Monday, February 12, 2007

Foreshadowing the end of Dubrow's

I found an article by Murray Schumach in the New York Times that talks about the decline in New York's cafeterias. It was written in 1969 - which is interesting to note because it means problems started for the cafeteria business quite early on. It also means Dubrow's survived the decline for a decade and a half, much longer than others in the city. Schumach writes:

"Affluence has already cannibalized more than two-thirds of those mirrored citadels that became symbols of the city and transferred the tempo of the subway to the stomach." (New York Times, August 18, 1969)

He goes on to quote customers and the owners of the Governor Cafeteria and the Belmore Cafeteria before talking about Dubrow's:

"And at Dubrow's, an equally successful cafeteria at Seventh Ave and 38th Street, the owner, Irwin Dubrow, grandson of the founder of the business, says: "A cafeterial can't pass along increased prices and wages the way other eating places do. A couple years ago we raised our price of coffee from 10 cents to 15. We were only doing what everybody else was doing. But we lost 1,500 customers a day and we still haven't gotten them all back."" (Ibid.)

He goes on to reference two Hector's Cafeterias, Garfield's, Dixon's, the King's Highway Dubrow's, the 167th Street Cafeteria, and the Concord as other currently surviving but struggling cafeterias. He doesn't reference the Eastern Parkway Dubrow's - I don't know if this means it had closed by now, or what.

He also interviews a customer in the Manhattan Dubrow's later in the article, and mentions Leo Martin, who came up earlier on this blog because his obituary mentioned working at Dubrow's:

"One recent afternoon, in the Manhattan Dubrow's, Charles Abbott, a salesman, was asked as he sat squeezed at a table among two strangers, why he liked cafeterias. He replied, "You get out quick. The price is right. And with such an output, you never get a stale sandwich."

Leo Martin, an executive at the cafeteria, says that a study showed that during the lunch hour the average customer was out in 19 minutes. At The Governor, the calculations show that...each of the 426 seats is turned over seven times between noon and 2 PM.
" (Ibid)

What's interesting about this is that it contradicts some of what readers have shared about liking so much about Dubrow's - the ability to "plunk down a quarter for a cup of coffee and sit all day" as my great-aunt Marian said.


Joe Mama said...

I have to agree with the premise of the article and unfortunately contradict your Aunt Marian.

I left Brooklyn in 1968 and by the early '70s, I think the cafeteria era was in severe decline in NY because of fast food places like McDonalds, where the alta cockers could go and sit for hours. I don't mean the alta cocker comment in pejorative way, especially since I'm rapidly gaining entry to that category. But I think that cafeterias catered to the working stiff who didn't have the money for a fancy restaurant.

When the middle class started moving out of Brooklyn, Dubrow's was just left with people on a fixed income and they couldn't afford to run the place catering to customers who would sit for hours with a cup of coffee. Not with a large staff that prepared a large variety of food in comfortable surroundings. As a matter of fact, there was a walk-in Mcdonald's storefront on Kings Highway less than a block from Dubrow's. I don't know how long they coexisted, or if they were operating during the same time at all, but I think places like McDonalds on Kings Highway helped lead to the demise of Dubrow's. The fast fast food restaurants discouraged customers from lingering too long with their 25 cent coffee by installing hard plastic seats, small cramped tables and garish florescent lighting. Dubrow's probably had to settle for a less courteous method to encourage turnover. Also, I'm not certain, but I vaguely recall a Burger King on Kings Highway in the area. (It that instance, it was the perfect name for the fast food jernt.)

After moving to Texas in the early '80s, I was amazed to see cafeterias flourishing. Although their numbers have dwindled, they still do well in Texas, with chains like Lubys, Furrs and Wyatts, plus privately owned cafeterias in the smaller cities. McDonald's could get by with a staff of 5 or 6 people, plus the plastic seats that discouraged hanging around. I think that's the very reason that cafeterias still do well in Texas. If workers here make $8 an hour, it's considered big money so, other than eating at home, a cafeteria provides a place to have a decent meal at a reasonable price. Much like it did in NY in the '40s through the '60s.

Eve said...

Of course, this may be an example of there being many kinds of truth...the truth as reported by the New York Times, that Dubrow's served quickly and therefore customers that needed that, as well as the truth as reported by other customers who recalled sitting at Dubrow's and schmoozing all day, of which my aunt Marian was perhaps one.

Both are equally valid.

Thanks, as always, for your thoughts and recollections.