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Fred Harvey And America's First Restaurant Chain

Anyone with an interest in the history of franchising, and for history in general, will take great interest in a new book that charts out the spread of one of the most popular restaurant chains in the American frontier.


Appetite for America by Stephen Fried traces the history of Harvey’s restaurants, which was at its time, the biggest name in American eating. The restaurant chain was founded by Fred Harvey, a brilliant entrepreneur who sensed the westward development of America and realized that all of these hungry travelers chasing their fortune in the American West would get quite hungry along the way. Harvey’s genius was to open restaurants near all of the popular train stops around the turn of the twentieth century.


As the Wall Street Journal writes in a recent review: “It was this ambition—to serve not just fast food but the best possible fast food—that would mark his true contribution to American business. Before there were four-star hotels or restaurants, he set out to create a brand that delivered the goods quickly without cutting corners on quality.”


It’s hard to appreciate now, but Harvey faced incredible challenges getting his fresh food to out-of-the-way restaurants. But he managed to build a small empire, and a Harvey chain of hotels and bookstores were soon to follow. I think of Harvey as a proto-franchisor. He saw the value of a national brand way back in the era of the telegraph. He built a centralized business up from scratch and he has a lot to teach today’s entrepreneurs. As the car grew in popularity, America fell out of love with rail travel and the sun set on the Harvey empire. Regardless, he was a giant in business that laid the ground work for today’s big international franchises.


You can read an excerpt from the book here.

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