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 chain restaurants in the country (fast food and otherwise) all started out at one solitary location, and each one has its own fascinating backstory.
The origins of just about all chain restaurants follow a couple similar narrative structures: One, 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. Or two, a big company will launch a restaurant after extensive market research with the express purpose of turning it into a big national chain. But each story has its own fascinating nuances; for example, Subway’s founder was only 17 when he opened the first location; before founding Wendy’s, Dave Thomas was one of the Midwest’s most successful KFC franchisees; and when Larry Lavine opened the first Chili’s in 1975 in Dallas, people lined up around the block on a daily basis just to eat a bowl of chili and drink a margarita.
It’s easy to think of chain restaurants as faceless behemoths, but in reality, many of them started out just like every other small business: with a little startup cash and a dream. Whether it’s an Australian-themed steakhouse, an inexpensive wing joint, a taco chain that’s trying to “think outside the bun,” or a New England-style seafood restaurant, these chains are known and patronized by millions and millions of Americans, and they all have really interesting backstories. Read on to learn their fascinating origins.