Alan R. Katz, former president and proprietor of White Coffee Pot Family Inns, Horn & Horn and Cactus Willie’s Steak and Buffet Bakery chain, died Jan. 17 in his sleep at his Pikesville home. He was 87.
“It’s a great old-time Baltimore story. It rose from three White Coffee Pots to become the largest family-owned restaurant chain in Maryland before the Burger Kings and McDonald’s arrived," said David S. Thaler, a cousin. “Alan was honest, smart and intuitive. He was a wonderful human being, friendly and warm."
Alan Robert Katz, son of Myles Katz, a businessman, and his wife, Betty Katz, a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised in Upper Park Heights. He was a 1951 City College graduate and after attending the University of Maryland, College Park earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami.
Restaurants were in Mr. Katz’s blood. His grandparents, Heyman and Nettie Katz, before World War I owned the Superior Restaurant, a small Camden Street lunchroom that served working men and was open 24 hours a day. His father, Myles, worked in the business alongside his parents and brothers.
After the restaurant failed, Myles Katz worked for Smelkinson Brothers Corp., Baltimore purveyors. When he was asked to take a pay cut during the Depression and having a family to support, he looked for another job.
While reading a Washington newspaper one day, he noticed an ad announcing the sale of three under-performing lunchrooms known as the White Coffee Pot that were owned by the Annenberg family, publishers of the Philadelphia Inquirer and owners of the Maryland News Co.
“Annenberg offered to sell three units to Myles at no cost, if he would only agree to be responsible for the existing debts to the purveyors,” according to a 1983 Daily Record article. "Myles Katz bought the three stores in 1932. With long hours, hard work, borrowed money, and the assistance of his wife, Betty, the business became a success."
After their first year in business, the couple made a profit of $30,000 — “an enormous sum during the Depression” — noted The Daily Record.
It’s slogan was “Good Meals for Small Change.”
Along with success came innovations. It is believed that the White Coffee Pot chain was the first to have a centralized commissary where food was prepared and then delivered to its various stores, and by the late 1930s, the White Coffee Pot was one of the first restaurants in the nation to install air conditioning.
“The restaurants were integrated in the 1950s before it became federal law,” said Mr. Katz’s sister, Barbara Judd of Baltimore, who was marketing director and head of group sales for White Coffee Pot.
Robert N. Smelkinson, another cousin, was president of Smelkinson Brothers Corp.
“Our company was their purveyors,” said Mr. Smelkinson, who lives in Baltimore. “Not only were they family, they were a good account.”
He described Mr. Katz as being a “very gentle fellow.”
“He was a real mensch, and in those days developing a large business institution was not always easy,” Mr. Smelkinson said. “But he was very purposeful and highly-respected.”
Another innovation came in the 1950s when shopping centers began proliferating around Baltimore and White Coffee Pot opened restaurants in them. As drive-ins and fast food became popular, the chain responded by establishing its own version in the 1960s, which it branded White Coffee Pot Junior, whose offerings included a salad bar, crab cakes, crab soup and other popular foods.
“It was also famous for its fried chicken,” said a son, Robert Katz of Pikesville, who became president of the business,
It expanded in 1956 when it purchased the venerable Horn & Horn restaurant on East Baltimore Street that had been established in 1891 by the two Horn brothers. Under White Coffee Pot ownership. Horn & Horn was converted from a restaurant operation to a chain of Horn & Horn Smorgasbords, which it sold in 1998.
The smorgasbords underwent another conversion in 1998 when they were rebranded Cactus Willie’s Steak and Buffet Bakery, an all-you-can-eat restaurant.
“We both had restaurants and we decided to do a partnership, so we decided to combine Horn & Horn with Cactus Willie’s,” said Brett Austin of Federal Hill, who became a partner of Mr. Katz and his son.
“That deal impacted my life. I was blessed to develop this amazing relationship. I was an outsider and Alan took me in,” Mr. Austin said. “He treated me well and shared his words of wisdom and experience from the restaurant world. I’m very grateful for what he did for me.”
“The people, both customers and employees, everyone loved him,” his son wrote in an email.
“Dad was an idea person and he was able to experiment with ideas and get instant feedback. Whether it was a concept, a new menu, or just a new menu item. He traveled all over the U.S. looking at similar or new concepts for anything that could make his restaurant better,” he wrote.
“By the 1990s with the McDonald’s and Burger Kings becoming dominant, White Coffee Pot couldn’t compete,” said Mr. Thaler, president and owner of D.S. Thaler & Associates LLC,, a land development firm
“Alan looked around — he had about 40 units in Maryland and southern Pennsylvania — and realized the land under the restaurants was more valuable than the business. When he closed the last restaurant, he went into the real estate business and became one of my early clients,” Mr. Thaler said.
“He also loved the real estate part of the business, which turned into a business all in itself,” his son wrote in the email
“Alan was the most incredibly wonderful person,” his sister said. He was so good and kind. If you have a brother like Alan, you don’t need anyone else," his sister said.
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In addition to his son and sister, Mr. Katz is survived by his wife of 65 years, the former Jimmy Friedman; another son, Kenny Katz of Pikesville; two daughters, Jill Silbert and Kathy Gelb, both of Pikesville; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.