America is filled with great restaurants. There’s two ways that restaurants distinguish themselves. If they are great they will stand the test of time. They can last decades and people don’t get tired of them. The second thing they can do is they can expand out and franchise. Some people see franchising as “selling out for money”. The truth is that franchising allows companies to provide their food to a larger audience. They can continue to produce their creations and it allows even more people to enjoy their creations.
So let us go through those places that have been fortunate enough to manage both of these things. They’ve franchised out (often to immense sizes) and they have lasted the test of time. Enjoy this trip down memory lane mixed with some fun facts and modern takes.
Chick-fil-A – 1967 – (Atlanta, GA)
Signature Food Item: The Chicken Sandwich
Chick-fil-A came out of Atlanta and spread throughout the United States. Chick-fil-A has endured more political controversy than any other fast food chain restaurant. Chick-fil-A was founded with very conservative views and those views are enforced. For example every Chick-fil-A is closed on Sunday to observe the sabbath. They have been occasionally accused of being against same sex marriage. A large amount has been donated by them to groups that oppose same sex marriage. While their interior corporate documents don’t disparage against same sex issues, there was still some backlash. In addition there have been comments by their high level executives in the past that raised concerns about their view on same sex couples. What’s crazy is that controversy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The people who support these views purchase more, and the people who love Chick-fil-A try to support it. How do they support it? By going out and having a sandwich. Chick-fil-A has actually softened its stance. After the Orlando gay nightclub shooting, the local Chick-fil-A opened up to give away food to people donating blood at the local blood bank. What made it more impressive was they did it on a Sunday.
Most Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches come as friend chicken breast pieces rather than more processed standard round options. This shows a higher level of quality than some other chicken sandwiches that you may have eaten from their competitors. They do their best to ensure there is a level of quality in their chicken superior to any other fast food restaurants.
Chick-fil-A is known as having one of the strongest group of supporters out there. They support their restaurant and it rewards them. Chick-fil-A does a great job of giveaways and advertising events that allows them to further enthrall their customers. When Chick-fil-A launched their app that allowed people to place orders ahead of time so they could get it when they arrived, they also offered anyone who used it a free chicken sandwich. These kinds of free giveaways may dent their profits slightly in the short term, but build the loyalty to their brand that is so important to their business model.
TGI Friday’s – Founded 1965 (New York City, NY)
Signature Food Item: Mozzarella Sticks
TGI Friday’s is not your standard casual dining restaurant. TGI Friday’s started as a bar. Really it started as a bar aimed at women who could come out and have some socially acceptable drinks. It was a great idea because at the time bars were generally just for men. TGI Friday’s was kind of one of the first singles bars to ever be out there.
Because of it’s heritage, TGI Friday’s has a menu that certainly tends towards classic bar food. Though admittedly they helped make their types of bar food “classic”. There is a large amount of alcoholic beverages available to you. This certainly hearkens back to their origins. The rest of the menu is full of appetizers, and basic steak, chicken and pasta entrees.
One of the very distinctive features of TGI Friday’s used to be the decor. While modern locations tend towards a more modern look, the red and white striped uniforms of their employees have been very distinctive through the years. TGI Friday’s always has a couple of design elements that will be present in every location. The most obvious one is that there is always a plane propeller that is on the wall or roof near the bar. That item is placed there because employees are supposed to be reminded that the bar will propel the restaurant to success.
One way that TGI Friday’s has managed to distinguish itself from its contemporaries is the way it has managed to spread and license out its food. TGI Friday’s was one of the first chain restaurants to allow for people to purchase some of its signature items in frozen form from the grocery store. Mozzarella sticks, jalapeno poppers and potato skins are the kind of branded item you can find in your frozen food section. This is something that has been copied by other chain restaurants like Chili’s. While it’s certainly not the same as eating there, if you like the items at TGI Friday’s, it’s certainly good to get a pretty close version back at home for your snack munching needs.
Arby’s – Founded 1964 (Boardman, OH)
Signature Food Item: Roast Beef Sandwiches (“Beef-n-Cheddar”, etc…)
Arby’s started as a standard burger restaurant but without the burgers! Arby’s was founded on the belief that people loved the concept of quick bun based food, but didn’t always need to be burgers. People still wanted meat, but just in a different form. Because of that, they managed to create Arby’s as a fast food sandwich location.
Arby’s has an interesting reputation. It may be the biggest love/hate fast food chain that exists in the world. People who like Arby’s, really love Arby’s. People who don’t like Arby’s are really against it. It may be that the menu lacking burgers and trying to focus on excellent cold cut based sandwiches is what makes them so divisive.
Regardless of that reputation, Arby’s remains committed to offering sandwiches people will love. While roast beef may be their trademark, they don’t shy away from smoked meats, ham, chicken or fish. Arby’s is a great proponent of limited time sandwiches. Figure out special one off toppings to go with their faithful meats allows them to seem fresh and innovative without deviating too far from their core food philosophies.
Arby’s is also willing to experiment with their menu. One of those best wins while experimenting was their introduction of sliders to their menu. It wasn’t the first time that small sandwiches had been attempted at Arby’s. While the earlier attempts failed, the slider attempt has proven very successful. Sliders have become a staple food around North America and the name “slider” has very positive connotations with people.
When it comes globalization, Arby’s hasn’t really found its footing. Arby’s currently only operates in 5 countries. What’s worse is that it opened, and has closed in another 18 countries. The financial history of the company has been up and down. There’s been buyouts and takeovers and at times it seemed like Arby’s was heading to the end. However things have turned around recently and Arby’s has gained its financial foothold in the past few years.
Taco Bell – Founded 1962 (Downey, CA)
Signature Food Item: Hard or Soft Tacos (of course)
When you’re looking to make a run south of the border, but don’t really feel like breaking out the passport, Taco Bell has always been there for you. Taco Bell is an institution. It’s the home of 4 to 6 ingredients combined in slightly different ways to produce a vast menu that somehow all tastes the same and different at the same time. Taco Bell sometimes gets a bad rap. Like all Mexican food restaurants, it uses a large amount of spices. Bulk spices will often react poorly in people’s stomachs and cause some gastrointestinal distress. In turn, Taco Bell gets blamed for that. Of course, those people are going to just keep going back over and over anyway.
Taco Bell is a large chain. Approximately 7000 restaurants are placed throughout the world and there are 175,000 employees working for Taco Bell. Taco Bell got it’s name from it’s founder Glen Bell. Bell was a consistent entrepreneur and had created several restaurants before he founded Taco Bell. The company grew rapidly from a single store into the Mexican food behemoth that it is today. Taco Bell had its first franchise within 2 years, and they just kept coming.
Taco Bell is now part of the Pepsi behemoth brand, and was one of the first places to offer a co-restaurant experience when they got paired with Kentucky Fried Chicken. This allows them to save money on space and kitchens. When one staff handles the food for two restaurants, it means that you are good to go. Taco Bell has tried a few different evolutions over the years as well. They tried a Taco Bell express version where you could quickly get the cheapest items on the menu near instantly. They also tried a concept where they would offer fresher food items rather than the fast food. Their fresh grill did not succeed and has for the most part closed down. Taco Bell is hoping to expand to more delivery options as that’s becoming one of the biggest moneymakers available to restaurants currently.
Domino’s – Founded 1960 (Ypsilanti, MI)
Signature Food: Pepperoni Pizza
Domino’s was one of the original 30 minute or less pizza locations. It was a great gimmick! Either you got your pizza fast or you got it free. What could go wrong? Well, the answer is quality. The quality of the pizza was not nearly good enough because of the rush. People finally realized that quality of your food was more important than having it 5-10 minutes quicker. Domino’s also suffered from a few lawsuits as well. Some delivery drivers struck and killed people in accidents. Because of the 30 minute guarantee they won their lawsuits as it gave the appearance that their drivers were rushing recklessly. Because of this, the company decided to discontinue the 30 minute guarantee because they didn’t want the negative press their drivers were getting for them. Domino’s has made good use of the internet. They were the first to offer a constant update tracker. It would let you know exactly where your pizza was in the path to your door. You could see if it was cooking, being prepped, during delivery. It’s a nice little touch to keep you in touch with your food.
Domino’s has almost made a trademark of pivoting their brand. After a lot of complaints about the quality, Domino’s has undergone full menu rethinks. This involved completely redoing their recipes and marketing. Their marketing tried to woo back customers who had been lost. It asked them to give Domino’s one last chance to woo them. It seems to be working and Domino’s continues to be one of the premier chain pizza options. Their stores are everywhere and they have approximately 2800 locations in the United States alone.
Domino’s currently has over 260,000 employees worldwide and is active on every habitable continent. The menus at the 5700+ locations do vary by region as they should. It makes sense to take advantage of local ingredients. Admittedly it depends on how local you want to go. Peruvian Domino’s have closed down due to poor health conditions. Their kitchens were found to have vermin in them and so they voluntarily shut down their stores to get things cleaned up.
Hardee’s – Founded 1960 (Greenville, NC)
Signature Food: Carl’s Jr Foodstuffs
Hardee’s is yet another burger restaurant that is named after their founder. Wilber Hardee created the first, and ended up expanding only a year later. Hardee’s continued to expand quickly and grew to have over 2000 restaurants. Hardee’s has been sold off a lot of times. We’re going to ignore the most recent purchase. Hardee’s is currently owned by the company that owns Carl Jr’s. Hardee’s had 5x the amount of locations, but was still bought out by the Carl’s. Be cause of this, Hardee’s changed their well known logo to have the same style as Carl Jr’s with the star and red and white font.
Hardee’s did at one point try to complete with chicken behemoth Kentucky Fried Chicken. Hardee’s purchased Roy Rogers Restaurants. By buying out Roy Rogers, they were able to absorb in their well known and well enjoyed chicken recipes. Hardee’s gave it a good kick of the can. However they did find out that when it comes to fried chicken, approach KFC and kiss the ring, for they will remain king. That being said, Hardee’s now had more locations to use and a damn fine chicken recipe for everything that goes with it. Most of the rest of their recipe now matches their parent company Carl’s Jr. They have thickburgers and the same side options. It’s sort of disappointing. It would have been nice to see Hardee’s manage to keep some of their identity during the changeover rather than just become the same thing as Carl’s Jr.
Hardee’s is not allowed to operate in Canada. They were found to be infringing on the trademark of Canadian company “Harvey’s”. Even though it’s not the same name, Harvey’s is a Canadian fast food icon and the names were similar enough for the trademark to be granted. Because of this, Hardee’s that were in Canada or will be opened in Canada will all be named Carl’s Jr in an effort to compete in that market.
Little Caesars – Founded 1959 (Detroit, MI)
Signature Food: “Hot-N-Ready” Pizza
Little Caesars has evolved over the years. They started fairly traditionally as a pizza place. You were able to come in and order your pizzas and have them made for you as you waited. They have evolved into the closest thing to a fast food pizza you can find. This has helped them grow and currently they are the fastest growing pizza franchise in the United States.
Little Caesars is buying the naming rights to the Detroit Red Wings arena. This makes sense because the owner of the Red Wings, Mike Ilitch, is also the owner of Little Caesars. A little cross brand promotion for his company is a nice way to make a little extra money.
Currently, Little Caesars gains the most success from their new fast pizza marketing plan. They focus on quick pizza which might be of a lesser quality. Their “Hot And Ready” section of pizzas presents something different than any other chair is willing to do. Most pizza establishments are making their pizzas as per order. Little Caesars anticipates their sales, and has specific types of pizzas ready and available. So you order your pizza and are handed it immediately. It’s a different marketing strategy and it attracts a different sort of clientele. But really it’s kind of a genius idea. The hot-n-ready pizza selection is available during “peak” hours, usually 4pm to 8pm. This means that people who are coming home from work can drop by and get their dinner without any effort. For people with kids, this is especially appealing as it provides you a no effort dinner and allows you to possibly actually relax after work instead of cooking and cleaning up after your cooking.
Little Caesars is known for their trademark slogan “Pizza, Pizza” in the United States. However, they are unable to use their slogan in Canada. There is another chain in Canada named “Pizza Pizza” which owns the trademark for that phrase. So because of that they have to use other slogans.
Pizza Hut – Founded 1958 (Wichita KS)
Signature Food: Pan Pizza
We now come to the most divisive pizza chain in the entire United States. Pizza Hut is also one of the most successful and immense restaurant chains in the entire world.
Pizza Hut became well known for their distinctive red roofs. These roofs were a red siding/shingles that made it look like the restaurant was wearing a hat. As the roof was in the logo as well, it made the restaurant distinctive and it stood out as people were driving along. If there was a family choosing where to eat, the distinctive roof would guide them in.
Pizza Hut mostly started as an “eat in” style restaurant. Most locations worked as eat in restaurants and it was only later that takeout and delivery options were made available.
Pizza Hut is known for their pan pizzas more than they are for their traditional pizza. Pan pizzas are relatively thick crusts and they have been baked in a pan with a thick layer of oil on the bottom. This leads to the crust being both crispy and soft at the same time. When done right, it can be a wonderful contradiction. When done wrong, it can be an oily mess. This is part of what makes Pizza Hut so divisive. People love or hate that pan pizza.
Pizza Hut also had a lunch pizza buffet that was the celebration of many young male college students. They have never shied away from experimenting with their pizzas. This especially applies to the crusts of their pizzas. Pizza Hut has put all kinds of things into their crusts. They have commonly used mozzarella cheese baked into the crust and also tried hot dogs. Sometimes they turn the crust into a complete appetizer that just tears off and is edible on its own. Pizza Hut in recent years has tried to redo some of their menu and offer more artisan style pizzas. The idea is to gain appreciation in the market of customers with more refined palettes.
IHOP (International House of Pancakes) – Founded 1958 (Los Angeles, CA)
Signature Food: Pancakes (… duh)
There’s something great about walking into an IHOP. The smell of breakfast food and pancakes and syrup when you are hungry in the morning is absolutely intoxicating. IHOP is not as large as a lot of the other restaurants on this list. It only has about 1600+ restaurants worldwide. But the power of IHOP within culture is still very strong. IHOP has slowly been expanding worldwide. You can find IHOPs in the United States, Canada, The Philippines and surprisingly throughout the Middle East. There are several middle eastern countries that feature the pancake house as a tasty morning option.
IHOP’s menu tends towards breakfast foods. Whether you’re a fan of waffles, pancakes or french toast, IHOP will have something for you. IHOP offers many ways to top their delicious breakfast creations. Thanks to all of the toppings, there are tons of combinations that you can choose and you could avoid having the same thing twice despite visiting dozens or hundreds of times.
IHOP doesn’t just do breakfast food. It would be kind of silly to be open at night or 24 hours and only offer breakfast items. IHOP also offers some standard lunch and dinner options. It’s a smart decision as not everyone wants some high carbohydrate and high sugar breakfast at 7pm at night. They also offer burgers and steaks and dinner items. While these are important to have as an alternative, it’s always going to be the pancakes that drive people into the restaurant.
IHOP was so successful as a company that they have started to purchase other restaurant franchises as well. IHOP is also the controlling company of Applebee’s. That family chain restaurant was struggling and IHOP moved in and purchased the company. They’ve been working to fix the image of Applebee’s ever since. It’s likely there may be some more integration of the IHOP menu into Applebee’s as the future grows.
Waffle House – Founded: 1955 (Atlanta, GA)
Signature Food: Waffles
Chicken and Waffles is an American classic. Waffle House is a cultural classic of a restaurant. Restaurants that are open twenty four hours have a special place in American culture, and tend to develop devoted and large followings. Waffle House has been in movies, television and in music. It’s become such a cultural phenomenon that the jukeboxes inside are often filled with songs about Waffle House.
Waffle House has 2100 locations across the United States. Admittedly most of those are in the south, but they continue to spread, and people who have transplanted elsewhere spread the gospel of Waffle House to areas it hasn’t made an impression in yet. Some people view Waffle House as a breakfast food, but in reality, it was just named that because Waffles were the best selling item at the diner. Waffle House is a classic sit down style diner where you get to hear the servers using their form of classic diner slang to describe each food as the order is placed. In addition, Waffle House has an open kitchen concept. You can see the food being prepared. It adds a sense of involvement to your meal and helps you form a bond with the restaurant.
One of the most interesting things about Waffle House is their disaster recovery plan. Waffle House is a strong part of the culture of the American South. Their commitment to region is incredible. Waffle House is one of the top 4 corporations in America for disaster response. Considering the dangers of hurricanes, tornadoes and other events in the South, this is a wonderfully socially conscious decision. In the event of a disaster like a Hurricane, Waffle Houses can still be open thanks to their generators and food and ice stores. This means they can help feed those who have been displaced by the disaster. FEMA even has a name for their contribution. FEMA calls it, “The Waffle House Index”.
Burger King – Founded 1954 (Miami, FL)
Signature Food: The Whopper
Burger King often suffers from little brother syndrome. Burger King will forever be in McDonald’s shadow. Whereas McDonald’s started on the west coast, Burger King started on the east coast. Both spread out until clashing somewhere in the middle. Burger King still manages to have greater than 15000 locations worldwide making it one of the biggest chains in the world.
Burger King lost ground to McDonald’s in the 1980’s. Their advertising couldn’t match some incredible campaigns and things were going poorly. In the early 2000’s Burger King tried to aim for the young male demographic with a series of giant fattening offerings. While McDonald’s was working to pivot towards some more healthy options, Burger King doubled down on unhealthy foods. Sadly this decision didn’t work out that well. Since then, Burger King has worked all of their marketing based on “The King”. This terrifying man with a mask has resulted in some pretty hilarious commercials and probably some nightmares for some people who have seen his face. Burger King released a low budget video game for the X-Box 360 called “Sneak King” where you snuck around giving out burgers to people as the King. It was not good, but it was an amusing attempt at outside the box marketing.
The food provided by Burger King currently has a lot of standard fast food fare. Burgers, chicken and fish sandwiches prevail. Burger King is willing to reverse engineer the products from their chief rival and sell them as well. They offer a breakfast sandwich that is essentially a clone of McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. They also offer a sandwich entitled the “Big King” which is a “Big Mac” clone. Burger King will also experiment with items in attempts to gain an upper hand on McDonald’s. Items like their chicken fries represent attempts to work outside of their standard menu.
Sonic – Founded 1953 (Shawnee, OK)
Signature Food: Tots and Onion Rings
Sonic hearkens back to an older time. Sonic was one of the prime restaurant employers of waitresses on roller skates back in the 60s. Their drive in style made it a natural choice to get the food quickly to the customers. Sonic often brings up great memories for those who were young at that time, and have further capitalized by aiming their advertising at the younger generation. This gives them market share with two demographics instead of just one.
When Sonic started expanding it was a haphazard affair. The owner basically just shook hands with people, and they were going to send back some money. They didn’t need to have the same food and there was limited continuity between the locations. Thankfully in the 1970’s, Sonic got their act together and worked out a proper franchise plan. Now they were able to lend help to potential franchisees and plan out their expansion. From this point on, Sonic grew quickly and heavily!
Sonic has continued their drive in relevance throughout the years. Not having a dining room has allowed them to use smaller spaces and keep their overhead down. Sonic knows they are competing in an intense and over saturated fast food business space. Their marketing realized it was important to carve out a niche for their company rather than trying to do everything okay, but nothing extraordinarily.
Sonic’s menu has a lot of the standard items you’d still find at a 1960’s drive in diner. Burgers, fries, onion rings and hot dogs are all available. Sonic is actually known for some of its secondary items. Burgers will always be the star at fast food restaurants. The accoutrements are sometimes ignored. But Sonic is really quite good with a lot of their items. Their Onion Rings and their Tater Tots can be incredible. Their corn dogs and chili dogs can be great as well!
Denny’s – Founded 1953 (Lakewood, CA)
Signature Food: The Grand Slam
Denny’s wasn’t called Denny’s to start. It was originally called Danny’s Donuts. Obviously Denny’s has undergone quite the change and growth from their fried dough origins. Denny’s epitomizes “Diner”. The buildings are chosen because they look like diners have for decades. Their interior is decorated in a way that constantly screams at people that they are in a diner. Denny’s has continued to expand throughout the United States and you can find one anywhere you need to go.
Denny’s is another cultural icon of food. Once again Denny’s has managed to gain support for its brand by being a 24 hour per day operation. People who are suddenly desperate for food at 4 am are grateful when someone manages to provide for them. Those feelings continue on throughout regular business hours, and suddenly you’ve developed brand loyalty.
Denny’s and the diner food they provide have changed but always remain true to their origins. Just take a look at Denny’s number one selling item for an eternity. Everyone knows and buys “The Grand Slam”. The grand slam starts with 2 pancakes as a base. After that you get the breakfast trinity of eggs, bacon or sausage and hash browns. Denny’s has evolved their grand slam and you can choose which of the breakfast items you want.
When it comes to dinner, Denny’s is limited, but predictable. Steak, fish, chicken and slower cooked items that they can do in their cast iron skillets. The skillet meals make complete sense as it’s the same cooking platform as a lot of their breakfast meals. Skillets provide the food piping hot and produce a bit of a wow factor to anyone who sees it as they are passing by. Many people see and hear fajitas going by on a hot skillet and choose to order that. It’s a pretty common practice for servers to take a long route when they are holding a delicious food with a good smell on a skillet in order to drum up interest in the item. It’s a smart play to make.
Jack in the Box – Founded 1951 (San Diego, CA)
Signature Food: Taco
Jack in the Box has excelled in their marketing campaign. Many years before the King was haunting people’s dreams as he stalked them to provide them with burgers they weren’t asking for, Jack in the Box has their own creepy mascot often committing marginally weird acts. Jack has been working as the company mascot for a long time. He was retired briefly, but brought back when the company was dealing with some health controversies to draw attention away from those. Jack has a gigantic oversized ping pong ball for a head with items that look like a jack in the box, or a snowman who’s managed to take a Caribbean vacation and somehow avoid melting in the hot sun.
In theory Jack in the Box was founded mainly as a burger and fries restaurant chain. However their signature dish on their menu is neither a burger nor a collection of fries. Their signature item is what may be the worst taco in the world. Most of the people who love this taco admit it’s kind of disgusting. Those people also say that despite it being disgusting, it’s disgusting in a good way. Jack in the Box doesn’t make their tacos like most companies would. Most companies try to cook things in house. Jack in the box’s method is very odd. Rather than put the entire taco together at the store, Jack in Box completes the meat and shell at their factories. At that point they freeze it and ship it to store. At the store, the shell and meat are deep fried together before all the cold ingredients are added in on top. The methodology is so different from others with that shell and meat going together. Fans admit that the tacos are kind of a greasy mess, but they keep coming back for more and more.
Dunkin’ Donuts – Founded 1950 (Quincy, MA)
Signature Food: Handle Donut
If you live in the northeast, you believe in Dunkin’ Donuts. There’s just no way around it. You grew up with Dunkin’ Donuts always there for you to provide the delicious fried doughnuts and coffee that you needed. Now Dunkin’ Donuts is worldwide providing coffee in 12000 different locations.
Some of you might be reading this and thinking “Dunkin’ Donuts” isn’t a restaurant. Admittedly they are closer to a coffee shop then a restaurant but they serve foodstuffs and have been around for over 65 years. That’s close enough to qualifying as a pure restaurant on this list.
It’s true that donuts are the key food for Dunkin’. However they have also expanded out. Their bakery produces a large amount of baked goods like muffins, danishes, cookies, croissants and biscuits. They’ve also expanded to offer a series of sandwiches, breakfast sandwiches and wraps. This allows them offer some solid quick lunches to people on the go.
Probably the most well known donut from Dunkin’ Donuts is the classic handle donut. There’s lots of coffee shops, but most haven’t copied that little trick. Rather than produce perfectly round donuts, the handle donut will have an additional handle like protrusion on one side of the circle. This let people dip their donut into their coffee while their hands remained relatively clean of any toppings or coffee. It was a simple little trick but really a fantastic one. While less people dip their donuts in coffee than the past, it’s still a cool look into the past. This donut isn’t always available these days, but if you’re there and see one you should give it a shot.
Dunkin’ Donuts has done an excellent job of licensing off their recipes for home use as well. Their coffee is considered an institution to some, and it’s readily available for purchase and use in your home coffee machines. They also make Dunkin’ coffee available in k-cups for people who prefer to use Keurig machines.
McDonald’s – Founded 1948 (San Bernardino, CA)
Signature Food: The Big Mac
While McDonald’s may not be the oldest restaurant chain in America, it certainly is the most powerful. McDonald’s managed to become a behemoth through their excellent marketing and their aggressive expansion strategy.
McDonald’s is a marketing machine. They have had a lot of campaigns over the years and sponsor many different events. McDonald’s is well known for their Olympic sponsorship in many countries. Their sponsorships are almost too many to name, but they do like to sponsor children’s sports. It’s a way to target one of their main demographics and give back to the community.
McDonald’s has had many campaigns and come up with a lot of different slogans over the years. Slogans like “Look for the Golden Arches” and “I’m Lovin’ It” stick in the head and keep you thinking McDonald’s. Using superstars like Michael Jordan in the past further established McDonald’s as a marketing giant that was at the time bringing its competition to its knees.
McDonald’s global brand is immense. McDonald’s has over 35000 locations worldwide in 118 countries. Their signs used to keep track of the number of people McDonald’s has fed over the years, but the numbers are just too high for them to keep up and the signs were never prepared for over 100 billion different people having been served. When someone chooses to open a franchise, they pay their franchise fee, often pay rent and have to attend “Hamburger University”. That is the McDonald’s education campus in Illinois. From there, they learn how to run a McDonald’s to full profit.
McDonald’s continues to evolve the food it provides. In recent years it has often branded itself as “McDonald’s Cafe” and attempted to offer up seemingly healthier options. Since nutrition has become such an important part of daily life, they wanted to get ahead of the game and ensure that their normal fare wouldn’t become antiquated.
In-N-Out Burger – Founded 1948 (Los Angeles, CA)
Signature Food: The Double-Double Burger
Finally we get to the California institution. If you want to get in a fight with someone from California, just tell them that In-N-Out is overrated. In-N-Out is an institution. It seems like the first thing that locals do when someone comes to visit from around the world is make sure they get to try it.
In-N-Out is successful despite the rather modest amount of restaurants it has. It only has just over 300 locations in total. Most of these are in California, though they have grown out to another 5 western or Midwestern states. To be fair, with the success that they have, it’s likely that In-N-Out could choose to continue to expand. They could succeed just on people who have moved away from the busy parts of California, let alone all of the new fans they would be able to generate.
In-N-Out keeps things simple. Their menu has burgers, fries, milkshakes and drinks. That being said, you can also order from their “secret menu”. Secret menus at restaurants are becoming far less secret and far more common. In-N-Out lets you purchase triple and quadruple patty cheeseburgers as well as some other specialties. While In-N-Out is quite simple with their menu, some of the “secret” items are fantastic. Their “animal style” burger includes a mustard cooked beef patty which changes the entire experience. It also adds pickles. The crunch of the pickle adds a much needed textural change that enhances the entire experience.
A lot of the recent exposure In-N-Out has gotten is through social media. Because of its location so close to Hollywood, it is a consistent choice for celebrities who want to grab a burger. Of course those celebs like to cultivate the appearance that they are just like regular people, so they show off on their social media accounts their experience with In-N-Out for all to see as well.
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit – Founded 1941 (Dallas, TX)
Signature Food: Brisket
What’s great about Dickey’s Barbecue Pit is that it was a single restaurant for so long. From the founding in 1941, it ran itself until 1994. At that point, someone in the company had to go have some barbecue somewhere else and think “this is garbage”. Since then, Dickey’s has continue to expand lightning fast. It now has over 500 locations and is spread throughout the United States pretty well with 43 states represented.
McDonald’s has Burger University where they bring all of their potential franchisers in to learn how to run a McDonald’s the right way. Well Dickey’s loved that idea. They do the same thing and host a “Barbecue University” course where their franchisers come in to learn the business. Their University is more of a smushed up semester as it is a only a four week course, but the participants have to work hard to learn everything. They take what they learn during their boot camp barbecue course and they bring it back to their new franchise.
The menu is classic barbecue. Beef Brisket is the star of things. Beyond that, there’s a large selection of pork products and different sausages. If you’re in the mood for some pulled pork or ribs, then Dickey’s is always there for you. Their sides also fit with southern bbq. Corn on the cob, beans and fried okra highlight a great list of accompaniments to your main course. The menu stays basically the same because the recipes haven’t changed. A few things might get added every now and then, but the key proteins have been made the exact same way since the first store opened. That’s part of the reason that franchise owners need to be brought in and taught how to make things. They also have to use the same recipes for any item that’s the same as served in the main restaurant.
Carl’s Jr. – Founded 1941 (Los Angeles, CA)
Signature Food: Thickburger/Crisscut Fries
Carl’s Jr. has had a bit of a rocky history and been up and down. But currently Carl’s Jr is running well and continues to expand throughout the United States. Carl’s JR prides itself on trying to provide a higher level of quality in the fast food game.
Carl’s Jr Can be a bit more expensive than other fast food options purely because of their belief in their higher quality. Their buns are often of a higher quality than you might find at others. The vegetables are usually fresh and crisp and they look great. When you open your wrapping, the Carl’s Jr burger is likely to look closer to the picture on the menu than any burger from another fast food chain. Beyond their burgers they do offer you pretty standard side options. However the best option is their waffle or crisscut fries. Those little gems provide you with a blast of delicious potato goodness that is unmatched from a lot of other joints. There’s something about waffle cut that just makes potatoes more delicious.
Carl’s Jr. has been expanding internationally for a while now. Their expansion to Canada has so far shown uncertain results with some restaurants quickly closing after they have opened.
Carl’s Jr. has shown some interesting advertising options over the years. One of the most controversial yet well received was their Paris Hilton advertising campaign. Paris was washing a car in a swimsuit and getting all soapy before she bit down on a burger. The “Bikini’s and burgers” campaigns featured several other women like Kate Upton, Sara Jean Underwood, Hayden Panettiere and Emily Ratajkowski. Honestly, they have just continued to grow and remain overtly sexual in nature. Some groups called for a boycott due to the commercials. They never really amounted to much, and the commercials continue today. Carl’s Jr’s CEO has described them as “Very American”.
Dairy Queen – Founded 1940 (Joliet, IL)
Signature Food: The Blizzard
While most of the goals of these restaurants is to heat you up, most of the time, Dairy Queen is looking to cool you down. No restaurant handles ice cream on this list like Dairy Queen. Dairy Queen tends towards more warm weather locations, or at least locations with really warm summers. They have about 6400 stores in various countries throughout the world. Dairy Queen is mostly referred to as DQ now because they wanted to get away from the longer name. It’s pretty similar to the choice that Kentucky Fried Chicken made to move down to KFC.
Dairy Queen has some different varieties to their store. The most common is their standard stores. Those are full of both hot eats and cool treats! These are open year round and provide you with meals. There’s also the regional stores. These tend to only offer their ice cream and cold items. Why would these exist? These tend to exist in locations that has high summer foot traffic. If you ever did a summer lake trip for a week or two, there’s a good possibility the small town you went to had a seasonal dairy queen. They loved their beach towns.
The most popular and famous item on the menu is the Blizzard. The blizzard consists of the dairy queen soft serve and is mixed together with your choice of various flavourings. Most of the flavourings are various candies that people know and love. They have all franchised out their candies to Dairy Queen to be included. There’s not a lot of frozen treats that can beat an Oreo Blizzard. However aside from that, the Blizzard is supposed to be extra thick. Each employee is required to turn the blizzard upside down in front of you before you received it. This is meant to show off just how thick and tasty the blizzard is going to be. It’s showmanship pure and simple.
Krystal – Founded 1932 (Chattanooga, TN)
Signature Food – Sliders
Krystal was founded on a premise. The premise was that, regardless of the great depression killing the economy, people still needed to eat. The goal was to provide a restaurant that was perfectly clean and offered food as cheap as was possible. Considering that Krystal has been around for 80+ years, it has proved that there was some good logic behind their ideas. Krystal has continued on serving up their sliders in a clean
Krystal has 1800 locations and most of their locations are in the American Southeast. Their menu is focused around their tiny sliders. Like White Castle, the sliders are served with tiny diced onions. Their “Krystal” slider also has pickle and mustard on it. Krystal has also included other small items on their menu to stick with the theme. They’ve had tiny chicken sandwiches and tiny hot dogs. Krystal also goes all out for breakfast, which is always useful if you’re going to be open 24 hours per day. Their breakfast breaks from the tiny food methodology and can be purchased to order. You can customize up your breakfast so that it fits with everything that you’re liking.
Krystal likes to get creative. They have tried to make their seating areas more comfortable and draw people in. They jumped on mobile apps early to help people find their closest Krystal locations.
Because Krystal sliders are tiny little morsels of deliciousness, they are an easy target for eating large amount. Naturally if people are eating a lot of something, it’s time to give in to their competitive spirit and turn that food into an eating contest! Krystal has their own competitive eating competition where competitive eaters go to town on Krystal’s sliders. Competitors have 8 minutes to eat as many sliders as they can. Currently the record belongs to professional eater Joey Chestnut. Chestnut is one of the all time great competitive eaters and he managed 103 sliders in those 8 minutes.
Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) – Founded 1930 (North Corbin, KY)
Signature Food: Bucket o’ Chicken
The story of Colonel Sanders is pretty well known. The Colonel started selling chicken roadside in 1930. They didn’t actually start franchising until 1952, but from that moment on, Kentucky Fried Chicken became the ultimate behemoth of chicken.
Kentucky Fried Chicken chose to shorten their name to the commonly used short form KFC. Their reasoning was that they wanted to disassociate themselves with the stigma that’s often associated with fried food.
KFC has almost 20,000 locations around the world and has managed penetration into every continent. Their appeal is easy. The food is fried and delicious and everyone enjoys it. Chicken isn’t an animal that is banned anywhere, and for the most part people aren’t offended by it as a meat option.
KFC does often go a bit too far. They like to experiment and offer up special menu items. These are usually spicy or crispier variations on their current menu. However, one special event item has gone down in the lore of all food culture. KFC took a look at their chicken sandwich and thought “How can we turn this from a delicious chicken sandwich into something that’s both enticing and terrifying?” KFC needed to make sure they had never done it before. It needed to be new and original. Someone in the back of the room might have been on Atkins at the time and shouted out “Get rid of the buns! Use chicken as bread!”. Likely that person was laughed at. Eventually KFC ran out of ideas, took that idea and ran out the “Double Down”. Bacon and cheese between two chicken breasts that were used as bread.
The Double Down was an advertising hit. Whether people were eating it, or just seeing the commercials, it was bringing huge brand awareness with it. In reality, it’s kind of a salty mess. Turns out the bread is actually an important part of the sandwich and balances out the saltiness.
A&W – Founded 1923 (Sacramento, CA)
Signature Food: Root Beer and Root Beer Floats
Almost everyone has been to an A&W at some point. That’s kind of surprising because it only has around 1200 locations. The marketplace share compared to their cultural power isn’t even close. A&W has franchised out their success and used incredible marketing. A&W branded merchandise has been around forever. They created great posters, and capitalized in the 60s with their waitresses on roller skates. They certainly weren’t the only one, but they advertised and showed them off well.
The menu at A&W has benefited from their ability to capitalize on silly names or gimmicks. Their burgers aren’t just burgers, they are part of the burger “family”. Naming them after various members of the family was/is an interesting strategy, but people recognize it. It provides easy recall. People don’t need to distinguish between similarly named burgers. “Oh, that’s a papa burger”. Done. Easy. Their chicken options are the same way. “Chubby Chicken” is another way to differentiate their chicken from just being another chicken sandwich. Though in reality, chubby chicken is just some average to below average fried chicken when compared to a lot of its other great ones.
A&W has owned the marketplace when it comes to a single item. That item is their delicious root beer. They’ve proven that it’s better for a company to be truly great at one thing and make it a signature. From there you build off your signature item and The alternative is to be pretty good at everything. There’s lots of restaurants that do that, but they don’t gain the name recognition to allow them to become a worldwide franchise.
A&W is part of the Yum conglomerate of fast food along with Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC. Because of this, they’ve started embracing the co-restaurants as well to allow for more locations with less overhead.
White Castle – Founded 1921 (Wichita, KS)
Signature Food: Sliders
White Castle is the second oldest on our list having been established way back in 1921. It’s not quite making it to the 100 year anniversary, but when that happens, hopefully there is going to be a fast food celebration for the ages!
While White Castle does advertise like any other company, their biggest advertising came from the movie “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”. In the movie, two stoned friends journey to White Castle to solve their case of the munchies. Along the way they encounter obstacles like a Cheetah, Neil Patrick Harris and a flat tire. It’s one of the best comedies of that era and met with both critical and financial success. It was so successful it spawned two terrible sequels as well.
The success of the movie boosted sales for White Castle. It reminded them that White Castle is a mainstream option. Because White Castle’s are distinctive looking, people enjoyed pretending to be a part of the movie or rehashing favorite scenes over some sliders.
White Castle’s menu is based on the slider. Tiny burgers with little crystallized onions that melt in your mouth. The burgers are actually cooked on a bed of onions so that their flavor permeates through the tiny thin burgers. Because of their size, you would never purchase a single slider. There are commonly 5 in a meal, and White Castle also offers 30 or 100 slider options for groups or when you’re really looking to take it to the next level.
Finding a White Castle is harder than you expect. White Castle is placed in certain locations and completely outside of other markets. What’s nuts is that White Castle was founded in Kansas, but there is currently not a single White Castle in the entire state of Kansas. White Castle is mostly found throughout the Midwest. However they do have a large amount of stores in certain major metropolitan locations like New York City.
Nathan’s – Founded 1916 (Coney Island, NY)
Signature Food: Hot Dogs!
We have finally come to the end of our list, with one of the smallest, but oldest chain of restaurants operating in the United States. It’s time to talk Hot Dogs everyone. Nathan’s was originally founded as a hot dog stand on Coney Island. It’s expanded throughout the United States and to a few other countries, but retains its focus on hot dogs.
The founder Nathan Handwerker spend his entire life savings to create and launch Nathan’s with his wife. Nathan was responsible for the hot dog recipe and his wife’s grandmother came up with the spices. It’s hard to beat any recipe that’s created by a good cooking grandmother, so that was an excellent choice by Nathan.
Nathan’s is one of the forefathers of competitive eating, and is still the marquee event on the competitive eating tour. It’s the Masters tournament, but lacking golf clubs and loaded with condiments instead. The contest has been going on since the 1970s. Competitors have 10 minutes to eat as many Nathan’s hot dogs as they can in 10 minutes. That’s both bun and hot dog. There are a few dominant eaters over the era. Japanese eating star Kobayashi won for 6 straight years, ending in 2006. It was impressive seeing a tiny Japanese man eat upwards of 50 hot dogs in that time frame. He was soon eclipsed by an American named Joey Chestnut. Joey Chestnut won for 7 straight years in a row, and now has 8 titles total!
Of the 1200+ locations out there, the original still stands over 100 years later. What’s even crazier is that the stand had been open every single day for 96 years. Then unfortunately in 2012 Hurricane Sandy came through and caused it to close and caused damage. However the original Nathan’s is back up and working fine now. It’s time to work on another 100 years of hot dogs!
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