History of Sambo’s Restaurant
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.
Another example of this style was showcased in this 1934 version of the book.
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.
And another in 1961 published by Little Golden Book with artwork done by Bonnie and Bill Rutherford.
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.
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.
2023 UPDATE: The restaurant has been renamed Chad’s.
Golus, Carrie. “Sambo’s Subtext.” University of Chicago Magazine.
La Motte, Greg. “Sambo’s Revival Running into Hot Water.” CNN.
“Little Black Sambo and the Revolving Face of Racisim in the Anglo-American World.” History Bandits.
Mets, Robert. “Market Place; Mistakes At Sambo’s.” New York Times.
“Our Story.” Sambo’s Restaurant.
Plummer, Kevin. “Historicist: Banning of Little Black Sambo.” Torontoist.
“The Pop-Up Little Black Sambo, No Pop-Up.” Biblio.com
Romano, Andrew. “Pancakes and Pickaninnies: the Saga of ‘Sambo’s,’ the ‘Racist’ Restaurant Chain America Once Loved.” Daily Beast.
“The Story of Little Black Sambo.” Biblio.com
Weeks, Linton. “Taking a Tiger by the Tale: Little Black Sambo Loses Racist Elements in Two Retellings.” Washington Post.
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33 comments on “History of Sambo’s Restaurant”
Wow… very well done! Beautiful story, great research and entertaining to read. I remember a couple of these restaurants in San Diego and wondered what had happened to them. Thank you so much! I love it! – Dan B, Carlsbad CA (aka; Gern on FB) 🙂
sambosonline shows the four san diego sambo’s buildings are still in existence – at least when the website was being maintained.
San Diego 10430 Friars Road
(now a denny’s)
San Diego 4610 Pacific Highway
(now Perry’s Cafe with very cool googie design)
San Diego 4865 Harbor Drive
(Point Loma Cafe)
San Diego 7398 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard
(highly modified into a Carl’s Junior — i think)
It was one of the first victims of liberalism’s uber political correctness. And pathetically so, as the company’s image had nothing at all to do about racism. The original children’s story was Asian Indian, that was initially published in the west by the British. When it was published in the U.S. it became “Little ‘Black’ Sambo” embraced by the then ‘racist’ culture of the 30s. But that was never, in any way, inspiration towards the creation of Sambos’the Resturant. If one studies the biography of the owner, the history of the company or most particularly the pathetic tragedy of the company’s ruin, all you have left to see is what is all around us today!
The fact is, “Sambo” was a derogatory term for African Americans, well before Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett decided on a name for their restaurant. At the very least, the choice of name showed poor judgement. Of course as the country moved forward in improving race relations, a chain of that name couldn’t continue. It’s no different than having a chain called “N***er’s”.
I personally would never patronize the one Sambo’s left. Derogatory names don’t cut it with me.
I have to wonder why you put the word “racist” in quotes when speaking of the culture of the 1930s. It’s almost as if you don’t believe that racism exists. Or maybe you just don’t care……
Btw, I also have a full set of original mint coffee mugs, menus and table wear, with all the Kid toys.
Well done! Enjoyed. Well written/researches. Many childhood memories of going to Sambos in Santa Ana,CA.
I always love reading your history posts!
BTW There is till one in Lincoln City, OR
Hi, I actually addressed that in the last line of the post: “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.”
Awesome job on this. My dad went to high school with SamB and I have a aunt that has a collection of ‘Sambo’ publications.
If you could optimize your blog for mobile that would really help. Thanks.
Thank you! And what a great personal connection!
We are actually in the process of a blog redesign that will be much better on mobile! We are planning on launching sometime next week!
This article for me was very nostalgic! I’m Newell Bohnett’s daughter and I can share when black Sambo went to the Indian Sambo. Santa Barbara was the first one, Sacramento the second, Palm Springs the third and Redding was the forth and he was still black. That was the last one. From the fifth one forward, Sambo was Indian. It was in the early 60’s. Thanks for the memories!
How wonderful!!! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Thank you so much for sharing that information as well!
Hi Lynda! Merry Blue here. You have the facts. I wanted to respond but was not as sure of the facts as you are. I know that the original mosaic artwork was of a black Sambo. I know that my father coined ‘Fraction of the Action’ while he was marketing director. Everyone thinks that the reason for the downfall was racial and we know that is not factual. I hope all is well with you. email@example.com
Merry, I remember your Dad, Jerry very well. I know my Dad created the “fraction of the action”. Didn’t know that your Dad coined the phrase! No, Sambo’s downfall wasn’t because of the name. It didn’t help when political correctness was just beginning, but it definitely wasn’t the cause. I see your email address. I’ll email you and touch bases. Lynda
More history of Sambo’s than I ever thought I would need to know, but an excellent article nonetheless. Personal connection: I grew up in Santa Barbara at the time Sambo’s was founded and Roger Battistone (not Brattistone), founder Sam Battistone’s son, was in the same homeroom with me in 7th grade at Santa Barbara Junior High.
Thank you for mentioning that typo! A slight misstep of the keys! And what a delightful personal connection!!!
I was a manager with them from 79 to 81.I left the company when it had began to go under.I never saw any racist talk or actions.It was a nice family restaurant where you and Friends could sit and drink coffee all night if you wanted.I miss it
Sambo’s was the first place I worked after moving to Redding, CA. in 1967. We had two locations here. One was uptown and the other was at the intersection of Market and Pine. I served many celebrities one of which was Tennesee Ernie and his children and others that had properties in the Redding area like the Crosby’s, Merle Haggard etc. The one at Market & Pine, under a different ownerships name was a frequent place for Merle before he passed away. Of course it hasn’t been a Sambo’s for many years. The restaurants are still here under new ownerships. Enjoyed working there.
That sounds so amazing!!! Thank you for sharing your experience!
The Sambo’s at Market & Pine also sported a first class restaurant which I can remember was called “The Blue Ox”, one of the city’s fine restaurants. The city of redding was a small town then of between 14 & 18 thousand people and everything was within about 15 blocks. Now the city has expanded to about 80 to 90 thousand. I’m 84 now and have very fond memories to share about Sambo’s with some of my old friends.
So will the book “Little Black Sambo” be taken off the shelf? I am part Asian and an immigrant. It is sad to see history being eradicated. As a poor immigrant Sambo’s was our affordable and delicious pancakes eating out restaurant. I am glad that Holland kept its traditions of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. Lets not carry racism too far.
The book continues to be printed and available to this day.
Mr. Nostalgia over here remembers going to Sambo’s every morning for pancakes when we took our annual roadtrip down to Fargo, ND in the mid-1970s. For a kid, it was pretty much the best treat ever. I would love to find some images of that particular location. By any chance did you come across any online resources or Sambo’s experts who might have such a thing? I got crazy lucky on eBay a few years ago and picked up one of those packages of postcards you used to bet there. Hoping I get lucky again. Thanks! Dane
I had not run across any shots in my search. Sometimes it is difficult to narrow down images to a specific location.
the sambo’s in fargo was at 2130 S. University Drive. there is still a restaurant there – Randy’s University Diner. you can see it on google maps. look at the august 2021 photo.
interestingly, it is the same design as the sambo’s in barstow, california which now stands empty.
Very interesting article. I worked at Sambo’s in Satellite Beach FL 1976-77 timeframe. I was looking for the image on the sign of that store. I can’t find any history of Satellite Beach ever having a Sambos. I am assuming, due to our diverse population, it was removed from the public eye. (I guess-IDK) I watched it as it was being built, worked there for about 16 months starting with the grand opening. I loved working there and had no idea of the racial undertones. I have a ‘brat’ background and racism was not part of my upbringing. For a couple of years, those close to me coined me the nickname Sambo (which I loved and thought it was amuzing).
Regardless, it appears as though each individual store had its own image of Sambo, the tigers and tree. To date, I cannot find the image of that specific store sign anywhere.
As far as the children’s book; yep, I remember it as early as 5-6 years old. I could not make heads or tails out of it and as a child, I did not understand it. Tigers turning to butter? I never did get it.
i found the address in Satellite Beach, 1190 A 1 A Highway on the sambosonline website
I loved this story, however, there is still another open and operating Sambo’s to this day in Lincoln City, OR. I do have fond memories as a child born in 1964, of going there. And yes, it was called Lil Black Sambos. They had paper cut out Tiger masks for kids. Since i was around 4 or 5, that made a lasting impression. Any time as an adult that I’ve reminisced about this restaurant, I have always equated the boy as Indian because of the tigers. Sambo actually also reminded of The Jungle Book character Mowgli. Now seeing the original story book with the tigers melting to butter and taking home to make pancakes, it makes perfect sense. That’s the story and memory I choose to embrace, which has nothing to do with racial slurs or disrespect.
I noted this location at the end of the post, and that it is unaffiliated with the chain.
well done story! i was wondering, in the latest configuration of the restaurant in santa barbara, does it still have the “illustrations of Sambo and the tigers, as well as vintage mosaics.”
if so that might be worth the drive down from the high desert to see.
thanks so much!
I haven’t been back in some time. I hope to return later this year.
I swear on my life I remember menus with small black children on them, but I think the internet has been scrubbed.