Sometimes I do crazy things. Like drive two hours to go to a restaurant. In Charles Phoenix’s book, Addicted to Americana, he talks about the chain of coffee shops known as Sambo’s. Now, Sambo’s wasn’t totally unknown to me prior to reading the book, as there was one in my home town of Eugene, but it is long since gone, and well, I thought they all were. That is until I read that just one remains, and it happens to be the very first one, located in Santa Barbara. So how does a restaurant that started in 1957 and grew to have over 1,000 locations across the United States only have one today? Well, the funny thing is, this story begins all the way back in 1898 with a Scottish woman who lived in India for 30 years.
Scottish author Helen Bannerman wrote and drew the original illustrations for the story of Little Black Sambo back in 1898, and was first published the following year. It tells the tale of a little boy named Sambo, who outwits a series of talking tigers with his fancy new clothes from his parents, and by the end of the story the tigers end up chasing each other around a tree and, spoiler alert, melting into butter. Soon, Sambo’s father, Jumbo arrives, sees the butter, and he and Sambo take the butter home to the mother, Mumbo, who makes pancakes with it. You can read the story in its entirety here.
It isn’t clearly stated that the story takes place in India, but Bannerman goes out of her way to say that butter is known as “ghi” in India, and while tigers live in India, among several other Asian countries, but they do not live in Africa. As the story would continue to be republished, it began to contain the over the top, often considered racist images, of Africans and African-Americans, despite those images not making any sense for the text of the story. Some have attributed these later choices to the original illustrations by Bannerman, as seen below, while others considered the larger scope of the story’s title, including “Black” and that the term “Sambo” already had a meaning elsewhere.
Whether Bannerman knew about the term “Sambo” or not is up for debate, but across the pond here in America, “Sambo” already had a meaning, and it wasn’t a nice one. It was a slur for African-Americans. It was also one of those words that was adopted from another language. “Sambo” is a derivative of the Spanish word “zambo” which was used to describe the children of Native Americans and Africans. So it is easy to see how by the time the book arrives on American shores, the little “Black” boy walking through the jungle fits into the American stereotype of Black people at this time period. Even though Africa may have jungles, it doesn’t have tigers.
An American 1908 version of the book uses a racist style that was popular in America for depicting African-Americans.
In 1935 the story served as inspiration for a cartoon under the same name (you can watch it here) which showcases many Black stereotypes. I say “inspiration” as the plot of the cartoon is unlike the book in a multitude of ways. Soon “Sambo” had reemerged as a racist slur toward African-American children. The term and the artwork aside, arguments were made that the issue is less about the actual story and more about the problematic images that accompanied it, but more on that later. By 1956, one year before the restaurant would open, the book was banned in Toronto.
Enter two men, Sam Battistone Sr. and Newell Bohnett, who claimed to have combined shortened portions of their names, Sam and Bo, to create Sambo’s, then inspired by the story decided to serve up pancakes, also using the character of Sambo and the tigers for decorations and advertising. According to the Wikipedia page (which, seriously, I know is not a real resource, but I’ll get on that in a bit) for the restaurants, they originally featured images of “a dark-skinned boy, tigers, and a pale, magical unicycle-riding man called ‘The Treefriend’.”
This is where things got as sticky as maple syrup for me. Prior to all of this, I had only seen this version of Sambo for the restaurant…
So the idea of a “dark-skinned boy” wasn’t ringing any bells for me on the restaurant front. And I wasn’t finding any interior shots from a Sambo’s that featured murals of a “dark-skinned boy” and this mysterious “Treefriend.” I only saw the murals of the version above. In the meantime, as I continued to do my research, I had come across a different illustration of a boy eating pancakes in some articles, but with no description of where that image came from! I finally did a reverse image search and realized that it was from a 1958 Sambo’s menu. Okay, so why aren’t you seeing it? Because Getty has the rights to it, and I am but a humble blogger, so I’m just providing a link to it here.
Wikipedia claims that the image of the pale, turban wearing Sambo showed up in the “early 1960s” but I cannot find any source for this information. Another source I found said this change occurred in the 1970s. However, a 1998 CNN article states “The original Sambo’s restaurant used as its logo a depiction of an Indian boy” so I guess it is up for debate as to what ethnicity the initial restaurant version of Sambo was and when the change to the paler Sambo was made.
But after the restaurant opened at least two new publications were released featuring images that are more Indian in nature…
One in 1959 by Whitman with artwork by Violet LaMont.
By 1963 Sambo’s had grown to have 20 locations, and by 1969 it went public, and it was growing rapidly, amassing over 1,000 restaurants, but by 1981 it began to face financial turmoil, including a lawsuit with Dr. Pepper. Today, all of the Sambo’s are gone, with the exception of the very first one, right here in Santa Barbara.
Back to discussing the book’s story itself not being considered racist by many. By the mid-1990s, two different reimagined versions of Little Black Sambo emerged. First, artist Fred Marcelino proposed new drawings for the story, while keeping the original text (with the exception of the names) to HarperCollins editor Michael di Capua. The illustrations are more overtly Indian, and Sambo as been renamed Babaji, and his parents Mamaji and Papaji, and the title was renamed The Story of Little Babaji. For this version, the author is still credited as Bannerman. Author Julius Lester went in a different direction with Sam and the Tigers: A Retelling of ‘Little Black Sambo’ by rewriting the story, and creating a world where everyone is named Sam, and humans and animals live together. However the plot remains the same of a boy outwitting tigers with his clothes. And in 2004 Little Golden Book published another version called The Boy and the Tigers, which, like Little Babaji, is more Indian in both illustration, and the boy and his parents are given Indian names, additionally Bannerman remains the author. By leaving Bannerman’s text intact, it highlights that the images were more the problem rather than the story.
Now, let’s talk a bit about the restaurant itself that has stood the test of time. When we first arrived there was a swarm of people around the host podium, so we quickly decided we weren’t that hungry and hit up an antique mall to work up an appetite. Then we returned and had but a short wait before we were seated. The restaurant features illustrations of Sambo and the tigers, as well as vintage mosaics.
The menu still features many of its original items, and is seriously delicious. Like, honestly, best pancakes I have ever eaten in my life. Fluffy, rich, and golden to perfection.
So, if you find yourself in Santa Barbara, stop in for a bit of history and tasty pancakes.
It should be noted that there is another Sambo’s, but named Lil Sambo’s, located in one of my old haunts, Lincoln City, and unrelated to the chain.
The original Sambo’s is located at 216 W Cabrillo Boulevard in Santa Barbara, and, like many breakfast type restaurants, closes early, so please visit their website for updated hours.
JUNE 2020 UPDATE: In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the restaurant has decided to rebrand. You can read about the change here via the Santa Barbara Independent.