Though little remembered today, Sambo’s was a chain of coffee shops that rivaled Denny’s in ubiquity – there were 1,200 restaurants in 47 states as recently as 1979. The restaurants were named after its founders Sam and Bo, but their branding imagery derived from a turn-of-the-century children’s book called The Story of Little Black Sambo. Evaluating the implications of this racist imagery is beyond the scope of today’s blog post, but to me it seems likely that this imagery somehow contributed both to Sambo’s rapid growth during the 1960s and 1970s and to its even more rapid disappearance at the beginning of the 1980s.
The cartoon imagery seen here is similar in style to that which decorated the interiors of Sambo’s restaurants, in cartoon-frame panels that told the story of how Little Black Sambo tamed some lions with a stack of pancakes or something like that. Emphasizing the yellow and red that figure so prominently in fast-food branding, the “Sambo’s Pancakes” logo is in a slab-serif style deliberately jauntified with letters arranged up and down from the baseline in a wavy drunken-master style.
The reverse features the same image, but the spine, a part of the matchbook seldom exploited, reads “they’re delightful” in a nice signpainter style. Positively delightful!
A few words must be said about the architecture of Sambo’s. The wildest Sambo’s were probably the most exuberantly jaunty in style of any Googie coffee shops, completely unrestrained in their use of color and a multiplicity of playful forms. Santa Barbara-based photographer Tim Putz traveled the country in the 1970s shooting them professionally and now has a website offering prints for sale. These images are worth looking through, even if you don’t intend to buy. I couldn’t resist ordering one and framing it – this is an 11×14 print of restaurant Oakland #71:
These images, mostly taken at night or at dusk or dawn, share a solitary, melancholy beauty in poignant contrast to their exuberant and often crass architectural style. Here are direct links to a few of my favorite shots: