Harvey Houses: The First Restaurant Chain

Fred Harvey’s story in the United States began when the Englishman emigrated in 1850 at the age of fifteen. Harvey learned the restaurant business working as a pot-scrubber and busboy in New York. Later, he owned a café in St. Louis that catered to wealthy businessmen who expected fast service and good food served in tasteful surroundings. However, the effects of the Civil War and a dishonest partner brought an end to Harvey’s first restaurant venture. He then found employment with the railroad as a freight agent, solicitor and mail clerk, traveling many miles by rail. This experience provided firsthand knowledge of how difficult it was to get decent food while traveling by train and this knowledge would serve him and future railroad passengers very well

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Harvey was aware of the plans for southwestern expansion of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (ATSF) railroad and understood the need to develop a robust passenger business to finance the growth. When Harvey met with Santa Fe officials in 1876, the entrepreneur was confident he could personally change the miserable reputation of railway dining and increase passenger service. With a handshake with the president of the Santa Fe Railway, Harvey launched the first restaurant chain in the United States.
As Harvey’s chain of trackside restaurants grew, when a location was deemed appropriate for a Harvey establishment, the Santa Fe would design and build space in or adjacent to the new depot building for the kitchen, food storage, a lunch counter and usually a dining room as well as living quarters for Harvey employees. This space, built especially for Harvey’s business venture, would become known as a Harvey House. Harvey was also afforded the use of Santa Fe trains to deliver laundry, food products, and employees along the rail line at no charge.

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Originally, Harvey Houses were established trackside at intervals of approximately one hundred miles, providing dining opportunities for passengers when the train stopped to refuel the steam engine. The location of Santa Fe division points, where large numbers of railroad employees needed a place to eat, determined other sites. Mr. Harvey recruited young women to work as waitresses in his Harvey Houses by placing advertising in women’s magazines and newspapers for “educated women of good character to go West to work.” These notices enticed young women to the Harvey office in Kansas City for a personal interview. If the young women met Harvey standards, they boarded a train headed for a Harvey House to proudly wear the respectable black and white uniforms of the Harvey Girls.
Referring to the famous Harvey Girls, Philip F. Anschutz wrote in his book, Out Where the West Begins, that historians “have noted how Harvey’s hiring practices represented an important opportunity for single young women. Not since the beginning of the Massachusetts textile industry in the 1820s had American girls seen such a chance to break away from their parents’ control and make a living on their own.”

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The Fred Harvey company valued consistent food quality as much as the quality of service. Well-paid European chefs were hired and installed in Harvey kitchens. A special Fred Harvey refrigerated boxcar was shuttled twice a week between Los Angeles and Kansas City to supply Harvey Houses with California fruits and vegetables on the eastbound run and the best Kansas City meats on the return trip.
Harvey Houses offered only the best, freshly prepared food, served by efficient Harvey Girls, and train travelers soon realized they could trust the Harvey name all along the Santa Fe line. Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls had established a superb reputation!

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