After our last column, RoundTable reader Barbara Miller submitted the following question for historians at the Evanston History Center:
I’ve been wondering when/why small neighborhood “convenience” shops disappeared. In the 1950s there were at least four within a few blocks (different directions) of my family’s home near Wesley & Monroe. No one did the family shopping at them, but they offered pantry/refrigerator staples, newspapers and soda/candy (I was a kid at the time). Was it up zoning? Was it a business model failure? Was it the rise of White Hen Pantry type of chains? Was it the upsizing of home refrigeration? Was it the post-war rise of car-centric mobility? It was nice to be able to get essentials (like popsicles, soda pop and penny candy — when it WAS a penny) with just a short walk.
To answer this question, we consulted a presentation EHC previously developed on the history of grocery stores in Evanston. Clipping files from Evanston newspapers provided advertisements and background information on grocery stores through the years. Photographs from our files of early Evanston stores and streets also provided valuable insights into how the stores evolved over time. It is a fascinating look at how our daily lives are affected by commercial trends.
Grocery stores have changed over time in response to broader changes in technology and lifestyles. In the early days of Evanston, there were many small neighborhood markets. Some specialized in meat or produce, but most carried a wide variety of items. Dairy items were delivered directly to the home by one of the many local dairies in Evanston. Most groceries were delivered, too. In an oral history, one person reminisced that, before most people had telephones, the “order man” would come by the house and take an order. Then, the delivery wagon would deliver the groceries.
Later, the many grocery stores advertised phone orders. Note the variety of stores in all parts of town in this advertisement from the Evanston Review in 1927.
The streetcar ran along Chicago Avenue from Howard to Dempster, jogged west on Dempster for 1/2 block to Sherman and north on Sherman to Central, then west on Central to Crawford, making public transportation easy and available for a quick trip to the market. Iceboxes and early refrigerators were small, with no freezer space, so shopping was done in small increments so that food would not spoil before it was eaten.
As automobile ownership rose, people began to drive themselves to the market. Small stores situated in densely populated commercial districts or close to residential areas were great for walk-up trade, but did not have adequate parking for increasingly larger automobiles. These two photographs — one of Smithfield’s on Central Street and the other of Smithfield’s on Orrington Avenue near Fountain Square — give an idea of these changes and how, as automobiles styles increased in size, street parking became more problematic.
The “super-market” emerged in mid-century as refrigerators and home freezers were developed and widely purchased, enabling consumers to store more food at home. Along with increasing automobile ownership enabling transportation of larger quantities, shopping habits expanded. These larger stores required a larger footprint on which to build, as well as requiring more land for a large parking lot. Therefore, they were constructed in less developed areas on the outer edges of populated areas, or along the train-tracks in Evanston, an area formerly occupied by rail-sidings and warehouse storage.
In response, some of the smaller neighborhood grocery stores became “convenience” stores and were patronized by neighborhood foot-traffic. These were for quick trips for snacks or a few items in between larger trips to the supermarket, as Barbara Miller recalled in her question. These smaller neighborhood stores did not have much purchasing power and were forced to pay higher prices for their stock, and thus were increasingly difficult to sustain economically. To gain leverage, they joined cooperatives such as Certified Grocers and larger franchises, such as White Hen and 7-Eleven. The small “mom-and-pop” stores grew fewer and fewer as the older owners retired without finding new owners willing to take on a low-profitability enterprise.
A Brief Look at Cooley’s Cupboard Restaurants
Cathy G. submitted another question for historians at the Evanston History Center:
Older members of my family talked about eating at an Evanston spot called Cooley’s Cupboard, in the 1930’s. Where was this located and what kind of a restaurant was it?
For this question, we dug into the archives to see what we might find about Cooley’s Cupboard restaurants. Period newspapers were a terrific resource for advertisements over the years. We also found Nina Kavin’s 2018 interview with Bennett Johnson to provide an important angle on the history. As is the case with all research questions, this one left us wanting to know even more about the history of Evanston restaurants, and we hope to be able to explore that history more fully. But for now, here’s a brief snapshot.
There were three Cooley’s Cupboard restaurants in Evanston. The first opened in 1925 at 1629 Orrington Ave. and was known as the “Original Cupboard.” Next came another Cooley’s Cupboard at 520 Main St., called “Rendezvous Moderne.” In 1927, a third opened at 1511 Chicago Ave., called “The Picardy Room.” In 1929, the Main Street “cupboard” moved to a larger space at 505 Main St., housed in the Colonnade Court Building near Hinman Avenue.
The restaurants were founded, owned, and operated by Roy William Cooley (1895-1974), who also opened two Tally-Ho restaurants (one in Evanston at 1513 Chicago Ave. and one in Park Ridge) in the 1940s.
The restaurants were open daily to serve lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. They also offered fountain drinks, homemade pastries, and special holiday dinners. Although the menus evolved over the roughly four decades that the restaurants were in operation, the focus was on “variety” and food that was affordable and wholesome. The food was prepared, according to a 1935 advertisement, “by women cooks and pleasantly served by College girls in congenial surroundings.” From sandwiches and salads to a three-course meal, the food offered on the menu was fairly extensive and offered a diner the chance to order “exactly the kind of meal you desire.” A typical menu in the 1940s included the entrees: broiled loin lamb chops with mint jelly and roast prime ribs of beef with Yorkshire pudding. Buffet dinners, Sunday dinners, and “petit dinners” were also offered. Cooley advertised extensively and, to draw more customers, the restaurants often hosted events including fashion shows, charity events, and musical performances. The Original Cupboard especially drew a large crowd from Northwestern University, and students often held meetings and parties there. In 1935, the Original Cupboard restaurant opened a Neoclassical dining room, called the “East Room,” which was decorated with a mural of blue and silver, painted by Evanston artist Carl Sheffler.
For many years, Black diners were not welcome at Cooley’s Cupboards, a reality that was true at many Evanston restaurants. In 2018, Nina Kavin interviewed social justice and civil rights activist Bennett Johnson who recalled that the Cooley’s Cupboard at 505 Main St. “wouldn’t serve Blacks.” As a result, around 1945, 15-year-old Johnson and others staged a sit-in at the restaurant. “We sat in at Cooley’s Cupboard,” he said in an interview with Ms. Kavin, “until they finally, you know, decided to serve us.” The sit-in was organized by members of the Evanston chapter of C.O.R.E (Congress of Racial Equality). They also staged sit-ins at two other Evanston restaurants that denied service to Black customers: Robin Hood’s Barn and the Dominion Room. (Shorefront Legacy Center’s oral history collection contains interviews with Evanston residents concerning their encounters with and actions at Cooley’s Cupboard and other restaurants: www.shorefrontvoice.org.)
In 1951, Mr. Cooley sold all five of his restaurants to George D. Hanby, who continued to operate them into the 1960s (when Cooley’s Cupboard restaurants closed) and the 1970s (when Tally-Ho restaurants closed).
The buildings that housed the original Cupboard and the Cupboard at 1511 Chicago Ave. are no longer extant; Oceanique restaurant now occupies 505 Main St., the former site of Cooley’s “Rendezvous Moderne.”
 “Mildred Crew” in Hinky Dinks, Sundaes and Blind Pigs: An Oral History of Evanston (Evanston, IL: Evanston Township High School, 1977), 11.
 “Cooley’s Cupboard Opens New Room,” Daily Northwestern, July 12, 1935.
 Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 63.
 Nina Kavin, “An Evanstonian You Should Know: Bennett Johnson,” Dear Evanston, January 29, 2020, https://www.dearevanston.org/post/2020/01/29/an-evanstonian-you-should-know-bennett-johnson. Originally published in 2018.
 Bennett Johnson, email to Jenny Thompson, March 16, 2021.
The Evanston History Center is happy to partner with the Evanston RoundTable to share the insights that our expansive collection of Evanston history provides. Public records, newspapers, letters, maps, photographs, and artifacts all carry messages from the past to inform our lives today. The differences and changes can be compelling, disconcerting, educational, but always fascinating and often downright funny.
Since history looks at the past but also influences the future, and today will be history tomorrow, we have titled this column “Dimensions.” We are living in a historic time, and you can help us tell future generations what it was like. We are located in the National Historic Landmark Charles Gates Dawes House at 225 Greenwood St.. Please visit our website, evanstonhistorycenter.org, to learn more about how you can participate and contribute to the collection.
What are you curious about in Evanston history? Let us know what you’ve wondered about! Send your queries to email@example.com.
Eden Juron Pearlman, Executive Director