By David Sher
While in school in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s I worked in my dad’s retail store in downtown Birmingham summers and weekends.
We were a small family business so mom worked there also.
We couldn’t all go to lunch at the same time so I usually went with one of my parents.
My favorite restaurant was Joy Young, my dad liked Morrison’s or John’s, but my mom’s first choice was always Britling Cafeteria.
She absolutely loved the place.
There was a Britling Cafeteria across the street on 1st Avenue North so it only took a couple of minutes to walk there.
Mom always chose the same lunch…a salad, chicken, vegetable, roll, and coffee.
When dad had an opportunity to eat with us, he chose a hamburger steak with a pickle on top, salad, vegetable, roll, and iced tea.
Britling was so popular that there were two other locations nearby. There was a Britling on 3rd Avenue North and another on 20th Street a couple of blocks away. Each of these restaurants had its own entry, but shared a common kitchen area. If I remember correctly, the 20th Street location had a balcony overlooking the main floor. The restaurants were always busy.
Tim Hollis, a Birmingham historian wrote, “One would assume that the Britling restaurants were started by someone name Mr. Britling, right? Wrong.
“The first Britling was opened in 1917 by W.B. Johnson, and was reportedly the first cafeteria in the entire South. So, why wasn’t it called Johnson’s? It seems that Johnson was an H.G. Wells fan, and he named his new restaurant after one of that author’s books, ‘Mr. Britling Sees It Through.’
Johnson subsequently moved the Britling Cafeteria to 1913-17 1st Avenue North in 1919. This was the restaurant where my mom and I ate. The grand opening of the new 280-seat location opened on July 11 with 2,000 meals served on the first day.”
But then Johnson had financial problems and Britling was taken over by Birmingham Trust National Bank who recruited John Holcomb Sr., a young automobile dealer, to take charge.
According to BhamWiki, “During the Great Depression Holcomb began a tradition of serving a free hot breakfast to Birmingham’s needy from the main downtown location. He and his family would join other volunteers to prepare and serve the meal. The tradition ended with John Holcomb Jr’s retirement in 1975.
Hollis wrote, “The chain capitalized on its popularity among young children by sponsoring the “Romper Room” program on WAPI-TV. Children who finished a glass of milk during their visit received a specially-marked card which, after it was filled, could be redeemed for a ceramic mug with the Britling logo on one side and Romper Room’s jack-in-the-box on the other.”
The chain opened locations on Highland Avenue, Mountain Brook, and in popular shopping centers such as Eastwood Mall (two locations, one at each end of the mall), Western Hills Mall, Vestavia Hills Mall, Five Points West Shopping City, and in the Hoover Mall.
The three original downtown restaurants closed by the end of the 1970’s and then the others followed.
The Hoover location was converted into an all-you-can-eat buffet, but shut down in the 1980’s.
Birmingham has always been a creative and robust restaurant city.
Britling, the first cafeteria in the South, may not look anything like today’s upscale Birmingham restaurants like Bottega, Helen, Automatic Sea Food, or El Barrio.
But to my mom, Britling was a much needed respite from work—where she could feel at home, eat, relax, and enjoy time with her family.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to Tim Hollis who helped with this column. View his many books which feature Birmingham icons like Loveman’s, Pizitz, and Cousin Cliff.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
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