This antique mall in Central California has the last lunch counter of its kind
An antique mall is, by its very nature, filled with forgotten things. Often they’re trinkets, baubles, little farmhouse details, or road signs that may have meant something to a few particular people decades ago. But it’s entirely rare to stumble through layer after layer of old housewares and postcards just to come across a piece of history that — quite literally — helped to redefine the entire landscape of America, twice.
Step into the Five & Dime Antique Mall in Bakersfield, California, and that rarity becomes reality. There, in the back corner at the ground-floor level of the four-story building, is a fully functioning former Woolworth luncheonette counter, complete with 22 counter seats, Formica tables ringing the room, and an open kitchen for griddling burgers and making milkshakes. But this well-protected bit of ephemera isn’t cordoned off with Do Not Touch signs — it’s still a real, thriving luncheonette counter called the Woolworth Diner, serving police officers, antiquers, and locals daily.
This is the last Woolworth luncheonette counter in America.
Just a generation or two ago, Woolworth was a household name. It was the place small-town communities and big city dwellers both went to pick up their daily necessities and shop for their fineries too. Most things were on the less expensive end, but the idea was to create a one-stop shop for customers to come and fill out their needs, rather than waiting for mail-order catalogues to arrive with new quarterly goods or relying on low-stock general stores way out in the farmlands.
The first Woolworth opened in Utica, New York in 1878, but the model wasn’t quite right and the business quickly closed. A year later owner Frank Winfield Woolworth changed plans and turned on the lights to a new, more carefully curated store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The place was almost immediately a hit, owing at first to its rigid price structure where all items were either five or ten cents, hence the “five-and-dime” terminology still heard today. Perhaps more importantly, the retail store gained notoriety as one of the first places in America that would forever change the country’s commerce model.
Prior to Woolworth, much of America bought its goods from catalogues or local stores where attendants pulled from a list given to them and produced the goods up at the front. Shoppers would wait patiently, often with a drink in hand, while someone else picked out things for them. At any Woolworth, rows and rows of items lined shelves inside large buildings, letting customers browse and pick up items before putting them in a shopping basket for purchase at the front themselves.
Frank Woolworth literally created the modern retail big box store model, and the company exploded in popularity as a result, eventually adding in-store dining counters and candy stands to further make sure a customer’s needs were always being met. At its height, Woolworth (and later its discount subsidiary Woolco) was said to have held some 5,000 storefronts both domestically and abroad, with hundreds across the United States servicing communities that otherwise were devoid of chain stores.
The company was a global icon, building as its headquarters one of Manhattan’s first early skyscrapers. At its height, there were Woolworths across Ireland, Germany, Mexico, and the United Kingdom, with an unaffiliated (and still active) Woolworth chain operating in Australia and New Zealand. The company hadn’t trademarked the massively popular name there, so enterprising businesspeople there took it up for themselves and created an entirely different, and also successful, chain of stores.
Woolworth remained so culturally relevant through much of the 20th century, it even played a major role in American de-segregation. Some of the first black sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement occurred at a segregated lunch counter inside a Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, when for days an increasing number of protestors took to sitting at the luncheonette counters and asking for service, only to be denied. The idea was to attract as much attention to the cause as possible, making Woolworth — then a synonymous shopping brand with hundreds of U.S. locations — the focus of protests and continued sit-ins for months. Individual store owners within the company found their sales dipping by a third or more, and began to desegregate the lunch counters within six months.
Today, the Woolworth Diner luncheonette in Bakersfield is a far cry from all of that. The Woolworth company officially went insolvent in 1997, but not before selling off most of its assets amidst declining sales in the decades before. Today many American Woolworth buildings have been demolished outright or reconstructed into mixed-use office buildings or condos, though some still carry the brass and marble lettering of its original intent. At the Five & Dime Antique Mall the history of the building is on full display, with original light-up Woolworth’s Luncheonette signs hanging over the entrances. Inside the Formica is still as spiffy as ever, though the metal chairs creak with the weight of a hundred years.
The menu is simple at Woolworth Diner, mostly just burgers and a chili dog with sides like fries, baked beans, or macaroni and potato salad. There are milkshakes available, root beer floats too, but nothing even comes close to crossing the $10 mark. Signs hang both inside the dining area and beyond showcasing five-cent Coca-Colas or ten-cent sandwiches, an overt homage to the five-and-dime history of the place. The workers still don black and white outfits when flitting around behind the counter, and many in the dining crowd are old enough to remember Woolworth in all its glory. For everyone else, there is this place; one unassuming four-story antique mall in the heart of Bakersfield, where Frank Woolworth and his important luncheonette still live on.
1400 19th Street
“The Last Woolworth Luncheonette in America Hides in Bakersfield.” Eater LA – All. https://la.eater.com/2018/4/11/17225594/woolworth-bakersfield-luncheonette-history-antique-mall-open.