. [62][63]
Atlantic City, NJ Boardwalk at South Carolina Avenue 1927 Nautical theme. Attributed to George P. Post. Extant, but may be vacant. [64]
Queens, NY 36-01 Broadway 1928 Nautical theme. In use as a commercial building. [65][66]
Trenton, NJ 12-14 East State Street 1928 Modernist, designer not known. Closed by 1950s. Demolished in 1987. [67]
Manhattan, NY 811 6th Avenue 1930 Nautical theme. Altered, in use as a McDonalds. [68]
Queens, NY 67-09 Fresh Pond Road 1930 est. Nautical theme. In use as a bank and small office building. [69][70]
Brooklyn, NY 534 Flatbush Avenue 1931 Nautical theme. In use as a commercial building. [71]
Queens, NY 59-37 Queens Boulevard 1931 Nautical theme. In use as a commercial building. [72][73]
Queens, NY 45-02 43rd Avenue 1931 Nautical theme. In use as a commercial building. [74][75]
Brooklyn, NY 6620 18th Avenue 1931 Nautical theme. Demolished circa 2007. [76][77][78]
Queens, NY 15-02 College Point Blvd. 1931 est. Nautical theme. In use as a commercial building. [79][80]
Brooklyn, NY 1801 Avenue M 1931 est. Nautical theme.In use as a commercial building. [81][82]
Queens, NY 245-01 Jamaica Avenue 1932 Nautical theme. In use as a commercial building. [83][84]

Closing dates, where known, are indicated in the above table. None of the nautical themed restaurants built in the early 1930s appear in 1940 telephone directories, indicating that Childs' had vacated those structures by that date. The earlier locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn do appear in those directories, with the exception of the very early location at 815 Broadway and of the South 4th Street location, which is not known to have been a restaurant and may have been otherwise used by the company.[45][61][85]

The following locations were not necessarily built by the Childs Company, but are notable for other reasons:

  • New York
    • 41 Cortlandt Street, New York, NY (First Location)
    • 42 East 14th Street, New York, NY (longtime corporate headquarters, also housed a restaurant)[86]
    • 200 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY (corporate headquarters in later years)[61]
    • 3 Beaver Street, New York, NY (Demolished in 1928 to build part of 26 Broadway, also known as the Standard Oil Building)[87]
    • 1501 Broadway (at 43rd Street), New York, NY (below the Paramount Theater)[88][89]
    • 1551–1553 Broadway (at 46th St NW corner), New York, NY[90]
    • 1546 Broadway (between 45th & 46th Streets), New York, NY[89]
    • 2276 Broadway (at 82nd Street), New York, NY[91]
    • 300–304 W 59th St (SW Corner Columbus Circle), New York, NY[92][93][94]
    • 1939 New York World's Fair: this temporary location, in the Fair's Railroad Building, seated 1000 patrons, and featured elaborate murals.[95]
  • Washington, D.C.
    • 1423 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., Washington, DC[96]
  • New Jersey
    • Tennessee Avenue, Atlantic City, NJ, replaced in 1927 by a company-built location one block away at South Carolina Avenue[97][98]

Related businesses[edit]

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,[99] 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.[14][100] 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.[101] 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.[102]

As of 2009, the original F.O. Hendrick location is still an operating diner, now called the Anytime Cafe.

Key executives[edit]

Family-controlled period[edit]

  • 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[103]

Later period[edit]

  • S. Willard Smith, President (1929–1931)[104]
  • William P. Allen, President (circa 1932)[105]
  • George D. Strohmeyer, President (1933–1941)[105][106]
  • Edward C. Field, President (1941–1948)[107]
  • John F.X. Finn, Court-Appointed Trustee (1943–1947)
  • John L. Hennessey, President (1948–1949) (Former President of Statler Co., Inc.)[108][109][110]
  • John J. Bergen, Chairman (circa 1950)[111]
  • N. Clarkson Earl Jr., President (1950–1951) (Former executive at Howard Johnson's Restaurants)[112]
  • 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)[24][113]

Popular culture[edit]

In music[edit]

The song "Manhattan", written by Rodgers and Hart in 1925 for the musical Garrick Gaities, and famously recorded by Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and others, includes the lines:

We'll go to Yonkers – where true love conquers – in the wilds, And starve together dear – in Childs

In print[edit]

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.[114] 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.

In television[edit]

Jimmy Darmody suggests to Richard Harrow, "Let's go get a steak" [at Childs] in the season 2 finale of Boardwalk Empire, "To the Lost".

Onstage[edit]

Playwright David Belasco incorporated a complete reproduction of a Childs Restaurant in his 1912 production of Alice Bradley's The Governor's Lady.

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.[115][116]

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,
Versatile actress,
Tragic or comic,
Any old play,

Suffered and starved,
Met Stanislavsky.
He said the world would
Cheer her some day.
Came to New York,
Repertoire ready,
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![117]

References[edit]

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  2. ^ Women would work for lower wages than men.
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  105. ^ a b "Strohmeyer Heads Childs Company", The New York Times, Page 29, March 31, 1933
  106. ^ "George D. Strohmeyer Is Dead, Lead Chain of Childs Restaurants, The New York Times, Page 39, February 11, 1965
  107. ^ "Heads Childs Company, E.C. Field Elected President of Restaurant Chain", The New York Times, Page 25, June 27, 1941
  108. ^ "New Chef At Childs", Time Magazine, December 13, 1948
  109. ^ "Food Authority Elected Head of Childs Company", The New York Times, Page 41, November 30, 1948
  110. ^ "Childs President Quits; John L. Hennessy Will Remain As Director", The New York Times, Page 19, August 27, 1949
  111. ^ Smith, Gene, "Personality: Navy, Baseball and Business; Graham-Paige Chief...", The New York Times, Page F3, July 27, 1958
  112. ^ "N. Clarkson Earl Dies at 68; Led Childs Restaurant Chain", The New York Times, Page 47, February 19, 1969
  113. ^ "A.M. Sonnabend Is Dead At 67", The New York Times, February 12, 1964
  114. ^ White, E. B., Poetry: “Spain In Fifty-Ninth Street", The New Yorker, June 15, 1935, p. 14
  115. ^ "New Opera To Be Laid In Childs Restaurant...", The New York Times, February 16, 1930, Page 28
  116. ^ Watson, Steven, Prepare for saints...the mainstreaming of American Modernism", (University of California Press, 2000, ISBN 0-520-22353-5), Pg. 327
  117. ^ Lyrics from "What A Waste", Wonderful Town, 1953, based on life in New York City.