The precursor to Toddle House was started in the late 1920s, by J.C. Stedman, a lumberman from Houston, Texas, seeking to use leftover building supplies. Stedman persuaded the owners of Britling Cafeteria, a Memphis, Tennessee-based restaurant that started a few years earlier, to build his restaurants. Shortly thereafter, Stedman was approached by a successful Memphis businessman named James Frederick "Fred" Smith, who was looking for a new investment since the Greyhound Corporation had bought a controlling interest in the Smith Motor Coach Company he founded 1931, and was renamed as the Dixie Greyhound Lines. (Smith was the father of Frederick Wallace Smith, who later founded FedEx.)
In 1932, Smith became the president of the National Toddle House System, Inc. By the 1950s, Toddle House had more than 200 locations in almost 90 cities.
In 1962, Toddle House was purchased by Dobbs Houses, a competitor that also operated Steak 'n Egg Kitchen, and the franchise was allowed to decline. In 1980, Carson Pirie Scott borrowed $108 million to buy Dobbs Houses. In January 1988, Carson Pirie Scott sold Steak 'n Egg Kitchen and Toddle House to Diversified Hospitality Group of Milford, Connecticut. The chain has since been liquidated.
Business model overview
Each outlet was built to the same plan, and contained no tables, but merely a short counter with a row of ten stools. Payment was on the honor system: customers deposited their checks with the correct amount in a glass box by the door on the way out.
The menu featured breakfast all day. Lunch and dinner entrées included soups and salads, various sandwiches, such as toasted cheese and roast beef. The cheeseburger was billed on the menu as the "world's best hamburger." Desserts included various pies, pecan roll and black-bottom pie.
The chain's distinctive sign, consisting of "toddling" characters, was created by Balton & Sons Sign Company (now Balton Sign Company) who also did the iconic "great sign" for the Holiday Inns of America, the motel chain also based in Memphis. In-house sketch artists at the time were Rowland Alexander and Gene Barber.
At its peak there were more than 300 of the first version, however, they disappeared in 1962 when they were converted to Dobbs Houses and then Steak N' Eggs. (Note that there is at least one news report that puts the total over 1,000.)
In 1981 Carson Pirie Scott, the retail/food giant, sold Steak N' Eggs and began to build a "new" Toddle House chain. By 1987 there were 40 Toddle Houses open, with five of them in Tampa and at least one in Orlando. There were ambitious plans that called for 500 by 1991, with 50 of them in Florida.
The "new" Toddle Houses were bigger, with 64 seats, although still situated around a counter. The menu still featured breakfast along with old standbys of burgers and black-bottom pie, but was modestly updated, adding pork chops and country-fried steak and fajitas.
However, Carson came on hard times and sold its restaurants in 1988.
Bob Greene wrote about eating chocolate pie with his friends at a Columbus, Ohio, Toddle House in his book And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship (William Morrow, 2006). The Toddle House features in tracks on Hamell on Trial's 1999 breakthrough album Choochtown. In a series of interconnected narrative songs, the Toddle House is the place where Bobby vomits then "smacks the waiter" ("When Bobby Comes Down") and, at the same time, Chooch has tracked down the boyfriend of a blackmailer after discovering that he works there as a cook ("Choochtown"). On a later track ("The Mall"), the narrator dates a waitress from the Toddle House.
- Lauderdale, Vance Toddle House Memphis Magazine, November 2010. Accessed April 16, 2013
- Dobbs House
- Dobbs House franchising revamped Toddle House | Nation's Restaurant News | Find Articles at BNET.com
- DHG acquires Steak 'n Egg; consulting firm enters family restaurant business - Diversified Hospitality Group Inc | Nation's Restaurant News | Find Articles at BNET.com
- CPS sells Dobbs to Morrison - Carson, Pirie Scott and Co., Dobbs Food Service Management Inc., Morrison Inc | Nation's Restaurant News | Find Articles at BNET.com
- Huston, John P. Last Chicago-area Toddle House building to be razed Chicago Tribune, February 9, 2011. Accessed April 16, 2013
- Toddle House menu circa 1950s, image Accessed April 16, 2013
- Green, Bob An Idea Whose Time Has Come - Again Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1987. Accessed April 16, 2013
- Sherman, Chris Neighborly Toddle House Coming To Town Orlando Sentinel, January 11, 1987. Accessed April 16, 2013
- Historic Memphis Restaurants...and some High School Hang-outs Historic-Memphis.com. Accessed April 16, 2013
- (Hamell On Trial, Choochtown, Such-a-punch records, 1999)