Britling Cafeteria No. 1

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Britling Cafeteria postcard, c. 1920s. From Postcard Birmingham

Britling Cafeteria No. 1 was the flagship downtown location of the Britling Cafeteria chain founded in Birmingham in 1917 inside a local department store by A. W. B. Johnson.

Johnson moved that first location to the Potter Building at 1913-1917 1st Avenue North, into space vacated by M. Weil & Bro. clothiers, after a little over a year. The grand opening of the new 280-seat location was celebrated on July 11, 1919 with 2,000 meals served on the first day. The kitchen was one of the first in the city to be equipped with natural gas cooking appliances, rather than coal-fired stoves. The five large ranges and one salamander were supplied by the Michigan Stove Company and installed by the Birmingham Gas Appliance Company. The set-up was described in a contemporary account thus: "The system of serving is that of 'help yourself'. The customers form a line and pass through the 'food slides' by the 'steam tables' where the food is kept warm. Servitors stand behind these pans and dispense the food. It is estimated that by the 'serve yourself' system a person can be served in about six minutes, thus enabling those who are rushed for time to get a quick lunch in a very few minutes."1.

Johnson moved to Memphis, Tennessee in the early 1920s to open additional locations. The Birmingham cafeteria was left in the hands of partner Alfred Holcomb. He opened a second Birmingham location on 20th Street North, and then added another dining room on 3rd Avenue North that shared the same kitchen. Holcomb dissolved his partnership with Johnson in the 1930s, keeping the rights to the Birmingham locations.

A 1927 account revealed that the restaurants did the most business on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. "Monday's bring to town the housewives seeking bargains from the retail merchants. Thursdays bring cook's night off and so has become in many Birmingham homes 'Britling Night'. Saturday is half-holiday for many employees and they like to take plenty of time for luncheon, and then there are the matinees."2.

Britling No. 1 offered live performances by Bill Nappi's orchestra, violinist Regina Marks, and others before buying the South's first Hammond organ and hiring a full-time organist. The restaurant later switched over to recorded music. During the Great Depression Holcomb began a tradition of serving a free hot breakfast to Birmingham's needy from the 1st Avenue location. He and his family would join other volunteers to prepare and serve the meal.

The chain fell into decline in the late 1970s, as fast food restaurants became increasingly popular and widespread. Britling tried to counter this trend by expanding into suburban locations in Birmingham and Memphis, a move that was successful for a time.

These eventually became the only locations. With the impending sale of the Potter Building, Britling No. 1 closed on October 17, 1964. The dining room was packed that day with long-time customers and with crowds from the Auburn-Georgia Tech game at Legion Field.


  1. Clement-1919
  2. quoted in Hollis-2010