Jump to Navigation

Harvey House Restaurants

Fred Harvey Meals 1909 pamphlet. Read more.

In the early 1870s traveling by train was common method of transportation. Many Americans bundled onto the trains, heading out west. Along the way they would often become hungry. At that time if you wished to eat you had to wait for the train to stop then had exactly one hour to find a restaurant, order your food, and eat. Many passengers failed to make the time limit and were left stranded at the train station. Even those who succeeded found the fare available at the train stops less than appetizing. Fred Harvey, a young entrepreneur working for the railroad, noticed this lack in decent food and wanted to offer good food to travelers. He pitched the idea to Burlington Railroad Company originally, but was turned down. Next he presented the idea to Santa Fe Railway president Charles F. Morse who loved it. In 1876 Harvey opened a dining room in the Santa Fe Topeka train depot.

Soon Harvey House restaurants spread up and down the line, providing fine dining to railway costumers. By the early 1880s Harvey was operating 17 restaurants along Santa Fe's main line and by 1891 he had 15 Harvey House restaurants in operation. Harvey believed in giving perfect service, complete with linen and silverware, excellent food, and reasonable prices. In 1877 Harvey decided to open his first hotel and purchased a hotel in Peabody, adding fine accommodations. In 1881, noticing that the all male staff was often given trouble while trying to serve Harvey decided to replace them with the "Harvey girls." These were young women of good character and morals who would contract for a year’s service. They became known for their good looks, fine manners, and efficiency.

Harvey House establishments provided a clean, safe place to relax and enjoy a good meal in a polished and sophisticated surrounding. Where beans and biscuits had been the norm, diners could dine on thick, juicy steaks and hot, crispy hash browns. Meals were served on tables outfitted with imported linens, silver table service, and fine china, many personalized with the Fred Harvey name. To add to the sense of gentility, Harvey mandated that all men in the dining room must wear coats. To make sure that no one would be turned away, a supply of dark alpaca coats was always kept on hand.

Harvey girls wore the iconic black shirtwaist dress and perfectly starched white apron and cap. Thanks to the 1946 MGM musical The Harvey Girls (featuring Judy Garland), these young women were immortalized as a part of American railroad history.

When Harvey died in 1901, his empire included 45 restaurants and 20 dining cars in 12 states. Harvey’s sons and grandsons continued to run the restaurant business. The largest challenge they faced was the decline in railroad traffic and the mass production of automobiles and airplanes. Since the Harvey House restaurants were located on the rail lines, their business slowed. However the Fred Harvey Company expanded to meet this new demand, offering restaurants along many scenic highways, so as to catch the automobile traffic.

In 1968 the Hawaii-based Amfac (now called Xanterra) Corporation bought the Fred Harvey Company. The Amfac hotels and resorts throughout the world proudly adopted the Harvey quality standard.

Entry: Harvey House Restaurants

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2011

Date Modified: March 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.