Jack in the Box is a fast food chain that’s perhaps best known for its round-headed mascot and quirky commercials. But this chain, which has more than 2,200 restaurants in 21 states and Guam, has a long and winding backstory, with a lot of ups and some disastrous downs.
Jack in the Box traces its roots to a man named Robert Oscar Peterson, who started a small San Diego fast food chain called Topsy’s Drive-In in 1941. The chain, later renamed Oscar’s, was perhaps best known for its circus-like décor and atmosphere, and featured drawings of a wacky round-headed clown who would become its hallmark. In 1951, a location on El Cajon Boulevard was renamed Jack in the Box, and thanks to the combination of two new concepts — the two-way intercom and the drive-through — the restaurant took off. All Oscar’s locations were soon re-christened Jack in the Box. In 1966, the 200th outpost opened; all of them were in California and the Southwest.
The earliest Jack in the Box menus were pretty simple. In the mid-‘60s, there were only 15 items: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, double-patty Bonusburgers, French fries, onion rings, shrimp and chicken tacos, ice cream, hot apple turnovers, shakes, cola, orange soda, and root beer were all that was on offer.
The menu today is much larger, with 16 different burgers, chicken, fajitas, salads, chicken teriyaki bowls, an expansive breakfast menu, and snacks and sides including egg rolls, mozzarella sticks, stuffed jalapeños, and curly fries. Jack in the Box is in the midst of a measured expansion (they recently opened a location in Indianapolis), and you might have heard of another successful chain that’s owned by the company: Qdoba Mexican Grill.
While Jack in the Box is doing well and taking its reputation for being slightly wacky to new extremes (they recently set the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest coupon, of all things), it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows; in fact, one of the biggest tragedies in the history of fast food happened on their watch, and their story has been one of constant renewal and rebranding. So read on to learn 11 things you might not have known about Jack in the Box.
Its Use of a Two Way Intercom for Drive-Through Was Revolutionary
The drive-through concept had been around for a while before Robert Peterson included one in his restaurant, and a restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska, was the first to use the two-way intercom, but nobody combined the two before Peterson purchased the intercom rights and opened the first Jack in the Box. The fact that customers could place their order before driving up to the window greatly decreased the wait time, and talking into the intercom (which was, of course, shaped like a clown’s head) and having it talk back was certainly novel. This intercom/drive-through system revolutionized the fast food industry, and it’s obviously still in use today.
It Was Conceived as a ‘Modern Food Machine’
Peterson and his team knew exactly what they were doing, and even hired La Jolla-based master architect Russell Forester to design the new restaurants. They knew that their concept had the potential to change the industry, and dubbed their creation a “modern food machine.”