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Salt Lake Original: Coon Chicken Inn

A plate featuring the caricature from the Coon Chicken Inn
A plate featuring the caricature from the Coon Chicken Inn
CoonChickenInn.com

In addition to Salt Lake being the location of the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise restaurant, Salt Lake has the notoriety of being the first location of the Coon Chicken inn restaurant.

The Coon Chicken Inn was renowned for its use of racial slurs in its name and menu items. Originally the restaurant was established in 1925 in Sugar House at 2960 South Highland Drive by Maxon Lester Graham and his wife, Adelaide. They purchased a small building for $50 which only contained three stools, an ice box, and a small counter.

The restaurant served southern fried “Coon Chicken” sandwiches, chicken pie, hamburgers, seafood, chili, and various sandwiches. Graham’s restaurant employed blacks as wait staff and cooks but customers were predominatly white.

The restaurant did well and the Grahams added several additions to their small building, including several tables and a dance floor.

By March 1927, the restaurant and the Grahams had earned a reputation for “conducting a disorderly house.” This was a legal description of allowing or/or proving liquor to patrons during the time of Prohibition.

Maxon Graham was formally charged for this offence but after the court postponed the trail no less than six instances, the case against Graham was dropped because none of the witnesses could be found to testify.

Tragedy struck in July 1927 when some paper napkins in the back of the restaurant caught fire and spread through the grease soaked kitchen, eventually destroying most of building.

Following the fire, Graham, mostly as a publicity stunt, announced that he would rebuild and reopen the restaurant in 10 days. Graham took the opportunity to enlarge the space with more tables; eventually the restaurant became a huge building with a dance floor and an orchestra section.

Graham also added the famous (and infamously racist) caricature “Coon head” as a gimmick to attract travelers in the new age of roadside restaurants, novelty architecture, and automobile convenience.

This 12 foot tall caricature of a black man wearing a porters cap with the words “Coon Chicken Inn” spelled out on teeth framed by huge red lips. Customers would enter the restaurant through the middle of the mouth.

At the time, this caricature proved very popular and Graham added the famous head logo to the entrances of the all of his restaurant. He thought that it would help attract kids and families to the resturant. The caricature became the symbol of the restaurant and was used in all advertisements, postcards, matchboxes, spare tire covers, delivery cars, plates, menus, placemats, and other items.

In 1929 the Grahams further expended their business and opened another Coon Chicken Inn in Seattle Washington and the following year they opened another in Portland, Oregon.

The restaurants continued to be successful through the 1940s. However, after World War II racial sentiments began to change and protests against the restaurants and the associated caricature increased.

The Grahams closed the Coon Chicken Inn restaurants in Seattle and Portland in 1949 and leased the buildings to others. The Salt Lake City restaurant remained in operation until 1957.

The Chuck-O-Ramma restaurant took over the building once the Salt Lake Coon Chicken Inn restaurant closed. Today, the building has been demolished and replaced by San Francisco Design furnishings.

One of Grahams grandsons compiled a brief history of the Coon Chicken Inn, in that history he prefaced his essay by stating that he does not “condone the "Jim Crow" attitudes of the past. I and ALL of my siblings believe in full equality for all races, creeds, and skin colors. My grandparents were entrepreneurs engaging in what were normal business practices. They left behind artifacts, popularly called "Black Memorabilia," that serve as reminders that this particular part of history must never, and will never, be repeated.”

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My grandparents were entrepreneurs engaging in what were normal business practices. They left behind artifacts, popularly called "Black Memorabilia," that serve as reminders that this particular part of history must never, and will never, be repeated.

Comments

  • Profile picture of Lindsay Godfree
    Lindsay Godfree 3 years ago

    Well, very interesting! I never heard of it but remember the Chuck-O-Ramma.

  • Anonymous 3 years ago

    Did they call the dance room Issie's Cotton Club? We have an original dance card from there, Salt Lake City and 1927 are written on the back. I think this is where my grandfather played in a band/orchestra. And it might be where they met. We would love a photo of the old building if there is one.

  • Profile picture of Rachel Quist
    Rachel Quist 2 years ago

    I don't think it is the same. I will try and track down Issie's Cotton Club.

  • C. McBride 12 months ago

    An update to my above comment 2 yrs ago: My brother found an ad for Issie's Cotton Club. The orchestra playing was my grandfather's Cotton Club Orchestra. It was located at 3618 Highland Drive and the cover charge was free! I don't know where he found it. What is located at that address now? Are there photos of buildings at that address in the 1920's?