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.