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David Lissner
for restaurants

Chicago slides cafeterias into America


Hyde Park’s Valois, founded in 1921, continued the concept of the cafeteria that originated at the 1893 World’s Fair.

This summer marks the 120th anniversary of the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 introduced quite a few new foods, both directly and indirectly. The six-month-long fair put the blue ribbon on Pabst Beer, brought Chicagoans tamales and Vienna Beef hot dogs and led to the invention of the brownie. The fair also brought the DeJonghes, who would later create their garlicky namesake shrimp dish, to the city. The lady managers of the fair produced a cookbook, as well.

The fair shaped American breakfasts with the first pancake mix and the first cold breakfast cereal and launched such iconic products as Juicy Fruit gum and what would eventually be Cracker Jack.

The first cafeteria opened at the fair as well.

Next time you grab a quick meal at Valois, Manny’s or your company cafeteria, say thanks to John Kruger.

Little is known about this entrepreneur except that he created the first buffet-style restaurant at the expo, inspired by the smorgasbords he’d seen in Sweden. He dubbed the self-service concept a “cafeteria” from the Spanish word for “coffee shop.” Later, Kruger continued the concept with a small chain.

It didn’t take long for the concept to take off. Cafeterias were sanitary — they had to be because the cooks were right out in the open — fast, low-priced and offered a wide range of choices. By the mid-20th century there were cafeterias throughout America.

Today, cafeterias are waning except in institutional settings, but they remain true to the original concept: clean, fast, inexpensive and expansive.