4 Brothers Made Dining History
Before the advent of the now ubiquitous fast-food outlets, before Southern California’s fabled Schaber’s and Clifton’s cafeterias, there were the Boos Brothers.
From humble beginnings, Horace Boos and his three siblings opened one of Los Angeles’ first cafeterias in 1906 with unconventional methods and consistent success that inspired subsequent generations of restaurant entrepreneurs.
Even though turn-of-the-century Los Angeles served cuisine that ranged from plain to appalling, the Boos Brothers’ idea of a fast-food, self-service restaurant was laughed at by critics. Waiting on yourself and returning trays and dishes to the kitchen were unheard-of impositions, even for the city’s much-put-upon diners. Editorials poked fun at the thought of a “grabeteria” and said it would not work.
But the hungry public didn’t agree, and the brothers’ downtown cafeteria was the first link in a chain of seven that ultimately stretched from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
The Boos Brothers were born in Moscow, Ohio. Horace, the eldest, born in 1872, was 15 years old when both of his parents died, leaving him to head the family.
The brothers worked side by side, first by opening a small grocery store and later a restaurant in St. Louis.
With a small amount of capital, the four siblings came west and bought a farm in the San Fernando Valley, growing vegetables and raising chickens to feed Angelenos in what would become their next restaurant venture.
Observing the efforts of Helen Mosher, who took over the defunct Hafen House, a favorite German resort, and turned it into the city’s first cafeteria, a hole in the wall on Hill Street between 3rd and 4th streets, they decided to expand on her idea. She advertised: “All Women Cooks--Food That Can Be Seen,” and best of all, “No Tips.”
Mosher was a pioneer, but the Boos Brothers cooked up culinary history.
Their first gamble was a site on the gastronomically deprived south side of 2nd Street between Spring and Broadway. Orlando “John” was chef; Cyrus the butcher and baker; while Horace and Henry washed dishes, swept the floor and took in the money.
Determined that quality food--temptingly displayed--together with cleanliness and courteous service would overcome the public’s prejudice against self-service, these self-made men of wit and charm used a full plate of new ideas to build their cafeteria into a new type of dining empire.
Rubbery chicken was bounced out of the kitchen and lumpy mashed potatoes were banned. Only the cream of the crop survived, as they opened six more cafeterias on Broadway, Olive and Hill streets, Santa Catalina Island and two in San Francisco.
After a year, the ranch failed because the brothers were too busy to tend it. But the cafeteria that had become known as an “indoor picnic” was by then the city’s hottest restaurant.
Its business received a boost when adoption of the 18th Amendment imposed Prohibition, closing downtown saloons, which traditionally had served a free lunch. Angelenos turned to sumptuous yet inexpensive cafeteria fare, which was consumed by Boos Brothers patrons listening to Pryor Moore’s nine-piece orchestra renditions of “I Kiss Your Hand, Madam,” “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Just a Little White House,” punctuated only by the clatter of utensils. After World War I, an employee returned not only with a French wife, but with an award-winning French lemon pie recipe, which was soon one of the chain’s staples.
Employees in all seven cafeterias began competing in culinary contests and their recipes were added to the menu.
By the 1920s, the chain of cafeterias had become so widely known that Los Angeles was dubbed by some “Sunny Cafeteria.”
Lonely Midwesterners formed clubs and held meetings, turning them into lonely hearts clubs. At the Boos flagship cafeteria on Hill Street across from Pershing Square, the Nature Club of Southern California met every Tuesday, while Sierra Club members gathered on Fridays. Prospective club members sat at separate tables, where their behavior and manners were observed.
When Horace Boos died in 1926, the surviving Boos Brothers sold the seven cafeterias for a record $7 million to Childs Corp., a national chain of restaurants. Business, however, was on the decline. Bringing in near-beer and wine and even ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy didn’t help sales.
With the onset of the Depression, Childs sold two of the Boos Brothers cafeterias to Clifford E. Clinton, who launched the Clifton’s chain, and Henry Boos bought back two more, one on Hill Street and the other in Avalon on Catalina Island.
Back in business, the Boos Brothers offered inexpensive fare of a “40-cent dinner” that made the cafeterias especially popular with the starving artists and angry intellectuals of Los Angeles during the Depression.
Garnering a reputation with a multi-course feast for more than four decades, these unflashy foodmeisters called it quits in the late 1940s, before cafeterias would begin to lose popularity with the advent of luncheonettes, soda fountains and fast-food restaurants.