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John B. Goins Set the Industry Standard for Hotel Wait Staff

John B. Goins Set the Industry Standard for Hotel Wait Staff

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, American hotels and their dining rooms served as the social, business, and entertainment centers for many communities. The operation of these on-property restaurants was a key component of their hotels’ reputation. Moreover, the quality of the food and the service in the restaurant was often the standard by how an entire hotel—and, by extension, the town it served—was judged. 

Employing an excellent headwaiter was crucial if a dining room was to operate smoothly, and in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the recognized authority on the duties of a headwaiter and his staff was John B. Goins. An African-American man and veteran headwaiter, Goins was consistently employed at top hotels such as the Albany Hotel in Denver, the Vincennes Hotel in Chicago, and the Neil House in Columbus, just to name a few. He was also tapped to teach wait staff classes for many years. 

In addition to being one of the top headwaiters in the country, Goins was also a writer. For 15 months, starting in April 1901, Goins wrote on the responsibilities of hotel restaurant servers. His articles appeared in industry organ Hotel Monthly, the forerunner to today’s LODGING magazine. His columns covered topics ranging from the proper way to set a dinner tray to a waiter’s dress and hygiene.

Favorable reviews of Goins’ articles came in from all over the United States. A general manager from Pasadena, Calif., noted that the series was “first rate” and that it would “prove instructive and useful in a high degree. Many of his ideas are very good.” There were, of course, the critics. One from London, England, was upset that Goins wrote that in the preparation for tea, “HOT water to be added” when it “should read BOILING water.”

In any case, Goins and his columns became the industry standard for expert waiting in the hotel dinning room. And, in the era of legalized discrimination, it was remarkable that the African-American Goins became the expert for the lodging industry and their dining room staff.

In 1902, Goins compiled his articles into a small book. Titled The American Colored Waiter, the book was only 94 pages long and 3.5 by 6.5 inches, making it small enough to fit in a waiter’s pocket for easy reference. The book was added to the Hotel Monthly bookshop, where hoteliers could purchase it, along with other how-to guides such as Requirements of A Good Bed, The Practical Hotel Steward, and the Clarenbach System of Hotel Accounting.

In 1908, Goins updated his work and added a second section for “European service, parties, and banquets.” Reflecting his position within the lodging and dining service, the title of the work was changed, so that the word “colored” was dropped and it was simplified to The American Waiter. The success and respect Goins achieved are reflected in the fact that there were at least three editions of the book published. It was offered by the Hotel Monthly bookstore well into the 1930s.

Mark Young, PhD, is director of the Hospitality Industry Archives at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management, University of Houston.

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