Sambo’s Restaurants: The diner chain’s story – and how it got that controversial name

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Sambo's Restaurants The diner chain's story - and how it got that controversial name
Sambo’s was a popular chain of family restaurants that offered diner-style table service. The business started in California in the late 1950s, and expanded across the country throughout the ’60s and ’70s.

With a wide menu, Sambo’s was able to offer something for almost everyone — dinners of everything from filet mignon to fried chicken, and breakfasts like the Papa Jumbo special (juice, eggs, bacon or sausage, and six pancakes) and a cottage cheese & peach salad.

At its peak in 1979, Sambo’s had an incredible 1,117 restaurants in 47 states.

Vintage Sambo's postcard - interior of restaurant-gigapixel-width-750px

Just two years later, however, the company declared bankruptcy, and most of the locations were sold or closed. While not wholly responsible, the restaurant’s controversial name certainly contributed to its ’80s demise.

Although the founders maintain that the word “Sambo” originally came from combining the names Sam and Bo — for Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett — it immediately called to mind “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” a children’s story from 1899 about a dark-skinned boy, some mean tigers, and a whole lot of pancakes.

Initially a popular book, it took time for many people to process, and then protest, the fact that the character names were also racist slurs against dark-skinned people.

In 1951, the Rochester, New York branch of the NAACP was among the first to request the book’s removal from school libraries, saying that Sambo was “not good for human relations and democratic principles.”

Still, six years later, Sambo’s Pancake House opened up its doors in Santa Barbara, California. Instead of choosing another restaurant name, the founders decided to lean into it, and even made their first mascot a little black boy, and used the tagline, “The finest pancakes west of the Congo.”

Sambo's Pancakes 1958

Whether to somewhat appease critics or to build the foundation of a new branding campaign — or both — by the middle of 1960, the restaurant had a new mascot. This version of the Sambo character was a light-skinned Indian boy who wore a turban, and would appear as the face of the brand for more than two decades.

Despite changing their icon, the company name remained controversial. 

Main Sambo's mascot - Indian boy with pancakes

Since at least 1972 (as seen in one of the articles below) there was considerable pushback about “Sambo’s” racist overtones, although the company maintained that the negative feedback was minimal.

So, with a lot of money already invested in the brand, and to avoid losing their momentum, management chose not to change the name.

In November 1977, syndicated columnist William Raspberry weighed in, writing, “the name ‘Sambo’ is taken by black Americans across the land as an insult. It’s hard to imagine that Sam Battistone doesn’t know that.

“Nor is it surprising that the company has had few formal complaints, although it presently operates in some 45 states.” Raspberry concluded, “I’m not likely to write you a letter of protest if I assume that you know you’re insulting me and that you simply don’t give a damn.”

Fast-forward to June 2020, when there was just one Sambo’s left — the original restaurant in Santa Barbara, now owned by Battistone’s grandson Chad Stevens.

At long last, the company said, it was time for the little Indian boy to go — and to take his name with him.

As posted on the Sambo’s Instagram account: “We are changing the name of our restaurant, what the future name will be is still uncertain, however it will not be Sambo’s…

“Our family has looked into our hearts and realize that we must be sensitive when others whom we respect make a strong appeal. So today we stand in solidarity with those seeking change and doing our part as best we can.”

Sambo's restaurant name change - Instagram June 2020

The whimsical official story of the Sambo’s name (1970s)

Once upon a time… there was a little boy in India named Sambo, who was overjoyed with the new outfit his mother and father had given him.

One day as he was walking through the jungle, he met a great big tiger who told Sambo he would eat him up if he didn’t give him his pretty red coat.

Sambo gave the tiger his coat, and went on through the jungle where he met three more tigers. He had to give the first his beautiful green umbrella, the second his blue pants, and the third tiger demanded his pretty purple shoes.

Restaurant story - The tiger taking Sambo's shoes

Poor little Sambo started for home and he was very sad because the cruel tigers had taken away all of his fine clothes.

But on the way home, he heard a strange noise, and when he peeked through the tall jungle grass he saw the tigers chasing each other around a tree. They were growling and fighting over Sambo’s pretty new clothes.

Little Sambo went up to the tigers and told them that if they stopped fighting and gave his pretty clothes back he would treat them to a plate of the finest, lightest pancakes they ever ate.

So they gave back his beautiful red coat, his green umbrella, his blue pants and his pretty purple shoes.

Then they all went to a Sambo’s Restaurant where each tiger ate seventy-five pancakes… but Sambo ate a hundred and sixty-nine because he was so-o-o-o-o-o-o-o hungry.

The official story of the Sambo's character name - 1970s


The famous Sambo’s wooden nickels

Given to diners with each purchase, these collectible wooden nickels offered a cup of coffee for free (which later became a 10 cent offer).

Sambo's wooden nickels - free cup of coffee


Sambo’s restaurant: A tale of tigers

Ad in The Miami Herald (Florida) November 6, 1966

Once upon a time in far off India, there lived a little boy, Sambo by name, who lost all of his fine clothes to some tigers, who then quarreled over the distribution of their loot.

Sambo suggested they cease fighting, return his handsome outfit to him, and accept a treat of the tiniest, lightest pancakes they had ever eaten. Naturally, he took them to a Sambo’s Restaurant.

Retro Sambo's Pancakes menu - 1960s 1970s

So goes one version of the familiar Sambo story. Meanwhile, in far off California and other western states, Sambo’s Restaurants have become a story themselves.

From 1957 with one location, the Sambo’s chain has grown until there are 52 Sambo’s Restaurants in the West, and soon there will be a first Sambo’s at 69th and Collins, Miami Beach… with others to follow.

Under the direction of two energetic young men, Sam Battistone, Jr., and Robert Hild, who have been with the chain since its founding, Sambo’s-on-the-beach will offer excellent food, fast service, pleasant surroundings, and a wholesome, family atmosphere.

Vintage Sambo's restaurant postcard - 1960s with old logo

Sambo’s Restaurant will be open 24 hours a day, and it becomes pretty obvious that it is most certainly destined to become THE place to go. If pancakes aren’t quite your dish, Sambo serves all sorts of other fine foods.

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It is sure to become a favorite family dining spot, since along with their elegant pancakes, you will be able to feast on steaks, chops, and scrumptious fried chicken… just to name a few items. Kids of all ages will enjoy the delightful, casual atmosphere any time of the day or night.

You can’t rush out to Sambo’s right now. In fact, it will be a few weeks before the spectacular new building, with its tent-like roof will be completed… But, keep your eyes open for a Sambo’s “Wooden Nickel” … Good for a cup of coffee on the house.

Vintage Sambo's restaurant postcard


Sambo’s restaurant track record perfect (1969)

By William Doyle – Oakland Tribune (California) September 7, 1969

Ninety-eight tries without a failure would be a great record for a football conversion kicker or a cake baker, but when it comes to opening restaurants it’s phenomenal.

That, however, is the track record for Sambo’s Restaurants Inc., the Santa Barbara-based chain which was founded in the coastal city in 1957 and now operates in 11 states.

Sam D. Battistone, the 29-year-old president and son of one of the founders of the quick-service restaurant chain, stopped this week after opening the 98th Sambo’s on San Pablo Avenue in Richmond.

Vintage Sambo's restaurant postcard - 1970s

The chief executive officer for the restaurant chain unfolded an operational plan which he feels is a major factor in the success of Sambo’s. It is the manager-partner program through which the chain opens new restaurants.

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The company continually recruits prospective managers and puts them through a six-month training course which includes five weeks of formal training in the Sambo’s school in Santa Barbara and about five months work in the various departments of restaurants in the chain.

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At this point, the prospective partner invests $20,000, which buys him 20 percent of the restaurant’s profits, and is given an opportunity to select one of the available units.

Old Sambo's Restaurant interior postcard

Demand for managers

With Sambo’s opening 28 new restaurants this year, on top of 18 a year ago, the demand for management talent is continuous, Battistone says.

The corporation retains 50 percent ownership, and then makes the remaining 30 percent available in blocks of 5 percent each to other managers in the chain.

The colorfully dressed Sambo’s president says the company does not spend a lot of money opening new places.

Sacramento Sambo's opened in 1961

He estimates the cost at $310,000 ($100,000 [franchise fee] and $120,000 for the building and $90,000 for equipment and furnishings) but says most of this is usually put up by lessors.

Sambo’s investment in a new restaurant averages $10,000 for rent deposits and organizational expenses.

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The company operates on a set menu with all food except perishables, shipped nationwide from Santa Barbara.

Questioned about the efficiency of delivering as far away as Florida, Battistone pointed out that the trucks return with commodities from the various states to service the commissary, and are thus operating in both directions.

Vintage restaurant menu from old Sambo's

Only two price increases

It seems to work; Sambo’s has had only two menu price increases in the last 12 years — one of them recently when beef prices soared out of sight.

Site selection is, of course, important, but Sambo’s doesn’t pin itself to freeway interchange or some other inflexible criteria.

Battistone says the company looks for sites which will be sustained by local people, and receive added income from special situations.

The Oakland restaurant on Broadway, three blocks above Jack London Square, has the largest gross volume of any location in the Sambo’s chain.

It takes in $650-700,000 a year compared with an average of $337,000 for the chain, and Battistone says it draws business from the nearby produce area in the early morning, the office workers in the area at lunch and motel and Jack London Square customers in the evening and after 2 a.m. bar closings.

Battistone sees continued expansion both through movement of Sambo’s into the Midwest and East, and the start of Heidi Pie Shops (the first opens soon in Santa Barbara) and Red Top hamburger stands.

Vintage Las Vegas Lotus Inn Motor Motel and Sambo's Restaurant


The name “Sambo’s” — Semantics of a changing time (1972)

By Ron Goldwyn – The Journal Herald (Dayton, Ohio) Feb 29, 1972

Nobody quoted Shakespeare, but his question about what’s in a name was getting answered emphatically from every corner of the Northcrest Gardens community room last week.

The name in question was Sambo.

Vintage 1970s Sambo's souvenir menu

To Sam Battistone, the 31-year-old president of the California-based Sambo’s Restaurants Inc., the word was a fanciful commercial derivation of his father’s first name (and his own), which graces 200 restaurants in 23 states.

To some of Northcrest’s 500 residents, the word is a racial slur that could dredge up ugly words and deeds at the doorstep of their year-old, suburban, integrated apartment project.

Battistone flew into Dayton for four hours Thursday night to meet with Northcrest residents, owners and local anti-poverty workers.

The first Sambo’s in Ohio is under construction next to Northcrest Gardens near North Dixie Drive and Needmore Road. A May opening is planned. Battistone knew there was opposition, but says he expected the usual fencing, lighting and parking complaints.

Vintage Sambo's restaurant postcard - Palm Springs 1960s

Cynthia Sawyer, a Northcrest resident who has organized music programs, dances and kiddie cartoon shows for others in the 182-unit development, was the most outspoken.

“One word today can start a riot,” she said. “I’m going back to something nobody can argue with. The English language.”

She proceeded to quote from Webster’s. Sambo, it said, refers to Negroes and is “usually used disparagingly.” Then she quoted from an encyclopedia: “… used in a very unfriendly manner.”

Others got up. Some of Mrs. Sawyer’s white neighbors supported her, saying an insult to their black friends was an insult to them. A young black man said his childhood nickname from his grandfather was Sambo, and the name didn’t offend him. A black woman said it didn’t bother her, either.

Little Black Sambo cartoon
Little Black Sambo cartoon movie from 1935

Over and over, the argument got back to the nature of Northcrest. The project was planned as the first federally-aided 236 project for low-and-moderate income families outside of Dayton. Annexation brought it within city limits, but didn’t change the lily-white complexion of the surrounding neighborhood.

Northcrest is perhaps 15 to 20 percent black. The residents, or at least the ones active in the community council, talk about their minor problems and their major successes in this test tube of “integrated housing.”

Now, a businessman wanted to put something next door that, to some, conjured up decades of cruel or patronizing epithets hurled at black people.

The little black Sambo legend isn’t even about blacks or Africans. It concerns a youth in India who was scared by some tigers, but got the best of them.

Vintage Sambo's restaurant color and fun book for kids - 1970s

Still, illustrated editions of the children’s story often feature plantation-type characters. Through the years ”Sambo” became, as Mrs. Sawyer said, “very unfriendly.” The book has been removed from Dayton school library shelves.

With the argument swirling politely around him, Battistone outlined three options: Change the name, sell the restaurant, or open as is. He said he needs a few weeks to make up his mind, even though his audience of about 35 was pressing him for a decision on the spot.

The company name, he said, came 15 years ago from the founders: his father, Sam Sr., and a partner named Bohnett. The racial reference was never considered, and, he insisted, has not been brought up at any of the other outlets.

“Aren’t you big enough to change it?” Mrs. Sawyer persisted. “Change it to BoSam’s. Just change it. It originally was a good story. Tom was a good name. We had Thomas Jefferson. But now we’ve got Uncle Tom.”

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Old Sambo's restaurant ad from 1973

Don Kear got up. Kear, a worker at DESC, is president of Urban People, the six-church coalition that built Northcrest Gardens as a grass-roots answer to housing isolation and shortage. Kear speaks in a soft voice.

“We would like to request that you change the national name of your restaurants,” he said. “It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I became aware of the pressures on black people. Perhaps you are not aware of the pressures…”

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(Actually, changing corporate names in midstream is hardly unknown. Cities Service gasoline must have gotten tired of being confused with public utilities, because one day Citgo was born. And Nationwide Insurance used to be the Farm Bureau Insurance Co.)

Sambo's desserts from 1976

Battistone tried to describe some of the problems he would have under a different name, how it might not be profitable to miss out on the national advertising tie-ins and reputation.

So Mel Jackson, head of the Montgomery County Community Action Agency, chipped in with a “prediction,” as he called it. “If you persist in putting that Little Black Sambo up, you are going to have problems, and you probably won’t have a successful Little Black Sambo operation in Dayton.”

Battistone said the firm is just Sambo’s, with no “little black” involved, but Jackson said he’d deliberately said it that way “because that’s the connotation.”

Then Jackson added his version of semantics and changing times: “Fifteen years ago I was a Negro. Today I’m a black man.”


Sambo’s “Tiger Tamers” loyalty club for kids

Old 70s Sambo's Tiger-Tamers club for kids

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Sambo’s 1976 Bicentennial coloring book

Sambo's 1976 Bicentennial coloring book


Vintage Sambo’s circus coloring book for kids

Vintage Sambo's circus coloring book for kids


Sambo’s kids’ menu coupons from the 1970s

Vintage Sambo's kids' menu coupons 1970s


Lucy & Linus of Peanuts discuss the old Sambo story

This vintage Peanuts comic strip ran in newspapers across the country during March, 1958.

Lucy and Linus of Peanuts discuss the old Sambo story 1958

ALSO SEE: See these 40 vintage diners from the ’40s (and try the blue-plate special!)

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