Depression Era Sandwich Shops


An ad from 1920s for B & G Sandwich shop, which had four locations downtown in Cincinnati.

We think that the assembly line sandwich chain like Subway is a recent innovation.  But its ancestor goes back nearly a century to the era of Prohibition.   As large restaurants without alcohol no longer turned a profit, smaller, more economical restaurants popped up, many in their place.   These were called ‘quick lunches’ and slanged “gobble-and-git.”    The quick lunches of the 1920s, aslo known as sandwich shops, substituted the steam tables of also popular cafeteria’s like Mill’s Restaurant in Cincinnati, with an often zigzagged lunch counter.

Before the 1920s, George Nathan, a food writer of that time, said there were only 8 types of sandwiches – swiss cheese, ham, sardines, tongue, liverwurst, egg, corned beef, and roast beef.    Before the 1920s sandwiches meant a picnic or a ladies tea party.  The sandwich shop by 1926, Nathan said, had invented thousands of variations and cemented our national love of the Sandwich.    New York City by that time had over 5000 sandwich shops, where busy city dwellers could eat quickly and economically.

Cincinnati didn’t have as many sandwich shops as New York City, but we had our fair share.    They were located next to theatres, like the Fountain Grill & Sandwich Shop, which was next to the Albee Theatre on 5th street.     There were some, like the 60 Second Shop, that were next to streetcar stops in entertainment districts.   Others like B & C (3 E 8th Street), Helena Sandwich Shop (416 Walnut and 127 E. Court Street), and All in One (606 Vine Street) were dotted throughout downtown.    One distinctive factor of Cincinnati Sandwich Shops were that that advertised waffles in addition to sandwiches.  The waffle was an even cheaper way to fill your belly, with a cup of coffee, in the Depression era.   My grandmother told us that when she started her first big girl job after high school in a box factory in Northern Kentucky, one of the things she was able to do was treat her mother on a Sunday afternoon, to a movie and a waffle and coffee at a sandwich shop on Monmouth Street in Newport.


Matchbooks from Cincinnati’s 1920s era Sandwich Shops.

Cincinnati had four locations of a national chain called B & G Sandwich shop, whose slogan was “A Meal a Minute.”.  By 1920, B & G had chains in major cities of 40 states from New York to San Francisco.  IN 1920 the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce said of B & G:

Is there anybody who doesn’t relish the type of sandwiches served in a B-G place – those three-deckers, toasted, and made with such wholesome edibles?   The most popular of these sandwiches is the B-G Special, composed of various meats and Mayonnaise dressing.  Their coffee is of first-rate quality, prepared as it is by special process.   And the pies are something which make you feel glad that you’re eating in a B-G place.   We highly recommend a B-G Sandwich shop for a light snack on a hot summer’s day.


A 1949 Cincinnati B & G Sandwich Shop downtown.

The chain lasted into the 1960s here in Cincinnati.   These quick lunches and sandwich shops inspired drug stores with soda fountains to add light lunch fare and sandwiches.    Cigar and candy stores even shoehorned lunch counters into the back of their stores too as the sandwich craze took off.     In Cincinnati,  the coney counters and chili parlors, took advantage of the quick lunch craze , starting in 1922 with Empress Chili, and the rest, is history.


A 1940s menu from B & G Cincinnati.






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