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Sambo's revival running into hot water

restaurant In this story: January 28, 1998
Web posted at: 9:16 p.m. EDT (2116 GMT)

From Correspondent Greg LaMotte

SANTA BARBARA, California (CNN) -- Once upon a time there was a man named Sam Battistone. Sam had a friend named Newell Bohnett, whom everyone called Bo.

In 1957, the two men decided to open a restaurant. They figured they'd serve sizzling hotcakes, offer coffee for 10 cents a cup and give their customers service with a smile.

They called the restaurant Sambo's.

Fast-forward 41 years. Sam Battistone's grandson, Chad Stevens, has plans to rebuild the restaurant chain -- which once numbered 1,200 units coast-to-coast -- to its former glory.

There's just one problem: the name.

Sambo's was an amalgam of Sam and Bo, and as part of their marketing strategy the founders used a logo based on a children's story called "Little Black Sambo."

The book was written in 1899 by Helen Bannerman, a Scottish woman, and takes place in India. It is about a little boy who goes into the jungle and loses his clothing to bullying tigers. But the tigers chase each other around a tree and eventually melt into butter, which Sambo puts on his pancakes and eats.

The marketing strategy was obvious: Sam and Bo open Sambo's, and pancakes were one of the restaurant's specialties.

Original Sambo looked African

Sambo as depicted in the book

The original Sambo's restaurant used as its logo a depiction of an Indian boy, but in the book -- and in the minds of many who read it -- Sambo looked more African than Indian.

Eventually the chain failed and the reason given was that it expanded too fast. But Stevens nurtures visions of putting his grandfather's empire back together.

Only one of the original restaurants survived, the first one in Santa Barbara.

"This store hasn't changed at all," says Stevens. "We've done a little bit of facelift on it but, for the most part, the kitchen's the same."

Sambo as depicted by the restaurant

Stevens not only wants to rebuild the Sambo's empire, he also wants to keep the name. And the name, which took on negative connotations in the 1930s and 1940s, is generating opposition.

"The cultural understanding of 'Little Black Sambo' is a negative," says Professor Frank Gilliam of UCLA. "It's meant to suggest that people of African descent are childlike, that they're irresponsible, that they're not fully developed human beings."

Carol Codrington of Loyola Law School said the character was used to stereotype African Americans as shiftless and lazy.

Book reissued under new title

Stevens protests that the restaurant is based on a family name, not racism.


"I have a hard time," he says, "and maybe being white or Anglo-Saxon, maybe I'm not seeing something. Maybe I'm blind to something. I'm sorry about that. Just read the story, and you tell me."

While it is no doubt still possible to find copies of Bannerman's original story, which has charmed generations, publishers decided to avoid the negative connotations by reissuing the book with a new title: "The Story of Little Babaji."

The boy, his mother and father are given authentic Indian names -- Babaji, Mamaji, Dadaji -- and the illustrations are emphatically Indian.

Stevens says this is the 1990s. He just wants to sell good food and coffee, and he hopes that when it comes to Sambo's, this won't be the end.


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