Appetite For America (Stephen Fried)

“Appetite For America” is that rare book that combines the best of a history book and a business book. It’s the story of Fred Harvey, a sickly but iron-willed Englishman who built the first retail empire in America, and the story of the company he founded, also called Fred Harvey (not Fred Harvey, Inc.—just plain Fred Harvey). It’s all fascinating, and offers the reader many accurate business insights as well (although they are not billed as business insights—this is not a navel-gazing self-help “business book”).

Fred Harvey arrived in New York in 1853, seeking his fortune, starting as a dishwasher at a New York restaurant. He quickly moved to St. Louis, in many ways then the epicenter of development in the country, running a restaurant with a partner, but the Civil War (and a lazy and thieving partner, the bane of many a businessman) killed his business. He then worked in postal sorting, in the new method of sorting on moving rail cars, then became a ticket agent for a Missouri railroad. And then the railroad asked him to move to Leavenworth, the end of the line—and the jumping-off place for future rail expansion, after the end of the Civil War.

Many men sought their fortune and took opportunistic jobs in the growing America of the mid-19th Century. But Fred Harvey was a man who got things done, more than the usual person. Not only did he successfully sell tickets, in a town that initially lacked a railroad, he aggressively expanded his employer’s business. And he expanded into his own side business of selling newspaper ads while he sold tickets. He worked constantly, he improved himself constantly by reading, and he accomplished what he set out to do, unlike most people. All this took a toll on his health, which was not good to begin with. But in those days, even aside from Fred Harvey’s personality, the country was organized around the salutary principle “he who does not work, neither shall he eat.” So he persevered, from necessity, and from his own drive to succeed.

He worked his way up, becoming a major freight agent for a larger railroad, based in Chicago. And then, when he was already forty, he saw his opportunity—improving restaurants dedicated to rail passengers, who before dining cars had either had no food, or atrocious food at railroad-run “eating” establishments spaced roughly every 100 miles. Fred Harvey kept his day job, but started a management company with a partner, agreeing with the Kansas Pacific, and then the Santa Fe, railroads to manage food service at their restaurants.

What he didn’t do was merely run the same awful restaurants. Instead, from the ground up, he re-invented not just railroad food, but American restaurant food, at a time when chain restaurants did not exist and eating out was never done except when necessity demanded it. He made restaurant food attractive and enviable. Fred Harvey provided the freshest, highest-quality food (particularly coffee, beef, and cigars, delivered by special rail cars). He offered impeccable service, even with the extra complication of intermittent demand as trains came, disgorged hundreds of hungry passengers simultaneously, and went. He was an organizational genius—not because he managed people well, although he did, but because he was a detail man, like the vast majority of successful businesspeople. Fred Harvey demanded perfection from each individual restaurant manager, and he would frequently show up unexpectedly at one of his many restaurants to review performance-and if dissatisfied, he would tear the place settings from a table.

Through the 1870s and 1880s he expanded as the Santa Fe expanded, through the entire Southwest, particularly New Mexico and Arizona. His company became very large for the time, and very profitable, and very well known.

Gradually, Fred Harvey’s health declined, and he spent much time recuperating in Europe. Daily operation of his business became the task of his son Ford and his chief lieutenant, David Benjamin. Fred Harvey died in 1901, and his son and Benjamin decided to run the business as if Fred Harvey were still alive and at the helm. (That Fred Harvey had set up his will effectively requiring this for ten years probably had something to do with it.) Ford Harvey expanded the company into hotels in the Southwest, including the first hotels around (and in) the Grand Canyon, such as El Tovar. Most of these hotels are still extant today (under the management of the large management company Xanterra). They also got into publishing, selling books and magazines at railroad stations where they had restaurants, and into collecting and displaying large amounts of American Indian art.

The family became quite rich, and prominent nationwide (but especially in Kansas City and Chicago). Ford Harvey and David Benjamin faced innumerable obstacles and struggles, which they overcame, from railroad bankruptcies to giant hotel failures to financial panics and depressions to Prohibition. All of these are detailed in “Appetite For America.” Ford, who maintained Fred Harvey’s attention to detail and aggressive competence, kept the family business on track. Ford’s brother, Byron, lived in Chicago and ran the family’s interests there, not particularly well and without charisma or drive. And then Ford died of flu in 1928; Benjamin died in 1933 but had effectively retired years before.

Ford’s son Freddy really began the deterioration of the family, prior to Ford’s death, as Freddy became more involved in the business as the heir apparent. No detail man, he preferred womanizing and flying airplanes, and spending the family’s money. Then the Depression, combined with a move to dining cars instead of dining houses, made the Fred Harvey company shutter many restaurant locations. The company struggled further with a lack of leadership after Ford’s death, between Freddy and Byron, and then Freddy managed to kill himself in 1936, by the unwise choice of flying a cutting-edge plane through an ice storm. The family descended into intra-family lawsuits, and Byron presided as caretaker over a declining business.

And then, of course, the highways began to eat into the passenger rail business. Howard Johnson was the new restaurant hero of the hungry traveler. World War II gave a bump to the business—but at the fatal cost of ending the quality that had always epitomized the Fred Harvey company. By 1945, the old Fred Harvey was effectively defunct, running a few restaurants in larger train stations, and the Grand Canyon hotels, under the guidance of the Byron Harvey family. Byron Harvey died in 1954, and in 1966 the business was totally divested from the family, with all remnants left becoming effectively unrecognizable. Sic transit.

This book isn’t for everyone. It is very detailed and largely based on original historical research. If you want a quick or very light read, or a “business book” with some aphorisms and dubious advice for succeeding in today’s America, this isn’t it.

But it is a book that DOES tell you how to succeed in today’s America. Yes, you couldn’t do exactly what Fred Harvey did, even if railroads were still a going concern for passenger traffic. But what Fred Harvey did is what every successful businessperson does. He got things done—endless things, all of them done, and all of them on time. It sounds simple, but most people can’t do it. He was a perfectionist. And he solved endless problems. Then he got up and did it all again. Of course, to succeed in business, you have to have some luck. But success in business requires mostly getting things done, detail work, and solving problems. They seem easy, but they’re not.

The other interesting take-away from “Appetite For America” is that it shows what is commonly known and simultaneously always forgotten: the inevitable cycle of every business. Everybody thought railroads would dominate forever, and therefore Fred Harvey would dominate chain restaurants forever. Before Fred Harvey and after Fred Harvey, from steamboat operators to Google and Facebook, every business has seemed mighty and everlasting, until it is not. In the end, they all fall. They fall because times change, they fall because people change, they fall because families change. But in the end, they all fall.


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