The Eat at Joe’s Riots

citydesk_icnSpecial dispensation was granted last Friday by the City Council to Ontario-based Sports Restaurant chain “Shoeless Joe’s” to establish a franchise within city limits, making it the first local eatery since the 1931 passing of a restrictive city ordinance to be allowed to use the name “Joe” in its advertising and logo.

Why “Joe,” you might ask? Why not restrictions on the names “Andy” or “Bud” (no great favor to local diners “Andy’s Five and Dime” and “Bud’s Burgers”), or “Anna” (likewise for “ABC: Anna’s Bagels and Coffee”)? Well, simply put – no one ever died because of a restaurant named after an Andy, a Bud or an Anna.

Throughout the 1920’s, the city experienced a financial boom, with the urban area increasing in both size and global financial prominence, and the populace increasingly moving towards suburbs away from the business centers where they plugged away for a weekly paycheck. Along with this roiling bubble of prosperity came a boom in local restaurateurs, cafes and delis and bistros popping up along the avenues of the business district to feed a hungry population of number-crunchers, secretaries and executives alike, all of whom were far removed from their own personal iceboxes until the end of the workday.

With the Stock Market Crash of 1929 came a subsequent decline in money to support local businesses, and with a record number of the workforce either laid off or economizing with wax paper-wrapped sandwich lunches from home, local eateries folded by the hundreds.

Those which survived the initial collapse and subsequent lean months of struggle were in fierce competition – a customer sitting at the counter may only be good for a dime, but every dime counted, and the battles grew serious.

It was the habit of the day that much food industry advertising was done by way of the appropriately-named “sandwich board,” a pair of wide wooden planks attached by ropes at one end, and painted with advertising slogans on either side. The boards were then worn like a crude wooden vest or awkward suit of armor – usually by a transient or otherwise unemployed man who would often work in exchange for a hot meal, and who would walk through the city crowds, enticing hungry customers to the place of business.

But even the expense of this unpolished form of promotion put a strain on some diners’ budgets, leading at least one business owner to attempt an inspired dirty trick.

According to Dr. Henry Weathers, author of The Eat At Joe’s Riots: A Story of Sandwiches, Sandwich Boards and Blood, the first culprit in the war of dirty tricks was very likely a Greek proprietor of a small sandwich shop and deli, “Pauly” Kartalopoulos. “He ran a deli which was unimaginatively dubbed something like ‘The 65th Street Deli,’ something like that, and the records show that while he did attempt legitimate sandwich board advertising, potential customers were just as likely to drop into any other deli named after its street – there were hundreds back then.”

“It was names that people remembered, and the name with the most advertising was a simple but well-established café on Hammer Ave, called Joe’s.”

What ingenuity Kartalopoulos lacked in naming his business, he made up for in spades with an under-handed idea. “He tells this to a police officer who is a frequent customer to his place,” says Weathers, “He says, ‘I see all these signs saying Eat At Joe’s, Eat at Joe’s,’ and he asks the officer, ‘hey, why don’t I just change my name to Joe, then everyone eats here, right?’ So he asks this police officer if it’s illegal to rename his place Joe and take advantage of all the sandwich board advertising for this place, Joe’s Café, or Joe’s Bistro, or whatever it is, and the cop just tells him ‘Nope.’

“He says ‘knock yourself out.’”

If the officer had known what sort of trouble was lurking around the corner, he might have had different advice.

Whatever the case, in early 1930, Kartalopoulos rechristened his shop (and himself) “Joe’s”, peppering the exterior with colorful signs and shunning further sandwich board advertising for himself – he was now subsisting largely on the promotional efforts of his competitors. As unknowing accomplices, Kartalopoulos’ rivals were doing him tremendous business – even many of the sandwich board salesmen became confused and would direct potential customers to the wrong storefront. Kartalopoulos was getting away with it, but the problems began when his bright idea was used a second time.

“At this point, the record is utterly confused,” says Weathers, “Either someone was clued into Kartalopoulos’ scheme or they happened upon it themselves, but you start to see in the old photos and the newspaper, all these other restaurants named ‘Joe’ start popping up. Joe’s Blintzes, Joe’s Chowderhouse, Joe’s Boulangerie – Joe’s Chinese – it was a stunt which worked so well once, pretty soon everyone is desperate enough to try it, and something like twenty percent of the places to eat in the city are under a banner reading ‘JOE’.”

Meanwhile, over at the Hammer Avenue Joe’s Café – the only legitimate Joe in the story – tempers begin to run high. “He’s watching his own business dwindle, he’s watching all these other Joe’s restaurants pop up, and he gets word that Pauly Kartalopoulos is the fellow who starts all the trouble.” Weathers describes the original Joe as a Croatian immigrant and well-known neighborhood hothead, so what follows was probably no real surprise. “A firebomb,” says Weathers, “Puts Pauly Kartalopoulos out of the Joe picture permanently.”

Shaken by the rise in aggression but unwilling to let go of a hard-stolen marketshare, the assorted faux Joe’s continue to do business as usual during the day, and up the ante at night. Joe’s-on-Joe’s violence becomes the leading cause of violent crime in the city within two months, and by September of that year, the eateries are hiring impoverished and unemployed men for more than sandwich advertising – they’re hiring for gangs.

“In short order, it becomes worse than the mob violence in Chicago, with activities ranging from individual assaults to arson and vandalism to at least two cases of murders committed while the victims were asleep in their own beds.” Weathers adds, “It’s a horrifying period in history.”

On November 10th, tensions reached their absolute peak. At some point just before the lunch rush, Emil Lapeune – short-order cook at the original Joe’s on Hammer – confronted a sandwich-board advertiser outside the door to the café. A scuffle ensued, and the sandwich-board advertiser was joined by two men who may or may not have been hired as ‘toughs,’ in case of trouble. “Lapuene was beaten badly in the struggle, it took most of the rest of the staff of the original Joe’s to break it up. At some point, one of the dishwashers leaves his post, and most historians think this is the fellow who starts the trouble at the hot food carts in front of the Justice Building, about an hour later.”

In a scene which wouldn’t look out of place in The Untouchables, an unidentified gang of men took to “Joe’s Row” – an avenue bearing at least six Joe’s-titled chow joints – breaking windows and dragging patrons out by the collars of their shirts. Armed with thick clubs, the gang was moving downtown towards Hammer Ave when one of them was shot by an unseen assailant. “This is when all hell breaks loose,” says Weathers.

By evening, several Joe’s restaurants are left empty with their doors swung wide open, either because the employees have fled or because they’ve taken to the streets to participate in the violence. Most other business have barricaded themselves inside, customers and staff alike fearing that the riots might spill through their windows and front doors. Fires light up the evening sky like the underside of an open-flame grill, and the occasional scream or gunshot come so often they begin to sound like popping fat on a sizzling hot griddle.

The riots continued well into the morning of the eleventh, with police and fire crews alike responding in full force. Damages were estimated at well over the $1,200,000 mark in terms of damage to civic services and infrastructure alone, not counting damages done to the competing establishment. At least one hundred and thirty were dead. “Sandwich boards littered the streets,” adds Weathers, “Still smoldering in the morning fog.”

The City Council was prompt to respond with the ban on the further use of the name “Joe’s” for any other eating establishment, for fear of a repeat of the violence. “Still,” Weathers adds as a final note, “Let’s wish Shoeless Joe’s all the best of luck. It will be something of an illicit thrill after all this time to, in this city, once again ‘Eat At Joe’s.’”
- Jonathan Morris

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2 Responses to The Eat at Joe’s Riots

  1. January 5, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    I remember my Dad telling me about this. He said you could see the flames from three towns over. To this day, he can’t even look at a pastrami on rye without breaking down into an uncontrollable fit of tears.

    He’ll still eat it, of course. But he’ll eat it real sad.

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