I’m not THAT old but I am glad I’m old enough to remember the “dining” at both S.S. Kresge and Woolworth’s when I was a kid.
S.S. Kresge was my favorite.
Whether you called them lunch counters, luncheonettes, dinettes or soda fountains, anyone who can still recall sitting at the counter on one of their red vinyl pedestal stools will tell you that the food was wonderful…and cheap.
I thought about this the other day when I was having a conversation with one of my Chefs here at Nino’s. It went something like…”You know…just like Sliced Roast Beef on Toast with a rounded scoop of Mashed Potatoes on the side smothered with Brown Gravy”….like at “Kresge’s”
The look on my Chef’s face was priceless; I might have just as well have been talking about quantum physics.
Wha?? And then of course it dawned on me, my Chef wasn’t even born when that dish was popular at the Kresge’s lunch counter. And it got me thinking about some of the great old dishes that have mostly disappeared from today’s dining landscape. Orphan dishes that no one adopts anymore, no restaurant where they fit in. From the fast food chains to fine dining they have no menu to call home.
Except for a few nostalgic roadside diners and some frozen entrees in your grocery aisle, you rarely see dishes such as Salisbury Steak, Old Fashioned Beef Stew, Chipped Beef on Toast, Beef Stroganoff, Seafood Newburg, Tuna Noodle Casserole and Chicken a la King on any menus.
And that’s a shame.
Founded by Sebastian Spering Kresge in 1899 with only 2 stores (1 of which was in downtown Detroit) and later incorporated with 85 stores under the name S.S. Kresge in 1912, the company was renamed the Kmart Corporation in 1977, and evolved into today’s Sears Holdings Corporation, parent of Kmart and Sears.
What started out as an $8,000 investment made Kresge one of the wealthiest men in America by 1924. His namesake 5 and 10 cent stores (later coined “Dime Stores”) gave people just what they wanted long before malls and large discount stores came on the scene.
Speaking of malls, this is where my first and most lasting Kresge “en Counters” occurred, both at the Northland Shopping Center which opened in 1954 and the Wonderland Shopping Center which opened 5 years later.
It was at the Kresge’s at Northland that I enjoyed my very first fountain syrup Cherry Coke®. I can still vividly remember the image of a lady, dressed in a white uniform, with bonnet hat, ladling the cherry syrup then dispensing the Coke into a large, white paper cone nested in one of the heavy stainless steel bases, the ones they also used for their Hot Fudge Sundae that I got “hooked” on later.
While the adults enjoyed “Today’s Feature” which was usually something only an adult would like such as Goulash or a Grilled Ham Steak with Canned Pineapple, I’d have my hamburger a dog or grilled cheese sandwich.
Of course as you ate, you were only steps away from aisles of merchandise. Unfortunately for the parents, the closest aisles to the counter were usually toys or things that kids were into back in those days.
Unlike today when a new game for your kid’s X-Box or Play Station costs anywhere from $25 to $50, a 20 cent paper kite, a 10 cent balsam wood airplane, a handfull of green army men and some penny candy was all it usually took to make my day.
I even lost my mind once and convinced my Mom I needed to have one of those baby green turtles. The latest update on that brilliant purchase is that his great, great grandchildren are living comfortably in a small back-woods pond in Livonia.
By the time I grew up and left home for my training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Kresge had already found huge success with its larger Kmart discount stores in this area. It was just the opposite at the original S.S. Kresge. As profitability decreased at their smaller stores due to higher labor costs, less variety and less patronage, leases were not renewed and stores closed.
Eventually, in 1984, my own beloved S.S. Kresge at Northland Shopping Center served its last customer. It was just a few years before I took the helm at the one of Detroit’s newest fine dining restaurants, Opus One.
In that first year, after Opus One had opened for lunch, in honor of some of the finest dining memories I had as a child, I placed on one of my monthly menus, Sliced Roast Beef on Toast with a rounded scoop of Mashed Potatoes on the side smothered with Brown Gravy.
I’m sure somewhere in a pond in Livonia, a certain turtle was smiling.