by Mary Larson
The first Joe’s restaurant opened in 1909 in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn. Joe’s was named after its proprietors: Joe Balazarini and Joe Sartori, Italian immigrants who had become wealthy through the restaurant. Joe’s had found a particularly interesting customer base of local politicians and was a popular spot for the Catholic community. The financial success of Joe’s had resulted in the restaurant having a wide menu, and serving a wide variety of customers. However, Joe’s would experience some labor difficulties in 1937, due to the empowerment many restaurant unions felt through the election of 1936. Strikes would continue to hamper Joe’s on Nevins street for years to come.
Similar to many Italian-American New Yorkers before him, Balazarini had made his wealth through adapting culturally Italian cuisine to an American preference. Menu items such as “Spaghetti Italian Style with Cheese” and “Fried Eggplant with bacon and brown gravy”1 suggest a not particularly authentic version of Italian cuisine, but still inspired by the culture. In the 1920s, Italian food had become quite popular with middle class non-Italian Americans, and the food had become fit toward American preferences.2 The menu, itself, was not confined to a particular region or culture with items such as “chicken gumbo” and “filet Mignon with Mushrooms.”3 Joe’s massive menu is not so much a reflection of the owner’s ethnic heritage, but likely the technological change in how food was handled and on-part due the restaurant’s financial success. The vast menu was dated in 1929, and according to the New York Times, Balazarini was rumored to be a millionaire in 1922.4 So the proprietor’s wealth had likely expanded into the restaurant gaining an expanded menu. Also in various historical photographs, one can tell that Joe’s restaurant had a large storefront, so the menu may have represented its large customer base throughout a single day.5 While it is a bit odd that Balazarini does not follow the footsteps of a traditional Italian restaurant, he ran a financially successful large restaurant with a massive menu.
The restaurant had served a particular demographic, typically Brooklyn Catholics and it was also frequented by many local politicians. In the turn of the century, Catholic immigrants had become a major element of many American cities, A Brooklyn Eagle article describes Joe’s restaurant as the meeting ground for the “Loyola Council K. of C.,” a Knights of Columbus group, that would attend mass and then breakfast at Joe’s on Fulton street.6 The Knights of Columbus were a major Catholic Italian group, and it marks Joe’s as a place for Catholics. Interestingly, the source also describes some politicians giving speeches, such as, “Albert Conway, former district attorney; William J Ryan, district deputy.”7 Joe’s had remained popular with local politicians, and later in 1937, the Eagle described how Judge Abruzzo had made an announcement about judging at none-other than, “in Joe’s restaurant 330 Fulton Street.”8 Joe’s Fulton street location had been popular with many politicians due to its location to the courthouse and business district.9
Joe’s restaurant had become a fixation of middle class life in Brooklyn by the 1920s, as its owner’s gained a fair amount of wealth from the restaurant, it’s staff became local celebrities as well. A Brooklyn Public Eagle article describes the obituary of a perfect waiter affectionately known as Jake.10 The article goes into detail of how Jake was the perfect waiter, never missing work or showing up late, and how he will be missed by many of Brooklyn’s diners.11 Jake’s perfect waiting record and his familiarity among the community is quite obvious. It is especially interesting, as Jake had been an immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine and had never married, so his legacy completely relies around Joe’s restaurant and his patrons.12 The glowing obituary of Jake from Joe’s is quite heartwarming, but it remains a kinder time of the early 1920s. This will later be contrasted by the union strikes of the pro-labor 30s.
In 1937 in February, one of the first major strikes had occurred at the Joe’s in which 68 workers did not show up to work.13 The article parallels that of Jake’s glowing praise, as it examines how customers at the restaurant felt at odds as they no longer saw their favorite waiters and waitresses.14 The employee’s strike had ruined the friendly atmosphere that Joe’s had previously established with their patrons, and the article mentions how very few patrons had dined for breakfast, as many did not want to break the striker’s picket.15 The article goes on to describe how the restaurant had been able to bring in new waiter strikebreakers, but it appears that had already damaged the atmosphere that had made Joe’s so loved in the first place.16
The following day, The Brooklyn Eagle had published a follow-up piece on more of the strikers demands, and what Joe’s restaurant was doing wrong. The article reports an additional 30 kitchen workers joining the restaurant strike, which had risen the number of strikers to 100 employees.17 The article also mentions that the workers were members of the Brooklyn and Queens Local 2 of the Waiters and Waitresses Union.18 The article further describes how union demanded, “$12 a week for waiters, a six day week of eight hours daily and nine on Saturday, and no discrimination in the waiters’ stations.”19 The current owners had mentioned that they had prided themselves on how the restaurant previously did not have any significant labor disputes, but the union continued that none of the demands had been met.20 This conflict will continue to plague Joe’s and its waiters, but it follows the trends of its time period.
While 1937 may seem like a strange year for strikes to start at Joe’s, but it reflects the changing political climate in America. According to Matthew Josephson’s Union House, Union Bar, 1937 and onward was a golden age for unions and strikes due to Roosevelt’s election victory. The author describes the 1936 Presidential election as, “equivalent to a peaceful revolution in which the legal rights of organized labor had been fully recognized.”21 The Roosevelt administration’s pro-labor stance had revitalized many unions, even those in the food sector. Josephson continued to describe how many restaurant unions in New York had gained benefits through strikes such as higher wagers, improved meals, and an eight hour work day.22 Waiter unions had also experienced increased membership during the late 1930s as well.23 Considering these factors, it is likely that the Joe’s strike had followed the restaurant union trends of the day.
Unlike many neighboring unions, the Joe’s wait and kitchen staff took a lengthy amount of time to reach a consistent agreement. As early as April of 1937, Joe’s had gained new management under Stephen Guardino who appeared to be willing to meet strikers demands. The article describes how the news of the new management’s willingness to work with the union had caused strikebreakers to walk out on strike, and the previous strikers to return back to work at Joe’s.24 The article resolves with Guardino agreeing to the union’s demands, with some strikers even getting promoted.25 However, the strike continued, newspapers continued to discuss the strike surrounding Joe’s. In September of 1937, The New York Times described a victory for the Joe’s strikers by restraining a State Supreme Court Justice, John H McCooey, from interfering in their case under the guise that McCooey had been close friends with co-owner Joseph Sartori and had been able to dine at Joe’s for free multiple times.26 The New York Times had similarly mentioned how this particular strike had begun in July as management failed to hire waiters recommended by the union.27 The Joe’s strikes had begun to see some victories, but it would still take quite some time for the strikes to totally end.
“Waiters Win Three Year Strike at Nevins St. Joe’s Restaurant” was the appropriate headline for The Brooklyn Eagle article describing the legal victory for the Waiter and waitress union Local 2.28 The article continues to describe how the New York State Labor Relations Board had ruled that the restaurant must give former strikers full seniority rights.29 This was a victory for the strikers as returning workers would also be entitled to good pay and conditions previous to the strike. Despite this victory, the strikes had continued. This may have been due to disagreements among strikers and the union.
The final resolution to the Nevins Street strike came in 1942, as many union demands were met. According to The Brooklyn Eagle, Joe’s had adopted a closed union which covered various employees of the restaurant, not solely waiters.30 The workers had similarly gained higher wages, with a $2 dollar raise of the weekly wage for a 9 hour 6 day workweek.31 It was a great victory for the union, and it appeared to have finally ended the consistent worker’s strike at Joe’s on Nevins. It had taken four years for the union’s demands to be fully recognized, and The Brooklyn Eagle had even claimed, “Picketing Waiters At Nevins St. Joe’s Walked 25,000 Miles.”32 The strikes surrounding the restaurant were likely influenced by the stronger labor shift with the Roosevelt administration during this time period. Unions clearly had more influence and the US had also entered WWII by 1942, which had ended the Great Depression.
Joe’s restaurant was a trademark of the Brooklyn community through the early 20th century, and it lasted until the 1950s as Fulton street had expanded. Joe’s remained a successful restaurant and had made its owners quite wealthy. Joe’s offered such a wide variety of food on its menu likely due to its success and wealth. The early 20th century also marked a distinction as Italian cuisine had become fully assimilated into the American diet. The late 1930s marked an interesting time in American history, as the Roosevelt administration had developed a heavy pro-labor stance which fueled unions across the United States. This particularly affected Joe’s as their workers joined in the pickets to ensure better treatment and pay. It is interesting as waiters and waitresses today are still paid very badly, and it is important to consider the labor that is associated with all of the food we eat, as exploitation within the food industry is common.
- Joe’s Restaurant, Menu. 3 May 1920, Brooklyn NY: http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/64790
- SIMONE CINOTTO. “Serving Ethnicity: Italian Restaurants, American Eaters, and the Making of an Ethnic Popular Culture,” In The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City, 180-210. University of Illinois Press, 2013, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt3fh46s.13. p.205.
- Joe’s Restaurant, Menu
- New York Times (1923-Current File), “JOSEPH BALZARINI, 74, CAFE OWNER, !S DEAD: PROPRIETOR OF JOE’S RESTAURANT IN BROOKLYN IS VICTIM OF SUDDEN HEART ATTACK,” 04 Jun 1935, http://ezproxy.loyno.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/docview/101406274?accountid=12168.
- John D Morell, “[Joe’s Restaurant, at corner of Fulton Street and Pierrepont Street (#330 Fulton Street.)] ” Photograph, John D Morrell photographs, April 4 1958, From Center for Brooklyn history: https://brooklynhistory.pastperfectonline.com/photo/0879408B-C19A-418F-A81D-858544996850.
- Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Catholic News,” 01 April 1922: https://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/57538884/?terms=joe%27s%20restaurant&match=1 p.2
- Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Catholic News”
- Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Judges only human, Abruzzo tells Jurors,” 26 January 1937, p.17. https://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/52928947/?terms=joe%27s%20restaurant%20strikes&match=1-
- Tess Cowell, “Joe’s Restaurant,” Center for Brooklyn History, 15 June 2016, https://www.brooklynhistory.org/photos-of-the-week/joes-restaurant/
- Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Hungry Customers Mourn Old ‘Jake,” 05 January 1926, From the Brooklyn Newsstand. https://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/57547885/?terms=joe%27s%20restaurant&match=
- The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Hungry Customers Mourn Old ‘Jake’
- Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Strikebreakers serve breakfast at Joe’s,” 06 Feburary 1937, From the Brooklyn Newsstand. https://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/52609624/?terms=joe%27s%20restaurant%20strikes&match=1p. 1
- Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Strikebreakers serve breakfast at Joe’s.”
- Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Strikebreakers serve breakfast at Joe’s.” p.1
- Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Strikebreakers serve breakfast at Joe’s.” p.1
- The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Kitchen Help Strike at Joe’s.” 07 Feburary 1937. From the Brooklyn Newsstand
- The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Kitchen Help Strike at Joe’s.”
- Matthew Josephson, Union House, Union Bar, The History of Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union, AFL-CIO (New York: Random House, 1959) 262.
- Josepheson, Union House, Union Bar, 278.
- Ibid. 279.
- The Brooklyn Daily Eagle,“Boniface Guardino’s was an Alger Career,” 21 April 1937, From the Brooklyn Newsstand, https://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/52675586/?terms=joe%27s%2Brestaurant p.18
- The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.“Boniface Guardino’s was an Alger Career.”
- New York Times (1923-Current File),“Cafe Strikers Get Writ Curbing McCooey; Affidavits Say Justice Eats There Free.” 02 Sep 1937, http://ezproxy.loyno.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/docview/102364862?accountid=12168.
- New York Times (1923-Current File),“Cafe Strikers Get Writ Curbing McCooey; Affidavits Say Justice Eats There Free,”
- The Brooklyn Daily Eagle,“Waiters win Three Year Strike at Nevins St. Joe’s Restaurant,” 02 Feburary 1940, From the Brooklyn Newsstand. https://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/52686246/?terms=joe%27s%2Brestaurant. p.1.
- The Brooklyn Daily Eagle,“Waiters win Three Year Strike at Nevins St. Joe’s Restaurant,”
- The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “4-Year Strike Ends at Boro Restaurant” 07 April 1942, From the Brooklyn Newsstand, https://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/52640070/?terms=joe%27s%20restaurant%20strikes&match=1 p.1
- The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “4-Year Strike Ends at Boro Restaurant” p.1
- Ibid p.1