In 1850, 15-year-old Englishman John Harvey emigrated to the United States. In New York, he worked as a dishwasher for $2 per day. Savings his money, he moved on to New Orleans where he continued to learn the restaurant trade from the bottom up, accumulating not only savings, but a wealth of experience and knowledge. In 1853, after suffering from Yellow Fever, he moved to St. Louis and six years later, at the eve of the Civil War, Harvey opened a restaurant with a partner. When the war broke out, his partner went to fight for the Confederacy while Harvey found himself broke. Taking a succession of jobs on the riverboats, then in the St. Joseph Post Office, he ended up sorting mail for the first railway post-office, ending up as a freight agent for Chicago, Burlington & Quincy RR out of Leavenworth, Kansas.
In the beginning days of the railroads, there were few dining cars, even on extended trips which took considerably longer than today by train, and much longer than our modern air travel. For a traveler to eat, the trains would make dining stops every 100 miles or so. If you were lucky, the dining room was right there at the station. You had a limited time.. let's say an hour, to get to the restaurant, order your meal, wait for it to be cooked and served, then eat it, pay your bill and get back on board.
When the train was ready to leave the station, it was ready to leave... with or without the passengers, some stuffed from gulping down a four or five course meal in 15 minutes or less. So many people missed their trains that a national problem started to develop with family members not arriving at the station as scheduled and being presumed dead or missing by loved ones. There being no proper passenger manifests, it was impossible to account for a person's whereabouts.
Combining the knowledge he gained working in the restaurant trade with his keen observations of the difficulties in train travel in the 1870's, Harvey chanced upon an idea of how to successfully feed the passengers without loosing either time or the passengers themselves.
Harvey knew that passengers were hard pressed to find decent food
on their railroad trips and had an idea for a business to solve the
passengers problem. Approaching his employer with the idea to build
a network of restaurants, he was refused. In a chance meeting with
Charles Morse, superintendent of the AT&SF, he pitched his idea
Charles Morse, himself a gourmet, loved the idea of having a chain of restaurants where he could enjoy a decent meal. He fully supported Harvey and before long, the Harvey House chain... America's first fast food restaurant chain was born. The first of these was in Topeka Station. This became the training base for all others in the chain.
In their agreement, the AT&SF shared the building costs and gave Harvey space on their trains for moving his food, equipment and supplies. The Harvey House focus was to increase Santa Fe ridership by offering high quality food at reasonable prices for the train traveler. The business generated from the area residents was considered icing on the cake. If there was one enterprise that mirrored the rise of American railroading from adolescence to full-blown glory, it was Fred Harvey's restaurant. Soon Harvey lunchrooms extended from Kansas to California. By the late 1880's, there was a Harvey establishment every one hundred miles along the Santa Fe line.