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.

140 Responses to Sambo’s

  • Nick Ramus says:

    My brother and I were short order cooks at Sambos both in Santa Monica! It was a very enjoyable time! The food was excellent! Quality product at a great price and great service! I remembered the Kipling story of Black Sambo so I knew it wasn’t the African stereotype envisioned in the naming of the Restaurant! I learned how stupid reverse stereotyping and false flagging can cause a great business to flounder! Sambo’s was a great employers that would grant employees a lucrative partnership position in new franchises! Their pancake recipe was fabulous! I made the next days batches! It paid my way through college! Blessings to all who remember their goodness and great customer service!

  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (NM) says:

    Yo Kerry! $2 looks about right by that Minimum Wage chart. In NM, there is a much lower min. wage for Wait Staff nowadays to take into account they do make tips as part of their “wage” compared to say a lab tech, maintenance worker, and the like. “Back in your day”, was there an average tip % like today being between 15-18-20%? BTW, in today’s world, those %s are printed with the dollar amounts in many places. While handy, IMHO it is rather presumptively implied that one of those is “proper” regardless of the quality of the service.

    Hmmm….Perhaps of more “interest”….”Our Manager looked just like Robert Redford. Good Memories!” Ah…er…Kerry: Given you placed those two “facts” together, is there more to that part of the story? ):-)

  • Kerry says:

    I worked at the Sambo’s Restaurant on Whittier Blvd., Whittier, CA. in the 70’s.
    As a hostess and waitress, earning two dollars an hour plus tips. It was a great time. We still had the wooden nickels for coffee. Our manager looked just like Robert Redford. Good memories!

  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (NM) says:

    Alas Joe…I hate to tell ya, but, unless your position wasn’t covered under the Wage Act for some reason, you missed out on quite a few cents in your paychecks as these were the minimum wages “back in the day” https://www.dol.gov/whd/minwage/chart.htm
    On the other hand, look at it this way by your own admission: “I had a lot of fun at 75 cents an hour.” Some things…like fun…ya just can’t put a price on! How many times have we paid ten bucks for a movie and it was a bomb? Same goes for many “dates”!!! LOL
    BTW, at that time did Knott’s still have the farm animals in “chicken wire” enclosures by their parking lot? I.e. there were no rides yet?

  • joe says:

    I worked at Sambos across from Knott’s berry farm in 1962 I was only 14 teen and lied about my age to get the job as a bus boy. In two years I became a cook their. I had a lot of fun at 75 cents an hour.

  • Jamie Wentworth says:

    Mcdonalds is Putting Humane Hearts in Nuclear Triggers then feeding the last people good or bad and the USA Navy thinks a Big person will walk out of and 555 timer. 100% only thinks God loves you having sex and the computers can poop anywhere.

  • Jenn says:

    I just found my old Sambo’s card from 1973! Does anyone remember the Sambo’s money???

  • Larry says:

    Wow, I’m blown away with some of the comments I’m reading on this page. I never knew that’s how the name came about but some of the franchise owners in the South took that name it negative by placing racist images and memorabilia in there restaurant. That is what brought negative attention to these restaurant and what was the demise to these businesses. Racist people will be dealt with.

  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (NM) says:

    Ya know Sabre, my touch of dyslexia leaves me in wonderment as to what your point is!
    a) as a kid reading about Little Black Sambo, I found it being an eye opener regarding skin color but having a fun/rational outcome as well. Yo, despite my Birthtown being on the “track” of the Underground Railway and its high school being the 1st “integrated” high school in the 1800s….I can’t help…and despite the difference of an “e” and an “a”, want to recommend you consider reading Call the Darkness Light by Nancy Zaroulis http://tinyurl.com/hp8qfkk : scroll down though “reviews”!

  • Sabre says:

    Calling the anhiliation of racism in popular culture “PC” and “Left” is ridiculous. Get over it, and look up the word “Sambo” while you’re at it.

  • Bonnie says:

    I worked at Sambo’s in Westlake Village from 1978 to 1982. I worked with Heather Locklear. She was a hostess there. I was called into other Sambo’s from Ventura to North Hollywood to work at night. I had the best manager of my life who trained me. His name was Phil Zantos and his wife Helen. I’ve never had such amazing management since then. I loved Sambo’s buckwheat pancakes with boysenberry syrup.

  • Bill Wade says:

    I loved going to Sambos, both in Los Angeles and in Las Vegas. The food was always great, the staff was friendly and efficient and you knew that there was going to be good, hard working people enjoying their meal along with you

  • Ellen Shaver says:

    I worked as a Dish washer at the Sambo’s that was at Bowen and W Division in Arlington Texas in the 1980’s . I miss the place . I still have a Wooden Nickel from a Sambo’s near Navato California in the 70’s

  • Robert says:

    This PC junk is out of hand! We went to the one on 6th and Vermont in Los Angeles as teenagers in the early 70’s. We were a wild bunch, and we never associated the place with anything racial, and believe me we would have if there was a way. We twisted everything while goofing around, but nothing bad at Sambo’s. So, it was not an issue then. They had good food at a reasonable price, and we thought the Indian boy and Tiger were cute..

  • Scott says:

    Greetings from Australia! As best as my memory serves me, our family ate at Sambo’s next to the Inn of Tomorrow in Anaheim in June 1978. I think I still have the little American flags that were placed on the ice cream sundaes! The food was incredible and we ate there most days for breakfast and dinner after visiting Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios.. I love the old photos of the decor (pure 1970’s?).

    On a return trip in 1986 I ate at the subsequently renamed Coco’s which was just as good.

  • Carol says:

    I miss Sambo’s! So tired of the PC left. My best memory of Sambo’s was going there after Grad Nite in 79 with my date, pancakes and coffee as the sun came up.

  • John Hindsill says:

    It’s only not PC because we let it be PC. PC replaces intelligent thought and dialogue.

  • Stacy says:

    Sambo’s was always the ‘go-to’ place when we couldn’t think of anything else to eat. Wow! this is now sooo not PC.

  • Susann Smith says:

    Loved Sambo’s, My family frequented one in Palm Springs ,CA area. Then when we moved to Carmel Valley, CA, there was a Sambo’s at the mouth of Carmel Valley, California, off of highways#1

  • Matt Noble says:

    I remember as a child, between 1968-1974, being apart of Sambo’s birthday club and eating their with my family on my birthday. I remember eating at the Fountain Valley, CA store, sitting in the restaurant and watching the Marines and the Navy practice repelling from helicopters at Mile Square Park across the street. This was the era of the Vietnam War and the Mile Square Park was owned at one time by the military. Sambos will always be part of my childhood memories.

  • Walter says:

    The original Santa Barbara place is still there on Cabrillo Blvd, across the street from the beach. One yr I attended SBCC before transferring to UCSB, I lived in a boarding house with other students. On Sunday eves, if we didn’t go to Joe’s, we would go to Sambo’s, and I could get a steak and eggs for $1.95. We were all pretty poor then, so that was a good deal. Later, my ex-wife handled all their accounts at the bank where they did business. There was a newer one on upper State St. It was great for late night eating, esp pancakes, after drinking and playing too long into the night.

  • Pattie says:

    Was there ever a Sambo’s on San Fernando Road in Glendale, CA?

  • Mark Ryan says:

    I remember always wanting to go to Sambo’s as a kid, it was a great place for families to go. I never even thought of putting a racial spin on the name until just recently after reading the other articles…….

    Sambo’s was an original in Monroe La, and the property has been everything under the sun since then.

    I wish for those simpler times without the word smithing that goes into everything these days

  • Phil Ankofski says:

    Tom , Thanks for your posting here.
    I never believed the racial issue with Sambo’s name and logo.
    With the insight you provided, I will now devote some amount of time to researching Sambo’s closing. If and when I find some detailed facts, I will report back to you on this site.

    We must keep in mind that the Sambo’s chain was closing at the same time Ship’s and other diners nationwide were also closing. My point being is that there other factors in play as well. Wish me luck !

    Phil Ankofski

  • Tom Maddux says:

    I once knew a man who had been an executive with Sambo’s. Many folks feel that the chain failed because of the name and logo. According to this fellow there was a major scandal regarding purchasing the beef they used. They bought millions of $ of the stuff. Arrests and lawsuits drained personell and capital.

  • Bob McKown says:

    I use to work for Sambo’s in Carson, Ca. Winslow, and Show Low, Az. One thing I noticed about Sambo’s is they didn’t care what race you were. In the stores I worked if you did your job, management never put you down but compliment you for your job. I worked for Sambo’s for 12 years and got to travel to other stores, far and near. Sambo’s paid wonderful wages, above minimum wages if you did your job. When Sambo’s closed our store in Oct 1984 I was making 8.50 an hour and I was a morning cook.

    While the original store is there it lost some of the family atmosphere I felt. I wished them luck but I won’t go back, because of the feelings I got when I visited them.

  • Jerry Mezerow says:

    I would go to Sambo’s in Downey before making calls on financial groups. They had great breakfast. Most of the other meals were ordinary. Those were they early days of “political correctness” which is in vogue today. I remember they did a great business for breakfast.

  • Dewey says:

    Is there a way to get them recipe, for dollar pancakes. They were so good . A friend of ours said he would love to have some. It would be so nice to make him some. Thanks for your time

  • Kevin Stanfield says:

    Chuck, you surely new Manny and Alice from the Downey location. Didnt they have another one? I was their neighbor and Vincent was my best friend. I have looked for him but no luck.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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..

  • 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

  • gloria says:

    found the resturant

  • 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..

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Adam says:

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

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

  • JJ says:

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

  • 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.

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