Welcome to the Vancouver Lexicon. Its purpose is to pin down the patois of the City of Vancouver by recording its toponyms, nicknames, slang terms, personalities, places, and other Van-centric things. Full A-Z here.
White Lunch | restaurant, racism, history | A local chain of restaurants launched in 1913 by two Scandinavian bakers, Neil and Thos Sorenson, at 124 West Hastings (across from Woodwards). With the name, the Sorensons were advertising the fact that their establishments only served white guests and hired white workers. This was at a time when white Vancouver’s nativism and racist antipathy towards the city’s ethnic Chinese and Japanese inhabitants was still very much out in the open, just six years after the so-called “Anti-Oriental Riots” of 1907. The concept proved to be very popular at the time, with “White Lunch” expanding to included prime locations on Granville and Pender, plus another on Hastings Street just one block east of the original (next door to the Lux). The company’s abhorrent policies were eventually phased out, but the racist stigma associated with it persisted until the last location closed in the early 1980s.
Usage: “When Vancouverites find out that White Lunch used to be a thing, I think they’re more embarrassed than they are surprised…”
That neon piece is fabulous.
Not only did we all go to the White Lunch for a decent meal at a decent price, we needed the “white lunch” stamped utensils to take home. It absolutely never dawned on us about the meaning of the name. We were so naive.
Worked Granville st location as a young fellow.Cooks helper.Actually had fun! Did not look down on self.
.lillian the manager, Jimy the cook.several Chinese cooks.closed 1973.for a few yrs.saw a few around town.Memories.
I would often go to the White Lunch for soup and a cup of coffee. I had no idea the meaning of the name. Thank you for this information.
I have only good memories of White Lunch. My Swedish dad would take me there for chocolate cake and a glass of milk when I was very young, in the late ’50’s and the early ’60’s. It was our special time when he would meet up with friends who were loggers up in the Queen Charlottes and were in town for a short time. Such great memories. I have no prejudices and I feel sad that this was the case but it won’t diminish my great memories of my dad who passed away in 1987.
I have been hauling around a portrait of this for 20 ish years I got at a garage sale. Can I send you a photo of it scout?
For sure. Please go ahead. Thanks. andrew [at] scoutmagazine.ca
Every summer before us kids had to go back to school. Mom n dad would bring us to Vancouver to do back to school shopping. We always went to woodwords then white lunch for our meal. I always loved the 2 aides of the restaurant. The cafeteria style service and it was a highlight n great memory of mine because omg I loved their fries and gravy and fountain pop dispenser. I wish it was still there for me to go to and reminis about the 1970″s and summer holidays with our folks. Terrific memories at white lunch. I had no idea it was meant for only white people. Seeing we are native Indians I now understand the funny looks some white people would give. But wth my dad was never afraid. We enjoyed our time there for sure
SOUVENIR CUTLERY? Here’s one out of left field! Does anyone have any souvenir cutlery from Vancouver’s White Lunch restaurants? I am writing a series of stories that revolve around the nightlife scene in the Granville Street White Lunch in the 1970s and would love to have such a souvenir.
A friend gave me an old White Lunch spoon (the name was stamped on the handle) 30 years ago. It was worn through in the bowl of the spoon where, we surmised, it was used to cook heroin … an appropriate memento of the times and the place. But it was lost in the shuffle of time and change and I no longer have it
According to two of the comments here, people who were not white did in fact work there, and people who were not white did eat there. The narrative of this article suggests otherwise.
I have a “White Lunch” food crock with lid . It has “ white lunch” in script to front. If anybody would like to see a photo of it please message me as I cannot work out how to upload here ! Oddly enough I am Scottish and live in Aberdeen, but cannot remember where I got it other than possibly in a job lot of kitchenalia. Have just been researching it and found this page.
“According to two of the comments here, people who were not white did in fact work there, and people who were not white did eat there. The narrative of this article suggests otherwise.”
Actually the article quite explicitly says –
“…The company’s abhorrent policies were eventually phased out [eg by the time those people worked and ate there], but the racist stigma associated with it persisted until the last location closed in the early 1980s.”
My grandfather was the manager of the White Lunch, with the rotating sign, on the north side of Hastings, back in the 1940/1950’s. I would love to talk to anyone that might have some information on him or if anyone could suggest where I might look for more information. His name was Peter Nelson. As a small child I remember going with my Mom and Grandma to visit him at the restaurant. Also recall him coming home, on the bus, one Christmas Eve with a cooked turkey!
In the photograph above from 1971 that shows 4 young gentlemen seated in a booth, you can see that one of them is Oriental. Obviously somebody (or everybody) was oblivious about the purported purpose of the restaurant’s original nom de guerre. It seems from the photo, and from reading the comments above, that multi-racial dining had become the norm by the ’70’s, or earlier.
Linda Rhodes; My Grandfather Gunde Frostrup was the purchasing agent for the White Lunch where he served for “sixty years and eight months” before he retired at ninety four years of age. As a child of ten years, my grandpa Gunde introduced me to Tom Sorensen Sr. who asked me a skill testing question to which I’ve quite forgot. Keith Sorensen said of the later years of staff; “What’s Gunde gonna do when we’re gone?”
BTW, My 80th today. I’m bloody thankful.
Gunde he probably would have known my grandpa. After he retired I remember one of the Soreness coming to our house for tea…..would have been in the late 50s.
Okay, this is too weird. I would like to see your printed sources for these ridiculous accusations.
I am one of 6 of Thomas Soren(SEN)’s (your spelling of name is wrong) grandchildren.
He and Neil were Norwegian. And were as far from racist as one could possibly be. They employed many Chinese, and those wonderful hard working devoted people became part of the family.
White lunches were named for the WHITE TABLE clothes!Historically this was when homes were beginning to have kitchens that the homeowner (lady) started to cook their own food in their own kitchens. Homes also started to get bathrooms instead of outhouses. Cleanliness was a big deal as diseases were common with no vaccines, antibiotics etc. First kitchens and bathrooms were all white!! Not racists white,white tiles, white dishes, white walls and white linens, as they felt it was cleaner. When Grandpa and Uncle Neil opened the White Lunches their desire was to ALWAYS have white ,clean linens, clean kitchens and the best food so that people would feel and be safe.
Neil and Thomas had immigrated to LaCross Wisconsin with other brothers and Father and stepmother. They were children. Thomas was 2, the youngest of the boys. The birth mother of the boys died after Thomas’s birth in Norway. They came through Ellis Island with only the clothes on their backs. Made it to a Norwegian settlement in La Crosse. And homesteaded a farm. They were dirt poor, the boys were able to complete 2nd grade, learned to read, speak English, then pulled from school to work the farm and read the Bible. Thomas at 12 years old with Neal, a few years older, rebelled and left LaCrosse and made it to Seattle, to earn passage on a filthy lice and disease filled steamer to take them to Nome, Alaska- THE GOLD RUSH!!! There, as boys they found work as busboys in the filthy overcrowded eating houses. That is where their passion was birthed to offer a clean and healthy eating experience for all, years later in Vancouver. Thomas died a very well self educated man with a 2nd grade late 1800 education. White table clothes were the symbol of cleanliness!! As were white kitchens, that more often than not also had Chinese and Black cooks.
What an informative and interesting comment. Thank you for correcting this misinformation, which I always thought was incorrect.
I remember as a child coming to Vancouver in the late thirties or very early forties from Nelson and eating at the Granville St. White Lunch because my aunt Elsie Humphreys worked there. I felt very proud of her given that she was a very beautiful blond women and was very friendly and kind.
She moved to Prince Rupert eventually.
The White Lunch was my first time seeing a cafeteria, and I thought it was a great experience, and the food was delicious in my estimation.
When I was teenager employed part time during summer job probably 1964 became first employed full time after cooking course from Vancouver Techi School on 1965 work upstairs main kitchen I remember was group hippies customers on table then I quit job to work white spot bakery night shift work. Also what year 1974 white lunch closed to public where I work in Shaugnessy Hospital as cleaner worker I met former White Lunch employees one was manager others delivery driver be become two cleaner worker told me closed sold new owner on Hasting Cafeteria
I think the caption needs a considerable edit or adjustment, and the claims that the White Lunch had such a racist past needs some source material cited. I don’t believe it was ever the case that non White patrons were forbidden to be served there.
In the early beginnings, The White Lunch took its name that it had white cooks, because there was an old time prejudice that Asian cooks were not as sanitary in the preparation or cooking of food. This unfortunately stuck around as a notion for years–as the BBQ Pork places in Chinatown were threatened by the city to close because of the slow-cook method they cooked the pork. But the Chinatown restaurant owners fought back. I know Jim Wong-Chu did some important writing on this back in the day.
So, non-white customers WERE served at the White Lunch. In fact, eventually the restaurant had non white kitchen staff, especially by the time everybody had forgotten the original dog-whistling of the original name.
I recall going here as a kid in the 30’s. I’m of southern Italian background – technically “white” I guess, but I could pass as Persian or even Asian. Never got a sideways glance; or maybe I just didn’t notice or care. Lots of races did and still do look out for their own. The “whites” are (recently) the exception – not entirely but to a greater extent than any other race.
The allegations of racism and segregation are true, according to acclaimed city historian, John Atkin, who researched White Lunch and other similar establishments in a report to Vancouver City Council here: https://council.vancouver.ca/20171031/documents/rr1.pdf
You can also see his comments to the Vancouver Sun here: https://vancouversun.com/news/staff-blogs/history-of-vancouver-restaurants-a-chronology-and-memories
And another source: Daily World of September 1918:
“Y Shimidzu, London-based assistant manager for the Nippon Yusan Kaisho line of steamers, with a representative of the marine department of the Japanese government, while in the city last week, entered the [White Lunch] restaurant and attempted to purchase food, but were refused by the waiter, who Informed them that he could only serve white people. When the matter was brought to the attention of the general manager of the White Lunch company, that official expressed regret that the two visitors had evidently been received by an inexperienced waiter, who had not explained the company’s rules. He pointed out that while the company refused to allow people other than white to eat in its restaurants, nevertheless, they could purchase the food and take it away with them. In some of the restaurants, he said it was made a practice to serve people of any colour when a Japanese, Chinese, or Hindu entered any of their restaurants, accompanied by a white person. they were always served, he said.”
I can remember going to the white lunch with our mother, me my brother and sister right after shopping at Woodwards, You could just line up and pick whatever food you liked and they always had a lot of desserts.
Somehow our mother got 3 teaspoons from the white lunch and I still have one today. It has to be at least 65 years old.
All these years and I just found out the reason it got the name White Lunch but then those were different times
My family immigrated to Vancouver from Hong Kong in the early 70s. My dad was hired as a cook at White Lunch and worked there for 10 years before he passed away. When I was a teenager, I would often meet up with him at White Lunch after shopping at Woodward’s, Woolworth or Army & Navy. I remember the staff to be kind and welcoming. I was always offered a slice of pie, a bowl of jello, or a scoop of ice cream and ate in the kitchen area as I waited for my father to get off from work.
I still have one spoon with the words “white lunch” etched on it.
I have very fond memories of this place.
Yes, things changed from the segregationist past. But the origins of segregation and exclusion were real and true according to City Historian John Atkin. See above.