Joseph’s: “The Café With a Style All Its Own”

He was a man whose name evoked the Holy Land. She was a woman whose name evoked the Piney Woods. Together they operated one of Fort Worth’s most popular cafés early in the twentieth century.

Samuel Abraham Joseph came to America (as did another local Samuel) from Russia. He was born in 1863 and immigrated to New York City in 1882. By 1894 he was in Texas, where he married Minnie of Mineola. Minnie of Mineola didn’t even have to change her maiden name: She was the daughter of Jesse and Miriam Joseph of Germany. Minnie, born in 1869, had immigrated to America in 1886.

In Mineola Minnie and Samuel operated a saloon.

They moved to Fort Worth about 1902 and operated saloons on Jennings and Main streets.

In 1907 Sam opened a café and bar at the corner of West 9th Street and Houston Street. The café was located on the northern fringe of Hell’s Half Acre, which by the early twentieth century was becoming home to more hotels and vaudeville theaters and “picture shows” and to fewer saloons and “female boarding houses” (brothels).

Next to the café and bar Sam Joseph operated a domino parlor.

But soon after he opened, the state outlawed domino parlors. So, Sam converted the parlor into more café space. In the beginning Sam had just one employee. The café’s kitchen was the kitchen of the Josephs’ home on Hemphill Street. Mrs. Joseph cooked all the food on the menu.

At first business was so slow that one day an out-of-work man came into the café and asked for a free meal. Sam gave him a meal and said he would give the man a job on these terms: Sam would give the man one half of each day’s receipts as wages.

That “paycheck” proved to be so paltry that the man quit after a week.

Ah, but then one day another man came into the café, ordered a beer, and said to Sam: “I thought maybe there was a cube of cheese here I could nibble.”

There wasn’t. But that night Sam told his wife about the incident. She made a wheel of cheese like her mother had taught her in Germany.

By the time Mr. “Cheese, Please” returned to the café, Sam was ready for him. The man enjoyed the homemade cheese so much that the next day he returned with three friends.

Success in the café business depends, fittingly, on word-of-mouth. With that wheel of cheese, Joseph’s Café was on a roll—a roll that lasted a quarter-century.

Soon three tables became ten. The café expanded into a shoeshine parlor next door. A kitchen was installed and cooks hired.

By 1910 the Josephs could afford to buy big newspaper ads. The café at first was named “Joseph’s Club Café.”

By 1912 it was “Joseph’s Café.”

Joseph’s Café was a work-in-progress. In 1913 it was remodeled.

In 1912 Joseph had applied to become a naturalized citizen, swearing to “renounce absolutely and forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly Emperor Nicholas II, Emperor of all the Russias.”

Three years later Joseph aced the citizenship test.

Each year at Christmas Sam Joseph served a dinner to the city’s poor children and afterward treated them to a movie.

The year 1917 was a big one for the Josephs. Camp Bowie and the Ranger oil boom brought to town more mouths to feed.

In 1917 the Josephs again remodeled. They converted the second floor of their building into a dining room, expanding the café’s seating capacity from 150 to 300. From the ceiling of the new dining room hung a trellis covered with roses and morning glories. In this postcard some of the café’s collection of 250 beer steins can be seen along the walls.

Ironically, after Camp Bowie was opened, in 1918 Fort Worth went “dry”: Alcohol could not be sold within a ten-mile radius of the camp. Then came state and then national prohibition (saloons in the city directory in 1916: 171; saloons in the city directory in 1918: 0). Prohibition was a blow to Joseph’s Café, which had served wines and liquors imported from Europe. Instead the café began serving a nonalcoholic “cooling beverage” called “Joseph’s Special Brew.”

The liquor didn’t flow, but the profits did. By 1917 revenue at Joseph’s Café had increased by sixty-two-fold.

Now the café had a staff of sixty-four. But the Josephs were not absentee owners. Both Josephs were always on the floor. Mrs. Joseph acted as hostess. If waiters were busy, the Josephs seated and waited on arriving customers.

By 1917 the café  advertised itself as “the café with a style all its own.” The café became famous for its food—especially pot roast chicken—and Bohemian atmosphere. The atmosphere may have been Bohemian, but the café had its standards. The café was said to be the only restaurant in town where men had to wear a jacket to be seated.

Joseph’s developed a reputation beyond Fort Worth. It was popular with visiting entertainers such as Lillian Russell and Enrico Caruso.

Joseph’s Café patrons could chew to the beat of live music provided by the orchestras of Phil Eppstein and J. E. Zang.

Every week the café got free publicity because local newspapers reported the luncheon meetings of groups at the café. The café also was popular for Jewish bachelor parties.

In 1922 the Josephs opened a café in Dallas. In their ad they said, “We look forward many years to come in serving the people of Fort Worth.”

But by 1923 Prohibition had hurt business. In addition Sam, then sixty, was suffering poor health. The Josephs closed their Fort Worth café.

Sam and Minnie downsized to a café and coffee shop on Main Street.

After the Josephs vacated the Joseph Building, it housed a shoe store.

And from 1925 to 1931 the Joseph Building also was the first home of Bert Barber’s Barber’s Bookstore.

Sam and Minnie retired in 1929. The equipment of their café was sold at Leonard’s department store.

The top photo in this panel, looking north on Houston Street, has long been purported to show the building that housed Joseph’s Café. What it actually shows is the Joseph’s Café sign (note the electric flag) and the hip-roofed Renfro’s drugstore building (915 Houston), which was on the other side of 9th Street. The sign appears to be attached to the Renfro’s building but was actually attached by iron pipes to the Joseph Building (1001 Houston), which was to the right of the photo.

Elsewhere in the photo, if you squint you can see the Kress sign on Houston Street. The tall building beyond Kress is First National Bank. The tallest building is Farmers & Mechanics National Bank. The Joseph Building was torn down in the 1960s, probably to make way for the convention center. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library Star-Telegram Collection.)

Samuel Abraham Joseph died in 1936 at his home in the Forest Park Apartments on Park Place Avenue. Joseph was a member of the Rotary Club, an honorary life member of Glen Garden Country Club, and a founder of Temple Beth-El on Broadway Avenue.

Minnie Joseph died in 1938. Like her husband, she died in her Forest Park Apartments home. And like her husband, Mrs. Joseph was cremated in San Antonio.

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