In the nineteenth century, restaurants were patronized by the wealthy and by travelers (at stagecoach stops, inns, and on trains and in train stations). Most workers brought their lunch from home. Over time, especially in cities, diners had more options.
In the second half of that century, an important innovation was the lunch wagon, one of the first examples of “fast food” in American history. After many decades of absence, this idea has been recycled into the modern food truck, today a booming component of the restaurant industry. (Great ideas get recycled!)
Credit for the invention of the lunch wagon usually goes to one Walter Scott of Providence, Rhode Island. Scott had worked the nightshift at a local newspaper. Given that restaurants closed at 8 PM, newspaper and other night workers had no place to eat. Scott started selling snacks to the other workers, eventually pulling a small food cart around to all three Providence newspapers. In 1872, Scott quit his job and went into the foodservice business full time, building his first horse-drawn “night lunch wagon.”
From dusk until 4 AM, Scott sold ham sandwiches, boiled eggs with a slice of bread, and slices of pies (including mince and huckleberry) for a nickel each, or a full plate of chicken for thirty cents. (Those prices are not much different from today’s fast food chain offerings, if adjusted for inflation: a nickel meal then is equivalent to about $1.10 today; thirty cents equals about $7.)
The wagons often had a window facing the curb side and another window facing the street side, for “drive through” customers in their carriages. Some people tried to dash off with a free meal without paying, so Scott got in the habit of grabbing shady customers’ hats off their heads as “insurance.” He ended up with a box full of bowlers and top hats.
Walter Scott continued his business until 1917, but in the interim, many other lunch wagon operators arose. Scott complained that the newcomers made it hard to make a profit at a nickel, because they were giving away free onions, mustard, and ketchup.
By the 1880s, Providence night patrolman Ruel Jones got into the business, operating at least seven wagons which annually went through 12,000 pounds of ham, 10,000 quarts of milk, and 1400 pounds of coffee. Another man, Mike Stapleton, introduced hot dogs in the 1880s, giving rise to the term “dog wagons.”
In Worcester, Massachusetts, Samuel Jones, Ruel Jones’ cousin, had a truck custom-built which people could enter, sit on stools, and eat indoors. Jones expanded into nearby Springfield, where he built forty lunch wagons, operating some and selling some to others. His Pioneer model sold for $1400. More popular was the Owl, a name used by many night lunch wagon operators. The many names operators used included the snappy “Rite-Bite.” Samuel Jones ultimately operated twenty-two wagons in Springfield alone.
The next “big mover” was Charles H. Palmer of Worcester. In 1891, he patented his wagon designs, which served as a model for others who followed. Palmer built both plain “night wagons” and fancy “night cafes,” operated them, sold them, and leased them to others. Hiss wagons offered both curb service and indoor dining (seated, or twenty people standing). They averaged six feet by sixteen feet in size, including the kitchen. Palmer’s fancy wagons had ornate etched stained-glass windows and elaborately decorated exteriors.
Yet no one in the lunch wagon business had the impact of Worcester’s Thomas H. Buckley. The twenty-year-old started with the Owl in 1888, famous for its oyster stew (at a time when oyster bars were prevalent in America). He followed this with the Palace Café, which newspapers said was the finest lunch wagon in the nation. In 1890, he introduced his White House Cafes, and sold them to others. The White House had elaborate, carved colored glass windows; one had a sixteen-foot mural of the Battle of New Orleans painted on the street side.
By 1892, Buckley’s New England Night Lunch Wagon Company had built seventy-five wagons. Renamed the T.H. Buckley Lunch Wagon Manufacturing and Catering Company in 1898, the firm turned out six to eight wagons a month. By 1898, Buckley had set up wagons in 275 towns all over the country, finding and promoting local operators. He also operated in 25 cities himself under the name the United States Lunch Wagon Company.
Buckley also sold lunch wagon supplies including knives, dishes, and plate glass. One of Buckley’s innovations was to add cooking stoves to his wagons, allowing operators to add hamburgers, clam chowder, and waffles. His ultimate wagon was the Tile Wagon, covered in beautiful mosaics and tiles, with silver carriage lamps on the outside. The Tile Wagon toured fairs around the nation, winning over 140 awards. While Buckley spent the stupendous sum of $5440 building it, he claimed it brought him a quarter million dollars in free advertising.
One of Buckley’s best customers was the Church Temperance Society of New York City, formed by the clergy and laymen of the Protestant Episcopal Church. In those days, bars offered a free lunch to anyone who spent a dime on two beers. To draw people out of the taverns, the Temperance Society offered lunches for the same dime. For three cents, customers could get two pancakes and a cup of coffee. In 1893, this group brought the first lunch wagon to New York’s business area, on Herald Square (where Macy’s was built in the following decade). That wagon sold 67,000 ten-cent meals in the first year. Cornelius Vanderbilt funded a wagon located on Union Square. By 1898, the Temperance Society operated eight wagons serving 230,000 ten-cent meals a year. The cash generated was used to build free ice-water fountains among the city’s tenements.
Meanwhile, Thomas Buckley had opened a permanent restaurant, the White House Café, in Worcester. The fabulous facility with a soda fountain made of 18,000 square inches of Mexican onyx, with thirty-six syrup dispensers, failed. In 1903, Buckley died at the age of thirty-five.
Over time, some lunch wagon owners stayed open until late morning, after traffic had begun to flow on the streets. Congestion was bad enough without the lunch wagons, and local authorities started regulating the business. In some cities, wagons were limited to night operation, and in other towns, completely banned. Such regulations were to stay in place until the twenty-first century, when laws began to be changed to again allow food trucks.
These regulations led wagon operators to open permanent locations, out of the streets, while others moved their wagons to fairs and carnivals. Wagon builders adapted by creating a new, more permanent, concept, the diner. Layouts of the kitchens, counters, and stools were similar to those pioneered by the lunch wagons. Many diners were adapted from railroad cars or designed to look like them. With the advent of streamlining, stainless steel, and art deco in the 1920s and 1930s, new designs quickly arose.
Larger chains of quick-service restaurants grew in the following years. In 1914, New York City was the base for Baltimore Dairy Lunch with 140 locations and the Childs restaurant chain with 81, closely followed by Chicago’s John R. Thompson Company with 73 and Boston’s Waldorf Lunch with 55. New formats including cafeterias and automats came into being.
Across the world, people cook and sell food to their friends and neighbors. Whether selling coconuts on the streets of Brazil or cooking meals along the alleys of Thailand, “foodservice” is the most basic and common form of entrepreneurship. With the innovations of these early lunch wagon builders and operators, more people could afford “food away from home,” to use the economists’ term.
In 1929, the US government conducted its first “census of retail distribution,” a program that continues every five years today. In 1929, American grocery stores generated $6.4 billion in revenues, three times the size of the $2.1 billion restaurant industry. As American standards of living boomed, the restaurant industry grew rapidly. By 2019, before Covid, the two industries were neck-and-neck, at about $700 billion each. In 1929, and still true ninety years later, roughly half of all restaurant revenues come from restaurants with table service, and half come from “fast food” (known as “quick service restaurants” or QSR in the foodservice industry).
Throughout these many decades, restaurant innovation never abated. The first drive-in restaurant, catering to cars, was Kirby’s Pig Stand in Dallas in 1921, the same year White Castle was born in Wichita. Future largest restaurant chain Howard Johnson’s began in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1925. J. Willard Marriott opened his A&W root beer and food stand in Washington in 1927. By 1968, Marriott was the largest restaurant company in America, but had begun its expansion into lodging, in which industry Marriott is now the biggest company in the world. King of the restaurant hill today is McDonald’s, whose thousands of locations garner around 5% of total American restaurant revenues. And now, after a long absence, the nation is again covered in food trucks.
All this started with a handful of New England entrepreneurs who saw a business opportunity that others did not see.
American Business History Center