Eating Out at Woolworth’s

F. W. Woolworth & Co Ltd established a new tradition when the Liverpool store (Store 1) opened in November 1909, by including a first-floor tea room with windows overlooking Church Street. Behind the scenes lay a kitchen and a ‘waiting room’, where waitresses collected orders. With its chandeliers, tall palms and mirrored overmantel, the Liverpool tea room was one of the most elegant ever operated by Woolworth’s, resembling those in local department stores. This successful idea was quickly exported to America, where the first ‘refreshment room’ opened in 1910.

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The refreshment counter at Portsmouth, Store 35, which opened in August 1914. (K. Morrison)

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The restaurant advertised in the window of Woolworth’s Kingston upon Thames branch in 1920. (Historic England)

As new branches were added to the British chain in the years leading up to the First World War, some were given perfunctory tea or refreshment bars rather than tea rooms or restaurants with waitress service. In 1920 the first eight soda fountains opened, and before long Woolworth’s began to position ice cream counters beside entrances. In the ensuing decade, however, many of the early restaurants closed, including the one at the Kingston upon Thames branch, shown here, and the space was added to sales areas.

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A special menu from Woolworth’s self-service cafeteria in Bristol, to celebrate the Silver Jubilee in 1935. (K. Morrison)

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The new self-service cafeteria advertised in the windows of Woolworth’s Doncaster store around 1930. (Reproduced by permission of Historic England)

Around 1930, the American self-service cafeteria system was introduced by Woolworth’s at large stores such as Oxford Street in London, Doncaster and Bristol. Seaside stores devoted more space to refreshments than town-centre branches, and the new Blackpool store of 1938 – the largest in the chain – had three vast cafeterias. The bread-slicing and buttering machine in the cafeteria kitchen was capable of producing 55 slices per minute. In addition to these cafés, Blackpool offered a variety of freestanding counters and kiosks dispensing drinks and snacks to holidaymakers. These included a milk bar and a mineral bar. To draw custom from afar, a large neon sign reading ‘Woolworths Café’ was displayed at the top of the store’s corner turret.

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The Bank Hey café in Woolworth’s Blackpool store (1938) could seat 380 customers. (Reproduced by permission of Historic England)

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The ice cream and minerals counter at Blackpool in 1938. The front was of Vitrolite. (Reproduced by permission of Historic England)

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One of Woolworth’s quick lunch counters – modelled on those in American stores – in the early 1930s, probably Liverpool. (K. Morrison)

As well as having cafeterias in the 1930s, large city-centre Woolworth’s stores such as Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh had luncheon counters – or ‘quick lunch bars’ – yet another American idea. Customers could perch on red-topped stools at the counter to partake of a quick meal. The post-war equivalents of the quick lunch bars were called ‘Diamond Bar’.

New stores built after the Second World War had large cafeterias with shiny chrome fittings. Several, like Bristol, were located on mezzanine floors, overlooking sales areas, so customers could plan their shopping as they ate. A lower standard was established in the late 1950s at Guildford, where the café had rigidly fixed seating that tilted like cinema seats. Counters often had a Formica frontage enlivened by a distinctive diamond pattern. By the mid-1960s, it was usual to incorporate local references in the decoration of cafés, such as dragons and castles in Cardiff.

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The mezzanine cafeteria in the Bristol store of 1952. (Reproduced by permission of Historic England)

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The Guildford cafeteria of 1958, viewed from the servery. This design was replicated at many Woolworth’s stores in the late 1950s and 1960s. (Reproduced by permission of Historic England)

The ‘Guildford-type’ cafeterias were superseded by ‘Harvest House’ restaurants in the late 1960s. These were rather more comfortable, with carpets and spot-lighting. This concept endured until the company was sold by its American owners to Paternoster Stores (Woolworth Holdings) in 1982. However, kitchens and bakeries were already being swept away as food was increasingly brought in ready-prepared. Some people might have memories of ‘Kwik Snax’ in the 1970s and its more literate successor ‘Quick Snacks’ in the 1980s. The company even dabbled in the brand new American ‘food court’ concept at Reading in 1982, but this progressive experiment was never repeated. A new generation of cafes, simply called The Café, with a peppermint-blue theme, endured through the 1990s and 2000s: these are the Woolies cafés that most people will recall today.

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A typical 1970s Woolworth’s cafeteria, in the Eagle Centre, Derby (1975). (Reproduced by permission of Historic England)

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Quite a contrast to the cafeterias of the 1970s: a much lighter and brighter generation of cafés was rolled out in the 1990s. This is Milton Keynes. (c. Historic England, John Laing Collection)

For more about Woolworth’s stores, including the tea rooms and cafés, see my recent book Woolworth’s: 100 Years on the High Street

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