Ray Machine Incorporated, a large manufacturing plant in Baltimore, Maryland, makes parts that end up in planes, tanks, and computers — it boasts clients in the aerospace, government, and defense industries, with customers like Lockheed Martin and General Electric. It also has an unusual side business that appeals to white tablecloth restaurants around the world: Ray Machine makes metal table crumbers.
Throughout restaurant history, table crumbers — the tools used to sweep stray crumbs and bits of food off of tabletops — have taken many forms: a small brush and pan, a tiny brush on its own (which sweeps crumbs into a waiter's hand), and a flat metal scraper or blade, with or without a handle. But perhaps the most widely seen crumber today is the six-inch-long rounded metal crumber with clip. It could easily mistaken for a pen at first glance. This is what Ray Machine calls the original crumber.
Table crumbers are part of an "ancestral service tradition." But who invented the familiar version we know today?
Ray Machine bought the patent for this table crumber in the late 1950s from Baltimore restaurateur John Henry Miller, who owned Miller Brothers Restaurant, the place to eat and be seen in Baltimore for the first half of the 20th century (FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was a regular). In his 1939 patent application, Miller describes his "crumb scraper" as a "simple narrow piece of transversely curved strip of metal, plastic or the like, bent on a segment of circle of about 120 degrees": the perfect shape for scooping and holding crumbs.
The "scraper functions as brush and pan itself," Miller wrote in his patent application, which was officially granted in 1941. Taking a dig at the conventional brush and pan de-crumbing method, Miller pointed out that "the use of brush and crumb pan is cumbersome and usually disturbs the diners at the table in its use." Although the brush and pan sets used to decrumb tables at the time were often elaborately designed silver pieces, they "always gives the impression of a floor sweeping and dustpan combination, used at the table." There was a better way to de-crumb, according to Miller, and he patented it.
According to Dan Solomon, the current general manager of Ray Machine, "other than a few patent changes and a little bit of style design changes to the clip," the metal crumber "is still the same as it was when it was first invented. Same quality. Same material. Same finish."
What has changed is the state of fine dining in America: These days, as white tablecloths have increasingly gone out of fashion, so has the preferred de-crumbing method. In contemporary restaurants, "there's a big trend towards nice table tops" made of marble, wood, and metal, says Howie Velie, the associate dean of the Culinary Institute of America. For these alternative table tops, alternate methods for de-crumbing exist, like "a nicely folded decorative towel or a small flat scraper," he says.
But when white-tablecloth restaurants were a strong signifier that diners were experiencing a high-end restaurant with high-quality service, a small metal crumber could be found in the pocket of any good waiter — and some restaurants carry on the tradition.
"A crumbing of the table after entrees is included in our steps of service," says Peter Baker, the general manager at Grill 23 & Bar in Boston. He describes how his staff is trained to use the tool: "Crumb from the right with the right [hand] so the guest doesn't get an elbow in their face. I have heard the nickname 'table Zamboni' from some of the servers that are Bruins fans. We stress that it is to pick up debris from the table, not push it off the table onto a side dish." Using the metal crumber, that takes a little twist of the wrist to scoop and hold.
"They are increasingly harder to find, so servers are very protective of them."
Proper crumbing takes some practice, but the purpose is obvious. "The neater the guests' table is, the more they will focus on and enjoy the food that's on their plate," says Guillem Kerambrun, the beverage director at Benoit, an Alain Ducasse restaurant in Manhattan. "Crumbers are part of an ancestral service tradition seen in French gastronomy over the years."
This cultural shift away from white tablecloths is reflected in Ray Machine's numbers. Of the six million dollars in total sales Ray Machine brings in each year, the earnings from approximately 80,000 table crumbers, sold for about one dollar apiece, are a small part of the business, says Solomon. But making crumbers has become a bit of a passion project for Solomon, who has been working at Ray Machine since 1982. "For me it's kind of like a hobby," he says. "This is not our main business. This is more fun for me."
Sales are limited for a number of reasons, and not just the changing fine-dining landscape. Imported crumbers, which Solomon does not speak favorably of, have cut into business, too. "When I go to a restaurant that has a crumber, when the waiter pulls it out, I ask to see it," he says. "If it's not a Ray Machine table crumber, I will offer them one of ours in exchange for one of theirs." Evidently waiters readily accept the swap, and Solomon has built up a collection of "knock-offs."
Sales are also limited because there aren't a lot of repeat crumber customers, and that's by design. "They don't wear out," Solomon says. "Short of waiter turnover or replacement for lost crumbers, if [servers] have one, they have it forever — if they take care of it." These crumbers, Solomon points out, are made by the same company that makes aerospace and defense equipment. "There's no planned obsolescence," he adds.
These days, Solomon's crumber customers are more likely to be wineries than restaurants, although they do wind up in restaurants when wineries give them as gifts: Wineries often purchase table crumbers emblazoned with their company logo. "Our business moved away from just producing table crumbers to becoming more of a promotional item," says Solomon. In Boston, Baker actually reaches out to wine and liquor distributors for table crumbers when his staff needs them. "They are increasingly harder to find, so servers are very protective of them," Backer says. Once they've got them, "the staff holds them in the same regard as their wine keys."
But waiters shouldn't pack up their Ray Machine table crumbers just yet, says Velie. "I do believe that like all things in food, that if crumbers disappear in the near future, they will reappear in 10 or so years with the white tablecloths, of course, as a novelty in the restaurant world." Either way, according to Veile, "I believe that crumbers will have a place as long as people continue to be messy and the restaurant feels the need to pick up after us."