Fred Harvey the man immigrated to the United States from England in the 1850s and worked as a dishwasher and railroad agent, eventually coming to manage station lunchrooms and eating-houses. It was his peculiar genius to recognize that the catch-as-catch-can dining and lodging experience of train travelers (“[T]here was a reason the food was called ‘grub’ and the hotels ‘flea-bags,’” Fried writes) could instead become a model of comfort, efficiency, and quality with the right system—the Fred Harvey way.

Allying itself with the Santa Fe Railroad, the company managed hotels and restaurants—Harvey Houses—that offered both the finest of fine dining and more down-to-earth fare, with the best coffee anywhere for everyone.

“Fred Harvey was the first big customer-service business in this country, at a time when it was a totally manufacturing and railroad kind of world,” Fried says. “Any company that is grappling with these still-basic issues—they’re no different a hundred years later. Customer loyalty, quality control, employee loyalty, all these things that are required to make business work—the model, whether people know it or not, is Fred Harvey.”

In Fried’s telling, Harvey’s personality emerges as a compelling mixture of obsessive attention to detail and openness to innovation and continuous improvement, an attitude encapsulated in one of the many maxims he jotted down in the notebooks he carried on his travels: “Be cautious and bold.”

It was Fred’s son Ford, his successor as head of the company, who was responsible for creating Fred Harvey the brand when he made the fateful decision, after the older man’s death in 1901, of continuing to operate the company as if he remained at its helm. The firm name stayed the same—just plain Fred Harvey—and for many years thereafter routine correspondence continued to go out under the founder’s signature. (Fried tells a story about visiting a local museum, and having someone excitedly produce a letter “signed” by Harvey—in 1924; he himself purchased one of the rubber stamps used for signatures on eBay while working on the book.)

But if Ford was personally self-effacing, he was not at all shy about expanding the business, aggressively pursuing the venture at the Grand Canyon, which seemed risky at the time but would become the company’s biggest moneymaker as well as an enduring monument. That move led to Fred Harvey taking a leading role in promoting tourism to the West, and incidentally to helping preserve and grow respect for native culture.

“The fact that Frank Waters, who was an Indian historian, described the Fred Harvey system as ‘introducing America to Americans,’ which is a quote that you often see about Harvey, is really apt,” says Fried. “Obviously they were doing it for money. But they did have this messianic belief that, if you went and saw the Southwest and the Grand Canyon and the Indian pueblos, you would see America the way you were supposed to see it.”

Fried interprets this eager embrace of the West as a reaction to the strains of the Civil War. “Basically whatever people believed was wonderful about America was so compromised because of the Civil War that you needed a new way of organizing people’s love of America. And that’s why people became so fascinated with cowboys and Indians and with the West, because no one had fought over the West. And the Santa Fe and Fred Harvey did more [to promote that] than any other company.”

Ford Harvey also took the company beyond food service and into related retail businesses, including a chain of train-station bookstores. “If you go back and look at [Publishers Weekly] in the thirties, they’re all trying to figure out, ‘Well, how does Fred Harvey run these chain bookstores so well that they can sell the classics and the popular books of the day, and we have trouble with this?’” Fried says.

By the 1920s, Fred Harvey seemed poised to expand nationwide from its base in the Southwest, but the company fell on hard times as the century progressed. Personal tragedy played a role: Ford died suddenly in 1928 of the flu, and his son Freddie, a World War I hero and dashing aviator groomed to be the next Harvey to head the company, was killed in a horrific plane crash in 1936. The Great Depression, World War II (which turned the Harvey Houses into one big mess hall, eroding standards), and the decline of the railroads in the post-war era did the rest. By the time The Harvey Girls came out in 1946, the company was on its last legs, overtaken by fresher entrepreneurial spirits like Howard Johnson, Conrad Hilton, and others, though it would linger on until being sold in the 1960s. “[T]he mass marketing of American cuisine and Americana was left to other family businesses—and Fred Harvey’s America went on without Fred Harvey,” Fried writes.

 

Appetite for America is especially good at the nitty-gritty of growing and maintaining what even at its height was essentially a family business—an understanding Fried attributes in part to personal history. “I grew up in a family furniture business,” he says. “The fact that it turned out to be a family story was really great for me because that’s more what I do.”

As for the history part, the Fred Harvey story provided a unique prism through which to view the nation’s major events from the end of the Civil War to the dawning of the Atomic Age. “When you own the hotel and the restaurant, you see everything. You’re dealing with the bigwigs, and you’re also dealing with the person who wants to know why the bathroom stalls aren’t clean enough.

“And I figured, if I could document that, then you would have this thing where you were basically going back and forth between the waitress in Emporia, Kansas, and Teddy Roosevelt. So I looked for every little thing that I could find in clips, in archives, whatever, that would allow me to humanize the story. Because that’s real life.”

Though he’s pleased with the book and the response it’s getting, Fried isn’t actually sure about pursuing more history-themed books. “I’m at the phase right now, since people are liking this book, of thinking, ‘Okay, I’ll do that,’” he says. “But it is—everybody’s dead. And it is harder to write. It’s different to write a book when everybody’s dead. It’s lonely. And loneliness isn’t always that easy.”

A related issue with the “history-buffed” genre: Some may be on steroids, their narrative muscle bulked up with unwarranted speculation and fictional stagecraft. “I do look at some of these history-buffed books and then go back and look in the notes and ask, ‘Where did you get this? Did you just kind of fill in all the blanks, or did you have some of it?’” says Fried, who describes himself as “on the real nonfiction end of nonfiction.”

He suggests the question could be a good subject for one of the panels of alumni writers he regularly runs at Writers House over Homecoming Weekends. “To talk about the underpinnings of some of the set pieces in our books, to see how much reporting that we needed to take it the rest of the way,” he says. “Certainly, readers are happy that it’s very narrative. The question is, is it authoritative, also?”

More generally, Fried just seems to like the fact that he can tackle a range of subjects, even if a narrower focus might result in greater name recognition—the Stephen Fried brand. “If I only wrote about one thing, maybe more people would know exactly what it means to read a book of mine,” he speculates. On the other hand, “I always thought it was cool—and this comes from writing for magazines—the idea that somebody would go, ‘What is he learning about now? I like the way he writes. I like his take on things. I’ll go there with him.’ The nonfiction writers that I loved were the ones who did that.”

For now, Fried says, he’s working on two book proposals, one “for a book that is similar in format to this one, and one that isn’t. And we’ll see what happens.”

 

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FEATURE: The History Buffer By John Prendergast
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette

EXCERPT: From the book, Appetite for America, by Stephen Fried. Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Marc Fried. Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Harvey in the early 1880s. In 1876, he took over the second-floor lunchroom at the Topeka depot of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad—the first restaurant run entirely the Harvey Way.

 

 

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