Definition: Restaurants that offer convenience and speed in serving food, usually including hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken, or submarine sandwiches
Significance: During the twentieth century, fast food restaurants, or quick service restaurants (QSR), became one of the fastest-growing American industries. The major chains and franchises purchased prime real estate, thus transforming the American landscape. Along with the rise of automobiles, QSRs changed consumer behavior and spending. Major QSRs invested billions of advertising dollars to create brand-name recognition, shaping popular culture as well.
America’s first major fast-food chain was the Horn& Hardart Automat, which opened in 1902 in Philadelphia. These waiter less restaurants in Art Deco style had coin-operated glass-and-chrome vending machines offering freshly made food.
During the 1920’s, the American lifestyle began to change, as automobiles became affordable and the federal government funded new highway systems. A new, mobile society that valued convenience and speed needed quick meals. In 1921 in Dallas, Texas, the first drive-in restaurant chain, the Pig Stand, opened, with carhops taking customers’ orders. Their first drive-through window appeared in 1931.
In 1921, White Castle, the first fast-food hamburger chain, opened in Wichita, Kansas. In 1932, it introduced fast-food coupon advertising. The chain was the first to sell one billion hamburgers, and it comprised 380 restaurants in 2007. Celebrated in art and film, the iconic Automat—another waiter less coin-operated restaurant—was popular during the Great Depression but could not compete with the modern fast-food franchises that began proliferating during the 1950’s. The last Automat would close in 1991.
Modern Hamburger Chains
Two hamburger restaurants inaugurated the modern fast-food industry. In 1948, brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald opened their McDonald’s hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California. They used a self-service, assembly line system called the “Speedee Service System,” which established the basic format of the modern fast-food restaurant. In 1954, Ray Kroc, distributor of the Multimixer milkshake mixer, observed how quickly McDonald’s produced inexpensive meals for a constant stream of customers. On April 15, 1955, Kroc opened the first franchised McDonald’s restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois. In 1961, he purchased the McDonald brothers’ equity in the business. Many McDonald’s products became known worldwide, including the Big Mac sandwich (launched in 1968), the Egg McMuffin (1973), and Happy Meals for children (1979). When Kroc died in 1984, there were more than seventy-five hundred McDonald’s restaurants globally. By 2008, McDonald’s was the leading QSR, with thirty thousand restaurants in more than one hundred countries and serving more than 54 million customers daily.
Like Ray Kroc, James McLamore and David Edgerton had admired the first McDonald’s hamburger stand. They subsequently founded the Burger King (BK) Corporation in Miami, Florida, in 1954. However, the unique BK hamburger was “flame-broiled” rather than fried, and BK served onion rings. In 1957, Burger King introduced its signature product, the Whopper, and franchising began in 1959. When Pillsbury bought BK in 1967, it was the third-largest fast-food chain in the United States. In 1974,BKlaunched its successful Have It Your Way marketing campaign, promoting its customized offerings. In 2007, Burger King’s revenues were $2.234 billion, and it served more than 11 million customers per day. By 2008, BK had become the second-largest hamburger chain, with more than 11,200 restaurants throughout the United States and in sixty-nine countries.
Founder Dave Thomas opened the first Wendy’s in November, 1969, in Columbus, Ohio, and sold the first franchise in 1972. Wendy’s offered old fashioned, square hamburgers, and its Big Classic rivaled Burger King’s Whopper. The famous tagline Where’s the Beef? became part of American pop culture. In 2006,Wendy’s had revenues of $2.45 billion, and it was the third-largest burger chain, with sixty-seven hundred locations. In April, 2008, Tirarc Companies, owner of Arby’s, announced it had purchased Wendy’s for $2.34 billion. Founded in 1964, Arby’s was famous for its roast beef sandwiches.
In 1956, Carl N. Karcher opened the first Carl’s Jr. charbroiled burger restaurants in Anaheim and Brea, California. Carl’s Jr. created the Six Dollar burger, the first sit-down-restaurant-style burger at a QSR. In 1997, parent company Carl Karcher Enterprises acquired Hardee’s, a hamburger chain with twenty-five hundred locations. Carl Karcher Enterprises made $1.52 billion in sales in 2006. Other burger QSRs have flourished, including Sonic Drive-In, founded in 1953 and known for its carhops and Toaster sandwiches. Jack in the Box, founded in 1951, was the first QSR to introduce a breakfast sandwich and a portable salad.
Other Major Brands
Dairy Queen featured soft ice cream when it opened in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois. Other dairy-based dessert items were added over time, and the menu eventually expanded to include hamburgers and other cooked foods. One of the first chains to use the franchise model, Dairy Queen had twenty-six hundred stores by 1955 and over fifty-nine hundred internationally by 2007. Berkshire Hathaway purchased Dairy Queen in 1998.
Founded by Fred DeLuca and Peter Buck, Pete’s Super Submarines opened in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1965. In 1968, the name was changed to SUBWAY. Large sandwiches on long rolls were popularly known as “submarines” because of their shape. SUBWAY introduced sandwiches that were customized for each customer, who could select from ingredients on display. SUBWAY competed against other QSRs by emphasizing the health benefits of its ingredients, including fresh vegetables. By 2008, the company had more than twenty-nine thousand restaurants in eighty-six different countries, and it was the second-largest fast-food chain and the largest sandwich chain in the world. Quiznos Sub, founded in 1981, was the second-largest sandwich chain, and in third place was Blimpie, founded in 1964.
In 1997, PepsiCo’s fast-food giants KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut were made subsidiaries of Tricon Global Restaurants, which became Yum! Brands in 2002. By 2008, Yum! Brands had become the world’s largest restaurant company, with over thirty-five thousand restaurants in over 110 countries.
The KFC brand was originally the Kentucky Fried Chicken fast-food franchise founded by Colonel Harland Sanders in 1930. In 1940, he developed a secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices for his “finger lickin’ good” chicken, fried in a pressure cooker. The famous buckets appeared in 1957. By 1979, there were six thousand Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants worldwide with sales of over $2 billion annually. By 2006, over one billion KFC chicken dinners were served annually in over eighty countries. Other chicken-based chains followed: Chick-Fil-A opened in 1967, Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits started in 1972, and Bojangle’s opened in 1977.
In 1962, Glen Bell opened the first Taco Bell in Downey, California. This QSR offered alternative menu items such as tacos, burritos, and other Mexican dishes. The first franchise was sold in 1964, and the famous Taco Bell tagline was Think Outside the Bun. By 2008, Taco Bell was the leading Mexican style QSR chain, with more than fifty-eight hundred restaurants in the United States, serving more than 2 billion consumers annually.
Pizza Hut was America’s first national pizza chain. Brothers Dan and Frank Carney opened the first Pizza Hut in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas. In 2007, Pizza Hut was the world’s leading pizza restaurant company, with more than sixty-five hundred restaurants in the United States and more than four thousand in one hundred other countries. Domino’s Pizza, founded by James Monaghan in 1961, became the world leader in pizza delivery and the second-largest chain. In 1985, John Schnatter created Papa John’s Pizza to offer a superior traditional pizza; it became the third-largest chain. Founded by Mike and Marian Ilitch in 1959, Little Caesars became the fastest-growing chain in 2007.
Other specialty chains developed, including Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee retailer, and Dunkin’ Donuts, serving coffee, breakfast foods, and smoothies. Founded in 1983, Panda Express became the first national Chinese QSR chain, with over eight hundred locations in 2008. By the early twenty-first century, the industry included approximately 200,000 restaurants with a combined annual revenue of about $120 billion.
Darden, Bob. Secret Recipe: Why KFC Is Still Cookin’ After Fifty Years. Irving, Tex.: Tapestry Press, 2002. Complete history of KFC, including business secrets and narratives about founder Colonel Harlan Sanders. Illustrated. Index.
Jakle, John A., and Keith A. Sculle. Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. With over one hundred photos, this is a well-researched study of the culture of roadside eateries, fast-food chains, and the automobile. Bibliography.
Love, John F. McDonald’s: Behind the Arches. Rev. ed. New York: Bantam Books, 1995. Comprehensive chronicle of the rise of McDonald’s, including behind-the-scenes stories. Illustrated. Index.
McLamore, James. The Burger King: Jim McLamore and the Building of an Empire. New York: McGraw- Hill, 1997. Detailed autobiography of a cofounder of Burger King and detailed history of the company from its beginning in 1954. Illustrated. Index.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Well-researched New York Times bestseller that reveals the cultural, social, economic, and health consequences of the fast-food trend. Notes and index.
Spurlock, Morgan. Don’t Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2005. Humorous account of how the author lived on fast food alone for thirty days and the effect on his health. The subsequent documentary film broke box-office records. Appendixes and notes.
Tennyson, Jeffrey. Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger. New York: Hyperion, 1993. Includes the history of hamburger fast food chains such as Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s. Beautifully illustrated.
See also: Drive-through businesses; Food-processing industries; Restaurant industry.