Founder of Shoney’s Chain Started Small

From Associated Press

Alex Schoenbaum usually arrived at his little restaurant at dawn to make sure the bread was baking. He often drove employees home after midnight.

It wasn’t culinary fascination. It was bread and butter.

Schoenbaum’s $10,000 Parkette drive-in restaurant in Charleston became the first Shoney’s in 1951. That was the hatchling of what would become an empire of more than 1,800 restaurants in 36 states.

Shoney’s Inc. is considered the popularizer of the family restaurant, the place that welcomes children, touts all-you-can-eat salad bars and offers menus that cover everything from steak ‘n’ eggs to fried shrimp to pie a la mode.


The Shoney’s name is a derivation of Schoenbaum’s name, which he chose because he thought it sounded family-friendly.

Now 78, Schoenbaum no longer plays a management role in Shoney’s. But he is immensely wealthy as one of the biggest shareholders in the company. He sat on the board of directors until 1985.

He also is an active philanthropist, dividing his time between his hometown of Charleston and a home in Florida. He still is considered one of the wise old men of American restaurateuring.

“My philosophy always was to give the most food of quality for the least amount of money,” he said in an interview, speaking as though he was still baking in the kitchen or sweeping the floor. “We are still doing it.”

Son Jeff Schoenbaum, 46, said his father’s edict on strawberry pie set the tone: The pies always must have fresh strawberries, even if it means a special air shipment from California.

“The customer doesn’t understand the problem. They just understand you don’t have strawberry pie. That’s the way they did things,” he said, recalling his father’s words.

Schoenbaum spent years on the road, rifling through receipts at Shoney’s outlets every day to see what people ordered. If an item was not popular, he scrapped it from the menu.

Schoenbaum started in his dormitory room at Kiskiminetas Springs School in Saltsburg, Pa., during the Depression. He bought cold cuts for 5 cents and sold 10-cent sandwiches to earn spending money.

“If you bought something for a nickel and sold it for a dime, it sounded awfully good to me,” he said.

Although Schoenbaum helped define Shoney’s in its early years, the company in its current form is largely the work of Raymond Danner, a hard-driving entrepreneur who bought the franchise rights for some of Schoenbaum’s restaurants in 1959 and eventually became Schoenbaum’s partner.

Shoney’s merged with Danner Foods in Nashville, Tenn., to become Shoney’s Big Boy Enterprises in 1971. Schoenbaum and Danner sold the Big Boy trademark to Marriott in the mid-1970s and renamed the company Shoney’s Inc. in 1976.

Danner also is considered responsible for a chapter in the Shoney’s story that the company hopes it has successfully put to rest: an alleged history of racial discrimination against black employees.

A number of them sued the company in 1989, accusing Danner and the company of restricting black workers to kitchen jobs and weeding out black applicants. Danner denied the accusations.

Still, Shoney’s settled the suit in November, 1992, which required the company to impose a strict affirmative action program and set aside more than $100 million to compensate bias victims. Danner also relinquished management control of the company.

In a sign of progress in remaking its image, last September Shoney’s was named “Corporation of the Year” by the Nashville Minority Business Development Center.