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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sambo's Restaurants

Sambo's was a national restaurant chain that specialized in pancake breakfasts. But also offered burgers and other fare.

It also found itself on the wrong side of history.

The name was created out of the names of the founders of the chain,  Sam Battistone Sr and Newell Bohnett. But they soon tied it into one of the most racist children's stories in recorded history, The Story of Little Black Sambo. 

But somehow, the founders didn't get the memo. They originally decorated their restaurants in stereotypical illustrations of a little African-American boy (the original story had depicted a dark skinned Indian boy, but the illustrations were of these stereotype images.)

But by the '60s, the illustrations had been neutralized to a lighter-skinned Indian boy with a turban (but that opened another can of worms.) They began emphasizing the tigers in the original story. But then there was that name. The African-American community had enough.

By the end of the '70s, the writing was on the wall. Soon Sambo's locations either changed names or owners or were closed by 1982.  

Only the original restaurant in Santa Barbara, CA remains......


  1. As a kid, our family ate at the Sambo’s in San Pablo a lot. I loved their waffles, much better than IHOP’s. By the 80s they were already backpedaling and calling themselves Sam’s. The old Sambo’s building is still there and has had about a half-dozen different businesses occupying it. Actually, up until a recent civic restoration plan, downtown San Pablo from roughly the mid-80s to about 2010 was a sad, sad place, a graveyard of empty storefronts.

    Currently, the ex-Sambo’s building houses two businesses: Susy’s Bakery & Deli and something called La Cascadia (a taqueria?).

  2. Around 1980 the Sambo's in Ann Arbor changed its name to The Happy Tiger.

  3. A sad sector of restaurant history. Generally for most of American history blacks had to open their own restaurants to escape the racism in the restaurant industry. Nobody is going to fall for the owners name crap. That's an added insult. The owners simply played the race card and went for that white racist establishment business. Good it failed. Now on a more positive note, Denny's is a fantastic restaurant even though it took me many years to go there. Cant beat that breakfast menu and prices. So all is forgiven and I love Denny's. BC

    1. That information came from a number of sources. And "Sam-bo" may have possible and then there's that story (which wasn't too far away in the minds of people then, likely having it heard as kids from racist family) and that clicked in their minds as some business strategy.

      However, the name was offensive then as well and they should have known better that kowtowing to stereotypes is terrible business acumen.

      However they weren't the only ones. There was one that was much worse (in Seattle of all places!)


  4. Sambo's was a great fun 24 hour place to meet friends and enjoy a visit and good food at great prices in clean restaurants all across the country. They were always well lit up and had fresh clean restrooms and a manager visable at the cash stand or up front helping servers and greeting each customer! I miss the tradition of meeting great people anytime in a Sambo's and exchanging stories and eating Sam Cakes (pancakes like no other) having good times! Sambo's good times great food lifetime of memories for a lot of us.

  5. Ahhh Sambo's - the memories! All those 02:00 am drunken post-bar gluttonous orgiastic feasts, pissinng off the waitresses and scaring the only cook on duty at that hour. That, and the occasional (weekly - at least) fight between the bikers and the disco crowd that resulted in Police showing up. (Sambo's wasn't a favorite of third shift local law enforcement.) We got service fast - because they wanted to get rid of us fast.

    Where I lived no one was sad to see Sambo's close, no matter what the reason. It was a dive with mediocre food at best and a royal headache for the cops.

  6. I was just thinking about Sambo's Pancake Restaurant in Salinas, California, at lunch today. At first I couldn't remember the name of it. I LOVED going there, and hated not to stop every time we drove past that place. The "good ol' days"! What great memories at Sambo's!!! Thank you!


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