Drake’s Restaurant Was Open 24 Hours A Day For 37 Years Until Labor Troubles Set In
In our previous story we briefly told the story of Jack’s a famous New York restaurant that never closed. There was another “never closed” restaurant which was a New York institution for 37 years.
Drake’s was located at 111 West 42nd Street near Broadway. The restaurant was founded in 1900 as Rigg’s as part of the Rigg’s chain.After a career as a superintendent in the railroad business, Elmira, NY native Frank B. Drake came to New York City in 1896. Drake took over the Rigg’s location in 1905 renaming his “popular priced restaurant,” Drake’s.
Three years later Frank Drake died of heart failure on February 2, 1908 at the age of 54. Despite his passing Drake’s kept successfully growing throughout the teens eventually expanding to other buildings at 119 West 42nd Street with a rear entrance at 120-122 West 43rd Street.
William Richters rose from busboy to headwaiter and eventually manager acquiring a half interest in Drake’s 1916. Richters took sole control of Drake’s in 1922 after Frank Drake’s widow Nellie B. Drake died October 22, 1920.
Drake’s Restaurant was popular, serving 30,000 diners per week and known for their delicious specialties like shortcakes, mushrooms and baked apples. Another reason for Drake’s popularity was Richters insistence to serve unlimited sugar-coated buns and delectable pickles to every diner- even if they were just ordering a cup of coffee. That policy was responsible for costing Richters over $10,000 a year, even when times were tight during the Great Depression.
At Christmas, every year Richters would hold a big party for orphans with each child receiving a free turkey meal and a toy. In 1925 during the height of Drake’s popularity Richters turned down a million dollars for the restaurant.
It was not prohibition, but its repeal that killed off Drake’s. When liquor sales returned to New York William Richters would not sell any alcohol except beer. Sans liquor sales and combined with the Great Depression, Drake’s business began to struggle.
A strike by unionized employees was the final straw. On August 7, 1937 the “never closed” restaurant shut its doors temporarily when workers walked off the job mid-meal.
Richters offered his workers a ten percent increase which they refused. Richters’ said “The Wagner Act wouldn’t allow me to advise the men not to sign up with the union. Yet the union can say ‘You sign or else..,’ The employer has no comeback, while the employees either join or get stoned to death.”
Rather than sign an agreement with the 150 striking workers, Richters said “I will not rehire any of the strikers that I nursed through the Depression at a personal loss, yet were so ungrateful as to strike against me. I would rather close the restaurant permanently.”
On September 25 the temporary closing became forever.
Drake’s contents went to the auction block on September 27. Richters said “There goes my life’s work. I am broken in spirit.” as he stood sadly watching the auction held at his restaurant. Though there were over 200 bidders present, all of Drake’s equipment and furniture valued at $150,000 fetched only $7,500. Richter’s bought the corporation name “Drake’s Restaurant” for $250.
“Certainly,” Richters said, “I will not return to the restaurant business until the labor situation gets better.”
The Drake’s Restaurant building was sold the following year and promptly demolished. Replacing Drake’s and opening in October 1939 was the one story Pix Theatre designed by architect Ely Jacques Kahn.
In 1938 William Richters relocated to Amherst, MA, buying the Perry Hotel and renaming it Drake’s. Richters died November 4, 1947 at the age of 65.