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.

89 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:
  • Tara Townsend says:

    Goodness, life seems very difficult in America.

  • Bill Long says:

    The original Sambo’s in Santa Barbara is still very much in business. Unfortunately, it is only open for breakfast and lunch. It closes at 3 PM. When I went to Santa Barbara for a job interview I had dinner there and that was wonderful. Can’t do that again. Not now anyway.

  • Syndy J says:

    Just drove by a Sambo’s in Lincoln City, OR doing a brisk business at 6:00 PM. It prompted discussion and internet search, and I found this site. Next time we are in Lincoln City we will eat there. It was awesome seeing the tiger in blue pants, tail holding the little umbrella. Great to see one still open!

  • Phil Ankofski says:

    Here is an important update on the Lincoln City Lil’ Sambos ;

    Their current web site features a short narrative about the history
    of this particular restaurant. The article is emphatic that this restaurant was NOT a part of the national chain at any time.
    Their name has always included Lil’ which the others did not.
    Also, I was personally in this location in 2001 and it was obvious that the dining room was only 1/3 rd the size of a national ” Sambo’s ” store.

    Just a few miles north out of town is the very unique Otis Café in Otis.
    You will be served a breakfast that you will never forget.
    The dining experience there will set a new benchmark for you.

    Phil Ankofski

  • Tim says:

    I was a cook at sambo’s in Stuart
    Fl in the late 70’s and and it was
    One of my first jobs and I can
    Remember a lot of fun times
    Their I worked their for around
    2-1/2 years and then moved away
    20 years late I was able to
    Go back though their and seen that
    They have done away with sambo’s
    At one time it way one of the biggest
    Rest. In Stuart and I still think about
    All the good time I had working their.

  • Adam says:

    After finding out about this place I was shocked by the name and why I didn’t know about it (I was born in 74 so I would think that I passed by one at some point). I was even more shocked after finding a website that listed locations ( http://www.sambosonline.com/sambos_thenandnow.htm ) that there were so many in the Sen Fernando Valley where I grew up. I have completely no memory at all of Sambos . I asked my mother If we ever went to one and she told me possibly once, when we were on vacation in San Deigo . I guess maybe my parents took exception to the name and didn’t want my brother and I exposed to it.

  • John Hurley says:

    I remember the one in Santa Monica, on Lincoln at the I-10. I was never in it.

  • tim says:

    When I was 17 and a college freshman came back in town and went back to Sambos with my aunt and uncle. They had been taking me to Sambos on Vermont for years but this time Sambo tiger mascot handed me a mask, crayon book and crayons etc. Felt pretty stupid since I was 17 and already in college.

  • Thom says:

    I remember Sambo’s so fondly. My Mother was working 2 jobs in the late 1960’s. My father would come home from work and take me and my little sister to Sambo’s for dinner. My Dad didn’t cook. LOL But spending that time with my Dad was magical, he would then take us to see a movie or a game of miniature golf. Sambo’s will always remain in my heart!

  • James says:

    Sambos was a neat place. I went there as a kid in the seventies.

  • Bob says:

    There still a Sambo’s in Santa Barbara. They have a website, where you can check for hours of operation.

  • dj says:

    Sambo’s in a childhood memory for me. Used to go there after our trip to Knott’s Berry farm. There used to be on across the street from the farm. Had a great time there as a child.

  • Carolyn Valk says:

    Does anyone remember the name Sambo’s restaurants became when no longer Sambo’s? I’ve been told “Seasons”…not sure if that sounds correct. I’m speaking of asambo’s in Riverside, CA.

  • Adam says:

    I believe many of them were renamed Sammy’s.

  • Mike L. says:

    Sambo’s in L.A. was at Vermont X 6th Street. Remember as a 10yr old kid the political and black community railing against the local coffee shop. I couldn’t see their point. That was the beginnings of reverse discrimination, blacks muckraking , and it’s only gotten more rediculous since then. At 10 it was apparent a black movement was out to get revenge by destroying an innocent restaurant because of a name and characature. Their way to lash back but good people got hurt.

  • Steve says:

    I went to college at Arizona State in the 70’s. We used to go to
    Sambo’s after bar hopping. It was always busy and the food was
    good. I think it was on Apache Blvd.

  • Dave C says:

    Carolyn V – you are correct, many Sambo’s became “Seasons” in the early 80’s. I worked there from ’77 – ’82, my first job. Mostly I worked at the one on Western in Torrance, but also on Carson St, in Carson and one in Seal Beach. Management became quite poor during my last year there.

  • Douglas Waltz says:

    We had a Sambo’s in Kalamazoo that I used to go to after my third shift job at Denny’s. One morning after we left a woman went into the back dining room, sat down, ordered breakfast and then proceeded to eat a bullet from the gun in her purse. The place never recovered and is now a Bilbo’s Pizza place. They do make a fine pizza, but I go to the other location instead.

  • Adam says:

    Actually, it wasn’t protests or black objection that closed down Sambo’s. Rather they tried to expand too quickly with a profit sharing program that didn’t work. Check it out here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambo%27s

  • CPH says:

    The Sambo’s in La Verne, CA (Foothill @ Wheeler), became a Godfather’s Pizza (a chain of Chicago-style deep dish pan pizza restaurants) in the early 1980s, then, when that chain fizzled, a secession of pie/coffee shops.

    Google Street View shows the building as vacant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Comments