These days, your fast-food choices are generally limited to a handful of major chains – McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell – or the odd independent restaurant. But back in the mid-20th century, when those names were just starting to take off, there were plenty of other businesses attempting to cash in on the franchise craze. From Red Barn to Chi-Chi’s, however, these once-famous chains all eventually capitulated for one reason or another – whether it was simply a poor business model or even an unfortunate viral outbreak.
20. Howard Johnson’s
Back in the 1920s, Howard Johnson’s was something of a pioneer for plenty of now common fast-food concepts, such as standardization, comfort food and even roadside locations. But as it paved the way for McDonald’s and KFC, those franchises’ focus on smaller menus and lower costs allowed them to offer a cheaper dining experience. And Howard Johnson’s ultimately paid the price, selling off and shutting down almost all its restaurants in the ’90s.
19. The Official All-Star Café
With themed restaurants all the rage in the early ’90s, including his own Planet Hollywood venture, businessman Robert Earl reckoned that a sports-themed restaurant would surely meet the same success. And with backing from athletes including Tiger Woods and Shaquille O’Neal, The Official All-Star Café opened in Times Square in 1995. But it didn’t last long – in four years, revenues tumbled, with sports proving not quite as family friendly as movies.
With restaurants in just five states at its peak, VIP’s – a 24-hour Denny’s-style diner – may have passed you by. But at one point, it was actually the largest restaurant chain in Oregon and extended its reach to Nevada, California, Washington and Idaho. In 1982, however, it sold most of its locations to Denny’s, with the rest split up and sold by the 1990s.
17. Horn & Hardart
Taking the lead from similar ventures in Berlin, Horn & Hardart was notable for being the U.S.’s first automat, where food was served by large vending machines. Its staple menu choices, including baked beans and macaroni and cheese, saw it take off in the Great Depression and thrive for decades. But in the 1960s, over-the-counter fast-food chains swept in, signalling the death knell for the automat.
16. Burger Chef
If Burger Chef sounds like an attempt to put an upmarket spin on Burger King, that’s because it’s exactly what it was. But the Indianapolis-born chain innovated elsewhere, becoming the first fast-food restaurant to introduce the idea of a combo meal. At its peak, it almost rivaled McDonald’s. Alas, a General Foods buyout in 1968 resulted in some poor business choices, ultimately leading to the slow demise of the brand.
While actually named after its founder, William Isaly, the Midwestern fast-food chain’s marketing proclaimed Isaly’s stood for “I Shall Always Love You Sweetheart.” But the brand, which had several dairies, is more well known for creating the Klondike Bar, as well as pioneering the modern convenience store through its retail arm, which sold gasoline alongside groceries. Unfortunately, Isaly’s was a victim of corporate consolidation in the 1960s, unable to compete with major brands.
Lum’s started life as a hot dog stand on Miami Beach, so it was fitting that its trademark menu item came to be hot dogs steamed in beer. After rapidly expanding in the 1960s, the restaurant chain was sold twice, eventually ending up under the control of Wienerwald Holdings in 1978. Unfortunately, that proved a step too far for the parent company, which filed for bankruptcy four years later.
13. White Tower
If White Tower looks familiar to you, it’s probably because it was basically a direct copy of White Castle. Indeed, a legal battle in the early 1930s found as much, with White Tower forced to change its slogan and even building designs, although it managed to keep its name. However, even with those issues, it was ultimately the migration of its customer base to the suburbs in the ’70s that spelled its end.
12. Royal Castle
White Tower wasn’t the only restaurant that White Castle inspired, however – the equally similarly named Royal Castle also took its lead from the chain, even offering similar miniature burgers. However, like most hamburger-focused fast-food outlets in the 20th century, it eventually lost out to the empires of McDonald’s and Burger King. Nowadays, just one location has survived in Miami, Florida.
11. Red Barn
If you don’t remember Red Barn, the clue was in the name: its restaurants were huge, barn-shaped buildings, painted red. Unfortunately, it lacked any other real hook beyond being the first major fast-food outlet to offer self-service salad bars. And despite a cult following that’s still around today, Red Barn’s novelty factor wasn’t enough to sustain it in the face of McDonald’s, and it closed down altogether in the late ’80s.
10. Minnie Pearl’s Chicken
In the eyes of former governor of Tennessee nominee John Jay Hooker, country singer Minnie Pearl was the Colonel Sanders to his own version of KFC. Unfortunately, Hooker and his franchisees didn’t have much actual restaurant experience. So while it was a huge success on paper, with stock prices rising fast, the reality didn’t hold water – and a government investigation into its assets eventually doomed the business in the early ’70s. Hooker, a Democrat, obviously blamed Nixon.
Nobody today would ever be foolish enough to call their restaurant “Sambo’s.” But back in the ’50s, two guys did, apparently innocently combining parts of their own names to come up with the brand – blissfully unaware of the negative racial connotations. Protests ensued, and the name was quickly changed to “The Jolly Tiger” in certain areas. Nonetheless, neither that nor a misguided business model could save it from extinction.
As the name implied, D’Lites was a fast-food restaurant with a twist – it offered healthier, or “lite,” menu choices, including lower-calorie versions of traditional burgers. While it was initially a success, with 100 stores opening their doors in its first eight years of operations, it was scuppered when the bigger chains caught on and began selling salads. By 1986 the company filed for bankruptcy.
7. Henry’s Hamburgers
Seeing the success of McDonald’s, Bresler’s Ice Cream strode into the fast-food market in the 1950s with Henry’s Hamburgers. The restaurant’s low-price offers, including “ten burgers for a buck,” gave it some success in the early ’60s. Unfortunately, it couldn’t keep up with the times, neglecting to add drive-thru and diversify its menu. Add to that a controversy over horse meat and corporate interference, and the writing was on the wall in the mid-’70s.
While Chi-Chi’s still exists in a couple of European countries, the U.A.E. and Kuwait, it’s long gone from U.S. shores. The Mexican chain filed for bankruptcy in 2003, and a month later, the biggest hepatitis A outbreak in American history was traced back to a Pennsylvania branch. After several lawsuits, every last one of its U.S. stores closed for good in 2004.
5. Pup ‘N’ Taco
As the name suggests, Pup ‘N’ Taco served up a strange combo of tacos and hot dogs, alongside burgers, pastrami sandwiches and tostadas. Seemingly, though, something about it appealed, as it quickly expanded in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Alas, it was actually a victim of its own success, with many of its stores situated in such perfect locations that Taco Bell acquired almost the entire lot in 1984.
4. Valle’s Steak House
Valle’s Steak House may no longer be a household name, but it actually operated for a whopping 67 years until it shut up shop in 2000. Indeed, its low-margin business model that prized efficiency in its restaurants saw it boom in the late ’60s. When its founder Donald Valle died in 1977, however, inheritance taxes forced his family to liquidate the business, and a faltering economy, high running costs and poor adaptability eventually killed the chain.
3. Beefsteak Charlie’s
Beefsteak Charlie’s has two slogans, both of which pointed to its initial success: “I’ll feed you like there’s no tomorrow,” and “You’re gonna get spoiled.” Indeed, its marketing played heavily on its all-you-can-eat salad bar and bottomless servings of sangria, wine and beer. However, a series of corporate mergers eventually led to its restaurants closing down altogether just after the turn of the millennium.
2. Steak and Ale
The original upscale steakhouse chain, Steak and Ale’s selling point when it arrived in 1966 was its classy experience – with dimly lit restaurants – at an affordable price. Alas, the other brands it inspired ultimately did it better, and by 2008 it had closed for good. Nevertheless, in 2015 its parent company was bought out by another fast-food chain, Bennigan’s, which now offers franchisees the chance to “Own a Steak and Ale.”
1. Doggie Diner
Doggie Diner may have been contained to San Francisco and Oakland, but that didn’t stop it enjoying nearly four decades of success, thanks in part to its endearing signage: a seven-feet-tall fiberglass dachshund head, decked out with a chef’s hat and bow tie. Its eventual collapse in 1986 was a tale as old as time, though, as it failed to keep up with the giants of Burger King and McDonald’s.