If you think Baby Boomers are square, think again. The generation that came of age in the 1960s and ’70s were self-aware enough to work en masse to effect change, and they were arguably the first group of teenagers that were directly marketed to.
In 1966, the students weren’t just protesting against the Vietnam War, but against the high cost of dorm food.
Nation’s Restaurant News — called National Restaurant News at the time — in 1967 reported “uprisings at San Francisco State College, Cornell University and Utica College” the previous fall that resulted in a steep decline in food and beverage sales in dining halls. San Francisco State reached a compromise by lowering prices by 10 percent.
At Cornell, officials waited out what turned out to be mostly a beverage strike, with students selling their own milk and soft drinks on campus at cost. Things escalated when the students burned housing and dining director Milton Shaw in effigy.
At Utica, 300 kids threw out food-filled trays in protest of the poor quality. The college “agreed to adjust the portions of meat being served.”
Meanwhile, some 100 operators of drive-in restaurants in Seattle reached an accord with teenagers “who spend more time than money in the parking stalls needed by cash customers,” according to an NRN story.
The students said they were bored at home, that they liked being among friends and found venues such as theaters too expensive. They also said their communities didn’t provide enough recreational facilities.
The agreed upon code of conduct prohibited loitering, disorderly conduct, alcoholic beverages, and back-in parking, squealing tires, unattended cars and speeds of more than 10 miles an hour in drive-ins.
Operators tried to better understand young customers much as they try to now. Schrafft’s, a chain based in New York, brought in teenagers for a taste test as it worked to develop new menu items.
In a Schrafft’s taste-off, the teenage participants had to choose between the Frisco Burger, topped with the crispy noodles, and the Bean Burger.
“Teen gals like their hamburgers topped with chow mein, fried noodles and soy sauce. Teen boys prefer theirs with baked beans and ketchup,” NRN reported. The ramen burger of recent years is not as new as we think.
Restaurants in 1967 didn’t just see teens as challenging customers, but as possible employees. But operators didn’t want to pay them much: The New York State Restaurant Association and other hospitality groups in the state wrangled a recommendation from the General Industry Minimum Wage Board to reduce pay by 25 cents per hour for youths under the age of 18. The minimum wage was $1.50 at the time, so this would mean $1.25 an hour for teens. However, only 10 percent of their workforce could be hired at that rate. (Tipped employees got $1.05 at the time.)
Teens were restaurateurs, too.
To keep members of the Mighty Blackstone Rangers gang out of pool halls and off the streets, Chicagoans set the gang up with restaurants.
The gang — “noted for shaking down other boys” — operated a Nicky’s short-order restaurant and a Henry’s hamburger franchise. With 1,500 members, the gang had plenty of former restaurant workers who could staff the restaurants, NRN said.
Chicagoans including A.C. Simmons, a consultant for wholesale meat distributors, investment firm head Stanley McGee, and 10 anonymous donors of $5,000 apiece negotiated to get the gang involved with the restaurants in 1967.
Ten years later, and teenagers had apparently moved their loitering activities indoors to quick-service chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King.
In 1977, Jay Schloemer, then-marketing vice president of a seven-year-old chain called Wendy’s, told NRN the chain’s broader menu was a move to reach a different audience than McDonald’s and Burger King. Wendy’s had just 530 units at the time.
“McD’s and BK aim much of their appeal toward children and young adults, backed up with an invitation to other population segments,” NRN reported. “But Wendy’s is strictly aimed at adults, specifically men and working women from a more affluent income bracket,” Schloemer said.
And even in 1977, kids were just moving too darn fast! An opinion piece NRN reprinted from The New York Times by William Zinsser lamented the utterly confusing number of options on menus at quick-service burger chains, and his need to bring his children along to interpret for him.
“‘Large fries or regular?’ they ask. I ask what ‘regular’ means. They don’t know how to explain how regular the regular fries are,” he wrote.
“I should have been born knowing. Everybody else was.”
By the 1980s, teenagers were less of a focus. In 1984, when the Baby Boomers were aged 20-38, the members of what would later be known as Generation X got little mention. Teenagers were tagged in NRN as part of the growing market for decaffeinated coffee, and as potential beneficiaries, or maybe victims, of a proposed youth minimum wage (the one from the 1960s had been scrapped by then). We reported on economists testifying before Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, who argued that a lower minimum wage for people under 18 wouldn’t create enough new jobs to be worthwhile and would punish those who needed the work.
Besides, NRN reported later in the year, with unemployment rates so low in the affluent suburbs, local teens didn’t need to take jobs for minimum wage. Wendy’s had resorted to busing in teenagers from inner cities as far as 20 miles away from their suburban restaurants and raising the bonus for staying on the job for three months from $10 to $50 (the minimum wage at the time was $3.35 per hour).
On top of that, far fewer teens were entering the workforce. NRN said that in the 1970s 300,000 teens joined the working masses each year. The figure was half that in 1983, and they were being absorbed by other industries.
Wendy’s director of human resources told NRN: “You have to hustle in a foodservice job, and if you can make more as a data entry clerk and not work as hard, you do it.”
Burger King was doing its part to add to the allure of the restaurant industry. It opened a restaurant at the University of Wisconsin-Stout campus in Menomonie that doubled as an educational tool in a course titled Fast-Food Operations. The professor of that class, Jim Buergermeister, told NRN he hoped the course would teach his students that fast-food jobs could become careers.
“We’re stressing in this course management kinds of things, not technical skills, involved in running a fast-food operation,” he said.
Students would rotate positions at the restaurant during the semester, with each taking a managerial role for part of the course.
Limited-menu operations “will dominate a society in the future as people turn to fast food for nourishment,” Buergermeister said.
This is part of Teen Vision, a special report about how this generation works, eats and plays.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
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