Sambo’s

Someone I worked with once said that the only tragedy of the civil rights movement of the sixties was in the demise of Sambo’s Restaurants.  A Sambo’s was like an IHOP, which then was more often called an International House of Pancakes.  They did a good breakfast business selling pancakes, then became a more traditional coffee shop for later meals in the day.

The chain, which at one point involved some 1,200 outlets, was named for its two founders, Sam Battistone and Newell “Bo” Bohnett…but the amalgam of their names also had another meaning and it changed over the years.  You all remember the children’s story of the little boy named Sambo who was chased by tigers and…well, I don’t remember it all that well.  Something about the tigers running themselves ragged and turning into melted butter.  I never quite understood the biology involved in that but Li’l Sambo took the liquified tiger home and put it on his pancakes.  So when people saw the name “Sambo,” they thought of pancakes, which is why it was a good name for a place that served them.  Or at least it was when the first Sambo’s was opened in 1957 in Santa Barbara.

But years later, a name like Sambo — and the accompanying caricature of Sambo, himself — came to denote an ugly racial image.  Sambo started out in an 1899 book by Helen Bannerman as a native of India.  She called him Little Black Sambo and in later revisions and publications of the story, he fluctuated between Indian and Negroid.  Aware that the black version of Little Black Sambo alienated many, the restaurant chain made him more inarguably Indian and when that didn’t change perceptions, they made him Caucasian and tried to change his name and the name of the entire chain to Sammy’s.  It didn’t take and by 1985, the once-flourishing chain was in bankruptcy. The original, located in Santa Barbara, is still open (though only for breakfast and lunch) and that’s about it.

Qualitatively, I recall Sambo’s as being about the same as an IHOP, which put them about a half-notch above a Denny’s.  I think many of them became Denny’s which for a restaurant is some kind of shameful demotion.  As if the chain hadn’t already been embarrassed enough by the controversy about its very name.

69 Responses to Sambo’s

  • James says:

    Some Restaurants did have a black (not Indian Boy). It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It is sad that so many ignorant People targeted Sambo’s as racist.

  • Bob says:

    Speaking of Sunset Blvd. & Doheny, when I was last in LA in 1987, I ate at an IHOP that I think was at or near the corner of Sunset Blvd. & Doheny.

    Does anyone remember that IHOP? Or, if I remembered the location wrong, then please tell me where the one in that area was located.

    Thanks,
    Bob

  • Nancy says:

    does anyone remember the ice cream shop in Beverly Hills in the sixties. The decor was done in pink and purple!

  • Marilyn says:

    In the early 60s our family went to Sambo’s near Disneyland in Anaheim. They had pretty good pancakes, and a fun kid’s menu, if I recall.

  • Robert E Hill says:

    Trying to locate Bob Williams, I was in the service with him. Last I heard he was in management with Sanbos. He was originally in Calf and at one time might have been in Texas. Would really appreciate any lead that could be supplied.

  • Kaci says:

    As I vaguely remember, I used to hang out at a Sambo’s on Western Blvd., in Hollywood… I think it was on Western. I was miffed at them when they gave into government tyranny – The government saying they were racist and couldn’t use their logo. That was so un-American. I was hoping they’d stand up against the government goons.

  • Bret Leduc says:

    Im 41 now and I remember going to the Sambos Kaci was talking about only once, when I was very young. It was a great time to be alive and Sambos is a fond memory. Also, I remember Sambo being black not indian.

  • John Hindsill says:

    I started going to Sambo’s restaurants around 1960 [see my post of July 2013]. None of the stores I ate at had a ‘black sambo’. The decor was always of a SE Asia/Indian looking boy. Bret may be thinking of illustrations in books, many of which had unfortunate (to our enlightened way of thinking) stereotypical images of the characters.

    PS-Google images offers an array of book images from early to fairly late publications. Some seem horrific, today; others rather benign.

  • Jerri brewer says:

    I used to go to the Sambo’s in reseda when I was young. We always enjoyed the food.

  • Bruce says:

    My Dad would take us all the time to the Sambo’s in Wichita, KS on Pawnee and Broadway. The food was good and the place was packed. People of all races ate there. It’s a shame they got run out of business.
    I should start a franchise and bring them back. Business would be great!

  • Laurel A Butler says:

    They had a deal in the 60’s…Buy one of their Thermos mugs and you could get if filled for a dime at any of their locations around the country. Still have the one my mother bought…………….

  • Mike says:

    It was a wonderful restaurant and an all-American success story. It’s demise had nothing to do with the civil rights movement. It was destroyed by a poorly conceived and executed attempt to quickly expand from 400 stores to 1,200 stores by the next generation of management who over-extended the company while reducing the quality of local restaurant management.

    I still miss them.

  • Craig Printup says:

    I am Native American, and I don’t get all pissy over the Wampums corn chip Indian or the sports mascots. Anyone that gets all worked up over the innocent Sambo’s characters (and yes, the first ones were a little black kid, I saw it myself) have way too much free time. Like I said in an earlier post, why is it not racist to see Bob’s Big Boy? Stereotypical fat, Caucasian with a stupid expression on his face? Nah, it’s a damn cartoon. Get over yourself and get all militant about something that really matters. Peace.

  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (NM) says:

    I may be naive (stand to be corrected), but I don’t think the story of tigers running around a tree trying to get each other and the clothes they ‘bullied’ off Little Black Sambo whereby they weirdly turned into butter to then be used on pancakes, effected my ‘understanding’/perceptions of Blacks in a town that had a house or two along the Underground Railway. Neither did I think chanting ‘1 little, 2 little, 3 little Indians’ to begin learning about math affected my perceptions of Indians…uh, I live in a State where I was first exposed to Indians walking right out there down the street vs in one, MA, where they were never mentioned except in rhyme. Geesh, I even had a Black doc during my four years at USC in a predominantly Black community! Eh! wasn’t I experiencing “diversity exposure’ in my youth as a half (dumb) Polack White kid in a Catholic school patrolled by Nuns with yard sticks?

  • Pete M. says:

    I was a cook at Sambo’s all over the USA. From Ft. Lauderdale, St. Petersburg Florida, Littleton and Aurora Colo, Eugene and Corvallis Oregon along with other places. Great friends, GREAT romance with many wonderful wonderful waitresses and assistant mgrs! I still love them and cherish the memories of so many wonderful friends there…

  • Jeff Brodbeck says:

    How tragic that the stupidity of political correctness killed off a well loved restaurant chain. Just ridiculous. Believe it or not one of my favorite stories as a kid in the ’60s was Little Black Sambo. At that time it had no offensive connotations and never occurred to me. If anything it was a good reference. I liked the part about the tigers running around in a circle. I don’t know why people let a few complainers intimidate them. Not as if everybody was going to boycott Sambos.

  • Ken Coate says:

    Restaurants work on pretty thin margins, so the people that thought the name was a bit offensive might have been enough to tip them upside down. Whether you agree or not with the particular issue, it’s important that business try to be as politically correct as possible to make their model work.

    Although I haven’t seen a big uprising of leg amputees complaining about IHOP….

  • Michele Dawn says:

    Would the pink and purple ice cream shop be Blums? Maybe located inside anI Magnin and it occasionally hosted kiddy birthday parties with a sugar plum tree and other goodies?

  • Matti says:

    Hi,
    I am trying to find one (1) photo of the exterior and/or interior of the Sambo’s Restaurant on Whittier Blvd., Whittier, CA. Any quality, b/w, color… anything at all that has an identifying anything… it’s for a project I am designing.

    If anyone has such, please contact me: matt.touchard@gmail.com
    thanks, Matti

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