The Original Ray Kroc

Before there was McDonald's, businessman Fred Harvey built the first fast food—and hospitality—empire across America. Stephen Fried in his new book tells this remarkable story of how his waitresses and steaks conquered the West.

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If you thought Ray Kroc invented fast food in the 1950s, you’re off by about 80 years. It turns out that Kroc was just one of many American service-industry moguls who appropriated the visionary ideas and systems of Fred Harvey—the English-born businessman who, starting in the 1870s, built a hospitality empire along the nation’s largest railroad, the Santa Fe line from Chicago to L.A. It was Harvey and his revolutionary family business that invented fast food, creating the first national chain of restaurants, hotels, depot stores—in fact, the first national chain of anything. His spotless trackside eateries could regularly perform the Olympian culinary feat of serving a throng of hungry, dusty rail passengers a full-course delicious meal in 20 minutes—steak, eggs, fresh fish cooked to order, salad dressing made tableside, freshly baked bread and desserts, the best coffee in the West—and have them back on the train before the half-hour meal stop was over. After eating at a Fred Harvey restaurant, people actually hoped that America might one day grow into a fast-food nation.

Besides the food, of course, they also loved the waitresses, the legendary Harvey Girls, single women hired in the Midwest, trained at locations near the company headquarters in Kansas City, and then dispatched to Western towns. (About 100,000 of them married locally and helped build communities in Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oklahoma, and Texas.)

“Men who have eaten at Fred Harvey eating houses have come home and insisted on having their meats broiled, not fried; their roasts roasted, not boiled; their potatoes decently cooked and their biscuits light.”

In the late 1800s and even into the early 1900s, Americans were not yet accustomed to dining out or eating well-prepared fresh food at home. “There is no country in the world where food is so plentiful ... [and] so badly cooked, as right here in the United States,” declared Dr. Harvey Wiley, the health advocate who founded what became the Food and Drug Administration. The antidote to this problem—according to New York critic Henry Finck in his 1913 book Food and Flavor—was following the example of Fred Harvey, whom he saw as a “food missionary” on a quest to civilize the United States one meal at a time. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Allen White called the “Harvey Houses”—as they came to be known—“beacons of culinary light and learning.” In his obituary of Fred—whom he knew well after years as a regular at the Harvey restaurant in Emporia, Kansas—White wrote, “Fred Harvey... has done more to promulgate good cooking—healthful, substantial, wholesome, digestible cooking... than all the cookbooks ever published. Men who have eaten at Fred Harvey eating houses have come home and insisted on having their meats broiled, not fried; their roasts roasted, not boiled; their potatoes decently cooked and their biscuits light. Fred Harvey was a greater man than if he had been elected to something.”

Fred Harvey, the man (who died in 1901) and the company (run as if he were still alive for decades) remained the dominant hospitality chain throughout the 1920s and 1930s. And the Harvey Houses became the prototypes of the disparate dining experience that characterize American eating: They had formal, sit-down dining rooms (in which even cowboys were expected to wear jackets), attached to large casual dining areas with long curved counters (the genesis of the classic diner), attached to takeout coffee and sandwich stands (the original Starbucks). Although the Harvey trackside dining system was invented because initially there were no dining cars on the long-distance Western trains, the company later had dining cars, too (like the ones on the legendary Santa Fe Super Chief, which every celebrity going to and from Hollywood rode in the decades before reliable air travel).

Fred Harvey also ran the trackside resort hotels that transformed northern New Mexico and Arizona from the railroad equivalent of “flyover states” into places where we go to experience the “real America” at the Grand Canyon (where the company created historic El Tovar and ran all the hotels and tourist operations, even training the mules) and in Santa Fe, where it ran the major hotel, La Fonda. At its peak in the late 1920s, Fred Harvey ran 25 hotels, 40 sit-down restaurants, 54 lunchrooms, the newsstands and gift shops in 80 cities—and completely controlled food service and all the retail stores (Fred Harvey was the first major American bookstore chain) in major city union stations in Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Houston, Wichita, Galveston and Fort Worth. (They later added Cleveland and Los Angeles.)

It wasn’t until the 1920s—as Fred Harvey was celebrating its 50th anniversary—that others started copying in earnest its formulas both for fast food and for perfectly systematized service in multiple cities: starting with cafeteria chains, then Howard Johnson’s family restaurants (which began when the third generation of Harveys began to stumble during the Depression) and then the hotels of Conrad Hilton—who was inspired by the Harvey resort near his home in New Mexico, the Alvarado in Albuquerque (also the home of Fred Harvey’s fabled Native American art and craft museum and business). By the time the Fred Harvey company was lionized in the Oscar-winning 1946 MGM musical The Harvey Girls—starring Judy Garland as the most famous of Fred’s “winsome waitresses,” and featuring the smash Johnny Mercer/Harry Warren song “On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe”—America and its tastes had changed and the fast-food nation as we now know it had begun.

As for Fred Harvey, the company lived on through its operation on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where Fred’s portrait still looms over the main lobby of El Tovar—which is where I first discovered him, and where the biography I just wrote about him, his company, the Santa Fe, and the America they created got started. All the Fred Harvey-designed buildings there remain intact and delightful (including the rugged hostelry on the canyon floor, Phantom Ranch) even though the company holdings are now controlled by Xanterra, which runs most of the Western national parks. La Fonda in Santa Fe, now owned by another family, retains its Fred Harvey feeling. And there is still one place left where you can walk off the train and into the original Fred Harvey restaurant—and where the food is actually better than ever. That’s at La Posada in Winslow, Arizona (also reachable by old Route 66, which ran along the Santa Fe rail line). While the restaurant there, The Turquoise Room, is a place in which you’d probably want to spend a little more than 20 minutes eating, it is still possible to dash down a revelatory meal in even less time.

And when you do, you realize what McDonald’s and other chains, and even higher-end restaurants getting into takeout are only just now discovering—but Fred Harvey understood over 120 years ago. Fast food doesn’t have to be bad or bad for you. It just has to be fast.

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Stephen Fried is an award-winning investigative journalist and essayist and an adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia (the inspiration for the Emmy-winning film Gia), Bitter Pills, The New Rabbi, and Husbandry. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, author Diane Ayres.