The Fred Harvey Lessons

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Fred Harvey didn’t know anything about restaurants when he came to the US from Liverpool, England in the mid-nineteenth century. When he died in 1901, there were 47 Harvey House restaurants, 15 hotels, and 30 dining cars under the Harvey name. His Fred Harvey restaurant brand was the best-known brand in America.

After arriving in New York, Harvey got a job as a busboy and pot scrubber for $2 a week and learned the restaurant business from the bottom up. Later he worked in restaurants in New Orleans before heading up the river to St. Louis, where he started a clothing store and a jewelry business.

Restaurants must have been a passion though because soon he started a cafe. It didn’t end well when his partner took all the money and ran off to join the Confederate army. So, Harvey made a career change to the more stable railroad business.

He had to ride the train a lot as he rose up the ranks. In those days, the trains had to stop from time to time to take on coal and water. During the half-hour stop, passengers could eat from whatever “restaurant” was available. The food varied from awful to OK. There was no service.

Fred Harvey knew all about restaurants. He knew how terrible the “dining experience” was for train passengers. He put those two thoughts together to create an empire.

Fred Harvey Lesson Nr 1: The best business ideas are often simple combinations of ideas from different areas that solve a problem.

Harvey’s idea was to provide meals for passengers in clean restaurants on white tablecloths. That was a problem for his first partner, who wanted to lower standards and costs and thereby increase profits. The partnership dissolved. Harvey lost a partner but kept his standards and his unique restaurants.

The Fred Harvey restaurants were like nothing anyone had seen in the West before. Male diners were required to wear jackets. Trained chefs prepared the food. And the Harvey Girls served it. They were trained in food service. They wore clean, starched uniforms and lived in dormitories near their restaurant.

The Harvey Girls secured their legend when Judy Garland starred in the the1946 movie, “Harvey Girls.” Search a bit on the web and you’ll find how to make clothing like the Harvey Girl uniforms.

It’s hard today to imagine how revolutionary that was. This was the West of Billy the Kid and Bat Masterson. The restaurants and the Harvey Girls became a true civilizing influence.

Fred Harvey Lesson Nr 2: Standards and distinctiveness matter.

By the turn of the century, Harvey’s empire consisted of restaurants, classic hotels, and more but by the turn of the next century, most of it was gone. The trains had been replaced by airplanes and cars and depot restaurants closed one after another. No one remembered Harvey either. Business encyclopedias didn’t even list him.

Fred Harvey Lesson Nr 3: Business success requires adapting to the changing world. When you don’t, you disappear.

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