Bickford's Restaurants and Cafeterias are a chain of eateries that has existed in various forms since 1921. From the 1920s through the 1970s the chain was a mainstay in the New York City area; from the 1970s through the 2000s the chain was primarily located in the New England area. Samuel Longley Bickford (1885–1959) began his restaurant career in 1902, and, in 1921, he established his quick-lunch Bickford's restaurant chain. In 1959, the company introduced the Bickford's Pancake House family restaurants. By 2012 the remaining locations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire were known as Bickford's Grille. As of 2016, four locations remain, all of them in Massachusetts, three of them, in Brockton, Burlington, and Woburn, named Bickford's Grille (sometimes shown without the apostrophe in advertising material) and one, in Acton, named Bickford's Family Restaurant. The company also owned Foster's Cafeterias, as well as restaurants operating under other names. Although very few Bickford's are left, the name—along with Foster's—lingers on in frequent mentions in notable American literature.
In 1921, the Bickford's "lunchrooms," as they were known, offered modestly priced fare and extended hours. Bickford's architect was F. Russell Stuckert, who had been associated with Samuel Bickford since 1917. Stuckert's father, J. Franklin Stuckert, had designed buildings for Horn & Hardart in the 1890s.
During the 1920s, the Bickford's chain expanded rapidly with 24 lunchrooms in the New York area and others around Boston. A letter with a company stock offering stated, "The lunchrooms operated are of the self-service type and serve a limited bill of fare, which makes possible the maximum use of equipment and a rapid turnover. Emphasis is placed on serving meals of high quality at moderate cost." A 1964 New York City guidebook noted:
- Breakfast at Bickford's is an old New York custom. In these centrally located, speedy-service, modestly-priced restaurants a torrent of traffic is sustained for a generous span of hours with patrons who live so many different lives on so many different shifts.
With Bickford's restaurants opening in New Jersey and Massachusetts, Sam Bickford and his son, Harold, worked over four decades to expand their cafeteria chain throughout the Northeast. As their expansion continued with drive-in restaurants and associated locations in Florida, Pennsylvania and California, they ultimately opened 85 branches.
In the 1930s, union conflicts resulted in vandalism, as noted by Christopher Gray in The New York Times:
- In 1932 the police blamed members of the glaziers union for vandalism against 24 Horn & Hardart and Bickford's restaurants in Manhattan, including the one at 488 Eighth Avenue. Witnesses said that a passenger in a car driving by used a slingshot to damage and even break the plate glass show windows. Glaziers union representatives had complained about nonunion employees installing glass at the restaurants.
Expansion to Southeast and West Coast
Bickford's son, Harold, was in charge of expanding their cafeteria chain into Florida and California. In 1959, Bickford's, Inc. had two geographical divisions: the North-East Coast Division and the South East Coast (M&M Cafeterias,Inc) and West Coast (Foster's Lunch System, Ltd.) Division.
Foster's Cafeterias were operated under Bickford's Foster's Lunch System, Ltd. subdivision, headquartered in San Francisco, California. By 1959, there were 28 Foster's Cafeterias & Bakeries in San Francisco and other locations in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Oakland, Berkeley and San Mateo. The Foster's Lunch System, Ltd. also operated the Moar's Cafeterias, at 70 Hillsdale Plaza in San Mateo and 33 Powell Street, just north of the cable car turntable with a large mosaic by Benny Bufano on one wall.
Foster's English muffins
Foster's cafeterias were known for Foster's English Muffins, sourdough English muffins that were sold packaged at the cafeterias to take home. These muffins were often mentioned by Herb Caen in his column. They were also sold in supermarkets and groceries.
In October 1959, in Peabody, Massachusetts, Harold Bickford introduced a new concept, the Bickford's Pancake House, a specialty family restaurant with an emphasis on the breakfast menu. Over the next three decades, the Bickford's Pancake House chain grew to 30 restaurants throughout New England. By the mid-1990s, there were almost 70 Bickford's restaurants in New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
The Bickford's upgrade of 2003 included a focus on take-out, restaurant decor makeovers, the creation of new signs, beer and wine licenses, flat-screen TVs and a change in uniforms. The eateries in Woburn, Sharon, Brockton, Burlington, Framingham, Auburn, and Seekonk, Massachusetts, along with the Salem and Portsmouth, New Hampshire restaurants, were renamed Bickfords Grille, with a new logo eliminating the apostrophe. Many locations are open 24 hours and offer "Breakfast Anytime," their longtime slogan. The Dutch baby pancake is a specialty of some diners and chains that specialize in breakfast dishes, such as the Oregon-founded The Original Pancake House or Bickfords Grille, which serves a similar pancake, the Baby Apple (with embedded apple slices), and a plain Dutch Pancake. The lunch/dinner menus expanded to include fresh turkey, roasted daily in the restaurants, for turkey dinners, plus turkey club and hot turkey sandwiches.
Bickford's corporate headquarters were eventually located in Brighton, Boston, Massachusetts. Financial forecaster Jeffrey S. Bickford, the grandson of the founder, maintains a website devoted to Bickford's nostalgia
Bickford's and its Southeast subsidiary M&M Cafeterias and West Coast subsidiary Foster's Cafeterias had trouble staying in business because of rising labor costs, competition from the non-union cheap labor at fast food restaurants, and rising crime, which kept people home after dark. In 1960, there were 48 Bickford's in New York, down to 42 in 1970 and only two in 1980. By 1982, the last two were closed as well.
As of 2016, only four Bickford's restaurants remain, all in Massachusetts: "Bickford's Grille" in Brockton, Burlington, and Woburn; and "Bickford's Family Restaurant" in Acton.
Jack Kerouac sometimes wrote while sitting in Bickford's, and he mentioned the restaurant in Lonesome Traveler. Other famed members of the Beat Generation could be found at night in the New York Bickford's as noted by The New York Times:
- The best minds of Allen Ginsberg's generation "sank all night in submarine light of Bickford's," he wrote in Howl. The Beat Generation muse, Herbert Huncke, practically inhabited the Bickford's on West 42nd Street. Walker Evans photographed Bickford's customers, and Andy Warhol rhapsodized about Bickford's waitresses. Bickford's made its way into the work of writers as diverse as Woody Allen and William Styron.
Allen Ginsberg when he was living in San Francisco liked to go to the large Foster’s cafeteria on the north side of Sutter between Powell and Stockton. He wrote the first section of Howl there in 1954. He took vows there about January 1955 with Peter Orlovsky to be his homosexual lover, their promise being "that neither of us would go into heaven unless we could get the other one in".
- Gray, Christopher. "Streetscapes," The New York Times, June 3, 2001.
- "Breakfast at Bickford's," The New York Times, December 10, 2000.
- Foster's Cafeteria:
- Hennessey, Beverly. "Bufano's Lively Split Personality." On Art and Artist: Essays By Thomas Albright. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1989), pp. 104-105.
- Herb Caen column February 9, 1996:
- English muffin stories in the S.F. Chronicle, 1969:
- "History". Bickfords.com (official site). Retrieved October 11, 2013.
- Bickford, Jeffrey S. Bickford's Inc.
- The Great Cafes—Café Trieste in North Beach:
- How Beat Happened: