Category: Pacific-Northwest

Coon Chicken Inn

The Coon Chicken Inn was a small but successful restaurant chain in the American West from the late 1920s through the 1950s; the first restaurant was opened in Salt Lake City, Utah by Maxon Lester Graham and his wife, Adelaide nee Burt. The Coon Chicken Inn restaurants were especially notable for their entrances: a huge winking, grinning grotesque of a black man wearing a porter’s cap. The words “Coon Chicken Inn” were spelled out on teeth framed by monstrous red lips. The doorway was through the middle of the mouth. The restaurants sold southern fried “Coon Chicken” sandwiches and chicken pie, as well as hamburgers, seafood, chili and assorted sandwiches. Blacks were employed as waiters, waitresses, and cooks, though not necessarily welcomed as customers.

The Grahams did very well in business and opened another restaurant in Seattle, Washington in late 1929. In 1930 they added a third restaurant in Portland, Oregon. All three sites enjoyed considerable success; a cabaret and orchestra were added to the Seattle and Salt Lake locations, with larger dining rooms and delivery trucks for outside catering. The grinning porter logo was plastered on every dish, silverware item, menu, and paper product.

In the late 1950’s the Grahams got out of the restaurant business, keeping the properties and leasing them out to other restaurant operators. The Salt Lake City site is now the Chuck-A-Rama; the Seattle restaurant is now Yings Drive-In, and the Portland site has become the Prime Rib.

Items from The Coon Chicken Inn are collectible as Black memorabilia, a uniquely American sub-genre of collectibles consisting of racist portrayals of blacks. Just as in many other genres of collectibles, fakery abounds. Many items with the Coon Chicken Inn logo or name are not original restaurant wares, and are only worthy as novelties.

Spike Lee employs many items black memorabilia in his April 2001 film Bamboozled, including a Coon Chicken Inn plate. A friend of mine has a Coon Chicken Inn matchbook from the Portland, OR restaurant.

Source: reprint of The History of Coon Chicken Inn by Scott Farrar, grandson of founder Maxon Lester Graham, as posted at Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorablia http://www.ferris.edu/news/jimcrow/. If you have an interest in Black Memorabilia and its place in American society, this site is quite fascinating.

© 2001-2006, originally published Jun 15, 2001