The Coon Chicken Inn was founded by Maxon Lester Graham and his wife, Adelaide née Burt. The first Coon Chicken Inn was opened in 1925 in Salt Lake City, Utah. They found a small building that contained three stools, an ice box and a small counter. They bought this for $50.00 and they were in the chicken business. The business took off immediately and it was not long that they enlarged the place, and put in an addition with tables and a dance floor along with adding counter space. By 1927 the Inn was a mammoth building.
The restaurants sold southern fried “Coon Chicken” sandwiches and chicken pie, as well as hamburgers, seafood, chili and assorted sandwiches. Blacks were employed as waiters, waitresses, and cooks, though not necessarily welcomed as customers.
Late in the year 1929 they opened another Coon Chicken Inn in Seattle, WA on Lake City Way N.E. The restaurant opened with lots of fanfare and was an immediate success. Soon Maxon and Addie moved to Seattle.
In 1930, the Seattle branch of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP) and Seattle’s African American newspaper, the Northwest Enterprise, protested the opening of the local Coon Chicken Inn by threatening Graham with a lawsuit for libel and defamation of race. In response, Graham agreed to change the style of advertising by removing the word “Coon” from the restaurant’s delivery car, repainting the “Coon head” entrance to the restaurant, and canceling an order of 1,000 automobile tire covers. These small concessions, however, were not enough to erase the image of the caricature from Seattle. Graham violated his agreement with the NAACP but managed to evade the lawsuit by changing the color of the “Coon” logo from black- or brown-skinned to blue.
In an oral history interview recorded by Ester Mumford in 1975, Joseph Staton, an employee of the Northwest Enterprise, related how some members of the African American community took individual action against the Coon Chicken Inn. Staton and four friends created what Staton referred to as a “contest” — each friend put in 50 cents apiece and whoever cut the most “Coon” faces out of the spare tire covers after 30 days would win the pot. Eventually, Staton was caught participating in this prank and was arrested, booked, and fined $3.
In March 1937 the Bartenders, Cooks, Waiters, and Waitresses Union (BCWW) and the Musicians Union orchestrated a joint labor protest against the Coon Chicken Inn. The unions picketed the restaurant for a week, holding signs that read “Unfair” while protesting the restaurant’s treatment of organized labor and demanding that the Coon Chicken Inn be completely unionized.
The labor action was successful. On March 18, E. B. Fish, the labor counsel for the Seattle Chamber of Commerce labor relations department; Jack Weinberger, the international representative of the BCWW; and Lester Graham signed the standard agreement of the unions.
The Coon Chicken Inn persisted on the Old Bothell Highway until late 1949, when Lester Graham removed the “Coon head” from public view and closed the restaurant’s doors. But neither Graham nor the Coon Chicken Inn disappeared from Seattle completely. In December 1949, the Lake City Citizen featured an advertisement for the newly opened G.I. Joe’s New Country Store, giving its location as the old Coon Chicken Inn building.
Today the original Coon Chicken Inn building is gone. Ying’s Drive Inn, a Chinese restaurant near 18th NE and NE 85th Street, sits on the piece of land where the restaurant once stood. Though the Coon Chicken Inn façade is gone, relics of the Coon Chicken Inn remain and are generally regarded as black-memorabilia collectibles.