From Skyscraper to Freezer

Stouffer’s Lost Cocktails Empire

The famous restaurant chain and frozen food brand once boasted a revered bartending program.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Many cocktails are invented. Few survive to become classics. Do you remember the Sphinx Cocktail or the Glacier Gold? I don’t think so. This attrition is neither unexpected nor surprising. But I do find it alarming when I discover that entire cocktail ecosystems—which once flourished like grand empires, as if from Hadrian’s Wall to Aegyptus—have arisen and then utterly vanished.

Such it was with Stouffer’s, one of America’s grandest restaurant and bar chains in the middle of the last century.

If you’re thinking, Stouffer’s, Stouffer’s… where have I heard of Stouffer’s, let me give you a hint: Your grocer’s freezer. All that’s left of what was once an extravagant culinary kingdom can now be found entombed in a frozen microwavable meal costing a few dollars. Alas, no trace of its once-flourishing cocktail culture remains—save for a treasured guide. This loss is lamentable, since Stouffer’s took cocktails seriously at a time when so many others were seeking bartending shortcuts.

The Stouffer’s story is, like so many great American stories, rooted in humble origins. The company started as a snack counter at a family owned dairy outside Cleveland, Ohio, which was opened by Abraham and Lena Stouffer in 1914. Buoyed by its success, the couple opened another counter at a downtown farmers’ market. Their son, Vernon, went off to get a degree in finance at Wharton, and upon returning home sensed an opportunity. He opened the family’s first restaurant in downtown Cleveland in 1924. It initially offered just four sandwiches, which were all priced under 25 cents ($3.65 in today’s dollars). It drew adoring crowds and allowed the Stouffers to expand their menu and locations. By 1935, they had six restaurants in Ohio, and two years later they took a leap and opened an outlet in New York. Eventually, Stouffer’s Restaurants appeared in Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis and elsewhere.

Stouffer’s built its success on a celebration of wholesome Midwest goodness, in both style and fare, tapping into a longing for the recent past. The decor was like grandma’s house in all ways but the musty aroma—the chain favored colonial and Pennsylvania Dutch decorations and wallpaper; one restaurant even featured a vast mural of the Canadian Rockies. Homey antiques were scavenged from across northern Ohio as more locations opened.

The meals also skewed folksy and unfussy, with dishes along the lines of salmon loaf, braised Swiss steak, and “turkey supreme” that was served over boiled ham.

Stouffer’s quest to exploit nostalgia didn’t ignore the public’s thirst for the modern—while decor and fare looked to the past, they embraced new conveniences. In 1940, the company touted its state-of-the-art dishwasher (“washes the dishes twice”) and their “precipitron, which washes the air.” (According to ads, “This remarkable Westinghouse development collects dust and dirt electronically,” offering “a new concept in total electric living.”)

Starting in the late 1950s, Stouffer’s aimed higher—literally—by colonizing the sky with more than a dozen swanky restaurants atop skyscrapers. This included Top of the Sixes at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York (which is now infamously owned by Jared Kushner’s family), where the restaurant occupied the 39th floor—the highest restaurant in America when it opened. Stouffer’s also opened atop the 62-story U.S. Steel Tower in Pittsburgh, the Top of the Hub in Boston, Top of the Rock in Chicago, Top of the Rockies in Denver, and the revolving Top of the Riverfront in St. Louis. At the same time, Stouffer’s menu moved from the Midwest to self-described “continental fare,” with entrées like “Filet of Sole, East Indienne,” and tomato bouillon with watercress whipped cream.

Truth be told, Stouffer’s food drew mixed reviews. But almost everyone raved about the cocktails. The chain didn’t stint in training its bartenders in both ingredients and precision when preparing the 275 drinks in its repertoire. “Every Stouffer bartender is carefully schooled in everything,” claimed an ad. “In short... he’s a perfectionist.” Customers were encouraged to come in with their own drink recipes to share, “because [the bartender is] always willing to learn.” They held annual competitions across the chain, with the winning bartenders rewarded by having their creations added to the menu.

In 1950, Stouffer’s published Here’s How! by Stouffer’s, a spiral bound, 100-page cocktail recipe book for customers. (Inexplicably, the cover features pink roses against a deep blue background.) “This booklet is a result of the demand for an unveiling of the mixed drink recipe secrets, which guests have told us they enjoy so much at Stouffer’s,” read the introduction. “All of these recipes follow the actual Stouffer’s formulas to assure drinks of delectable goodness.”

The guide is both professional and modern, and it wouldn’t be out of place in a craft cocktail bar today. The recipes are solid, and the instructions exacting—“cocktails are made to order by bartenders who carefully measure all component parts…Your attention to the same detailed directions in each recipe will do much for your reputation as a host.”

Nor will the guide brook any quarrels about which drinks are to be shaken and which are stirred. (“Remember—shaking makes a drink cloudy, while stirring keeps a drink clear.”)

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And for the love of Pete, don’t be stingy with the juice—“Where recipes call for fruit juices, only fresh juices should be used,” the guide declares, while also insisting on using chilled glasses for chilled drinks. As for frozen drinks, these “require finely shaved ice whose particles are about the size of rice granules.” Such drinks should be shaken slowly for 30 seconds and then rapidly for 20 seconds.

Those who can find the guide—it was widely distributed at the time but is fairly uncommon today, with the 1958 and 1962 editions even more rare—are rewarded with an unimpeachable introduction to the classics, like the Clover Club, French 75, Sazerac, and Manhattan. (“The Manhattan and Martini are perhaps the most popular cocktails served at Stouffer’s,” the guide notes). Just as food portions were abundant and reflected Midwest generosity, Stouffer’s also boasted of generous drink portions. “At Stouffer’s, we drink to the death of the mini drink,” read an ad in 1971, “by pouring a drink strong enough to stand on its own merits.”

The chain happened to be ascendant at a time when Americans were falling in love with their freezers—which provides a foretaste of its ultimate demise. The first dual compartment fridge and freezer appeared in 1939, but not until the 1950s did freezers become sizable enough for more than a tray or two of ice cubes. A grocery store owner in Syracuse crowed to his Lion’s Club in the early 1950s that, “it won’t be too long before you will be able to walk into a store and buy a complete frozen meal, go home and heat it, and then throw away the paper plate,” as if this was the most inconceivable thing imaginable.

Or walk into a restaurant and ask for a frozen meal. Stouffer’s meals proved so popular that guests started to regularly request frozen portions to carry home to enjoy another day. Managers complied, and soon the demand was enough to justify a separate business. Stouffer’s launched a new division and built a small plant in downtown Cleveland for frozen meals. Not long after demand prompted it to move the production of frozen foods to a sprawling industrial operation outside the city.

Stouffer’s sold its name and all divisions—which by then included some hotels and resorts—to Litton Industries in 1967, which in turn sold it to Swiss multinational Nestlé in 1973. Not surprisingly, Nestlé focused on the frozen foods, launching Lean Cuisine under Stouffer’s management a decade later. The hotel and restaurant divisions were later spun off to the company that owned the Ramada and Renaissance hotels, which started to fold Stouffer’s restaurants into their other dining concepts.

The Stouffer’s name thus moved from skyscraper to freezer. (One linear descendent remains: The Top of the Hub in Boston is still run today by the Cleveland-based Select Restaurants, Inc.)

To revisit Stouffer’s bibulous past requires a copy of Here’s How and a home bar. May I suggest making the chain’s signature Hilty Dilty? It’s a drink that proves that the modern age does not have a lock on unfortunate drink names. Here’s How notes that “This original Stouffer cocktail ranks high on the guest favored list.” It was featured as the special on Friday nights at some of the restaurants. (The drink was made with an ounce-and-a-half of apricot brandy, an eighth-of-an-ounce of grenadine, and half-an-ounce of lime juice, shaken with cracked ice and served in a coupe.)

It’s a way to enjoy a taste of the past. If you’re looking for an appropriate pairing, I suggest a microwaved Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese meal.