Strange Fruit

Pancakes and Pickaninnies: The Saga of ‘Sambo’s,’ The ‘Racist’ Restaurant Chain America Once Loved

Not too long ago, Sambo’s had 1,117 locations in 47 states—and a reputation for pushing racist iconography along with its breakfasts.

Jim Heimann Collection/Getty

If you’re over the age of 45, you may be vaguely aware of what I’m about to tell you.

If you’re younger, you’re going to be pretty surprised.

Either way, it would be impossible to believe if it weren’t 100 percent true.

Not too long ago, right here in America, there was a restaurant called Sambo’s. That’s Sambo: as in, the racist slur for a loyal and contented black servant. Or Sambo: as in, The Story of Little Black Sambo—the controversial 1899 children’s book by Helen Bannerman about a dark-skinned South Indian boy that eventually came to be seen as emblematic of black “pickaninny” stereotypes.

And far from playing down the connection to Bannerman’s book, Sambo’s played it up. The restaurant’s original mascot was—you guessed it—a dark-skinned South Indian boy.

Oh, and did I mention that there wasn’t just one Sambo’s? There were 1,117 of them, actually. In 47 states.

And there’s one still left today.

In fact, that’s where I am right now—at the original Sambo’s in Santa Barbara, Calif. The breeze is blowing in off the Pacific Ocean. The collegiate servers are bustling about. I’m sitting at the same gray formica counter than generations of Santa Barbarans have sat at, eating the same famously fluffy pancakes they ate. And right above me is the same orange-tile mural of jolly little half-naked Sambo that’s been hanging over the short-order kitchen since Sambo’s first opened its doors on June 17, 1957.

It’s not the only sign of Sambo’s unusual past still lingering in this restaurant.

I’ve come to Santa Barbara to see for myself, because sometimes, reading about a phenomenon like Sambo’s on the Internet isn’t enough. The story of Sambo’s is one of the most incredible sagas—in the literal, you’re-not-going-believe-this sense of the word—in the history of American restaurateuring. It’s got everything. Bootstraps business acumen. Meteoric success. Sudden, catastrophic failure. A late-stage family revival. And a king-sized racial controversy to top it all off.

Sam Battistone Sr. and Newell Bohnett didn’t set out to stir the pot when they founded Sambo’s. Battistone Sr., the son of coal-mining Italian immigrants, had been operating a small diner called Sammy’s Grill in downtown Santa Barbara for nearly two decades. He’d had moderate success with it, but he sensed an opening in the market: Why not cater directly to blue-collar customers with a low-priced pancake-coffee house? “What this country needs is a good 10-cent cup of coffee”—that was Battistone’s concept and slogan. There would be a limited menu: pancakes for 40 cents, a full breakfast for $1.25.

Bohnett was on board. Now they just needed a name. Someone suggested a mashup: Sam- for Sam Battistone Sr. and –bo for Newell Bohnett. And that’s how Sambo’s was born. Still, according to Charles Bernstein, the author of Sambo’s: Only a Fraction of the Action, Battistone and Bohnett didn’t choose the name solely for personal reasons. They chose it because they considered it an “ideal” brand “with excellent promotional potential.”

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And promote it they did. The walls of the original Sambo’s proudly featured seven paintings by a pair of local artists depicting “the adventures of Little Black Sambo”; the menu included specials named after Bannerman’s Papa Jumbo and Mama Mumbo.

A second location opened in Sacramento in 1958, four more California branches followed in 1959, and by late 1963, there were 20 Sambo’s on the West Coast, including three in Oregon, one in Seattle, and one in Reno, Nev. The restaurants were a success, each averaging $300,000 in sales per year.

Part of the reason was economic; Sambo’s didn’t raise the price of a single menu item during its first six years. But another reason was promotional. As Bernstein reported, “Heavy promotions sparked the [new] restaurants, which were strategically located off highways,” adding that “Sambo’s logo was emphasized on high billboards and in every conceivable spot, ranging from coat hangers to executive planes.”

The next dozen years were good to Sambo’s. By early 1969, the chain had grown to 92 restaurants. That number nearly tripled (to 257) by 1972, and then nearly tripled again (to 712) by 1976. By the time Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, Sambo’s was raking in $380 million a year—the equivalent of $1.6 billion today.

But trouble was brewing. Wherever a new location materialized—Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Amarillo, Albuquerque, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Daytona Beach, Orlando— “Sambo’s tale” murals adorned the walls. Unfortunately, those murals did not sit well in communities that had just gone through the epic civil rights battles of the late 1950s and 1960s. Some customers began to object.

In America, Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo had been considered controversial (and possibly even racist) long before the original Sambo’s opened for business. In 1932, Langston Hughes criticized Bannerman’s book, which took place in India but starred a boy with mahogany skin, red lips, a broad nose, and a wide smile, for perpetuating the “pickaninny” stereotype of a subhuman black juvenile merrily accepting (or even inviting) violence. “It’s amusing undoubtedly to the white child,” Hughes wrote, “but like an unkind word to one who has known too many hurts to enjoy the additional pain of being laughed at.” In 1950, Peter Pan Records released an audio version of the story with the racially neutral title Little Brave Sambo. America was becoming increasingly sensitive to the book’s racial connotations.

Even so, “Sambo’s took great pride in [its] murals,” according to Bernstein. They were handmade by Colonel and Mrs. Hilmer Nelson from glass, copper, and plastic bits, and “Sambo’s executives were pleased to have [such] artistically creative murals proliferating on their restaurant walls.”

But that pride would be severely tested by Sambo’s eastward expansion in the late 1970s. What had been shrugged off in, say, California, was greeted in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Ohio, and Michigan as an affront. Lawsuits were filed against the Sambo’s name; the NAACP got involved, too. In Rhode Island, the state’s Human Rights Commission decided that "the use of the name ‘Sambo’s’ had the effect of notifying black persons that they were unwelcome at Sambo's restaurants because of their race”; the Urban League of Springfield, Massachusetts, insisted that the name “carrie[d] racial overtones despite what Sambo’s says.”

Publicly, Sam Battistone Sr.’s son, Sam D. Battistone, refused to cave. As one Ohio judge put it, depriving Sambo’s of its famous name would strike “a mortal blow” against the company. But Battistone and his fellow executives were clearly concerned, launching “an educational process to convince consumers Sambo’s is anything but racist.” In the South, Sambo’s eventually decided to rechristen itself No Place Like Sam’s; the name Jolly Tiger started appearing on locations throughout the Northeast. At certain branches, historical photographs of the local community began to take the place of “Sambo’s tale” murals on the walls.

But it was too little, too late. The sad fact is, Battistone, Sr. and Bohnett weren’t racists; they were just businessmen who seized on a branding opportunity—then wound up on the wrong side of history. Meanwhile, unrelated legal and financial challenges were already chipping away at the company’s foundation. In 1979, 600 managers walked out after Sambo’s restructured its managerial program. Battistone’s successor was charged with funneling company money into a cattle-ranching scheme. Health code violation fines followed. So did a jingle lawsuit from Dr Pepper and several additional suits from the SEC. The racial controversy undoubtedly hurt Sambo’s brand, especially in the Northeast. But it’s unlikely that a more innocuous name would have saved Sambo’s from financial ruin. By 1982, most of the restaurants had been sold and the corporation was forced to file for bankruptcy.

Your typical rise-and-fall restaurant story would end there. But thanks to a man named Chad Stevens—the grandson of Sam Battistone Sr.—Sambo’s lives on.

For 15 years after the nationwide chain went under, the original Sambo’s on Cabrillo Boulevard in Santa Barbara continued to churn out pancakes and coffee. But it was a shadow of its former self: sleepy, unprofitable, and not particularly confident about its complicated past. Then Stevens stepped in.

His goal, he said at the time, was to “resurrect something that my family built.”

To do that, he has decided to double down on the Sambo’s brand. As I dig into a short-stack of Sambo’s buttery pancakes, I take a closer look at the seven original paintings that still line the southwestern wall of the dining room. They illustrate Bannerman’s story in the style of a 1950s Hanna Barbera cartoon. Sambo dances under the sun with his dainty green parasol. A tiger emerges from a behind a bush and frightens Sambo. The tiger steals Sambo’s blue, diaper-like shorts, then parades around looking proud of himself while Sambo bashfully covers his crotch with the parasol. Another tiger steals Sambo’s magenta shoes and wears them on his head like horns. Sambo sheds a tear. And so on. Eventually the tigers take all of Sambo’s clothes and wind up chasing each other around a tree; their gyrations somehow transform them into butter, which Sambo’s mother, Mumbo, spreads over pancakes. Hence Battistone and Bohnett’s original brainstorm.

It’s important to note that the Sambo now starring in those murals no longer looks like Bannerman’s Sambo. He has light skin, for one thing. His eyes are almost feminine: long lashes, an anime twinkle. He wears a turban with a gleaming red jewel in the middle. His shoes are curled at the toes.

It’s unclear whether this was the original 1957 Sambo design. Some of the waiters are wearing a green T-shirt with a much more Bannerman-like logo: a nappy-haired, big-lipped, grinning Sambo digging into a huge pile of pancakes on a desert island. (The same image appears at the top of this article.) My understanding is that this artwork came first and was soon replaced with the “Sambo as a baby genie” motif. I can see why—although some people (Indians, Persians, genies?) might consider the newer mascot just as stereotypical as the older one.

Speaking of T-shirts, Stevens is clearly big on merchandise. The green Sambo’s shirt is available at the hostess counter for $23.75. You can also buy a white one with the genie mascot, as well as replicas of the original wooden tokens that Sam Battistone Sr. used to hand out in the 1950s. Unfortunately, they’re no longer “good for a 10 cent cup of coffee”—even though they cost $2.50.

The Mama Mumbo Special is still on the menu (two fresh ranch eggs any style and four “delicious” Sambo’s pancakes: $8.75). So is the Papa Jumbo Special (bacon, ham, or sausage; two eggs any style; three “delicious” Sambo’s pancakes: $9.75). They’re both listed under “Sambo’s Favorites.” Every wall is adorned with memorabilia: a picture of Sammy’s Café, an old Sambo’s menu, a vintage shot of the restaurant’s Googie interior. And the last of the Colonel and Mrs. Hilmer Nelson murals still hang over the kitchen.

Stevens couldn’t meet me at Sambo’s this weekend; he’s away on a fishing trip in Mexico. But he agreed to answer my questions via email. His answers roll in just as I’m finishing my pancakes.

When you bought the restaurant from your grandfather, did you consider changing the name? I ask.

“At first I though it would be a good idea to change the name,” Stevens admits. But he soon realized that nostalgia for the chain was a powerful thing, and that the brand was too valuable to give up.

Does anyone ever complain?

We do get the occasional complaint,” Stevens says. “They want us to know the controversy of the name. And yet for every complaint, there are about 1,000 people who say, ‘Wow, I can't believe it’s still here’—or ‘Open another one in our town.’

Which is exactly what Stevens wants to do. With an eye toward “opening more branches at some time in the future,” Stevens recently tried to trademark the Sambo’s name. California approved his request—but Washington turned it down.

Why? I ask.

“They felt the Sambo’s name was a derogatory term,” Stevens explains. “They said it couldn’t be trademarked.”

Given that decision, it’s unlikely that a new Sambo’s will be showing up on a street corner near you anytime soon. But if you want to travel back to a time when one of America’s most popular restaurants found itself at the center of a nationwide racial controversy, head to Cabrillo Boulevard in Santa Barbara. Look for the little Spanish building with the mid-century Sambo’s sign—and the line out the door. When I got there at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, there was already a 30-minute wait for a table. It was as if nothing had changed.