Special Reports

How We Got Here: 1920s

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A century ago, labor wasn’t the only industry concern that could have been lifted from today’s roster of pressing issues. At the 1921 meeting of the still-new National Restaurant Association, attendees heard a presentation from operator Harry Joyce on the importance of restaurants connecting with their communities, a message that still resonates 100 years later. 

During the meeting, Director Guy Gundaker of Kugler’s Restaurant in Philadelphia was asked by the rest of the leadership to draft a Code of Correct Business Standards specifically for the group. Competition was often viewed as mean and underhanded, and fellow restaurateurs in some markets were reluctant to speak with peers. The industry at this point consisted largely of lunchrooms, cafeterias, tea rooms, luncheonettes and, mostly for swells, fine-dining restaurants. 

Some issues, though, were peculiar to the times: Prohibition had denied many establishments of their major source of sales and profits. But the ban on alcohol also forced the industry to focus on food instead of beer, wine and spirits. “Food service” became a fitting term.

The National Restaurant Association’s events were a reflection of the times. Among the key matters discussed at the 1920s conventions was the effect of Prohibition. Additionally, cooking demos weren’t added until 1925, when the main extracurricular activity was an apple pie baking competition. And the national convention of 1926 featured a boxing match as entertainment. 

The industry rode the American economic boom of 1920 through 1928. Toward the end of the good times, consumers were spending about 6% of their income on food prepared outside of their homes, and the restaurant business was second only to retailing in number of outlets.  


The Great Crash struck on Oct. 24, 1929. In a matter of days, the nation was wheezing from the Great Depression, and restaurants would share in the pain for the next decade. Hunting for ways to weather the unprecedented downturn, operators boosted membership in the National Restaurant Association by 23% in 1929, and attendance at the group’s 1930 national convention set a new record, as did the number of exhibitors.  

The Association sought to protect members by pulling together two cooperative advertising campaigns: “Enjoy Life—Eat Out More Often” and “Take Her Out to Dinner at Least Once a Week.” It also offered intensive instruction on menu planning in a bid to preserve sales and margins, and work began on a model sanitation law to keep restaurant food safe.

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