The Fascinating Origins of the 15 Biggest Fast-Food Chains

Even the biggest companies had to start somewhere


Sonic was one of the first restaurants to use carhops back in the '50s.

Starting a company is no easy feat, and opening a restaurant is one of the most challenging endeavors of all. Though it may be hard to believe, the biggest fast-food chains in the country all started out at one solitary location, and each one has its own fascinating backstory.

The Fascinating Origins of the 15 Biggest Fast-Food Chains (Slideshow)

As opposed to some casual restaurant chains like Olive Garden and Bahama Breeze, which were launched by big companies with the express purpose of becoming chains, the vast majority of fast-food chains were the brainchild of one person with a dream. Some of those founders, like Wendy’s Dave Thomas and KFC’s Harland Sanders, became renowned as the chains’ spokesmen, but most chains’ founders, and their chains’ origin stories, languish in obscurity today.

Most chain restaurants’ stories follow a similar narrative structure: A founder (or small group of partners) opens a restaurant, which meets with astonishing success. Then a big company comes along, makes them an offer they can’t refuse, and takes the chain national. But each story has its own fascinating nuances; for example, Subway’s founder was only 17 when he opened the first location, and before founding Wendy’s, Dave Thomas was one of the Midwest’s most successful KFC franchisees.


Read on to learn how the country’s 15 top fast-food chains (according to 2015 systemwide sales, as reported by QSR Magazine) got their starts. It’s easy to think of fast-food companies as faceless behemoths, but in reality, they all started out just like every other small business: with a little startup cash and a dream.