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.

158 Responses to Sambo’s

  • Gary Vitacco-Robles says:

    In the summer of 1972, my family vacationed in Clearwater Beach, FL, when I was seven. One morning, we had breakfast at the Sambo’s on US Hwy 19 in Clearwater near what is now Countryside Mall. I remember the images of Little Sambo in his turban and his tiger adorning the walls, and I remember entering the restaurant’s drawing contest. My father watched me draw the picture & told me I would win. About a month later, while I was home in New York, I received a letter from Sambo’s announcing That I had won the contest, and the grand prize of a stuffed tiger would soon arrive. Shortly thereafter, I received the glorious stuffed tiger just like the one in the images mounted on the restaurant walls. My mother took a photo of me proudly posing with the tiger under my arm. I still have the typed announcement on Sambo’s letterhead and the photo. The tiger is long gone, but not forgotten, forty-seven years later. I wish I could post both for you to see.

  • James Broms says:

    Used to go to the one in Fountain Valley in high school. Took my daughter to the original in Santa Barbara where she attended UCSB

  • D Web says:

    In the early 1970s, I attended UC Santa Barbara, about 15 min. from Sambo’s, which was open 24 hr. and promoted its coffee as “Still only 5 cents” — a bottomless cup of joe cost a mere nickel. I had two friends I’d go to Sambo’s with at all hours of the night or early morning. Once we struck up a conversation with a middle-aged couple in the booth next to us. Both she and her man had been drinking heavily. They’d stopped in to sober up midway thru their return drive to L.A. following a visit to her son at Lompoc State Prison, up the road. Most of the conversation was Mom tearfully explaining that Sonny hadn’t actually done anything criminal, her man (who wasn’t the boy’s father) nodding sagely and supportively in agreement.

  • Vesna says:

    Isn’t there still a Sambo’s in Santa Barbara?

  • Grace Carter says:

    What was the address of the Sambos restaurant in El Monte, California

  • Steven Douglas says:

    We always stopped at the Sambo’s in Needles CA on the 66. Never voluntarily stopped at a Denny’s though. They had good hamburgers and the menu, coloring set for the place mats and Sambo dolls were good for the kids. On the typical long drives during the era of cheap gas and reasonable rooms this was a major consideration. Sad that the race baiters put the place under. That Jessie and his ilk did the same thing to the Fuller Company, the largest employer of African Americans in the country (and owned by a self-made black man) was sacrificed as well (because Mr. Fuller had the termerity to suggest the ghetto dwellers needed to work hard instead of wait for a check) to politics is something that should be taught along with the MLK canon.

    Decent food in small towns that needed the employers, Sambo’s was like Stuckeys and Harvey’s, a welcome relief from the road for the kids.

  • Wes Sullivan says:

    Was there a Sambos in Charleston South Carolina
    In 1980

  • Mark says:

    There was a Sambo’s located in El Monte on the south side of the 10 freeway, Baldwin exit on Flair Drive. A Denny’s is there now.

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