Serv­ing up fare mem­o­ries of Albrit­ton’s on the menu

Iconic fam­ily-run cafe­te­ria’s story falls to ar­chiv­ist

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Greg Mor­ago

They came to her like the best gifts do — with­out warn­ing, in­vested with mean­ing, steeped in love.

When her grand­mother, Sophie Allbrit­ton, be­came ill re­cently and moved into a care fa­cil­ity, Shane Allbrit­ton, 43, be­came the un­wit­ting ar­chiv­ist for decades worth of mem­o­ra­bilia on a sin­gle topic: the life and times of Allbrit­ton’s Cafe­te­ria.

To­day’s mod­ern food­ies won’t re­mem­ber Allbrit­ton’s, a col­lec­tion of fam­i­lyrun cafe­te­rias whose last lo­ca­tion shut­tered in 1996. But there is a gen­er­a­tion of Hous­to­ni­ans who re­call the name with a rev­er­ence for sepia-toned days. They re­mem­ber the bustling cafe­te­rias where all walks of life con­verged over roast beef with gravy, fried chicken, car­rot salad and lemon ice­box pie. They may re­mem­ber cer­tain em­ploy­ees, many of whom worked there 30-plus years, and var­i­ous Allbrit­ton fam­ily mem­bers, who were such a daily pres­ence it seemed as if they never went home.

Allbrit­ton’s was, by most ac­counts, Hous­ton’s first cafe­te­ria restau­rant, of which pre­cious few re­main. And it was a ma­jor player in the city’s din­ing scene at large, help­ing shape how we eat to­day with in­no­va­tive prac­tices such as list­ing calo­rie

counts on menus.

Shane couldn’t help but feel that the Allbrit­ton’s story had been short­changed in the years since its demise, as the spot­light shone on Hous­ton’s culi­nary melt­ing pot and buzz swarmed the new and the trendy.

So, de­spite feel­ing daunted by the task of stitch­ing to­gether the hodge­podge of heap­ing scrap­books, binders and other me­men­tos, Shane em­braced it. She had to.

With 92-year-old Sophie ail­ing — the last of the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion of Allbrit­tons who helped make and ex­pand the busi­ness — there was a fa­mil­ial im­per­a­tive. She felt a his­tor­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity to shed light on a par­tic­u­lar slice of culi­nary en­trepreneur­ship in Hous­ton.

The Allbrit­tons like to say that the fam­ily busi­ness be­gan as Hous­ton’s first food truck. Ex­cept this one was pulled by a horse.

Luther L. Allbrit­ton be­gan his busi­ness in 1907 sell­ing sand­wiches, chili, hot dogs and fried fish from a chuck­wagon fit­ted with grid­dles and a gaso­line stove in down­town Hous­ton. The lo­co­mo­tion was pro­vided by a horse named Smokey, whose feed was Allbrit­ton’s largest weekly ex­pense.

Not much is known about Luther ex­cept that he ar­rived in Hous­ton from Mis­sis­sippi and came to the United States in the late 1800s through El­lis Island. The Allbrit­tons joke that their name came from that pro­cess­ing sta­tion when an im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cial asked, “Are you all Bri­tons?”

Luther proved to be adept at his fledg­ling busi­ness of feed­ing the ev­ery­day work­ing man. By 1914 he opened a restau­rant in the 500 block of Fan­nin, and an­other, Allbrit­ton’s Eats at 4120 McKinney, in 1927.

The lat­ter be­gan as a cafe that even­tu­ally mor­phed into cafe­te­ria-style din­ing. Luther died in 1949, but not be­fore see­ing his busi­ness blos­som; af­ter the McKinney lo­ca­tion, Allbrit­ton’s cafe­te­rias could be found also at 905 Waugh, 2900 Wes­layan and 3835 Bel­laire. Those restau­rants were the work of Luther Allbrit­ton’s chil­dren: Sonny, En­nie (Sophie’s hus­band) and Blanche, who also was a home eco­nom­ics teacher at the Uni­ver­sity of Hous­ton. A third son was not in the fam­ily busi­ness, but Luther’s nephew, Jay, was.

To­gether, they helped im­prove and mod­ern­ize the cafe­te­ria busi­ness in Hous­ton.

This sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of Allbrit­tons were in­no­va­tors. Ac­cord­ing to the fam­ily, the Allbrit­tons were the first in town to have calo­rie counts listed on the menu; the first to have mod­ern con­veyor belts that fed dishes into the dish­washer; and the first to of­fer beer and wine in a cafe­te­ria set­ting.

But it was the food that won fans. The daily menu could in­clude as many as 22 meat items; 20 to 22 veg­eta­bles, 25 to 30 sal­ads, six dif­fer­ent bread items, and at least a dozen desserts.

“It was home cook­ing: roast beef, broiled chicken, fried chicken,” said Cindy Booth, Shane’s mother who mar­ried into the Allbrit­ton fam­ily and worked at the cafe­te­ria for many years.

“KFC wasn’t around then,” said Val Mor­ris, one of Sonny’s daugh­ters. “They started with real chick­ens, pluck­ing the feath­ers.”

Val’s sis­ter, Lois Booth, who started work­ing in the fam­ily busi­ness at 15, re­mem­bers the wide swath of the grow­ing city’s pop­u­lace that came through the doors of the cafe­te­rias. “Oh, the peo­ple you met and the sto­ries you heard,” Lois said, re­call­ing the time her fa­ther called out to two drunks he had just thrown out of the restau­rant: “Go to Luby’s!”

The ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were golden years for the Allbrit­tons, whose in­flu­ence was felt through­out the city’s restau­rant in­dus­try. Sonny, En­nie and Jay all served at dif­fer­ent times as pres­i­dent of the Hous­ton Restau­rant As­so­ci­a­tion. And their cafe­te­ria em­ploy­ees were loyal, of­ten stay­ing on for decades.

Even the hap­pi­est sto­ries have dark mo­ments. The Allbrit­ton fam­ily’s was dev­as­tat­ing and sav­age: It took the life of En­nie and Sophie’s son, Gary Allbrit­ton.

The fam­ily agrees that of all the Allbrit­tons in the busi­ness, Gary was the vi­sion­ary. He got his start as a child wash­ing dishes and clean­ing ta­bles, and be­came the first of the third gen­er­a­tion of Allbrit­tons to man­age a lo­cal restau­rant. He poured his restau­rant know-how into the last Allbrit­ton’s to be built, at 9525 South­west Free­way. Gary com­mis­sioned orig­i­nal art­work, and de­signed the space with flour­ishes such as French doors. He hired roam­ing ma­gi­cians to per­form tricks ta­ble­side, and a car­i­ca­tur­ist named Texas Tim to draw quick sketches of pa­trons. This Allbrit­ton’s was much more than chicken and dumplings.

Ac­cord­ing to news­pa­per re­ports, two men were hav­ing din­ner at the Allbrit­ton’s that Gary co-owned and man­aged on the night of July 30, 1986. One of the men, later iden­ti­fied as a for­mer em­ployee whom Gary had fired the year be­fore, en­tered the of­fice where Gary was pay­ing bills. He fired three shots; one hit Gary in the head. Ret­ri­bu­tion, not rob­bery, mo­ti­vated the shooter, the fam­ily said.

En­nie was work­ing the cash reg­is­ter at the time; Gary’s wife, Cindy, was work­ing on the serv­ing line. Nei­ther heard the shots.

“I found him and he still had bills in his hands,” Cindy said.

Gary died the next day, leav­ing her and their two chil­dren, Shane, 12, and Misty, 8. He was 34.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we’d still be go­ing if that hadn’t hap­pened,” Val said.

The cafe­te­ria busi­ness was never the same for the Allbrit­tons af­ter Gary’s mur­der; po­lice never caught the sus­pect. The South­west Free­way lo­ca­tion stayed open for only a year and a half af­ter his death.

In 1996 the last Allbrit­ton’s Cafe­te­ria, owned and op­er­ated by Sonny and his wife, Olive, closed on Waugh, the vic­tim of de­clin­ing busi­ness and ag­gres­sive new restau­rant com­pe­ti­tion in the neigh­bor­hood, in­clud­ing a Luby’s.

News­pa­per re­ports paint a bit­ter­sweet day as nos­tal­gic Hous­to­ni­ans sa­vored the last hours of the restau­rant chain that be­gan with a man, his horse and a chuck­wagon.

Look­ing back at the roles lost Hous­ton restau­rants like Allbrit­ton’s have played in our lives is im­por­tant, said Hous­ton food and restau­rant his­to­rian David Leftwich. “Those old cafe­te­rias also pro­vided en­ter­tain­ment — din­ing as en­ter­tain­ment,” he said.

Ge­orge Mick­e­lis, owner of Cle­burne Cafe­te­ria, said he is still in awe of the Allbrit­tons’ busi­ness. He knows the ded­i­ca­tion it re­quired: His par­ents, Nick and Pat Mick­e­lis, bought Cle­burne in 1952, and Nick worked in the cafe­te­ria un­til his death in 1989. (Pat, 94, re­mains the heart of Cle­burne.)

“They were one of Hous­ton’s old­est and first fam­ily-owned cafe­te­rias,” Ge­orge Mick­e­lis said. “If you come from old-time Hous­ton, you knew about Allbrit­ton’s.”

Cafe­te­rias have long been part of Hous­ton’s restau­rant scene. Mick­e­lis reels off the names: Wel­don’s, Suzanne’s, Wy­att’s, Din­ner Belly, Pi­cadilly, Luby’s. Sadly, he said, there’s a de­clin­ing ap­petite for the home-cooked food the city’s once-thriv­ing cafe­te­ria restau­rants pro­vided.

“We are mak­ing every­thing from scratch, just like the Allbrit­tons did. Do­ing things the old­fash­ioned way is our niche. You’re tast­ing the way your grand­mother used to cook,” Mick­e­lis said. “To­day, young peo­ple are clue­less about how food used to be pre­pared — by real peo­ple. To­day every­thing is im­i­ta­tion. Every­thing is frozen.”

Mick­e­lis was de­lighted to hear that Shane is pre­serv­ing the Allbrit­ton fam­ily’s ar­chives. “They were a huge part of Hous­ton,” he said.

Once Shane and her sis­ter, Misty Hooks, or­ga­nize and dig­i­tally ar­chive the ma­te­ri­als, the fam­ily in­tends to give them to the Round Top Fes­ti­val In­sti­tute, whose man­ag­ing di­rec­tor is Richard R. Roy­all, the son of Blanche, who died last year.

Todd Romero, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of his­tory at Uni­ver­sity of Hous­ton, said that kind of preser­va­tion is es­sen­tial.

“Lost Hous­ton restau­rants like Allbrit­ton’s Cafe­te­ria are vi­tal sources for un­der­stand­ing ur­ban his­tory. More than a snap­shot of re­gional or city food­ways, restau­rants open a win­dow onto the his­tory of taste, en­trepreneur­ship, mar­ket­ing, re­gional mi­gra­tion and im­mi­gra­tion, la­bor, eth­nic­ity, race, gen­der and ar­chi­tec­ture, among other con­cerns,” he said. “To know a city’s restau­rants is to take an im­por­tant mea­sure of its in­dus­try, am­bi­tion, ap­petite and iden­tity.”

The Allbrit­ton fam­ily story has fallen into good hands. Shane is a nat­u­ral sto­ry­teller. Her back­ground in art and de­sign­ing in­ter­pre­tive spa­ces for mu­se­ums and visi­tor cen­ters has sharp­ened her ears for en­gag­ing nar­ra­tives. Now, the story she is most ea­ger to tell hap­pens to be one of her own.

At 35 — about the age of her fa­ther when he was killed — Shane walked away from a po­si­tion at a de­sign firm in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. She said that she didn’t want to make the same mis­takes her fa­ther made — “sac­ri­fic­ing so much fam­ily and per­sonal time.”

“Life is pre­cious and fleet­ing,” she said. “I wanted to en­joy every­thing, not let work dic­tate every­thing. I left a good job with no real backup plan, just an in­stinct that there was some­thing more ful­fill­ing for me out there.”

She moved back to Hous­ton and started a firm (RE:site stu­dio with part­ner Nor­man Lee) that de­signs art in­stal­la­tions, pub­lic art and me­mo­ri­als. She’s mar­ried and rais­ing a 4-year-old son.

While chron­i­cling the Allbrit­ton story is per­sonal, Shane said it’s also im­por­tant for Hous­ton, where her fam­ily nar­ra­tive played out in mean­ing­ful ways. “It’s part of the tapestry of the city,” she said.

She’s care­ful to note that her fa­ther’s death is a tragedy that shouldn’t over­shadow the story arc of her fam­ily’s 90-year com­mit­ment to feed­ing hand-crafted meals to the com­mu­nity.

“The fam­ily never ac­quired riches from the busi­ness,” she said. “They poured their hearts and backs into it be­cause they truly loved it.”

Cour­tesy the Allbrit­ton fam­ily

Allbrit­ton’s Cafe­te­ria closed its last lo­ca­tion in 1996. At one time the fam­ily owned no fewer than five cafe­te­rias in the Hous­ton area.

God­ofredo A. Vasquez / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Shane Allbrit­ton, above, is ar­chiv­ing ma­te­rial, in­clud­ing binders con­tain­ing roughly 600 recipes, col­lected from the nearly 90 years her fam­ily’s Allbrit­ton’s Cafe­te­ria was in busi­ness. Luther L. Allbrit­ton be­gan his busi­ness in 1907 sell­ing sand­wiches, chili, hot dogs and fried fish from a chuck­wagon pulled by a horse named Smokey, be­low left. He opened a restau­rant on Fan­nin in 1914.

Photos cour­tesy the Allbrit­ton fam­ily

En­nie Allbrit­ton, left, was the son of Allbrit­ton’s founder, Luther Allbrit­ton. The archival ma­te­ri­als of the fam­ily’s busi­ness were gath­ered by Sophie Allbrit­ton, right, and in­her­ited by Shane Allbrit­ton.

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