The restaurant got famous by serving giant pancakes so big the eggs and meat that came on the combo platters had to be served on separate plates.
What would now be called Race Art festooned the walls. The art was inspired by the children’s book “Little Black Sambo” by Helen Bannerman. The restaurant exploded in popularity becoming a chain so big it had its own trucking line, cattle ranches and meat packing houses.
Sambo’s advertised the “bottomless ten cent cup.” At a time when coffee routinely went for a quarter or even fifty cents, Sambo’s would pour you cups all day long for a dime. Bottomless.
By the mid-1970’s, the chain was the 4th most-franchised restaurant in USA, with more than 1,400 franchises.
Then the shit hit the fan.
It all started in Rhode Island.
Formal complaints were lodged against Sambo’s by the Urban League with the Rhode Island Commission On Human Rights alleging that the name made Black customers unwelcome. Rhode Island issued a ruling that the restaurant chain must change its name becaue it “violated public accommodations laws” (No. 011790461 (R.I. Comm. Hum. Rts. Mar. 16, 1981)
Other names employed by Sambo’s include: “The Jolly Tiger”, “Season’s Friendly Eating”, “Coco’s” and “No Place Like Sam’s”
Between 1982 and 1989, the number of Sambo’s restaurants in North America went from roughly 1450 restaurants to just one: the original in Santa Barbara.
Denny’s took over several shuttered Sambo’s in the early 80s and rebranded/reopened them under their own marque.
I grew up in a town so small we didn’t have a Sambo’s but a nearby town had a knock-off called Jimbo’s. Same menu, same theme. The owner eventually went to jail over a separate arson/insurance scheme. During my ramp-up to publishing this article I stumbled upon the following. It’s purportedly the Sambo’s Pancake recipe. Enjoy.
Shades of Sambo’s Pancakes
2 eggs, separated (whites in a clean copper, stainless steel or glass bowl [DO NOT USE A PLASTIC BOWL, NO MATTER HOW CLEAN YOU THINK IT IS!], yolks in an 8-cup mixing bowl with a handle)
2 tablespoons sugar
16 ounces biscuit and baking mix (about 3 loosely spooned cups)
2 cups milk (any fat content; we use 2/3 cup of nonfat dry milk and 2 cups of water)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Heat electric griddle or electric skillet to 375 degrees F or heat a heavy skillet over medium heat while mixing batter.
Beat egg whites with a hand mixer on high speed to stiff peaks and set aside. Cream sugar and egg yolks at high speed until lemony colored (about a minute). Add milk and beat 2 more minutes on high. Add biscuit mix and vanilla extract, mix on low speed until just blended (barley-sized lumps of mix are OK). Scrape beaten egg whites into batter and gently whisk in with the mixer switched off (ditto). Let stand 5 minutes.
Pour onto heated griddle or skillet, cook about 3 minutes before turning. Cook 1 to 2 minutes on second side. Serve with real butter and hot syrup.