Ask McGehee

What is the story behind Morrison’s cafeteria chain?

Pictured in 1923, the Meaher Building was the second home to Morrison’s from the mid-1920s until about 1946. Photo Courtesy Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

In 1918, John Arthur Morrison arrived in Mobile, and according to the city directory, he was employed as manager of the Battle House Coffee Room and resided in the Bienville Hotel. During a subsequent trip to Denver, Morrison observed the popularity of cafeterias and decided to establish one in Mobile.

Attorney George Cabell Outlaw assisted Morrison in obtaining investors. In 1920, Morrison’s Cafeteria opened its doors on the ground floor of the old German Relief Hall at the southeast corner of Conti and St. Emanuel streets. The space had been designed as a banquet hall for the organization, which had disbanded during the anti-German fervor of World War I.

The concept of a cafeteria had been around for a while, but Morrison sought to create “a cafeteria that thinks like a restaurant.” White-jacketed waiters carried the customer’s tray to the table, placing the items and removing the tray.

By the spring of 1923, there were Morrison’s Cafeterias in Mobile, Montgomery, Pensacola and Jacksonville. They were advertised as “a fine place to eat — where you get splendid home cooking at popular prices.”  

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In 1928, the firm incorporated as Morrison Cafeterias Consolidated and began offering stock for public sale. By then, Mobile’s flagship cafeteria had moved into the first floor of the recently remodeled Meaher Building on St. Joseph Street, just a block north of Merchants National Bank and opposite Mobile’s busy post office.  

An Oasis of Recreation 

A 1929 advertisement indicated the chain was up to seven locations, stretching from Savannah to Shreveport and south to New Orleans. Diners were invited to “stay awhile after lunch at Morrison’s before going back to the office. Prolong your pleasure, relax and chat. Make your lunch hour an oasis of recreation in the midst of a busy day.”

The 1930 U.S. census listed Morrison as living on Old Shell Road in Spring Hill. The cafeteria chain president listed the value of his home at $40,000 (in excess of $600,000 today). He had come a long way from a dowdy hotel room.

Morrison’s idea of good, home-cooked food at a reasonable price got the chain through the worst of the Depression. In 1935, breakfast could be had for just five cents, while a special Christmas lunch or dinner was priced at 18 cents.

In 1938, the Morrison behind Morrison’s sold out and moved to Florida where he and his son created a new chain of cafeterias called M & M. He would die in south Florida in 1973 at the age of 84. It’s unclear if he ever visited Mobile again.

Mobile’s Gulf, Mobile and Ohio office building became home to the local Morrison’s just after World War II. It is this location on the northwest corner of St. Francis and Royal streets that is fondly remembered by many Mobilians.

Turning Away from Downtown

In 1967, Morrison opened at Springdale Plaza and a year later announced that it was “turning away from Downtown areas by locating its new cafeterias in the suburbs.” After closing the Downtown location, the Springdale site was remodeled as the chain’s 154th with a “West Indies look” on the exterior and a 300-seat dining room with “a slightly French motif.”

In 1985, the nation’s largest chain of cafeterias celebrated its 65th anniversary. It had nearly 17,000 employees with a payroll of $162 million. But things were changing, and that same year, 13 locations were shut down. What was left of the company sold out to Piccadilly Cafeteria Inc. in 1998.

While Piccadilly operates the Springdale location today, it has retained the familiar Morrison’s moniker a century after James Morrison’s creation served its first meal.

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