Friday, March 19, 2010

Fred Harvey: America's first restaurant millionaire

Posted By on Fri, Mar 19, 2010 at 2:17 PM

click to enlarge Fred Harvey changed America's restaurant culture
  • Fred Harvey changed America's restaurant culture

Because Kansas City plays a prominent role in the new book Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West (Bantam, $27), it makes sense that author-journalist Stephen Fried would make one of his first book tour appearances here.

Although now nearly forgotten, Fred Harvey (1835-1901) was the man whose vision led to the practices that restaurant chains use today. The qualities most of us take for granted in modern restaurants were actually implemented by the English-born Harvey, who believed that Americans wanted clean dining rooms, well-trained servers and meals that were as consistently good in one Harvey restaurant as in another.

Fried's contention is that Harvey literally changed the way Americans ate outside their own homes. Harvey also believed in generous portions: His last words to his son were reportedly, "Don't cut the ham too thin, boys."

The Fred Harvey Company was headquartered in Kansas City during much of its glory years. Fried notes that Harvey's son Ford was one of this city's major movers-and-shakers, and only after his death did the fortunes of the company drastically change. Ford's son Freddy, a playboy pilot, was killed in an airplane crash in April 1936 and control of the company passed to Freddy's sister Kitty, who had, says Fried, the unfortunate luck to be a woman during a time when it was inconceivable for a female to run a major corporation; she was also a lesbian. Although Kitty was interested operating the Fred Harvey Company, her uncle Byron in Chicago forced her to sell her shares to him; the company was later moved to Chicago.

"Kitty Harvey was a brilliant socialite, very open about her sexuality in an era when that wasn't done," said Fried. "She was a true renaissance woman, she acted in local plays, built an incredible art collection."

The Harvey family lived in a large Van Brunt-designed home at 3617 Gilham Road (it was razed in the 1960s to build an apartment complex) and was active in community affairs. "The history of Kansas City would have been very different if Freddy Harvey hadn't been killed," says Fried.

Kansas City's Union Station played a pivotal role in the Fred Harvey Company's fortunes, too. When it opened in 1914, the Harvey Company not only ran the restaurants, but all the retail stores in the bustling facility and had located its corporate offices on the second floor.

Fried first became interested in the Fred Harvey story in 1993, when he took a trip to the Grand Canyon with his wife and saw the entrepreneur's portrait hanging in the lobby of one of his most famous existing properties, the El Tovar Hotel. Fried didn't know much about the Harvey story and, he discovered, not many other people did, either. Although there have been books about the famed waitresses who worked in the Harvey House restaurants -- and inspired the "gay and lusty" 1946 Judy Garland movie The Harvey Girls, there hadn't been a serious book about Fred Harvey, his family or the company.

"I originally thought of the Fred Harvey story for a magazine article," Fried says, "but in 2003 I was having lunch with my editor at Bantam who suggested I turn my idea into a proposal for a book."

Fried's book is scheduled for release on Tuesday and features a great deal of material never seen before. "The archives are still owned by different branches of the family in Boston, Chicago and Santa Fe," Fried says, "including rare datebooks that showed where Fred Harvey was every day."

It's not too late to make plans to attend Stephen Fried's lecture scheduled for Thursday, April 8 at the Kansas City National Archives at

400 W. Pershing Road. The event begins with a reception at 6 p.m.

followed by the discussion at 6:30 p.m.; Fried will be available to

sign copies of his book.

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