The birth of the fast food restaurant: Photos & the origins of our most popular chains

Ian Harvey
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Most American fast-food chains are owned by multinational corporations with franchise outlets all over the world.  Nonetheless, all can trace their origins to an ordinary person who had an idea.

Fast food became popular in the United States when Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opened the Automat, a self-serve cafeteria offering prepared foods in small, coin-operated compartments behind glass doors.  The appealing convenience of it prompted Automat restaurants to pop up around the country.  They were extremely popular during the 1920s and 1930s, until fast food restaurants came on the scene.

Here are some of our best-known fast-food restaurants and how they got started.

Taco Bell

Glen Bell owned a hot-dog stand in San Bernardino, California, in 1946.  By 1950, he had upgraded to Bell’s Hamburgers and Hot Dogs.  Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, writes that a Mexican restaurant was located across the street from Bell’s store and he started eating there to learn how to make their tacos.  About a year and a half later Bell opened a taco stand, calling it Taco Tia.  He opened several restaurants around town and sold them to his partner in order to open the first Taco Bell in 1962.  He sold the first franchise in 1964 to Kermit Becky in Los Angeles.  In 1967, the 100th store was opened; there were 325 by 1978. when PepsiCo bought the franchise rights.  Currently, 7,000 Taco Bells are in operation around the world.

A&W

In June 1919 in Lodi, California, Roy W. Allen set up a root-beer stand and hired Frank Wright.  The two created the first A&W in Sacramento, California, in 1923.  Originally, it was only open in the summer months.  Cars would pull in and be waited on by a carhop, with the root beer served in a big glass mug that had been kept frozen before use.  There were small replicas of the mugs served to children as well.  In 1924, Wright left the business and Allen began selling franchises.  When Wright retired in 1950, the chain was sold several times before joining A Great American Brand in 2013.  Now the chain has sit-down restaurants that stay open all year, with over 1,200 outlets in several countries.

Arby’s

Arby’s was launched in Boardman, Ohio, on July 23, 1964, by brothers Forrest and Leroy Raffel.  Originally, they applied for the name “Big Tex,” but it was already taken.  Instead, they made a play on the first letters of Raffel Brothers, which when spoken sounds like “arby.”  The menu consisted of roast-beef sandwiches, soft drinks, and chips instead of hamburgers and French fries.  Growth was rapid throughout the 1970s as they added special sauces, chicken sandwiches, curly fries, and baked potatoes.  In 1991, they introduced a new concept: a low-calorie menu.  The chain transferred ownership more than five times until 2011, when Roark Capital Group purchased the chain and revitalized it.

White Castle

Walter Anderson opened his first diner in Wichita, Kansas, in 1916.  He added two more diners and was considering a fourth when he and Billy Ingram got together and created White Castle in 1921.  The original style buildings were pure white with stainless-steel accents to give the impression of gleaming cleanliness.  Anderson invented the hamburger bun and the assembly- line method of cooking needed for fast food.  They also had to create a source for paper goods, baked goods, and a meat supply plant.  White Castle popularized the hamburger sandwich.  In 1933, Ingram bought out Anderson, and the chain has continued to be run by the family.  With no franchises, there are 420 restaurants, located mainly in the Midwest.

Burger King

In 1953 in the area of Jacksonville, Florida, Keith J. Kramer and his uncle-in-law, Matthew Burns, were considering opening a fast-food restaurant.  The two made a visit to the McDonald’s first store location in San Bernardino, California.  They started their own business, calling it “Insta Burger King” after the special Insta-Broiler that produced their trademark flame-broiled beef patty.  The name was shortened to Burger King in 1959 when it was sold to David R. Edgerton and James McLamore, who ran the company until 1967 and then sold to the Pillsbury Company.  The Whopper sandwich was introduced in 1957, and their Specialty Sandwiches debuted in 1979. A breakfast menu was added in 1983.  Value meals were added in 1993, and smoothies and chicken appeared in 2012.  The company is now owned by Restaurant Brands International and has revenue of more than $4 billion.

Del Taco

First opened in 1964 in Yermo, California, by Ed Hackbarth and David Jameson, Del Taco served American-style Mexican food.  In 1976, the company was sold to investors, who then sold the franchise rights to W. R. Grace and Company.   By 1978, 100 stores were in operation, primarily in California.

In 1993, Del Taco filed Chapter 11 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court but was able to turn things around;  by 2000 the company had 372 locations.  A lucrative deal allowed Del Taco to operate on military bases, and the business also had sports sponsorship in eight states.  Sagittarius Brands, LLC., bought the company in 2004 and sold it to Levy Acquisition Corporation in 2015.  Del Taco operates mostly in the Western part of the United States, with a few stores located in Michigan and Georgia.

In-N-Out Burger 

Founded by Harry and Esther Snyder in 1948, In-N-Out Burger is a smaller fast-food chain with only 313 locations, mostly in California and other Western states.  The first location was in Baldwin Park, California, and the company has never franchised, citing the family’s willingness to maintain control of quality and their human resources policies.   They pay more than minimum wage–one of the first fast-food places to do so.  It was also the first to utilize drive-thru services.  When Harry Snyder passed away in 1976, his son Rich took over the business, having spent most of his teenage years working with his father.  Rich was killed in a plane crash in 1993, and his brother Guy took over until his death in 1999.  After that, their mother, Esther ran the business until her death in 2006.  The Snyder’s granddaughter Lynsi took control with family friend Mark Taylor, until May of 2017 when she reached the age of 35 and took over completely.  Lynsi has maintained she will keep the business in the family and pass it along to her children when she retires.  The company does not typically use celebrities to endorse their products, but Gordon Ramsay, Julia Child, and Anthony Bourdain have all praised In-N-Out’s food and quality.  Ms. Child even had their products delivered to her while she was in the hospital.  Bourdain calls the restaurant “the best restaurant in Los Angeles.”

Hardee’s

Wilbur Hardee opened the first Hardee’s in Greenville, North Carolina, on September 3, 1960.  He sold to James Carson Gardner and Leonard Rawls, who then offered franchises.  In 1966, Gardner was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and left the company.  By the end of the 1960s, there were 200 locations in the Unites States and several locations in Germany.  Imasco Limited purchased the company in 1981 and sold to CKE Restaurants Holdings, Inc., the company that owns the Western fast food company Carl’s Jr.  As of February 2016, there were 5,812 stores doing business as either Carl’s Jr. or Hardee’s.

Dairy Queen

The soft-serve ice-cream giant began business in Joliet, Illinois, on June 22, 1940, with Sherb Noble as its founder.  Soft-serve ice cream was created by John Fremont McCullough and his son Alex in Iowa in 1938. Noble and McCullough were friends; Noble offered to sell the new style of ice cream in his Kankakee ice-cream shop.  The ice cream was a big hit, leading the team to open the first Dairy Queen.  It was one of the first food chains to offer franchises, and went from only 10 stores in 1941 to over 6,000 worldwide in 2014.  The company originally sold only ice cream and was open in the summer months.  As the menu expanded to add hamburgers and French fries, the stores began staying open year round.  The trademark Blizzard, soft-serve ice cream combined with cookies, candy, and sundae toppings, was introduced in 1988.  Now there are countless varieties of the treat, including special flavors for various holidays.  Dairy Queen is now owned by International Dairy Queen, Inc., a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, led by philanthropist Warren Buffett.

Jack in the Box


In 1951, Robert O. Peterson opened the first Jack in the Box in San Diego, California, as Topsy’s.  Later, the name was changed to Oscar’s, and the restaurant sported a circus-like décor.  In 1947, Peterson bought the rights to drive-thru intercom equipment from George Manos in Anchorage, Alaska; his restaurant, Chatterbox, was the first to use the concept.  In 1968, Peterson sold Jack in the Box to Ralston Purina Company.  Franchises began selling and growth was rapid until the company attempted to move into the eastern market, with no success.  Currently, there are Jack in the Box restaurants in 21 states in the United States.

Little Caesar’s

On May 8, 1959, Mike Ilitch and his wife, Marian, opened Little Caesar’s Pizza.  Ilitch, a shortstop on the Detroit Tigers farm team, wanted to call the restaurant “Pizza Treat,” but his wife insisted on her pet name for him, “Little Caesar.”  Franchising began in 1962, and a store had opened in every state in the U.S. by 1987, followed by stores in over 20 other countries.

The company is still owned by Marian Ilitch, owner of Ilitch Holdings, the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, the Detroit Tigers baseball team, Olympia Entertainment, Olympia Development, Uptown Entertainment, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, Champion Foods, various other restaurants, and the historic Fox Theater in Detroit.  Little Caesar’s received the President’s Volunteer Action Award Citation from two different administrations for its programs established to assist the poor, disaster victims, and veterans.

Dunkin’ Donuts

Founded in 1950 in Quincy, Massachusetts, by William Rosenberg, Dunkin Donuts is the largest doughnut and coffee shop franchise in the world, with over 12,000 stores in 36 countries.  In 1990, Allied Lyons, owners of Baskin-Robbins, purchased Dunkin’ Donuts and combined operations.  By 1998, the company had 2,500 locations worldwide, with $2 billion in annual sales.  They also sell their specialty coffee brand in larger grocery stores.

McDonald’s

In 1937, Patrick McDonald opened “the Airdrome,” a food stand selling hot dogs in San Bernadino, California.  Hamburgers were added at 10 cents each, and a refillable orange juice at 5 cents.  In 1940, Patrick’s sons, Maurice and Richard, moved away from San Bernardino and renamed the restaurant “McDonald’s Bar-B-Que.”  There were 25 menu items, all specializing in barbecue.  In 1948, they revamped to selling hamburgers, French fries, and soft drinks.  The first golden arches were part of a Phoenix, Arizona, store in 1953.  Franchising started in 1955 with Ray Kroc, who had purchased the company from the McDonald brothers.  Today, McDonald’s is one of the largest restaurant chains in the world with 36,899 locations in 120 countries and is the second largest employer in the United States after Walmart.  Ronald McDonald appeared in 1965; the company set up the nonprofit organization Ronald McDonald House Charities in 1974.  The main component is the Ronald McDonald House, which houses family members at no cost while their child is hospitalized away from home.

Sonic

Traditionally, Sonic customers order from their cars and carhops deliver the food on roller skates, invoking a time gone by.  Many locations have added drive-thru windows to allow customers to get their food quickly.  Troy Smith founded Sonic as Top Hat Drive-In in Shawnee, Oklahoma, in 1953 after going into venues such as sit-down dining and root beer stands. He sold a franchise to Charles Woodrow Pappe, and two more stores were completed.  The name was changed to Sonic, and by 1978 there were 1,000 stores in Western states.  The company now owns over 3,000 locations in the United States.

Kentucky Fried Chicken

During the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Harland Sanders sold fried chicken at his roadside restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky.  He used his mother’s recipe, which is still a closely guarded secret.  Sanders was a savvy businessman who understood the value of franchising.  The first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise opened in Utah in 1952.  In a fast-food market dominated by hamburgers and French fries, Sanders captured the fried-chicken industry.  He was given the honorary rank of Colonel by Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon in 1937, and so his image was fixed in American folklore.  In 1957, Pete Harman introduced the unmistakable bucket in which the chicken is sold, which sports the image of Colonel Sanders.  As the company expanded, Sanders realized he was too old to effectively run it.  He sold to John Y. Brown Jr. and Jack C. Massey in 1964 with the provision that Sanders would receive a lifetime salary and retain the authority to control quality.  After several more ownership changes, the franchise eventually became part of Tricon Global Restaurants, now called Yum! Brands.  In 1991, the chain was officially called KFC to minimize the negative health connotation of fried food.  KFC currently operates close to 19,000 stores in 118 different countries, with China having almost the same number of stores as the United States.

Subway


In 1965, Fred DeLuca from Bridgeport, Connecticut, opened Pete’s Super Submarines.  The initial goal was to finance medical school for himself and his friend Peter Buck, who was studying for a Ph.D. in physics.  They formed  Doctor’s Associates, Inc., referring to the Ph.D.s both men had earned, and the chain was renamed Subway.  The company now has 26,744 locations and was awarded the number four spot on Entrepreneur magazine’s Top 500 Franchises list in 2016.  The chain is still owned by Doctor’s Associates, Inc.

Dominos


During the 1960s, Thomas Monaghan was trying to earn enough money to attend college by delivering pizza.  On June 10, 1960, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, he bought a small local pizzeria.  Business was good and allowed him to buy two more stores.  He combined the stores under the same name in 1965 as Dominos.  The three dots on the logo represent these three stores.  Franchising began in 1967, and in 1983 the 1,000th store opened in Canada.

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Monaghan retired in 1998 after selling 93 percent of the company to Bain Capital, Inc.  Domino’s has recently stepped up their marketing to include online ordering with a Pizza Tracker app.  It currently has more than 8,000 locations worldwide.