THE COON CHICKEN INN was founded in 1925 in Salt Lake City, Utah, by Maxon and Adelaide Graham. Its namesake was the large grinning face of a Black man that formed the establishment’s entrance. The Inn served a fairly pedestrian menu including oysters, ham and eggs, burgers, chili, sandwiches, and desserts, but its signature dish was Coon Fried Chicken, which came in several forms. When a new location opened in Seattle in 1930, it received prominent news coverage in the Seattle Times.
Realizing that the readership may not have understood what “Coon Chicken” meant, one article explained, “Anyone who has lived below the Mason-Dixon line knows that ‘coon chicken’ is the way the fowl is cooked by the real, old-fashioned southern mammy,” a method that apparently produced crisp, grease-free chicken. Then is it coon chicken or mammy chicken? Is the coon married to the mammy? Otherwise, where are the plates of chicken coming from? It is interesting that the Inn’s owners anticipated sufficient clientele for the restaurant when their patrons would generally not have lived “below the Mason-Dixon line,” whence the brand’s racial nostalgia is pulled. However, perhaps the Grahams recognized what Micki McElya has argued: that many Whites who lived in settings far removed from the American South “read hungrily and with pleasure” mythical tales of plantations replete with “black workers who ‘knew their place’ and the hospitality of rural plenty.”
The coon’s derogatory portrayal of Black men—shuffling, shiftless, and stupid—is further dehumanizing because the name is taken from “raccoon.” By conflating two gendered stereotypes of Black people—mammy and coon—the restaurant foregrounds the perceived interchangeability of Black servitude and perceptions of natural Black affinity for chicken. Psyche Williams-Forson shows that after the Civil War, pictures became a primary means to remind Black people of their place in society. Postcards, posters, and other illustrations made Black people the butt of jokes, and one of these was the pervasive notion of their being chicken-lovers and especially stealers. Attempts at forging Black identities during Reconstruction were met with a psychic war waged in a variety of visual ephemera that circulated widely. These commodities of racism allowed the owner not only to own the image but also to “mentally covet” a depiction of Black people in which she or he had some investment. Memorabilia from the late 1880s to the 1930s have been characterized as “symbolic slavery,” created in a time when sharecropping, lynching, race riots, and other assaults on Black communities and Black lives were at an unprecedented level. It was precisely in this context that the Coon Chicken Inn was born.
Everything about the Inn showcased the Black coon, the most prominent being the building itself. As The Seattle Times reported: “The building has been constructed to represent a southern log cabin. A huge replica of the head of a colored man, the official trade mark of the company, smiles from the front of the building displaying a row of gleaming white teeth.” It is striking that the Grahams thought to require patrons to be (symbolically) consumed by a Black man. Perhaps the smiling face tempered the danger inherent in being swallowed whole. The logo reassures that this is just another buffoonish coon; patrons are to smile and laugh along. Americans were certainly accustomed to laughing at cartoonish Black men in various media, including on the big screen. Films such as Rastus and Chicken, Pickaninnies and Watermelon, and Chicken Thief were released between 1910 and 1911 and provided a shared understanding of Black men for Whites from various backgrounds.
Apart from the building, there were napkins, dishware, and various promotional items that sported the grinning coon. Figure 2 is a fold-out postcard that advertised the chain’s different locations, each illustrated with a drawing of the gaping coon at the front door. The restaurant sold “Coon Head Ash Trays” to go along with the cigarettes available for purchase at the counter. And of course, the menu was replete with coon mentions. The “Coon Chicken Special,” at $1.50 included french fries, salad, and hot buttered Parkerhouse rolls and preserves; for $.50 more, patrons could partake of the “Coon Chicken Dinner,” which came with consommé, fruit, or chef’s salad. For those with modest appetites, the “Baby Coon Special” comprised a half chicken. The menu itself was shaped in the outline of the coon’s face and opened outward in two book pages. In some, the middle spine featured the same grinning coon, this time with a full body, dressed in an elegant and formal waiter’s uniform and carrying a tray on which a chicken was the centerpiece.
The restaurant had enjoyed several successful years in Salt Lake City before branching out to Seattle. “Coon Chicken Inn Opened in Seattle” blared a newspaper headline, with a large wide-angle photo titled, “UNUSUAL DINING RESORT SERVES PUBLIC.” Coon Chicken Inn was positioned as a unique and innovative venue, part of a coast-to-coast chain. The newspaper seemed to take literally the restaurant’s slogan—“Nationally Famous Coast to Coast”—but the restaurants themselves did not have any locations east of the Mountain Time Zone. Although the story was accompanied by a photo of the restaurant façade, readers could get a better view of the smiling coon in the three-quarter page ad that invited potential diners, much like that shown in Figure 3. Between the articles, contractors heralding the restaurant opening (and thereby advertising their business), and the large display ad, the words and imagery of “Coon Chicken” absolutely dominated the newspaper’s page.
A plot on Seattle’s Bothell Highway could not have been more appropriate. As one newspaper advertisement showed, the long stretch of road was home to some of the busiest summer resort restaurants, many of which relied on southern motifs: Henry the Watermelon King sold southern melons; there was a Dixie Inn; and a place called Mammy’s Shack, “Said to be the originators of the chicken-on-toast idea all cooked by a real southern mammy.” This trope of authenticity for chicken fried by a southern mammy was deeply ingrained in American culture at this time, particularly in the South. By the late 1930s, foundations had been laid for new cooking technologies and domestic science, seen in cookbooks and schools, and all but the poorest kitchens followed suit. The South was shifting to be more in line with national norms in several domains, including national consumer culture, and White southerners felt this as a loss. As a result, southern cookbooks began to look to the past, seeking historical connections and idealized images of domesticity. The conception of Black people having intuitive and artistic skills in food preparation was front and center. White supremacy in the American South “interpreted black practices to be unchanging and immutable,” and the emphasis on Black women’s domestic labor served to “denigrate African American women and thereby validate the common white trope that connected blackness to service and common labor.”
Angela Jill Cooley argues that Black women’s kitchen labor was essential in preserving White women’s class and race privilege, and although the mammy image had long been used to sell foodstuffs, it became more prevalent in cookbooks and newspaper articles. Mammy was now the authority on homemaking and cooking skills, and that portrayal assisted the south in retaining regional distinctiveness as the rest of the country moved more toward a national consumer market. By 1935, Jim Crow had been firmly established across the South, precluding any fears about a contaminating threat to racial purity posed by Black servants. Instead, the notion that a Black woman’s natural place in kitchen service came to the fore. Black women supposedly had an “inherent ability to cook” and “their service to whites is preordained by God.” Indeed, it was not only Black women that were suited for kitchen work, the broader understanding was that African Americans as a whole were naturally servile.
In 1933, the Coon Chicken Inn was reviewed in Western Restaurant. Lauded for expansion plans while other restaurants were contracting in a difficult economic climate and reportedly voted most popular restaurant at the Roosevelt High School (it is unclear who voted and conducted the poll), the inn was flourishing. Customers often braved hours-long lines, the Seattle outlet was selling anywhere from one-half to two tons of chicken per day, and the overall chain pulled in half a million dollars the year prior, doing brisk business with Mormon organizations in Salt Lake City in particular. Soon it would be headed to Denver and the San Francisco metropolitan area. In the meantime, the Coon Chicken Inn opened the “Club Cotton” in its basement, further capitalizing on selling Blackness to an audience in the American West. The nightclub was a “hit.”
Roy Hawkins, an African American man who migrated west during the Second World War and became a lead waiter at the Coon Chicken Inn, attributed the restaurant’s success partly to its frying chicken whole, and partly to its logo, which was appealing to children and families. For Hawkins, while the coon imagery was hurtful, it was nothing compared to the racial terror he had endured in Texas. “From southern places and things, it wasn’t nothing to see mockery. Black folks was always mocked . . . Now, I would be upset if somebody call me a Coon.” Still, working there meant more than having to abide racist symbols; that debasement was often brought into customer interactions. White diners referred to Black staff as “real live” coons and used other racial epithets in their presence. But Hawkins felt he had the last laugh, as he would often take home between $100 and $200 in tips each night. In contrast, White bricklayers earned $5.00 per day. Hawkins also supervised several other Black wait staff, but these employees often quit, chafing under an openly racist environment. For some diners, Hawkins and other waiters were no more men than the caricature that grinned up at them from their china, napkins, and elsewhere around the room. Indeed, the restaurant branding implied that its dining room was a “racism zone,” an arena in which patrons could engage freely in racist behaviors, in which nothing would be off the table.
The restaurant closed in the 1950s, and little is available in archival sources to explain why. But the racism that was the centerpiece of the restaurant’s operation persisted in cultural memory for decades afterward. In 1972, the Trolley Times, a small community periodical published in Salt Lake City, printed an article recounting the restaurant’s history and showcasing a photograph of restaurant waitresses including LaVinnia Cook, head waitress for twenty-eight years. The article was written as a fictional first-person account by a Black grandfather. He spoke to his grandson of the olden days, and the text was therefore written in a stereotypical Black dialect. Grandpa began, “I was ridin’ out de Highland Drive yestiddy en my mem’ry comes ’cross de Coon Chicken Inn. Seems like dat ol’ coon head jist sort o’ winked at me ag’in like it a’ways done. En I’ll be dad blamed if’n I didn’t just wink right on back. I reckon de past ain’t all full o’ meaness. You got to laugh at some parts too.” Thus, Grandpa reassured his true audience—White readers—that racism could be in good fun and ought not be taken so seriously. This was a recurring theme in the discourse surrounding restaurants like the Coon Chicken Inn. Grandpa continued by explaining that the Grahams were shrewd indeed to have developed this restaurant concept, and that the effective presentation made diners feel they had gone straight to the South for their meal. Grandpa was particularly praiseworthy of the coon icon: “See, he didn’t build no ordinary do’way. At de end of his rest’rant, he ’structed a big, smilin’ coon. Smilin’ en winkin! ’Cross his white teef it said, ‘COON ICKEN INN.’ You couldn’t see no CH on a ’count o’ his front teef was cut out fo’ de do’. So you stept ove’ de bottom lip en right through his front teef en dere you was, a stan’in’ on his tongue. Seemed sort a queer, stan’in’ dere, knowin’ you was ’bout to walk into de coon’s belly, en things was all red en dark.” Alas, the restaurant could not last forever. “In de 50’s, dat’s when de times started kickin’ up a fuss ’bout de way we was gittin’ treated unequal. Bimemby, de white folks in Washington, dey started knowin’ too dat things wasn’t completely fair. De Supremest Court en Mr. Eisenhower started writin’ de Civil Rights Laws.” In the view of what was coming down the pike (presumably equality for Black citizens, which was in no way realized during the Eisenhower administration), Graham saw “what was in de wind en dat coon head,” and, having had enough of the business, decided to sell out.
As late as 1970, Salt Lake County was 0.52% Black, a context in which the public ridicule of Black people in published media must have been unremarkable. At a minimum, the Inn’s owners found this work innocuous, having seen fit to include it in the company scrapbooks used to document their business. As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic argue,
Our society has blithely consumed a shocking parade of Sambos, coons, sneaky Japanese, exotic Orientals, and indolent, napping Mexicans—images that society perceived at the time as amusing, cute, or worse yet, true. How can one talk back to messages, scripts, and stereotypes that are embedded in the minds of one’s fellow citizens and, indeed, the national psyche? Trying to do so makes one come off as humorless or touchy.
Indeed, time and again, White people with psychic and material investment in racist restaurants have portrayed the dehumanizing of Black people as something innocent, good-natured, and fun. Those who reject these images are seen as humorless at best, and as mendacious, militant threats to the social order at worst.