28 February 2012

The Tale of the OTHER Max Garfunkel


Yesterday, as I was searching for information of the crooked banker of yesteryear, Max Garfunkel, of the firm of Garfunkel and Tauster, I kept turning up information about another Max Garfunkel. This Garfunkel was quite the opposite type. He was a classic, hard-working, honest, immigrant entrepreneur.

For some years in the early part of the 20th century, this Max Garfunkel was a well-known figure. He was the owner of the Busy Bee Restaurants, an early local chain of lunch counters around New York. The chain was well known enough in the 1910s for the New York Times to refer to it in articles without explanation. 

Max Garfunkel sailed from Kishivev, Moldova, to New York in 1888, with fifty cents in his pocket. He was 13 at the time. According to his son Louis, who later wrote a book about running diners, Max simply announced to his family one day that he was going to America—alone—and that was that. He spent his first night in this country sleeping in an empty open wagon on the New York waterfront not far from where he had been put ashore from Ellis Island. The next day, he roamed the lower part of Manhattan seeking work, and before nightfall had a job in a saloon and a home with the old German owner. 

He saved his money ($7,000 in all, a massive sum at the time) and, in 1893, started his first restaurant at 3 Ann Street, at the corner of Broadway, just yards from City Hall and all the Park Row newspapers. (That's the basic intersection, above.) Sandwiches, coffee and pie were all two cents. Max held to those prices for 20 years. 
According to Louis, the diner was an anomaly at the time. "In 1888," wrote Louis, "restaurants were mainly places for social gatherings, except to the few of wealth who considered it demeaning to carry food and could afford the dollar or two squandered on served luncheons. The only other places in which food could be had, aside from boarding houses, were the saloons which provided magnificent free-lunch counters to entice the drinking public...[Max] was to become one of the greatest factors in changing the eating habits of all Americans by introducing a meal at a price which eliminated the need for carrying a lunch-box to work."

The first restaurant failed, and Max lost all his money. He opened his second eatery in 1896, at No. 1 Ann Street. This one succeeded. He operated on a mass-production plan, with small profits and a large turn-over. "His patrons were office-boys, building workers, struggling young lawyers and business men, and the host of others who did not have much money to spend on their lunches," wrote Louis. "Many of them became important and most of them remembered Max with affection. For Max never turned away a hungry boy, even if he had no money."

Soon, there were 15 Busy Bees across the City. Max got ahead though work, work and more work. "My father was no sissy," wrote Louis. "His restaurant kitchen was in the basement of his store on Ann Street, in New York and was reached by descending an unbalustraded flight of wooden steps. One day, in a hurry to get something needed during the noon rush of thousands of milling customers, he fell and broke his shoulder. Carrying on until the noon meal was nearly over, despite the terrible pain, he walked to a hospital, had his shoulder set, and went back to the store, bound and trussed, to check up and give orders for the next day."

He was also no fool. When Max Garfunkel was 53, in 1928, he decided to retire. He told reporters, "For 40 years I've worked from 5 o'clock in the morning until 8 o'clock at night. I've never had a real vacation. Now I'm going to play. I want to go to Palm Beach, to Europe, to Carlsbad, Vienna, Paris and Switzerland. I am going to retire, quit. I am tired. Money is not everything. . . . Frankfurters, coffee, lemonade, savings accounts, seven days a week, little sleep, bustle, shouts, profits, frankfurters, soft shell crabs—these are my memories."

Max has smartly invested in real estate. When he retired, he sold off a dozen buildings, mainly along the Bowery. He had plenty of time to travel; he died in 1942. 

Louis continued in his father's business. He operated a place called Famous Maxie's in New Street until 1962, when he retired. 

I couldn't find a single picture of a Busy Bee lunch counter. The Ann Street buildings don't exist anymore. I doubt there's a scrap of evidence left in the City that the chain existed.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brooks, You do great work. Thank-you

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Aw, Shucks.

You know, the thing that depresses me about Garfunkel's story is it could not happen in today's New York. Arriving in NYC with 50 cents? Finding an employer who would take you on faith and shelter you? Expanding a chain a small, local independently owned businesses? No way in hell.

Stephanie said...

The NYPL has a huge menu collection, and all of the menus are currently being transcribed. It would be worth visiting to see if they have one from Busy Bee, because they certainly have plenty from other chains (e.g., Child's) and lunch counters from that time period.

http://menus.nypl.org