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Alice Foote MacDougall and her (not so) Little Coffee Shop

portrait image of Alice Foote MacDougall

New York Tribune, 14 Dec. 1913.

Alice Foote MacDougall was born in New York City, just after the Civil War. Her father worked on Wall Street and traveled extensively, exposing the young Alice to both the world of business and European ways of doing things. She married Allan (or Alan) MacDougall, a traveling salesman, and had three children. Allan’s coffee business was not terribly successful and when he died, Alice wasn’t left with much and she needed to find a way to support her family. She started her own coffee roasting business at age 40, under the name A.F. MacDougall as a way to disguise female ownership. She later incorporated it as Alice Foote MacDougall and Sons. At the time, it seems that she was one of the few, if not the only, women to import coffee.

To sell her coffee, she opened her first coffee shop in Grand Central Station in 1919 – with the prosaic name, the Little Coffee Shop. She later opened other coffee shops; Cortile, Pizzaetta, Firenze, Auberge, Sevillia, all of which had a European flare. She did continue to sell her coffee under the brand name Bowling Green Coffee. An article about Alice in the August 29, 1915 Evening Star had this to say:

The coffee expert must possess an exceedingly delicate palate to enable him to determine just how much more of this bean or that will create the brew that the individual customer wants.

The three small trays seen in the picture contain samples of the green bean, which are judged by their color, size, and general character. The samples are roasted and ground, after which comes the delicate task of blending.

Freshly ground beans are weighed with apothecary’s scales, and an equal amount of each is put into separate cups. Cold water is brought to the boiling point, and an exact and equal amount is poured into each cup. It is then left to cool, and when it is at blood temperature the tasting takes place; for to get the coffee flavor the coffee should not be much warmer than the mouth.

MacDougall, Mrs. A.F.. W&R coffee with a number three

An entry for A.F. MacDougall’s business in the credit directory, Dun and Bradstreet Reference Book, 1920; Vol. 210, part 2.

Her businesses became quite successful and her sons joined her in running things. She was even in demand as a lecturer. Unfortunately, like many businesses, hers suffered because of the Great Depression and went into bankruptcy. She retired in 1935 and died in 1945.

While she was running the business, she found time to publish a number of books including Coffee and Waffles, Alice Foote MacDougall’s Cook Book, and The Secret of Successful Restaurants. Her books were practical as well as philosophical. For example, Successful Restaurants wasn’t just filled with charts, lists, bullet points, and samples. It included pictures of a few of her businesses and was written in a more engaging fashion instead of a step by step how-to manual. The practical chapters discussing location and capital, decoration, management, food, and advertising were paired with inspirational musings bordering on self-help.

Alice seated at a round table with cups of coffee

A flock of Javas. Washington Times, 25 May 1922.

MacDougall felt that promoting her business, and by extension herself, was key. She used her success to promote women in the business world and share what she knew. The first sentence from the foreword of her autobiography:

It is futile to ask women not to go into business, as futile almost as to insist that water shall not run downhill. (Foreword)

Looking at her autobiography, I was struck by a few of her observations. For example, she thought people, including women, should know their strengths and weaknesses:

If you are sure of the weak points in your character, if you are quite conversant with your limitations, the best corner stone of success is laid. Do not arrogate to yourself qualities that you have not; but for heaven’s sake don’t forget that of all God’s creatures you have the highest opportunity, and that your sphere is limited by the heavens only.

So, if a woman enters commercial life, let her inventory most carefully her limitations, and build herself up where she finds herself lacking. (p. 189)

She felt honesty about oneself was important:

Faultless honesty is a sine qua non of business life. Not alone the honesty according to the moral code and the Bible. When I speak of honesty I refer to the small, hidden, evasive meannesses of our natures. I speak of the honesty of ourselves to ourselves. In the still watches of the night, have it out with your soul. Honestly size up your smallness and cultivate bigness of outlook, of charity, of understanding, and of sympathy.

Imagination is a valuable asset in business and she has a sister, Understanding, who also serves. Together they make a splendid team and business problems dissolve and the impossible is accomplished by their ministrations. (p. 190)

And her thoughts on being flexible in business were a bit of a surprise:

advertisement says Delicious Coffee for 26 cents for the importers pricea pound for the Mansion Blend that was roasted fresh daily, 5 pounds delivered free fee from Alice Foot MacDougall New York on 138 Front Street

New York Tribune, Harris & Ewing.

I think a large portion of success is derived from flexibility. It is all very well to have principles, rules of behavior concerning right and wrong. But it is quite as essential to know when to forget as when to use them. Your rules are yours and they may be as relentless as you please for yourself, but don’t carry them farther than that. You are not your brother’s keeper, and even if you were your rules would probably not apply to his needs and behavior. Much less in business must you adhere to the rules set up by yourself. (p. 191)

Alice Foote MacDougall was a professional female restaurant entrepreneur and an interesting character in the history of the hospitality industry–more people should know about her. For anyone interested in learning more, Business Reference has just published Hospitality Industry: Restaurants, Hotels, & Lodging Resource Guide, but if coffee is your thing, co-blogger Nate Smith just wrote a post on caffeine, the “motivation molecule.”

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