Before New England gave the world Howard Johnson’s, Dunkin Donuts, McDonald’s and Subway, it invented the Waldorf Lunch.
The Waldorf Lunch System emerged in 1904 as one of the earliest chain lunch rooms. It was a time when all kinds of quick lunch spots emerged: lunch wagons, coffee-and-cake saloons and temperance spas. Schrafft’s, an offshoot of the Charlestown, Mass., candy company, started a lunch room in Boston in 1898 as an outlet for its candy. The Worcester Lunch Car Company would soon churn out prefab diners.
Waldorf Lunch was different. Its founder, Henry Kelsey conceived of standardized restaurants serving volumes of reliable food at good prices in clean, white-tiled lunch rooms.
Marketing emphasized its reliability. A 1922 ad said, “There’ll be good, fresh coffee at the Waldorf Lunch today. It’s always the same.”
At the company’s peak, 200 Waldorf Lunch restaurants fed the urban masses in seven states, but mostly Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and upstate New York. Waldorf Lunch disappeared in the 1960s, gobbled up by a multinational corporation and pretty much forgotten. But in 2016 a restaurateur uncovered some of the original Waldorf Lunch tiles in a Harvard Square restaurant. He decided to restore them. If only he could restore the prices.
Waldorf Lunch History
Waldorf Lunch served food with dependable quality at a time when diners weren’t sure about what, exactly, appeared on their plates. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary meat-packing practices, would sell 25,000 copies in six weeks in 1906. The public outcry resulted in the federal Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection acts of 1906.
Henry Kelsey founded the first Waldorf Lunch in 1904 in Springfield, Mass. He named it after the Waldorf Hotel in New York City – according to lore, on the suggestion of a passerby as he prepared to open. He served coffee, donuts, sandwiches, soups and basic meals.
Advertising copy in 1922 pointed to the Dutch origins of the word “Waldorf.” An ad boasted of four inspections every 24 hours in each Waldorf Lunch and 398,000 pounds of cleaning powder annually. “I’d call that housekeeping to beat the Dutch–as you might say,” wrote the copywriter.
In 1906, Kelsey started another Waldorf Lunch in Boston. By 1919, when he expanded to 38, the company went public. From then it grew even faster. By 1929, it had 147 eateries, a fixture on the urban scene, with many open 24 hours, wrote James C. O’Connell in his book, Dining Out in Boston.
In New England, hungry diners could find 29 Waldorf Lunch restaurants in Boston. Providence had 10 Waldorf Lunches by 1916. They also sprang up in Pawtucket and the Massachusetts cities of Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Salem, Springfield, Waltham and Worcester. Manchester, N.H., had at least one, and so did Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury in Connecticut.
“Travelers could count on the Waldorf for a certain standard of food quality and environment,” wrote O’Connell. “It was a significant step up from downtown Boston’s beaneries.”
Fred Allen Visits Waldorf Lunch
Comedian Fred Allen in his memoir, Much Ado About Me, reminisced about his favorite cheap eats while growing up in the Allston section of Boston.
Beginning in 1908, Allen worked at the Boston Public Library after school, and he passed a Waldorf Lunch on the way home. He would look in the window and see the white-tiled walls, the inviting chairs, the smiling waiter standing behind the glass counter with the tempting foods on display. He couldn’t resist, so he went in and ordered a trilby and a glass of milk, five cents each.
“A trilby was a fried egg served a la mode with a thick slice of onion,” he wrote. “Encased in a large bun, well seasoned with salt and pepper, and doused with ketchup until the ketchup flowed down the sides of the bun on to the plate to be dunked in later, the trilby was guaranteed to end off malnutrition indefinitely.”
Modern efficiency was the watchword during the heyday of the Waldorf Lunch System.
The company carefully calculated every portion at a central commissary–in Boston, on High Street, near what is now International Place.
“Each serving of hash has been carefully measured and done up in waxed paper before being sent to the member stores,” reported the 1922 manual, Chain Stores: Their Management and Operation.
“All baking is done in the central commissary which operates twenty-four hours a day. In 1920, the average meal costs 30 cents and the company made less than two cents profit on each meal. But that year Waldorf Lunch served 36 million meals, and made a “substantial profit.”
Waldorf Lunch restaurants had five-foot-long stands with an assortment of food. A waiter stood behind each. For hot foods, he called to the cooks, who delivered each order over a shelf that separated him from the kitchen.
Restaurant historian Jan Whitaker, in a 2004 essay in Gastronomica, described the appeal of the quick lunch restaurant:
“It was precisely the quick lunch’s up-front, hard-surfaced reality that made it dear to the hearts of the poets and intellectuals of the machine age. To them the quick lunch was the symbol of its time, representing lively urban humanity, basic functionality, and a what-you-see-is-what-you-get-style.”
Restaurant Associates bought the Waldorf System Corporation during the conglomeration craze of the 1960s, and by the 1970s it had disappeared. But not entirely.
In 2015, a restaurateur named Ayr Muir planned to open a vegetarian restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue in Harvard Square. A demolition team came in to tear down the interior of the former Yenching restaurant, which served Chinese food since 1975. Before that, starting in the mid-1930s, it had been the Hayes-Bickford, another popular Boston-based lunchroom. And before that, it had been Waldorf Lunch, starting in 1913.
The crew found grime-covered tile pennants in the wall: Harvard, Bowdoin, Carlisle Indian School. They also found white-tiled walls embedded with crimson H’s (for Harvard). Muir decided to save the tiles
You can see them now at the Clover Food Lab in Harvard Square.
“It would have been unconscionable to just have let that history disappear,” Muir told The Harvard Gazette. “This store has an important story to tell.”
Images: 1913 Waldorf Lunch tile By Macrakis – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89858555. Interior of Waldorf Cafeteria, courtesy Rev. Wolcott Cutler, Boston Public Library, Charlestown Branch CC BY 2.0.
With thanks to Dining Out in Boston by James C. O’Connell and Restauranting Through History blog by Jan Whitaker. This story was updated in 2022.