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.

51 Responses to Sambo’s

  • Mark Thorson says:

    There was a Sambo’s near me when I was a kid. I only remember going there once when I was maybe 10 or 11 (probably 1968 or 1969), and there were scenes from Little Black Sambo decorating the interior. I remember thinking at the time this must be offensive to colored people (which I thought was the polite term for them). That the management couldn’t see what was obvious to a kid indicates what idiots those people were. Their bankruptcy was well-deserved.

  • David Knopf says:

    You forgot Blums, a big after movie hangout.

  • Don Hilliard says:

    Either you encountered some of the best Sambo’s, or my family encountered the worst. I remember eating at the local one (Five Cities area on the coast) with my mother and grandmother exactly once in the early ’70s. They had some kind of burger special going, so we all got burgers: mine was OK, Mom’s was less than OK, and Grandma had two bites of hers and took it home to feed to her cats…who wouldn’t go near it. (These were inside/outside cats, so it was a case of “Hmm, dead gopher or Sambo’s burger? I’ll take the gopher.”)

    Perhaps the biggest disappointment was that my sister had eaten at one on a trip once before, and came home with a huge amount of free kid-loot: Sambo and Tiger masks, a coloring book, and I think a couple of other items. I got nothing.

    I think we ate at a Sambo’s one more time en route to Disneyland a year or two later, and it wasn’t much better. And still I got nothing. (Bob’s Big Boy at least had comics.)

    There’s actually an old Sambo’s in the next major town north of me here in Oregon; they’ve changed the name, but there’s still the kid and the tiger in blue shorts on the front of the place. I’d try it, but I already know my cat won’t eat the burger if I don’t.

  • Sean says:

    I hope person who said, “their bankruptcy was well deserved” gets to experience similar financial difficulties. The owners, nor their employees ever expressed racism all the times I visited the restaurant. Too bad ignorant people like the aforementioned contributed to the restaurant’s demise.

  • Steve says:

    The only Sambo’s I ever ate at was the one in Indio, CA, on my family’s yearly trip to see Grandma in Phoenix. The building is still there, but last time I saw it, it was a Mexican restaurant of dubious health standards. The match book cover you show is the PC little Indian (with a jewel, not a feather) boy. Prior to that, he was a little black boy…no big lips or bone, don’t know why that was any more offensive than the Bob’s Big Boy statue was to fat ass white people, but whatever…

  • Aaron says:

    I can’t recall whether or not the food was good at Sambo’s, but I have fond memories of going there when I went to visit my grandmother (maybe when she was living in Coronado?).
    I remember the tiger masks and coloring books, but mostly I remember the “wooden nickels” that my grandma used to have around her place. They were given out by Sambo’s and you could redeem them for a free cup of coffee at any Sambo’s. Not sure how the promotion worked or why they were given out.
    I remember my sister and I using them for play money or pirate loot way back when. If you look on eBay you can see several examples of the wooden nickels up for auction.

  • Mark Monlux says:

    I got a job as a nightshift waiter at Sambo’s the summer it went bankrupt. It might have been malarkey, but here was the gossip I was given about its demise. Sambo’s was notorious for holding its paychecks twice as long as any other restaurant. They also would hold off on paying their vendors for as long as possible. By “they” I mean the chief-of-finance or whoever it was that wrote the checks. On Monday morning everybody showed up at headquarters except for this guy, and his secretary. He was nowhere to be found. Nor was the six million that was meant to be sent to workers and suppliers. Like I say, this might all be malarkey. And it could be that the manager at the Sambo’s I worked wasn’t fired and replaced by an accountant (constantly seen in a cold sweat) because he was sleeping with the wife of his boss. It might have all been false fodder to feed a soon-to-be-unemployed-in-the-middle-of-summer-after-all-the-jobs-have-been-taken teenager to mull over while he unsuccessfully hunted for a job for the rest of summer.

    I should have taken that job at Burger King. But, no, I wanted to work someplace classy where I had to wear brown slacks instead of a grease-smelling paper hat.

  • M Thompson says:

    SAMBO’S was a restaurant that was available to me and my family of five–me being the youngest as we traveled to Los Angeles. I enjoyed the pictures of the book as their decor. I recall being near Disneyland and consuming a meal in the late 1960s. A family-type restaurant. Good to read the timeline of this restaurant on “wiki” and that it is still functioning quietly.

  • Carolyn Kunin says:

    We used to eat at Sambo’s in Carmel back in the late fifties/early sixties. The food was excellent, the decor charming and I’d love to eat there again – ihop is no comparison, unfortunately.

  • David Purcell says:

    I worked as a cook at the Sambo’s in Redding, Ca in the early 70′s. The police station was next door and was a hangout for the officers. Always was busy with people stopping before continuing on their trip north or south. Still have my Sambo’s cooks bandanna.

  • CAROLYN says:

    We had one in Beaumont,texas and we went there after easter service or when we went on Vacation we ate there. I miss them

  • Stingray says:

    There was a Sambo’s restaurant on the corner of S. Harbor and Imperial Hwy. in La Habra, CA, across the street from Brooklake Apartments. This would be in the late 60′s/early 70′s. The Brooklake apartment complex is still there but the Sambo’s is long gone. It was decorated in the Little Black Sambo motif with pictures from the books decorating the walls. I ate there pretty regularly and remember the wooden nickles, masks, crayons, and other paraphernalia that was such a part of their marketing back then. The food was good with all the standard breakfast items but they were known for their pancakes and syrup.

  • Rex says:

    Sambo’s did not deserve the reputation it got. Just as the article said, it was a combination of the two owners names, and the mascot was merely from a story where a tiger turns into melted butter – a pancake-related story. If anyone should have been protesting, it should have been tigers!

    It is so ironic that Denny’s – a chain that was successfully sued as recently as 1994 because of it’s policies towards African-Americans – is well-visited by African-Americans today, yet Sambo’s is STILL associated with being racist by people of all colors when, in fact, it never was.

  • Ronin says:

    Sambo’s was in Illinois, too. That may have been why they folded. It’s difficult to manage restaurants spread out so far from each other, especially when there’s not a lot of them. The only one I know of was in Joliet, IL. Same with Hamburger Hamlet, although that chain had 5 – 6 in Illinois.

  • Liza says:

    I had fond memories of Sambo’s when i was young. Can’t recall the exact location, but it was in Los Angeles. I recall looking at the fun wall decor of Sambo with his beloved tiger. It was my entertainment, while waiting for my food. I didn’t take any offense to it and thought it was great to have a kid of Indian heritage on the walls (I am a “minority” as well). Their food was good and i still remember having applesauce as a side of my kid’s meal. It was heaven for me. Will have to visit the one in Santa Barbara just to walk down memory lane.

  • Terry says:

    I knew Bill Monaghan, who worked in the first Sambo’s ever built (not the first Sambo’s, but the first one built as a Sambo’s) and became a regional manager for many franchises. I worked as a diswasher and later a cook at Sambo’s, and our restaurant was always clean and customer-friendly to all. Sambo’s was generally a quality restaurant and there is nothing around today to take it’s place as a family-friendly chain.

  • Tom Mace says:

    I always enjoyed the restaurant – I was also in a civic organization and they donated their pancake batter for a breakfast money raiser – the best pancakes on the planet. Now with Paula Dean’s troubles we are learning what an intolerant society we are. Sambos was an early victim

  • Laurel says:

    One of my aunts – who lived in Northridge on the Granada Hills side – mourned the closing of Sambos. There was a location close by & we’d go there as kids now and then. (Sad to note the intolerant& ignorant comments by some who equate the quite innocently named Sambos with sinister motive.)

  • Kevin Marcus says:

    When I was in college in Santa Barbara (1999-2004) friends and I would eat at the Sambo’s there. Food was very good. They kind of treated it as a museum too.

  • John Hindsill says:

    Students had to ‘run for classes’ during my days at UCLA. No mail registration, and certainly no online computer registration in those primordial days. On the eve of registration we would caravan to Palm Springs for a post-midnight breakfast at Sambos, and back to campus in time for the run. For many years thereafter, when visiting Palm Springs, I would be sure to breakfast there.

  • James Cimarusti says:

    I always enjoyed eating at Sambo’s and the original location in Santa Barbara still has great food. I do miss the wooden nickles, coloring books, etc. they used to have, though. Now they have what look like matchbooks but are actually scratch paper pads for jotting down notes on the road or whatnot. I remember when they replaced lil’ Sambo with Sam, a chef in a big white hat. I was disappointed that the “racial” aspect had led to such a drastic mascot change. For those who want to relive some great Sambo’s memories, check out these sites: http://www.agilitynut.com/eateries/sambos.html, http://www.retrothing.com/2010/03/vintage-sambos-restaurant-photos.html, and http://sambosphotos.com/

  • lloyd says:

    It was when the NAACP filed lawsuit that Sambos went Bankrupt.I was working at the Highest Volume one in Naples, Florida when it happened.I remember that the NAACP made millions off that lawsuit.Some resturants were sold while others were closed, putting hundreds out of work.At the party the NAACP held to celebrate the pres of NAACP was asked by a reporter about the hundreds that lost their job, his reply was “Let them eat pancakes.”

  • Jennifer says:

    Wow. My father actually bought Sambo’s stock. We watched it go down in flames. I was pre adolescent, so I was unaware of the lawsuit and racial terrorism inflicted on the owners. Shame, shame. People seem to judge on such limited information, never having all the facts. And who are we to judge, anyway? Remember, even a Sambo’s matchbook looks different from different angles.

  • Ron Wallace says:

    I was the manager of the Sambo’s Restaurant at 6900 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, Florida from 2/68 to 5/70. At the time it was the largest restaurant in the chain with 315 seating capacity and 55 employees. I was just 21 years old when I was offered the position. The location had been open just two years. We were so busy with standing lines nearly every day during the winter season. At Christmas and Spring break it was not uncommon to have a standing line 24 hours a day. Sambo’s was well received at this initial East Coast location. It was a wonderful opportunity that provided many life lessons for me and the commitment to work hard at a chosen endeavor.

  • Bill James says:

    Old Los Angeles area eateries.
    Hody’s Restaurant (La Brea and Rodeo Road)
    The Encounter Restaurant (at LAX)
    Stan’s Drive-In Coffee Shop (Hollywood)
    The Islander (on La Cienega)

  • george nolan says:

    i worked at webster,s restaurant on la brea in 1947. remember when Dick Webster purchased two lots on La Cienga for $15,000.00 each to build a new place. his brother george thought he was crazy to buy the lots on that far out la Cienega. George and Winnie owned the place on La Brea. They were bgreagt people,

  • David G. Fitzgerald says:

    I remember Sambo’s Restaurant well as it played a significant role in my life from 1974-1981. I fondly recall the manager of the 34th Street North Sambo’s in St. Petersburg, Fl. John T. Jenkins was the manager. I would love to know where and what has happened to him since those days long ago.

    I worked in St. Petersburg, Greenville, SC, and managed a store in Richmond, Virginia on Hull Street for a brief period of time. I was there when the store was abruptly closed, boarded up, and emptied…all in less than 24 hours without notice. My days with the company were finished.

    Today, I am a college professor in St. Petersburg. Several weeks ago, the former Sambo’s on 34th Street was demolished to make room for a new business. I was shocked to see the former business/building gone. Now, there are only memories. Good people, food, and loyal customers made Sambo’s the chain it once was. I have moved on, but regard those memories of the past in high regard. I am certain many former customers and employees drive by the former location only to have the past brought back to life.

  • Deb Stevens says:

    I worked at Sambo’s when I was attending university in Brookings South Dakota. Still have a mug, wind cheater and waitress tiger pin!
    I also have a copy of the story and love reading it to my grandchildren, a story of wit and courage which ended with a celebration feast of pancakes and tiger butter, yum!
    So sad that so many people got hurt when the political correct police decided that it was a racist story. I wish they could have been more open minded and looked at the story not the colour of the story!
    I must say that white people could take offence at a bar being called a ‘honky tonk’!

  • Daria says:

    Sad to still see so much ignorance and typical cries of reverse racism when it comes to the topic of the Sambo’s restaurant chain. I do remember eating at one in East L.A. or Alhambra, somewhere around 1969 or 1970. It had the purple and gold decore with a ‘black’ (Indian, likely Dravidian) Sambo and cuddly tiger. The food and service were OK, and as Black children unfamiliar with the tale, the decore didn’t bother us but certainly didn’t thrill our mother. (Having come from a segregated South, she was hardly one to speak up about such things). What I always see negated by those compelled to defend the origins of the Sambo’s chain is that the original American editions of “Little Black Sambo” were indeed racist, featuring demeaning images of a black-skinned pickaninny with big white lips and overized, tatty clothing. He is NOT depicted as being cute, clever or smart in outrunning the tigers, unlike the foreign editions of the story. This is why ‘Sambo’ took on such a negative connotation in the US and why the NAACP and others sought to remove that derogatory name from our streets. The next time you feel the need to be offended by such matters, do your homework. Institutionalized racism is a problem that, like all such issues, eventually comes home to roost and sometimes inconveniences those who condone it.

  • Scott J. says:

    The last time I ate at a Sambo’s was in Mexico City when I was 10 or 12. The ones in the USA had already been converted into Denny’s or some other independent name. That’s when my mother explained to me about the racism associated with the name.

  • Ed Lehane says:

    I was working the “grave yard” shift at the Sambo’s in Warner Robins Ga. the night of the close down. The manager came in at 4:30am, an hour earlier than normal, he was not happy. ” finish those orders, shut off the grills, and break down the cook station” and then went to his office. Funny thing is, this Sambo’s was 50/50, Black and White workers. We ate pancakes.

  • Rick B.. says:

    I worked the closing night of the Leavenworth Kansas, Sambos.. I was a teenager and waited table on the graveyard shift. I really missed them for years to come.. they were a friendly working environment and were always clean and busy..

  • Jim M says:

    I was recently in a Denny’s and ask the older lady in there if she remember Sambos as I thought some of them became Denny’. She did not know. I use to go to Sambos in Kalamazoo, mich back when I drove tractor-trailer. If I had to layover for the night a bunch of us from the Moose club would go there when the bar closed. Always had a great meal,of course everything taste good at that time of night.

  • Johnny b. says:

    Remembering back to the 60′s when my dad was a sheet metal draftsman, he designed kitchens for Sambos, Denny’s ,Bowling alleys and the Restaurant at the top of The Palm Springs Tram, anyways it’s just so sad that our society has become so “Politically Correct” that they will look at everything under a microscope to ethnically find something offensive, what happened to the days of innocence are long gone. Today we are determined to find something wrong with a symbol or trademark, or Evan an ethnic group, even a little dog, what happened to the sense of “that’s cute did you see that commercial about cookies or whatever, but no someone who doesn’t have a life is going to protest and stand up for the cookies, saying that’s offensive, we need to get back when this country and state was great, people today need to learn to relax and love one another, we focus on the hatred more ,it’s just so sad ,I’m just saying. Any ways got off a little, but my experience with Sambos and the other Retaurants were behind the scenes, I had the privilege of going to the restaurant before they were open to the public. My dad would have to measure and figure the design and layout before his pencil and t square touched the paper.

  • David Stephens says:

    I worked as a cook at two Sacramento Sambo’s from March 1981 – Sept 1985. I was Graveyard then swing shift cook at the Arden Way store, and swing shift cook at the Fair Oaks Blvd store. I was cook on shift when the Arden Way store closed, took my 2 days off, and started at Fair Oaks, remaining there until I was cook on shift when it closed.

    I have two of the dining room 3′ X 2′ story pictures, and the Sambo’s sign from the front wall at the Arden Way store. I met my wife there too. She was on her way to visit her Mom and looked sad for some reason. She ordered pancakes. I made the top one a smiley faced one. We have been married 30 years now. Never get cute with pancakes – LOL.

  • Nicole says:

    Oh, Sambo’s. There was one in Torrance (though it may have been Lomita? Right on the border?) on Sepulveda Blvd. not far from Zody’s. (Talk about of the era…) Whenever we drove out that way to shop on weekends I would always request Sambo’s over Denny’s. I knew which pancakes were superior, even as a kid. :)

  • Jimbo Holub says:

    Have two of the Googie signs that I plan to restore and mount to the living room wall and in my Sambo’s Museum in AZ. Have a hug collection of most everything that Sambo’s had their name on, which also includes Jolly Tiger, Family Sam, No place like Sam’s and Seasons. You may wish to also visit http://www.SambosOnline.com I travel the country and photograph all the stores that still exist. Two thumbs up to this webmaster for helping keep the memory alive. Sambo’s should have never gone down!

  • Ron says:

    Wow I love this place. A repo person. So sorry people had to ruin it.

  • Karen says:

    Daria, if I was you, I would be long gone by now, but I wanted to say that your post rocked. We had a Sambo’ s in Santa Monica in the 70′s and I knew then that it was racist. It is unfortunate for their employees that their name and logo change didn’t work and that people lost their jobs. I think Sambo’s was named before people had any cultural sensitivity. I doubt that they meant harm. They were ignorant and just didn’t think about how it would make some people feel. If it’s offensive to any group, it is racist.

  • MARTIN E. says:

    I was with Sambo’s Restaurants from 1967-1980. My restaurant was at the corner of Imperial and Paramount Blvds in Downey, Ca. (1967-1970) I was the district manager in the Santa Barbara area (1970-1973) and the territory manager in Illinois/Wisconsin (1974-1975) and Central and North Florida.(1976-1980). Sambo’s was the best coffee shop chain in the nation (over 1200 stores). We kicked Denny’s and IHOP A– when it came to food quality, service and price ($.10 for unlimited coffee). The original Sambo’s on the beach in Santa Barbara, Ca. is still in business since 1957. Chad Battistone (the grandson of the founder Sam Battistone Sr.) is the owner and manager. Stop by if you are passing through Santa Barbara and he will tell you the TRUE story of what really happened to the Sambo’s Restaurant chain. (It was not the name).

  • Don says:

    The very first post by Mr. Thorsen is utterly and blatantly false! Sambos was named based on a combination of the two founders: Sam and Bo. There was NEVER EVER a “little Black Sambo” motif, it was ALWAYS the little Indian boy and the Tiger. My father was a manager at a Sambos in Clearwater Florida in the mid 70′s and our entire family worked there. The food quality was always good and the staff took pride in doing a good job! I have many fond memories of working there and in my opinion, they blew away Ihop and Denny’s. Anybody who equates the chain to racism is a moron. You don’t know, you weren’t there. Interesting that this guy believes he has memories from the age of 10 or 11 that are completely false. That goes to show you the power of suggestion in the media.

  • Robert Forman says:

    I was purchasing some pancake mix yesterday and the thought occurred to me that “Aunt Jemima” is considered just as pejorative as “Sambo” yet it is still a top selling pancake brand. I noticed that one of the commentators here indicated that there is a “TRUE” story as to the chain’s demise. I don’t know if its the reason Martine E. refers to, but there is an interesting version of the events leading to Sambo’s demise in the “talk” section of Wikipedia.

  • sandy says:

    I have an orginal Sambos wood sign with the tiger and the Little Indian boy made out of rock in vintage condition. I know they destroyed most of these when they closed up the restaurants. My husband worked there and brought a couple signs home. Im looking for someone who is interested in purchasing them for maybe a restaurant memorabilia collection? Anyone know of anyone?

  • aron pieman kay says:

    we used to eat at the one which was located on pico blvd just south of the santa monica civic auditorium

  • Dave says:

    I am interested in your sign Sandy.

  • Marc says:

    I find it interesting that some of the comments refer to some type of racism concerning this restaurant…Seems no one realizes that Tigers are not from Africa…Hard to depict a little boy and his tiger as being a depiction of an african…But this is the same PC era that saw the demise of the Frito Bandito…..As a Christian I belive a boycott of Ceasars Palace is in order as they killed my early brothers and sisters..and yes this is sarcasm..Ate there often as a kid…Great place for a large family…Still planning a trip to the last one in Santa Barbara…

  • Brian M. says:

    Used to go to Sambo’s in New Port Richey, Florida. Loved the chili! I miss that restaurant a lot; yet across the street practically is an old run-down Denny’s that still exists! THEY should be the ones out of business, not Sambo’s!

  • John "Dennis" Mancino says:

    I remember eating at Sambo’s Restaurants and they were awesome for breakfast. It is outrageous that they were shut down the way they were. The epitome of political correctness out of control.

  • Brad C. says:

    Back in the 1990′s, I bought a Sambos t-shirt at the one restaurant left in Santa Barbara. During that time I was doing work for Disney Animation. I was wearing that t-shirt when I met Roy Disney at the studio. He told me that when he was young, the family would go there for breakfast. It was nice to be able to reminisce with Mr. Disney and have that memory in common.

  • James says:

    I ate at Sambo’s with my Family in the early 70s in Washington state. He was a black boy. It didn’t offend me or my family and no one gave a second thought to the theme. There were MAYBE 2 african americans in my School, till 1986. More friendly than Denny’s and MUCH better food. Denny’s deserved to go bankrupt, rather than Sambo’s, for thier Service.

  • 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.

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