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January 9th, 2012

Half a Century In Food Service

CIRASCOPE Profile: GEORGE DEMET
Half a Century In Food Service
by Carole Newcomer

“Reading is my one hobby,” said CIRA member George DeMet. “Until recently, I read until late every night-usually until two or three a.m. History books or historical novels are my preference, and I’ve probably read more biographies than anything else.

“It’s inspiring to read the biography of a great person,” he continued. “You begin to compare yourself to the person you’re reading about, and you realize how little of your own potential you are actually using.”

Among the men whose lives have inspired DeMet are British Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill. The American whom DeMet admires the most is Woodrow Wilson.

However, when CIRASCOPE approached George DeMet about writing his profile, the restaurateur was hesitant. “I don’t think I’m qualified,” he modestly commented. Yet these are some of the inspirational aspects of DeMet’s life and career which our interview uncovered.

“At 80 years of age, DeMet spends a full day at his 175 seat Chicago loop restaurant five days a week. His career in food service goes back to 1916 when his family’s main business was candy stores with soda fountains. It has progressed through all the advances of the interim years-the installation of exhaust systems so that cooking could be done on the premises, the invasion of women into the food service market which had originally catered to men through saloon type operations, and the June, 187% introduction of a myriad of food products and food preparation equipment to make large volume feeding possible. “Our menu has never really changed throughout those years, but we have continually adopted new products to produce it.” In his own operations DeMet never served a steak and never served liquor, yet his chain at one time numbered 12 units, and his business has always been strong. “A good restaurant in a big office building is never empty,” he claims, and his own restaurant proves it.

His memories are priceless. His experiences are such that few in the industry could claim to have shared them. And his career is proof of what an intelligent man who is dedicated to his work can do.
DeMet went into the food service field after short flirtations with other careers. He had entered medical school in Montpelier, France, when his brother in Minneapolis sent for him to join the family in the United States. When he arrived, he entered the University of Minnesota and became interested in law, but he was lured to Chicago and a share in the family business before he completed his studies.

DeMet was born in Niata, Greece, in November of 1891. His father died when George was 12, leaving a wife and four sons. George attended primary and secondary schools in Athens, then enrolled in business school to learn languages. The business schools specialized in these as well as teaching business skills.

“I had just enrolled in Montpelier University when my older brother Nicholas, sent for me, said Demet.” He had opened a candy store in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but he was having trouble getting the help he needed. I arrived in New York City on my nineteenth birthday and headed immediately for Minneapolis.”

DeMet entered the University of Minnesota where the course of study encouraged an interest in a law career, and he worked with his brother in his spare time. When a fire destroyed the store, the brothers didn’t want to rebuild, so they joined their cousin in his candy store business in Chicago.

“Our cousin had two operations when he and my brother became partners,” said DeMet. “They soon bought two more operations. The stores were called Johnson’s Candy Stores, and they were located on Clark Street and on Madison, between Clark and State.”
According to DeMet the soda fountains attracted the women as customers in these operations. In those days women were usually not expected to dine out in public restaurants unescorted, but the candy stores were acceptable places for them to be. Serving women opened up a whole new field for the food service industry.

“We began offering sandwiches at our soda fountain,” said DeMet. “George Bay of Bay’s English Muffin Company approached us with the idea. He said he would make the sandwiches for us for six cents, and we could sell them for a dime. We thought it was a joke, but we bought 10 to try it out, and we sold them.”

One time in 1916, when Chicago was planning a Preparedness Parade to build up public spirit for the war effort, DeMet decided to order 50 sandwiches since so many people would be in the loop for the parade.

“We had so much of a crowd that day that the people couldn’t get into the shop,” said DeMet. “I ate four of the sandwiches and threw the rest away. But before long we were selling as many as 1,000 to 1,5000 sandwiches a day.”

Later the restaurant also bought cakes and pies which were baked by two sisters.

“Since there were no ducts in the restaurants, there was no place for exhaust fumes to go, and we couldn’t cook on the premises,” DeMet explained. “When we expanded our service and started serving more food, we had to prepare it in a commissary and deliver it to the stores.”

By 1918 all four brothers were involved in the business, but in that year, DeMet and his two younger brothers, James and John went into the service. DeMet served in the Army in one of two regiments assigned to Siberia.

“Our mission was to protect the Czechoslovakians who were traveling through the area after the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” DeMet explained. “But there wasn’t much for us to do in reality. The longer we stayed there, the more we got into trouble, so we spent a lot of time in the guardhouse. We stayed a whole year after the armistice was signed.
“When I returned to the United States I was sent to Fort Dodge, Iowa, for discharge,” he continued. “Even after being in Siberia, that was one of the coldest places I have ever experienced.”

Things had changed in the food service business while DeMet was away. Walgreen had opened his first store in the loop in 1918 making the 20 cent chocolate malted a popular item. The DeMet family’s Johnson’s Candy Stores had opened a commissary for the preparation of sandwiches, pies, cakes and sweet rolls. They purchased ice cream for their operations and did a big business at the soda fountain. But the main business was still making and selling candy, and in that area, the operation gained some notoriety. A salesman offering the raw materials for candy making came into the commissary’s dipping room one day and showed a candy from New York to one of the dippers named Minnie. “It looks like a turtle,” Minnie told him, and soon Johnson’s Candy Company was making the same kind of candy and selling it under the name “Turtles.”

“Pecans dipped in chocolate were commonly made at the time, but we had a patent on the name, so we were the only ones who could use it,” said DeMet. “It wasn’t very significant until the second world war when the candy became very popular and the name caught on with the public.”

The 1920’s brought changes to the loop that affected the food service business. Prior to that time, Randolph had not been a busy street, but in the early 20’s new movie theaters began opening on that thoroughfare.

“They were quite the thing when they opened,” said DeMet. “People lined up outside every night to attend them. We enlarged our store on Randolph Street in 1920. We had a second floor which wasn’t being used, so we opened a grill up there with a full kitchen, where we went into the ‘preparation of such things as soups and roasts.”

In 1923, the stores dropped the Johnson name and assumed the name DeMet’s. In the same year, the brothers opened their first restaurant in an office building. Throughout the 1920’s it was followed by several others – in the Garland Building, the Banker’s Building, the Board of Trade, the 1 North LaSalle Building. Eventually the DeMet chain numbered 12.
DeMet was always in the forefront of the family’s business expansion.

“I was never in the kitchen,” said DeMet. “I used to handIe the advertisers and deaI with the architects and contractors. I also handled employment. My youngest brother, John, ruled in the kitchen. To me, advertising was a fascination, and J found it exciting to deal with the contractors.”

In 1935 the family split, with the four brothers keeping the restaurants and the cousins taking the candy stores and candy factory. The candy company has since been sold and the trade name, Turtles, assumed by a Canadian firm.

“Two of my brothers, John and Nicholas, retired in 1945, and James and I ran the operations alone.” said DeMet. Neither of the brothers had married during the early part of their careers, but in 1940, when George was 49, he met and married Marilyn Pickett. She was then 21 years old and was working in DeMet’s as a hostess.
“When you’re in business, you never seem to have time to think about marriage,” said DeMet. “Something keeps making you postpone it. Once you pass age 35 or 40, you aren’t likely to change your life style much either.”
But at age 49, DeMet changed enough to get married, and in the last three decades he has raised a family of five; Mary Lu is 28 and married, Kathy is 27, Judy is 25, George is 24 and Marilyn is 17. Mrs. DeMet was not involved in the restaurants until three years ago when DeMet’s brother James died.
“Now my wife is devoted to the business,” said DeMet. “She writes the menu, orders the food, supervises the women and boys and pays the bills.”
DeMet began selling his restaurants in the late 40’s until now he has just one operation left with a 109 seat dining room facing LaSalle Street and a 64 seat dining room facing Wells. Business hours are 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. According to DeMet, business is best at breakfast, but due to the location in an office building, there is a uniformity throughout the day.

“We still have a predominately women’s trade,” said DeMet. “Our menu is much the same as it always was. We have adopted new products, but never really changed the menu. Chicken salad is still a big item with us, and we probably sell more than anyone else in town.”

According to DeMet, the rules for success in business haven’t changed throughout the years either. “Business depends on the management,” he said, “and on management’s ability to carry their tradition of honesty and good service to their employees.”
DeMet has worked with the Chicago & Illinois Restaurant Association for many years, serving a three year term as a director and a one year term as vice president. He has also been chairman of the CIRA’s loop committee.

DeMet’s pace and energy are amazing in a man who has reached 80 years of age. He is at the restaurant from opening to closing every day. That factor alone makes his biography an inspiration to men who, at half his age have only half of his enthusiasm.

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DeMets History

DeMet's Candy Company was originally started in 1898 as a candy store business and soda fountain shop by George DeMet of Chicago.

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