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A lunch counter (also known as a luncheonette) is a small restaurant, similar to a diner, where the patron sits on a stool on one side of the counter and the server or person preparing the food serves from the opposite side of the counter, where the kitchen or limited food preparation area is located. As the name suggests, they were primarily used for the lunch meal. Lunch counters were once commonly located inside retail variety stores ("five and dimes" as they were called in the United States) and smaller department stores. The intent of the lunch counter in a store was to profit from serving hungry shoppers, and to attract people to the store so that they might buy merchandise.
Woolworth's, an early five and dime chain of stores, opened their first luncheonette in New Albany, Indiana, and expanded rapidly from there. Lunch counters were often found in other dimestores, like Newberry's, S. H. Kress, H.L. Green, W.T. Grant, McLellan's or McCrory's. Members of the retail staff who had taken lunch counter training would staff the counter during lunch time. Typical foods served were hot and cold sandwiches (e.g., ham and cheese, grilled cheese, BLT, patty melt, egg salad), soups, pie, ice cream (including sundaes, ice cream sodas and milkshakes), soda, coffee and hot chocolate.
Integrating lunch counters in the Southern United States through the use of sit-in political protests in the 1960s was a major accomplishment of the Civil Rights Movement. These involved African Americans and their supporters sitting at the lunch counter in areas designated for "whites only", insisting that they be served food and beverages.
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