|Intl. Notebook||Jun 1 2012|
There’s a story on the wires right now about a neon light that was left burning for 70 years. Found in a Los Angeles restaurant, the light had gotten sealed behind a women's restroom wall during one of the place's many renovations. The owner of the restaurant, who uncovered the light when he recently decided to remodel anew, was shocked to find it plugged in and functioning. He estimates that the electricity consumed over the decades cost about $17,000. All very interesting. But what’s really fascinating about this story is the restaurant itself—Clifton’s Cafeteria.
Though none of the stories we saw mentioned it, Clifton’s was a chain of restuarants that was historically noteworthy for important reasons. The original branch, located on Olive Street, started as a beautiful Spanish revival building but was transformed into a fantastic, jungle-themed, one-of-a-kind example of programmatic architecture. The exterior, which you see below, featured cliffs, working waterfalls, and hanging tropical plants. These sorts of specialized structures that served as their own advertising were popping up all over Southern California, but this was a particularly gaudy and effective conversion. The newly junglefied eatery was named Clifton’s Pacific Seas.
Clifton's adopted a pay-whatever-you-can-afford policy. There was even a neon sign on the front of the building that told customers to “Pay what you wish.” This was during the crushing years of the Great Depression and, needless to say, Clifton’s Pacific Seas became a hot spot,giving away thousands of meals for free each month. The policy continued until the proprietor, Clifford Clinton (not Clifton) opened a place for needy customers called the Penny Caveteria in a nearby basement (he came up with the name by combining “cave” and “cafeteria”).
It’s worth noting that Clifford Cliinton had business acumen. He had calculated exactly what margin of profit he needed to earn per plate to make Clifton’s Pacific Seas viable, and had enough full price customers to maintain that level. His approach would be heresy by today's standards, which dictate that corporations must make the most possible profit by any means neccessary (usually by squeezing workers and dodging taxes). Despite the radical approach, Clifton’s did more than merely survive—it thrived. It went on to become a chain of eateries run by generations of family members, and Los Angeles residents never forgot Clinton’s generosity at that first Clifton’s, and made the other locations popular for decades.
The original Clifton's is now a parking lot, but we wanted to make sure at least one story about the uncovered neon light mentioned the special history of the chain, and paid respect to Clifford Clifton, who was the real light in the darkness. We probably don’t need to point out that nothing even remotely like the original Clifton’s Pacific Seas could happen today, and indeed, we live in such hardhearted times thatif a restaurant adopted a pay-what-you-can-afford policy, it's easy to imagine some loud-mouthed cable pundit excoriating the owner for helping the undeserving or having socialist beliefs. That isn’t a nice thing to believe about modern day America, but does anyone really doubt it’s possible?