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How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire that Civilized the Wild West

by Stephen Fried

Pub Date: April 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-553-80437-9
Publisher: Bantam

The West wasn’t won with six guns alone. Well-greased skillets helped, too, especially in the hands of Fred Harvey’s cooks.

By journalist and pop historian Fried’s account, 19th-century British immigrant Fred Harvey was “the founding father of the American service industry.” That doesn’t strictly translate into low-wage, go-nowhere jobs, however. Harvey arrived in America with practically nothing, built a small nest egg, was swindled by an early partner and worked diligently to build a fortune again. He was a close observer of the restaurant trade in New York, and he understood the value of paying cash and refusing to extend or receive credit, and, crucially, of buying the best-quality goods that one can afford. The result, after decades of Horatio Alger–like self-improvement, hard work and voracious book-learning, was a chain of restaurants that went West with the Army and the railroads. As Fried (Husbandry: Sex, Love & Dirty Laundry—Inside the Minds of Married Men, 2007, etc.) notes, it was through Harvey’s labors that travelers beyond the Mississippi could get a decent, often excellent, meal. “He suspected there was money to be made if he could just figure out a way to dependably deliver palatable food at fair prices without any bait and switch,” writes the author. And so Harvey did. He brought in fresh steaks, eggs and bread by the boxcar, hired vivacious “Harvey Girls” to wait tables, imported chefs from Europe, set in motion the international trade in Native-American crafts and made piles of money while retaining his fundamental decency. Fried’s immensely readable narrative stretches from Harvey’s time into the empire as run by his children and grandchildren, a slow decline that proves the rule that family-run enterprises seldom last more than three generations—and are almost certainly looted and left for dead by the time the great-grandchildren come along.

A sturdy, detailed work of history that will appeal to business readers as well as aficionados of railroading and the Old West.