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How Was The West Won? With Hospitality

Fred Harvey was an 1800s culinary innovator who believed he could serve the finest cuisine in the middle of nowhere, according to Stephen Fried, who wrote about the restaurateur in Appetite for America.

Before Harvey, food available for train travelers was subpar at best, and Harvey had suffered "culinary indignities" along the rail lines himself.

"The food was awful," Fried tells NPR's Melissa Block. "And what they would often do is they would serve it to you so late that by the time you sat down, it was time to get back on the train."

He adds, "They would actually scrape the food off the plate and serve it to the next person who came in and got tricked the same way."

But Harvey changed that.

"The idea here was that these restaurants should be as good as the best restaurants in New York, in Chicago, in London, and that's where the chefs came from and that was the level of ambition," Fried says.

Inspiration From Experience

In Harvey's heyday, you could ride in grand style on the Santa Fe railroad, get off at, say, Dodge City, Kan., and step into the depot for a fine meal at a Fred Harvey restaurant.

"One of the innovations of Fred Harvey was to have one company that had all the restaurants along one railroad line, and they had to be accountable along the way because you were always going to see Fred Harvey," Fried says.

By its peak in 1928, the Fred Harvey empire ran nearly 100 restaurants and 25 hotels from Chicago to Los Angeles, not to mention newsstands and bookshops in more than 80 cities. He set an impeccable standard for service and quality: the Fred Harvey Way.

A Stickler For Service

There were three choices at Fred Harvey restaurants: a sit-down dining room where even cowboys needed to wear jackets to eat; a lunchroom that would have been similar to today's diners; and a place for takeout coffees and sandwiches.

To make people understand the importance of doing things perfectly in the early years of his restaurants, Harvey would run to the front of the train, hop off and walk to the restaurant before the passengers arrived.

"If he found the slightest thing wrong, he would basically take the tablecloth, yank it, and throw the entire table on the floor so that the people would have to pick everything up, clean everything up, and reset the table before people came into the restaurant," Fried says.

After a time, Harvey didn't have to pull the tablecloths.

Even so, the workers in the restaurants had a system to warn others that he was coming. "Sack of potatoes on next train" was one of the many telegraph message codes to let people know at the next station that Harvey was on the train.

The Harvey Girls

One innovation that Harvey put into effect was the Harvey Girls. They were women who rode the trains to go work at a Harvey restaurant out West. In the 1946 movie, The Harvey Girls, it was said that the women were "conquering the West with a beef steak and a cup of coffee."

Harvey believed that the Harvey Girls were civilizing the West. The Harvey girls began in the 1880s in part because the company was expanding into rough New Mexico.

"In New Mexico, all waiters at that time were African-American men, and there was an incredible amount of racism," Fried says. Stories in the newspapers said these men would have to carry guns to protect themselves from their customers.

Harvey decided that his company would hire only single women from the Midwest, train them in Kansas and ship them out to the different restaurant locations. They would sign a contract that they wouldn't get married for six months and they would live together in barracks.

"This is the first real female workforce in America," Fried says. "The first opportunity for single women to travel, to make their own money. And the company continued this practice through the late 1930s."

Fried says that it's estimated 100,000 women were Harvey girls.

What's Left?

Little of Harvey's empire is left, but some of his hotels are still around in the Southwest.

And some communities in the West are reclaiming their own Fred Harvey buildings so that they can be used as restaurants, hotels or municipal buildings.

"Every time my wife and I fly, and we get off the plane to the horror of being an air passenger and ... she always turns to me and says, 'Where is Fred Harvey when we need him?' " Fried says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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