By Chris Oregon
The Coon Chicken Inn was a fried chicken restaurant chain located in the Pacific Northwest and owned by Maxon Lester Graham and his wife Adelaide. The first Coon Chicken Inn was established in 1925 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Coon Chicken Inn was famously known for its racist “coon” caricature logo that was used to promote the authenticity of the southern-style food. At the entrance of the restaurant was a 12-foot “coon head.” Customers entered through the mouth, which had exaggerated large lips and teeth. This same entrance was then used for the other two locations that opened later. Despite protests against the racial slurs and racist caricatures the stores remained open until the late 1950s. Even though the restaurant was racist, the only complaint from the city was when it heard rumors that operators were serving alcohol. On March 11, 1927, The Salt Lake Telegram wrote about the trial that Graham went to for “conducting a disorderly house,” because officers had claimed that they found liquor on three of the restaurant’s tables. (“Graham Enters Not Guilty Plea”)
Catherine Roth writes that the large “coon head” used for the entrance of the building was a gimmick to attract customers. (“The Coon Chicken Inn”) Graham also used the logo on postcards, newspaper advertisements, children’s fans, delivery cars, and matchboxes as promotion.
After gaining a lot of success, Graham later opened two more locations in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. Each location had the “coon head” entrance that was used with the first location to attract customers. The restaurant not only provided food for its customers but entertainment as well. The Utah Chronicle mentioned that the restaurant offered dancing and talented local musicians to entertain customers. (“What We’ll Do”) The Coon Chicken Inn was popular among University of Utah students; the Interfraternity Council planned a stag party for students and the restaurant was chosen to host its festivities. (“Greek Council”) Popular among University of Utah students, several fraternities chose to hold events such as banquets at the restaurant because it had a dance floor and live music for everyone to enjoy. (“The Town Chatter”) Variety magazine also mentioned in its April 7, 1937, issue that the Coon Chicken Inn was a great spot for out-of-state bands to work with local musicians, which helped attract customers.
Despite being racist, the restaurant was very successful, opening a total of three locations in three different cities. After opening in Seattle in 1930, Graham was met with protests. That same year the Seattle branch of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP) and the African-American newspaper, the Northwest Enterprise, protested the opening of the restaurant and even threatened Graham “with a lawsuit for libel and defamation of race.” In response, Graham agreed to change his advertising styles by “removing the word ‘Coon’ from the restaurant’s delivery and also by repainting the ‘Coon head’ entrance to the restaurant.” Instead of the “coon head” being black he decided to paint the skin color blue to avoid further issues. Graham also canceled his order of 1,000 car tire covers to please the protesters and not get in legal trouble. In the end, Graham removed the “Coon head” from public view and decided to close the restaurant doors for good. (Roth, “The Coon Chicken Inn”)
Today, the original Coon Chicken Inn building is gone. Despite the restaurant being shut down, Coon Chicken Inn remains relevant today due to the collectibles being sold online as black memorabilia. In 2017, Cook’s Garage, a Texas restaurant, caused outrage when customers noticed a Coon Chicken Inn neon sign on its walls. After receiving so much backlash, the owner said the sign wasn’t there to offend anyone, but to display Americana history. (Robinson) Even though the restaurant has been closed since the 1950s, it is still making headlines to this day. It’s still a relevant topic due to its racism. The Coon Chicken Inn will forever be a part of Utah history.
Chris Oregon is a senior at the University of Utah. He is majoring in mass communication with an emphasis in journalism and minoring in Spanish.
“Graham Enters Not Guilty Plea,” Salt Lake Telegram, March 11, 1927, 2.
“The Town Chatter,” Utah Chronicle, December 21, 1932, 2.
“What We’ll Do,” Utah Chronicle, January 25, 1934, 2.
“Greek Council Chooses Rulers,” Utah Chronicle, May 21, 1936, 1.
“Salt Lake City Sets Bands for Summer,” Variety, April 7, 1937, 50.
Advertisement, Coon Chicken Inn, Utah Chronicle, September 28, 1944, 4.
Roth, Catherine. “Coon Chicken Inn (Seattle),” HistoryLink.org, October 16, 2009.
Roth, Catherine. “The Coon Chicken Inn: North Seattle’s Beacon of Bigotry,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, University of Washington, 2009.
Robinson, Elliott. “The Coon Chicken Inn Lives,” CreativeTension.org, 2017.