Inside the Last Operating Woolworth’s Lunch Counter

For some the name Woolworth’s can bring back fond memories of a tasty cheeseburger and a 5 cent Coke while seated at a lunch counter, perhaps after shopping for deals at the famed “Five & Dime.” In Bakersfield, you can still have that experience, although for a wee bit more than five and ten cents, and sadly only for about another month as the last operating Woolworth’s luncheonette is closing (supposedly temporarily) at the end of October.

Overall of the Woolworth building. The corner is rounded with the massive red and gold "F.W. Woolworth's" sign coming around the curve. The upper floors painted a pale tan, with cream and mint details.

Under a red and gold sign read "F.W. Woolworth's" is a large white plastic sign sits above the doorway to the antique mall. Small blue letters read "Visit" followed by large red letters reading "Woolorth's" and then below in smaller blue script reads "Luncheonette"

Angled view of the lunch counter, which is dark wood formica, with chrome seats with red upholstery. Red neon runs across the wall above the back work counter. Various Coca-Cola advertisements are framed on the cream wall.

While Woolworth’s had been in Bakersfield since 1911, it opened this location on May 5, 1950. For decades this Woolworth’s served locals, whether it was at the 74 foot long lunch counter or with the aisle of goods they offered. In January 1994 the Woolworth’s shuttered, and it was purchased by Mark and Linda Sheffield, who re-opened it as the Five and Dime Antique Mall in December of that year, while also continuing to operate the lunch counter, keeping with a simple menu of burgers, hot dogs, shakes and ice cold Coca-Cola. For over 30 years locals returned to the lunch counter, then dubbed Woolworth’s Diner, and continued their nostalgia trip by walking the aisles of the antique mall. Last month the building was purchased by Sherod Waite and David Anderson of the financial advice firm Moneywise Guys. “Our intention is to preserve the historic nature of the building. We are keeping the luncheonette and leaving the outside pretty much as it is,” Waite said in a news article. The pair are seeking new operators for the luncheonette, but also said it will be at least two years before it reopens, as they do other renovations to convert the building to their new headquarters. Meanwhile many of the antique dealers are seeking space at the other antique malls in the area and, thankfully, there are quite a few.

A large white plastic sign sits above the doorway to the antique mall. Small blue letters read "Visit" followed by large red letters reading "Woolorth's" and then below in smaller blue script reads "Luncheonette"

A pale wood paneled wall features framed articles, awards, and photos of the Woolworth's through the years, red upholstered and chrome chairs sit against the wall.

Close-up of a framed set of Woolworth's name badges.

Overall view of the lunch counter. The counter runs along the left side, sweeping across the back. Black and white checkered floor allows for table seating with red formica topped tables and red and chrome chairs. A red stripe runs across the wall with red neon above. Framed Coca-Cola ads line the upper, cream portion of the wall, a large circular Coca-Cola sign sits on the back wall.

Myself seated at the counter, wearing a straw hat, t-shirt reading "Coca-Cola."

A massive chrome piece of equipment houses the materials for malts and shakes.

Burger and fries sit in a basket with red and white checkered paper.

A man works at the cook top behind the counter.

A large circular sign reads "Coca-Cola" in their famous white script hangs above a stripe of red neon.

Yellow and brown terrazzo staircase down to the basement with chrome hand rails.

A tasty shake features whipped cream and a cherry on top.

Cream tile backsplash with brown detail tiles and a mirror sit above the work counter.

A wood door features a porthole style window with a hand painted sign above reading "Employees Only"

A large "fishtail" Coca-Cola sign.

Swooping streamline hand rail curves toward the basement. A large white plastic sign read "Visit Woolworth's Luncheonette" in the background.

Looking down the lunch counter toward the front door. Pale wood paneled walls meet the tile backsplash of the work area behind the counter. Chrome backed stools also feature red upholstery and sit on top of black and white checkered floor.

A large white plastic sign sits above the doorway to the antique mall. Small blue letters read "Visit" followed by large red letters reading "Woolorth's" and then below in smaller blue script reads "Luncheonette"

The side of the Woolworth's with the long "F.W. Woolworth's" sign stretching the ling of the photo.

Cream, brown and red terrazzo reads "Woolworth's" outside the front doors.

A long red sign stretches the length of the building reading "F.W. Woolworth's" in large gold letters.

It is impossible to separate the happy-go-lucky memories some may have of Woolworth’s without recognizing the integral yet reluctant role that Woolworth’s played in the Civil Rights Movement. On February 1, 1960, four college students, Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, sat at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s lunch counter asking to be served. They were refused service, they remained, peacefully as a form of protest, and continued to ask to be served. While not the first sit-in for racial justice, this one gained national attention and sparked other sit-ins across the country. While Woolworth’s stores were not segregated (the four students had made purchases in the store prior to sitting at the counter) the luncheonette segregation was left to the discretion of the managers. Eventually, Woolworth’s changed their policy thanks to these four brave young men.

As Woolworth’s declined in the later part of the 20th century, the Greensboro location shuttered around the same time as the Bakersfield location, and announced plans to demolish it. A local radio station began a petition, which was endorsed by Reverend Jesse Jackson. Within three days Woolworth’s agreed to maintain the building while waiting for a new owner, eventually it was purchased and in 2010 became the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, where they preserved a portion of the original lunch counter.  A four seat portion of the counter is also on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and some seats found a new home at the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Bakersfield makes for a great day trip for those living in the LA and Orange County areas. There are several antique malls, as well as the Kern County Museum (you can see photos from our visit earlier this year here) plus lots of amazing neon signs scattered throughout the city.

Sit at the Woolworth’s luncheonette at 1400 19th Street in Bakersfield before the end of October! And when it reopens, I look forward to visiting and updating you all.

Sources
A potted history of F.W. Woolworth” The Woolorths Museum. Accessed September 20, 201.
Mayer, Steven. “Downton renaissance continues with Moneywise’s pending purchase of Woolworth’s building.” Bakersfield, 17 August 2021. Accessed September 20, 2021.
Plaques and newspaper articles on site.
Price, Robert. “Woolworth’s building in escrow; transformation ahead but, no, they’re not closing the iconic luncheonette.” KGET, 17 August 2021. Accessed September 20, 2021.
Wilson, Christopher. “The Moment When Four Students Sat Down to Take a Stand.” Smithsonian Magazine, 31 January 2020. Accessed September 20, 2021.

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