I want to start by saying that there is no way I could ever possibly do a good enough job covering the racial significance of this chain of restaurant to warrant a full post. That is definitely best left to sites such as the Jim Crow Museum, the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor Project, and everyone else far more qualified than me.
However, I will touch on a bit of the history of these locations and share some advertising and other pieces of history that might not be shared elsewhere.
According to blackpast.org:
Maxon Lester Graham and his wife Adelaide founded the Coon Chicken Inn in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1925. The early success of this location prompted the opening of two additional chains in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington in the early 1930s. The patrons and employees of the Coon Chicken Inn chains were predominantly white, though African-Americans were hired to work in the kitchen of the Salt Lake City branch.
The first Coon Chicken Inn:
The second location in Seattle location opened in 1929 at 8500 Bothell Way.
The Portland restaurant was the third and final location and it opened in 1931 and closed in 1949.
Patrons would enter the restaurant through the mouth of the caricatures
The huge, 12-foot black face was added to attract more children and families to the restaurant, the history states.
Here’s a little history from the Coon Chicken Inn website:
All three sites were booming and a cabaret and orchestra were added in Seattle and Salt Lake with a larger dining room and the addition of delivery trucks for outside catering.
Maxon decided that if a gimmick were added for the children, it would help bring in the parents. He added the famous head logo to the entrances of the Inns it was a huge winking, grinning face of a black man wearing a porters cap. The words “Coon Chicken Inn” were spelled out on teeth framed by monstrous red lips. The doorway was through the middle of the mouth. At the time it proved quite popular. The logo of the Inn was on every dish, silverware item, menu and paper product.
There was a variety of food served but the specialty of the house was, of course, fried chicken. Flickr user Krystal South has uploaded the menu. The cover, the left inside, the right inside and the back cover.
The caricature was controversial from the beginning. At the 1930 Seattle location, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in conjunction with The Northwest Enterprise, an African-American newspaper protested the opening of the restaurant. A lawsuit was filed claiming defamation of race. The restaurant agreed to remove the “Coon” name from all delivery cars and to pain the entrance face blue instead of black.
But according to the site, he eventually violated his agreement with the NAACP. The restaurants in Oregon and Washington closed in 1949, but Salt Lake City’s remained open until 1957.
In the late 1950s the Grahams got out of the restaurant business, keeping the properties and leasing them out to other restaurant operators.
The final Coon Chicken in Salt Lake City closed in 1957.
The Salt Lake City and Seattle sites have been razed. Only the Portland site remains
The Portland site became the Prime Rib years ago and it is still going.
You can see the shell of its former occupants.
Only that building and the lasting memories of the past are left of a business that thrived for more than two decades.