Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Al Ross and the Doggie Diner, R.I.P.

Al Ross died in Palm Springs last Wednesday at the age of 93. He led the good life - raised in Da Bronx, amateur boxer, pusher of a ice cream cart along the Embarcadero, he founded the Doggie Diner.

His passage marks another loss in the cultural history of San Francisco.

None of the recent transplants to San Francisco, as they sip their lattes from Seattle’s Starbucks, could ever understand, much less visualize, his impact on the City and the Bay Area during the middle third of the last century.

Al Ross created the Doggie Diner, a chain of 30 eclectically designed diners with the Plexiglas head of an iconic dachshund. The Doggie Diner survived almost 40 years, a long time for a dog, from 1949-1986.

The symbol of the chain was a 700 pound fiberglass, brown dachshund, wearing a chef’s cap and bowtie, rotating on a stick by each facility. Seeing was believing. Furnishings were vinyl stools and formica tables.

The Doggie Diner fit into a string of San Francisco eccentric: Emperor Norton; Chief Justice Terry of the California Supreme Court, who knifed an opponent in 1856, shot to death in a duel Senator Broderick, and then fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War; Melvin Belli, the King of Torts; The BVC and Irish Coffee; Chop Suey, and the cable Car named Desire.

America came of age in World War II. It emerged a changed country from the War. It was the next great superpower. The chains of the Great Depression had been cast off. A new belief in the power and greatness of America set in. Anything was possible.

And America grew. The cities grew up and they grew out. Great new American cities, especially Houston, Phoenix, and San Jose, arose. The suburbs exploded as the power of the automobile was unleashed on the new road systems.

Entrepreneurs arose to meet the new demands and cultural changes.

Al Ross founded the Doggie Diner in Oakland and spread it to 30 sites in the Bay Area, including 13 in prime locations in San Francisco. The Dog only had one major competitor, a chain named Mel’s Drive-in, made famous in American Graffiti and Universal Studios. These were where the teenagers hung out.

The dog was a rite of passage.

The word “doggie” denoted it was founded on “wieners,” but the burgers were special, not that it mattered. The chain’s classic motto was “We compete in quality not price.”

Absolutely nothing of significance, but everything of significance, was decided at the Dog. We are talking about teenagers prior to the pill.

Even in college, the Dog on Arguello and Geary was close to USF. A return to San Francisco always required a visit to the Dog.

Ross sold out in 1979, and the last Dog, appropriately across from the Zoo on Sloat, closed in 1986. By that time, it looked like a forlorn dog on its last gasps. It was an eyesore, but a beach eyesore in the sense of irreverent beach eyesores which time had passed by.

The problem faced by the Doggie Diner, as well as Mel’s, is that their facilities were too small to stay in business when land values were soaring. They couldn’t generate enough sales.

The development was different in burgeoning Southern California. The brothers McDonald, Richard and Maurice, started a hamburger stand in 1940 in San Bernardino. Glen Bell started with a hot dog stand in 1946, also in San Bernardino, and later sold $.19 tacos out of a side window. He formally opened Taco Bell in 1962. Carl Karcher had his own hot dog cart in Los Angeles in 1941 and then opened a drive-in BBQ in Anaheim in 1946, now known as Carl Jr.’s. Dave Barham opened his first Hot Dog on a Stick on Muscle Beach in 1946, while Robert O. Peterson established Jack in the Box in San Diego in 1951.

Last, but certainly most significant of all, Harry and Esther Snyder opened the first drive-through fast food restaurant in Baldwin Park on October 22, 1948. We revere their In and Out Burgers.

The Southern California chains spread like tentacles as the area boomed and plowed under thousands of farms. They reached Northern California and the old chains couldn’t compete.

But the Dog lives on.

A few have been preserved by private owners, and the City Council spent $25,000 a few years ago to facelift one of the Dogs and stand it on Sloat near the Beach as a landmark. It's not a beacon or foghorn. It's simply a tethered lost dog awaiting the return of its master. The Dog plaintively looks lost.

A piece of San Francisco died last week.

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