282 King St.
Yesterday: Raley’s Cafeteria, 1928-1968
On the menu: Baked or fried chicken dinner with sage dressing, cranberry sauce, vegetables, bread and “choice of many kinds of desserts and salads,” 20 cents (May 22, 1932)
In the late 1800s, when lunch pails had become passé among the white-collar set, busy workers needed quick, affordable meals to replace their linen-wrapped fruit pie slices and hard-boiled eggs. In response, cafeterias popped up from coast to coast, although as their entry in Andrew Smith’s American food encyclopedia notes, “it was in the South that the cafeteria became a culinary institution.”
Charleston’s first cafeteria was an adjunct of the popular Young Women’s Christian Association lunchroom on Wentworth Street; beginning in 1911, the group’s members offered cottage cheese balls; stuffed eggs and lettuce sandwiches on apple green china to “the business girls of the city,” as The News and Courier put it. Their financial acumen no doubt came in handy when it came time to settle up, since each patron was expected to write out her own slip showing what she owed.
Still, the city didn’t have a proper for-profit cafeteria until 1932, when Fred P. Bass opened the G. & E. Cafeteria. Bass was backed by Ira Krupnick, a New Yorker who’d come to Charleston in search of an investment opportunity and was charmed by the potential efficiency of the cafeteria format. On its first day in business, G. & E. averaged one customer per minute.
G. & E. was located at 334 King St., better known to locals then as the old Raley’s Baking and Lunch. From their new spot at 282 King St., Raley’s owners got an eyeful of G. & E.’s success: Three weeks after its gangbusters opening day, A.H. Raley filed papers with the Secretary of State to reincorporate as Raley’s Cafeteria.
“A pioneer in good meals at cheap prices, Mr. Raley had the vision to foresee a need for a different kind of cafeteria,” The News and Courier reflected in 1941. By that point, Raley’s had opened cafeterias in Columbia and Augusta, partly on the strength of its reputation for cleanliness and pleasant surroundings.
Foremost, though, a Raley’s meal was thrifty: When wartime conditions forced the restaurant to temporarily raise its prices, it took out a newspaper ad to apologize.
In 1950, the Raley family gutted the cafeteria and rebuilt it in colonial revival style. Samuel Raley, who spent three months on the road in search of design inspiration, approved green asphalt tiles for the floors and new steam tables for the food.
Yet there was nothing customers liked to see as much as the totals on their checks.
“We ought to charge you for this information,” The News and Courier in 1954 teased its readers. “We have found a five-cent cup of coffee. It’s exactly five cents, a nickel, with no tricks, no smaller serving cup, no extra charge for sugar and cream. And this we know you won’t believe: You get your second cup free.”
Of course, the source was Raley’s.
— Hanna Raskin