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Food Visionaries

Oral History Project Focuses on Development of Southern California Food Industry

Jan. 13, 2014

Dorathy Laster remembers Carl Karcher as one of the nicest employers. "There couldn't be anyone better or nicer. He was so good to us and so thoughtful."
Laster's memories are part of an ongoing Center for Oral and Public History project, "Food Visionaries Project," begun to collect and record the voices of the early pioneers of fast food and commercial restaurants, their partners, families and employees.
"It all started when the Karcher family approached us and donated personal letters and other material about the founding and establishment of the Carl's restaurants," explained Allison Varzally, associate professor of history.
"We then branched out to other Southern California establishments — Pinks, Ruby's, Polly's, Sizzler, Taco Quickie, Porto's, El Torito and Wahoo's Fish Tacos — seeking information on their influence on the food industry and on Southern California."
Such as the founder of El Torito, Larry J. Cano, a World War II veteran and lawyer who transitioned from bartender to owner of a Polynesian that he eventually converted to a formal, sit-down Mexican restaurant. Prior to his endeavor, this type of food was sold through walk-up stands in Mexican neighborhoods and home kitchens, said Varzally.
"These oral histories are also the history of immigrants and their food traditions, as is the case of the Ming Brothers, who founded Wahoo's," said Varzally. "Their parents fled China and the sons grew up in Brazil. When the family moved to California, dad opened a Chinese restaurant but the brothers developed Wahoo's with a menu that reflected their Chinese, South American background."
The oral histories also tell a lot about the era in which many of the chains began in Southern California, said Varzally. Many started right after World War II and catered to those who were working in such manufacturing industries as aircraft and shipbuilding factories.
Charles Hogue remembered working at a little hotdog stand at Normandy and Manchester during his high school years.
"And, Carl used to stop by there and talk to Lee, who was the owner of the hotdog cart, and that’s where I first met Carl," said Hogue, who would later work for Karcher, retiring in 1985 after 25 years. "Finally, I guess Carl bought the hotdog cart at Florence and Central. It was across the street from the Goodyear plant where the Goodyear blimp used to land on Florence Avenue  And, that was his first hotdog cart."
"People like Carl Karcher took something simple and built upon it," said Varzally, who hopes to expand the oral history project to strengthen understanding of the region's food industry and culture. "The development of their restaurants changed everything from those who worked in the restaurants and where restaurants were located to the way food was processed and cooked. Their impact is immeasurable."

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