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.

111 Responses to Sambo’s

  • John Hindsill says:

    Spent a few days in Santa Barbara celebrating my birthday. Whilst walking along the beachfront we passed the one, the original the only, since 1957 Sambo’s. Naturally, and for nostalgia’s sake we had lunch there. The place was packed with folks of every age. The ‘cakes’ were as good as I remember, and better than Denny’s or IHOP. Took a couple of pictures of the decor with my mobile, but not sure I can get them to the site. Pictures abound on the walls showing the history of the location, including civic awards the owners earned over the years. Members of the family still own and operate Sambo’s according to the table cards. I won’t tell how old I am, but I graduated from high school the same year that Sambo’s opened.

  • JJ says:

    What was the North Hollywood Sambos address? What’s there now?
    Thanks

  • Adam says:

    12520 Sherman Way. There is a Starbucks there now, surprising as that is.

    Found here: http://www.sambosonline.com/sambos_california.htm

  • THOMAS ARCALA says:

    I REMEMBER GOING TO SAMBOS IN THE 70S. I LIKED IT. I BELIEVE KIDS UNDER A CERTAIN AGE ATE FREE. PROBABLY WHY MY PARENTS TOOK US THERE.

  • Mark says:

    Sometime around 1973 they built a new Sambo’s at the Las Virgines exit off the Ventura Freeway. We lived off the next exit in Saratoga Hills and that became our hangout. Open 24 hours and I recall a bottomless cup of coffee for a dime or a quarter. We could sit there all night talking about girls and the beach, drinking coffee until dawn when we’d head to our teenage summer jobs.

  • Ken Allen says:

    In the late 70’s and early 80’s i was a opening trainer for Sambo’s.. It was a great job and when the law suits started we had several bomb threats in a few of the stores..

  • gloria says:

    found the resturant

  • Randy says:

    I used to go to a sambo’s in Fulton I think may have been in Santa Ana it was as in 1974 n 75 I dated a waitress name Marcia now question is Ken do you remember a woman by that name in any of the sambo’s in southern California I was stationed at the Marine base do you or anyone know anything about her

  • Chris says:

    I rember the one in Santa Monica,,on ocean ave,,we used to go surfing at bay st ,,in the winter and after go get the 10cents bottomless cup and sit there and drink 5 cup,,I was only about 9 years old,,that was good fun,,ill tell tell you a funny storie,,about 5 years ago,,I went to go into that building,,it’s now a high end restaurant ,club,,,,and I was dressed pretty nicely,,and the door man made sum fk excuse,,why I couldn’t go in,,so instead of starting a big old argument or fight,,I just left,,later my friend called me and said we’re was I,,he was in there waiting to meet me,,I just said can you belive they wouldn’t even let me a true local,,in sambos ..my friend just could not stop laughing,,he could not belive I rember that,,and cane out with that,,that was a cool old place,,I wish it was still there,,instead of some prissy place,,some true local cant even go in and injoy..

  • Chuck Parmenter says:

    I drove truck for Sambo’s Restaurants in 1980-81. It was a good job, working for good people, making friends all across the country. I saw almost all of the United States, which would never have happened without Sambo’s.
    The people who had an ax to grind with “Sambo’s” did nothing but destroy a restaurant chain, put thousands of people out of work, and accomplish absolutely nothing in the name of civil rights.
    The first meal my new wife and I had together was at the Sambo’s in Santa Barbara. Good then, still good 1year ago when we ate there again, 46 years later.

  • Phil says:

    Sam & Bo’s = Sambos. Why didn’t they put in the & in the name with caricature of the original owners. I remember the location coming from Orange County on the 91 freeway into Corona California when my dad moved us there in 1976. We ate great food there. Then it changed name to Sammy’s and I believe Denny’s later and was never the same. What I remember most was stopping there for a cup of coffee and a great breakfast.

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