Wednesday, August 24, 2022

What’ll Ya Have, Sailor? Running a Café During WWII

By Terrie Todd

During the summer of 1974, having just completed eighth grade, I was hired as a waitress at our small-town café. I’d go in for the lunch rush and when that ended, wash piles of dishes, sweep and mop the floor, and wipe down shelves. In addition to serving meals, we sold candy, snacks, and cigarettes over the counter. I learned to make basic sandwiches and hamburgers, milkshakes, and ice-cream cones.

If the jukebox was not in use, I was allowed to plug it with dimes from the cash register. On the nights when the proprietor, a widow, wanted to go play Bingo, she’d leave me to put away the cash and lock up. When I think about that now, it boggles my mind that a fourteen-year-old should have that much responsibility. I certainly appreciate the experience and the self-confidence I gained through her trust. Still, I learned just enough about the restaurant business to know it wasn’t a life goal for me.

Thirty years earlier, people much like my boss had to figure out how to run diners and restaurants during a world war. In Europe, that could literally mean having your premises bombed. Many restaurants closed for the duration of the war or for good.

The home-front restaurateurs were not without their unique challenges, either. During the Great Depression years, many people had barely been able to eat at home, let alone eat out. Like almost every other business, restaurants suffered. When the economy finally recovered, the demand for restaurant meals escalated as jobs were created. When the war broke out, servicemen crisscrossing the country needed to be fed.

But with so many gone overseas, a labor shortage put a squeeze on restaurants. Millions of married women entered the labor force. As the government ordered price freezes and food rationing, restaurant owners struggled again. Add to that gasoline rationing, and many roadside cafes and hamburger stands closed. 

During December of 1942, the U.S. Government mandated restaurant operators to document how many meals they served. It then used that number to determine how much the restaurant could charge as their ceiling price for the following year.

Though restaurants received a higher allotment of ration coupons than private citizens did, butter, sugar, and meat were scarce. The choicest cuts of meat were being sent overseas to feed soldiers. As a result, tripe, kidney, liver, and tongue provided protein back home—not typical dishes one wants to order in a restaurant. “Meatless Tuesdays” became a necessity at home and at eating establishments. Menus frequently featured vegetable plates, salad bowls, fish, omelets, or spaghetti rather than meat dishes. Because of sugar rationing, restaurants often left cakes unfrosted. In 1943, food imports ceased. Chinese restaurants could no longer get bamboo shoots and began to substitute them with California or Florida-grown snow peas.

An  English war-time menu. Note the rationing notes at the bottom.

As dairy became restricted, restaurants served margarine instead of butter. Milk could only be used for cooking, not served by the glass. No substitutions. No second cups or top-ups on coffee. Self-serve sugar dispensers disappeared from tables, and your waitress would bring you a pre-measured single teaspoon of sugar in a tiny dish if required. Restaurants also remained open shorter hours due to staffing shortages and blackout periods after dark.

Those who survived did so with grit, determination, and resourcefulness.

In 1942, telegrams bring life-altering news in a war-hardened world—and the one Maggie receives is no different. But running a restaurant with the help of only pregnant teenagers has made her tough. Exiled by her wealthy parents and working in the restaurant, fanciful Charlotte runs away with romantic notions of a reunion with her baby’s father. When Maggie recruits the help of her old friend, Reuben, they embark on a cross-country search. Maggie stubbornly clings to her independent ways until dealt another devastating loss that forces her to recognize that war heroes can be discovered in unlikely places.

A young war widow faces the challenges of restaurant operation during WWII in Terrie Todd’s novel, Maggie’s War. Terrie’s also the author of the award-winning The Silver Suitcase, Bleak Landing, Rose Among Thornes, and The Last Piece.  She lives with her husband, Jon, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada where they raised their three children and where most of her novels are set. They are grandparents to five boys. Her next novel, Lilly's Promise, releases later this year.

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  1. Thanks for posting today and for regularly contributing to the blog! This post was very informative, and we may need to learn these cost-cutting, food-stretching measures for ourselves. Your book sounds like a good one!

    1. Thanks, Connie. You're right. My own food-stretching measures have increased lately!

  2. Terri, Thank you for sharing this fascinating post!