Originally published in Flourishing January 2011.
Fred Harvey was seventeen years old when he arrived in New York City in 1853. Following his father’s business failure in London, he had left his family and friends to seek his own fortune in the land of milk and honey. Fred began his business career humbly, as a “pot walloper” in a New York City diner; but while washing dishes, he learned some valuable lessons about business management from his employers.
Hard-working Fred advanced quickly with his employers in New York, and he soon married and had children. He saved some money and moved his family to St. Louis, where he started a restaurant near the site of the present-day Gateway Arch. In the 1860’s, St. Louis, like the country itself, was divided over the issue of slavery. Fred was staunchly anti-slavery, but he wasn’t confrontational; his partner was a Confederate sympathizer. Fred’s silence offered little protection, however. His restaurant was burned to the ground during a riot, and his partner skipped town with all their cash. Uninsured, and just as broke as the day he landed in New York, Fred set out for Leavenworth, Kansas to begin again. He was twenty-six years old.
In Leavenworth, Fred found a way to put food on the family table, selling advertising for newspapers in cities and towns along the new Santa Fe Railroad. He had to ride the train a lot, traveling as far east as Chicago, Buffalo, and Boston; and west to Santa Fe. Fred befriended several senior railroad executives along the way, impressing them with his work ethic and his honesty. With his food service background, Fred soon realized that railroad passengers would pay well for good food and courteous service, both of which were in short supply along the Santa Fe line. His next opportunity was knocking, and Fred was ready.
A part of Fred’s idea was to provide elegant, well-cooked meals for railway passengers in clean restaurants on white tablecloths with napkins cut from white Irish linen. He hired trained chefs from Chicago, New York, and even from Europe, to prepare the food. One of his first chefs relocated from Chicago’s Palmer House to tiny Florence, Kansas, and soon became the Fred Harvey food service director all along the Santa Fe line.
Perhaps Fred’s greatest innovation, though, was the Harvey Girls, who were single young women recruited from good families and good schools. They were trained in the “Harvey Standard” of service before they were sent west on the rails to their assigned Harvey House restaurants. From the 1870’s until World War II, Harvey Girls were easily recognized by their clean – that is to say, spotless – starched, black and white uniforms, and they were renowned for their disciplined adherence the “Harvey Standard”. Fred demanded that discipline, and he enforced it with strict inspections. In return, he respected the girls’ dignity and the risks they were taking. The young ladies all lived in chaperoned dormitories near their Harvey House restaurants.
It’s hard to imagine how difficult that innovation was to establish. That was the era of Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Bat Masterson. There were precious few women in the work force anywhere, let alone in the southwest; but Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls became a civilizing influence from Kansas City through south central Kansas and Oklahoma to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and southern California.
Expanding rapidly alongside the Santa Fe rail, Fred Harvey soon owned and managed a small empire. In addition to the Harvey House restaurants, there were classic hotels, a few of which are still in use, and vast cattle ranches in Kansas and New Mexico. By the time Fred Harvey (the man) died in 1901, Fred Harvey (the company) was the most recognized brand in America. Fred Harvey was Ray Kroc before McDonald’s, Willard Marriott before Marriott Hotels, and Howard Schultz before Starbucks.*
But the story doesn’t end with Fred Harvey’s death. Fred’s oldest son, Ford; Ford’s wife, Judy; and David Benjamin, a key executive in the company, continued to extend the Fred Harvey brand. There were Fred Harvey newsstands, drug stores, bakeries, soda fountains, and much more. Fred Harvey owned virtually every Santa Fe depot restaurant from Chicago and St. Louis to southern California. Fred Harvey became the exclusive concession operator for the Union Stations in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago, among others.
After World War II, though, people traveling to and from the western United States no longer depended on rail service, and it became more difficult for Fred Harvey to maintain a competitive advantage and generate a profit. Never in debt, the company just slowly ceased its operations, and by the mid 1960’s it was gone.
One never hears the name Fred Harvey these days. Though I’m frequently asked whether I’m related to Henry or Paul, no one has ever asked me about my relationship to Fred. (At least as far back as 1794, I’ve found no familial connection to any of them.) Yet Fred Harvey not only helped define business in the United States, he helped in no small way to define the United States itself. To tell the truth, I’m disappointed that I didn’t learn anything at all about Fred Harvey in school!
And that brings me to the point of this little essay: You really should read Appetite for America, by Stephen Fried, published by Bantam in 2010. It is a masterfully researched history of Fred Harvey—the man, the company he created, his family—and the development of the American southwest from before the Civil War to the end of World War II.
Under Stephen Fried’s caring hand, the taming of the wild, wild, west becomes a series of lessons in business strategies and practices, old world courtesies, historic preservation of native artifacts, environmental awareness, architectural innovation, and family and business continuity across multiple generations. Appetite for America is the story of America becoming America; a paean to America’s entrepreneurial soul—and implicitly, at least—a conduit connecting America’s past with its future.
You will appreciate, too, that there are almost one hundred pages of appendices and notes. These include a tour of the Harvey sites that still exist. You’ll even find recipes for food served at the Harvey House restaurants. You might want to try one of Harry and Bess Truman’s favorites, Cream of Wisconsin Cheese Soup. I think you will just love Appetite for America. mh
* Appetite for America, by Stephen Fried, Bantam, 2010, from the author’s introduction.