A look back at Tampa Bay's cafeterias of days gone by

Morrison’s Cafeteria in Tampa fed the masses, in part because the federal courthouse and post office were nearby.
Morrison’s Cafeteria in Tampa fed the masses, in part because the federal courthouse and post office were nearby.
Published Feb. 2, 2017

Over a century ago, readers of the afternoon St. Petersburg Evening Independent encountered a strange headline: "Novel Restaurant Service Is Put Into Effect Here." The article profiled the owner, E.C. Stinespring, and his new restaurant, oddly named, the Scientific Lunch Room.

The February 1914 article explained the new protocol. As each patron entered the cafe, he was appointed a waiter, "with plate, knife, fork and spoon and instructed to get in the line being served as it passed the steam tables." Once in line, customers indicated what fare they wished while "aides" placed portions on plates and passed them to the patrons. "While the service was novel and new to most of the guests," the reporter concluded, "the palatable food was the great drawing card." The cost was also digestible. A typical meal cost a quarter.

The modern cafeteria had found a new home. Over the next seven decades, more and more St. Petersburg and Tampa diners learned to stand in line to dine. Few today remember the Yale, Resnick and Ritencliff eateries. Who can recall Bob's Cafeteria on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg? In 1916, Bob's promised, "Good food, well cooked and quickly served, which may be eaten while a real orchestra dispenses real music, will bring happiness to anyone."

By the Roaring Twenties, a cafeteria culture had captured St. Petersburg's appetites. In Mexico, Nov. 1 signified All Saints' Day, a sacred holiday, but in St. Petersburg the date coincided with the arrival of tourists and the opening of the cafeterias. In this era, hotels and restaurants closed when the snowbirds migrated north.

By the 1930s, eight cafeterias had established such reputations that the public dubbed them "The Big Eight." The Dixie, Driftwood, Garden, Home Dairy, Morrison's, Orange Blossom, Tramor and Webb's City fed the masses in style.

The stars were perfectly aligned for St. Petersburg to become the unofficial cafeteria capital. Even during the worst years of the Great Depression, the city's population swelled during the "high season." Pale Midwesterners embraced the Sunshine City with a special affection. Heartlanders also appreciated a good bargain. Cafeteria food was plentiful and inexpensive, pleasing discriminating clients who applauded the idea of not having to tolerate, let alone tip, highfalutin, French-accented waiters.

The cafeterias specialized in Southern fare, their steam tables brimming with fried chicken, green beans smothered with bacon fat, collard greens in potlikker, and hot rolls and cornbread. While pitching horseshoes or lawn bowling, arguments ensued over which establishment prepared the best pecan pie or fashioned the highest meringue.

Morrison's is widely recognized as the most successful Southern cafeteria. Begun in 1920 by J.A. Morrison in Mobile, Ala., the franchise spread across the South, with restaurants in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Sarasota. The firm retained its Southern gentility and propriety. African-Americans wearing white jackets and black bow ties stood near the register to carry ladies' trays. Mr. Morrison famously maintained that no Southern lady should have to carry her own tray.

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Morrison's opened in St. Petersburg in 1933, becoming the company's 12th location. Situated at 521 First Ave. N., it succeeded Crown Cafeteria at the site. The St. Petersburg Times dedicated two pages to this signal event. Morrison's feted the public to an open house, which included music performed by a municipal band.

Like other restaurants of the era, Morrison's was anxious to combat the stereotypical greasy-spoon joint. "Women," explained the Times, "constitute the biggest percentage of guests. ... None of the knives, forks, or spoons are touched by other people. ... Cleanliness is one of the iron-clad rules."

The cafeterias typically opened for breakfast, lunch and dinner, dealing in volume to make a thin profit. All of the Big Eight attracted between 1,000 and 2,000 customers a day. To lure new guests, cafeterias strove to change the culture of lunch. In rituals of a lost era, the Times discussed the era's dining habits: "Men and women clerks, who usually have to ride a street car home to lunch, gobble the lunch in a hurry, grab another car as to get back to work in time." They now had an alternative.

In Tampa, Sunday church and then feasting at Morrison's became a tradition. First opened at 608 N Florida Ave., Morrison's fed the masses, in part because the old federal courthouse and post office were nearby.

In the doldrums of the Depression, cafeterias offered a bargain to customers clutching their last nickel. In 1936, Morrison's in St. Petersburg featured a breakfast consisting of "two strips of bacon, one Florida egg, grits & gravy" for 5 cents. In a price war, Webb's City cut the price to 3 cents.

Cafeterias provided good people in hard times a touch of class. Lines of young and old, rich and poor, moving through the lines resembled a democratic ballet. The richly decorated dining rooms radiated a sense of style and aspiration. The Garden Cafeteria on 232 Second St. N featured banks of lush tropical foliage and George Snow Hill murals, in a time when many Midwesterners had never seen an orchid. When, in 1952, Morrison's moved to a new location at 240 Central Ave., the Times noted that the furnishings had been designed by the same firm that decorated New York's Stork Club and the Paramount Theater.

Food helped win World War II. So many women flooded the labor force that many working-class families dined out for the first time. The Garden changed its name during the war to the Victory Garden! The Tramor had a contract with the War Department to feed the local U.S. Army Air Corps troops.

The Tramor's history originated with a dream by Bob Ely, who after operating Spanish Bob's Nightclub atop the Snell Arcade, opened Bob's Cafeteria in 1930. It became the Tramor in 1939. Ely spared no expense in erecting the magnificent Mediterranean Revival building on Fourth Street S. The stucco structure featured iron rail balconies, pecky cypress beams, a ceramic Spanish fountain and a famous azure sky ceiling. The Times owned the building for several decades. It's now home to Hofbrauhaus.

The special style of mass dining enjoyed its last hurrah in the 1950s. The snowbirds continued to arrive each November. If Morrison's was better known, the Orange Blossom was more beloved. "Many came directly from the sporting fields," observed Times reporter Jacquin Sanders. "They would lean their shuffleboard sticks against the wall in the cafeteria's outer room. Some swore the place looked like Dartmouth College during the Winter Carnival."

The Orange Blossom was founded in 1935, on 220 N Fourth St. Founder Ed Merhige sold the business to his cousins, Ed and Fred Shamas. When asked what made the Orange Blossom so popular, Ed Shamas Sr. explained, "They (customers) were wealthy and they were old." He shrugged, "Who else but the wealthy and old could take a five-six month vacation?"

Reminiscing in 1986, he recalled a golden age decades earlier. "It was wonderful to see those elderly people. Especially in the evening, with the women all decked out in their finest gowns. Maybe they were going dancing later on at the Coliseum?" In 1958, dining critic Duncan Hines blessed the Orange Blossom with a visit and endorsement.

Cafeteria managers were some of the hardest-working men in show business. Some became celebrities. When Alph Caleb Engstrom died in 1986, the Times noted that the war veteran had managed the popular Dixie Cafeteria at 551 First Ave. N. "Swede" understood that many of the elderly had begun their lives on farms and still appreciated his robust specialties. In 1936, the Dixie featured pig's knuckles for 11 cents. Nearby patrons paid 9 cents for shrimp al a Creole at the Tramor and 15 cents for roast veal and dressing at Morrison's.

Demographics and changing tastes doomed the cafeterias. Downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa experienced steep declines in the 1960s. Residential hotels closed and tourists fled to the beaches. The suburbs and fast food establishments were luring people and customers.

Downtown Tampa lost its Morrison's in 1969, while a new cafeteria opened on Dale Mabry Boulevard. Home Dairy closed its downtown St. Petersburg store in 1969, relocating to the Northeast Shopping Center. Within a year, Morrison's and the Garden had closed their downtown restaurants. Even the most loyal customers recognized that cafeterias in shopping centers lacked the magic of their former locations.

St. Petersburg's downtown cafeterias held out longer but died more painful deaths. The wealthy and the old moved on or died. The city now included large numbers of poor senior citizens who looked upon the cafeterias as a lifeline.

The businesses tried to adapt to a new clientele. In 1978 a sign welcomed diners at the Driftwood on Fifth Street The sign read, "We accept food stamps."

In 1985, the Orange Blossom announced that it was ending evening service. The following July, the ax fell. The Orange Blossom, St. Petersburg's last downtown cafeteria, closed. The Shamas family provided free champagne for the last seating. Many had been steady customers for four decades. A Times reporter captured the moment: "As regulars moved one last time through the cafeteria line, they called goodbyes to the cafeteria workers across neat rows of lemon meringue and Jell-O."

July 1986 was the summer of our discontent and content. Woe begotten residents had scarcely time to wipe away tears when, on July 25, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to build a new domed stadium. A new age began the very week an old one died.

New Age baseball fans may have channeled the smell of grilled franks and roasted peanuts, but old-time residents smelled a rat. George Steinbrenner, a Tampa resident and owner of the New York Yankees, ridiculed the decision to build a stadium without a team, adding that he no longer felt safe dodging octogenarians with walkers on Central Avenue.

But the new stadium needed a name. Revenge is best served cold with sarcasm, as letters to the editor revealed. Nominations included the Gomer Dome, the Teapot Dome, the Yankees-Go-Home Dome, the Pachydome, the Dumb Dome and We Don't Give a Dome.

Perhaps the Orange Blossom Dome would have been the perfect choice. On opening day, fans would look forward to free lime Jell-O and tickets infused with the smell of fried chicken.

Gary R. Mormino is scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council. He recently spent a residency at the Hermitage Artist Retreat on Manasota Key, where he worked on several history books. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.