Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Alice Foote MacDougall

Episode Summary

Alice Foote MacDougall (1867-1945) owned a New York coffee shop empire.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

This month, we’re talking about Tastemakers — women who changed the culinary game. For much of history, women have been relegated to domestic tasks. Yet female innovators in food and beverage are often undercelebrated. Let’s change that.

Today’s Tastemaker was a pioneering coffee wholesaler, restaurateur, writer, and business owner who ran a famed New York City coffee shop empire at a time when very few women ran their own businesses. Let’s talk about Alice Foote MacDougall.

Alice Foote was born on March 2, 1867 in New York City to Wall Street financier Emerson Foote, a member of the New York gentry.

During her early years, Alice traveled to Europe with her father several times and was exposed to European design and décor, as well as elaborate restaurants unlike anything she had seen back in the U.S. 

Unfortunately, Alice’s father was a terrible businessman and had to file for bankruptcy multiple times due to failed ventures. He managed to lose most of the family fortune before Alice reached adulthood.

When Alice was 20, she married a salesman named Allan MacDougall who was fourteen years her senior. According to Alice, the marriage was a deeply unhappy one. The couple did have three children together.

Like Alice’s father, Allan turned out to be unsuccessful in business. He was a coffee wholesaler, and diminished what was left of the family fortune and social status through his failures.

In 1907, Allan fell ill and died later that same year. Since he’d left the family with almost no money, Alice was forced to quickly find work to support her children. Since her husband had been in the coffee business, Alice was familiar with the industry and it seemed like a good place to start.

Alice rented a small room on Front Street, then the commercial center of New York City, and opened a coffee roasting operation under the name A.F. MacDougall. She chose to use her initials because many prospective customers at the time had negative views of women in business and this allowed them to assume what they wanted about the company’s owner. Besides a $1000 loan from a family friend, Alice handled the entire business setup on her own.

For the first 12 years of her business, Alice sold her coffee products directly, utilizing direct mail marketing campaigns to reach her target customers. She also traveled for work, and sold her coffee to customers throughout New England, including hotels, universities and hospitals.

By 1919, the business had been incorporated as Alice Foote MacDougall and Sons, and was ready for expansion. That year, Alice opened the Little Coffee Shop in Grand Central Station. The shop was originally meant to be  a sales outpost for her retail coffee products, but customers wanted to try what they were buying, so the store eventually became a full café. It specialized in coffee and waffles, and was a huge hit.

Over the subsequent 10 years, Alice opened a veritable empire with four more coffee shops in Manhattan. Each was highly decorated in a different Mediterranean style. This was unique at a time when most New York cafes and coffee shops were utilitarian. At the Sevilla, Alice’s most elaborate café, the wait staff wore mantillas and Spanish costumes.  At The Cortile, another cafe, patrons sat amid decor stylized like a Mediterranean courtyard. Alice also opened three restaurants in Manhattan and the Playland Casino in Rye, New York.

At all of her establishments, Alice continued to advertise and sell her retail roasted coffee products, which were branded as Bowling Green Coffee. She also continued to serve her beloved waffles in an ode to her first cafe.

In 1926, Alice published her first cookbook called “Coffee and Waffles.” It contained recipes for “cakes, sandwiches, salads, coffee and tea,” as well as Alice’s personal musings on cooking and entertaining. Two years later she published “The Autobiography of a Business Woman,” which detailed her fascinating life story and successes and failures in business.

In 1929, Alice put out her third book, “The Secret of Successful Restaurants,” which included her daily checklists for everyone from chefs to waiters. Her fourth and final publication, “Alice Foote MacDougall’s Cook Book,” was released in 1935 and focused on the home kitchen rather than the restaurant industry. 

Alice’s restaurant empire was a major presence on the New York scene in the 1920s and 1930s. Alice herself became a minor celebrity, with plenty of media attention focused on the popularity of her restaurants with chic crowds and her success as a woman in a male-dominated industry.

Interestingly, Alice was not a progressive woman herself. In fact, she was an anti-suffragist who, rather hypocritically, believed that a woman’s place was in the home. In December 1935, she had a letter published in the New York Times, She wrote, “Most (of course not all) women are an intrusion in the orderly procession of commercial life. Untrained, unfitted, full of tradition, prejudices, and inhibitions, she is the fool who rushes in where wise men fear to tread.”

Alice retired in 1935 after the Great Depression caused a loss of patronship to her businesses. She eventually had to declare bankruptcy.

Alice died at home in New York City on February 10, 1945. She was 77 years old.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Tastemakers, we’ll be talking about a pioneer of nutritional science.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by Verishop, an e-commerce destination for everyday luxury, where the tastemakers of today can get everything they need to cook, clean, dress and live. Go to Verishop.com/Encyclopedia that's V-E-R-I-S-H-O-P.COM/encyclopedia for 15% off your first order

Talk to you tomorrow!