It’s not easy to run a restaurant. It’s even more difficult to run a chain restaurant. For one, you need to serve food that people will want to eat, all across the region, country, or world. Then you need to keep the menu fresh and up-to-date, all while making sure that every single dish in every single location looks and tastes exactly the same. And after all of that’s been done, you need to launch marketing and advertising campaigns to fill the seats, and figure out what’s going wrong if they’re not getting filled. To repeat, it’s not easy to run a successful chain restaurant.
Chain restaurants as we know them today only came about within the past 30 or so years, largely because that genre of restaurant, called fast casual, is only about that old. There were plenty of hamburger chains and diner chains dating back to the 1950s, but the whole concept of going to a casual restaurant with your family, having a beer and ordering inexpensive food that makes everyone happy, and leaving with a doggie bag is still remarkably new. In fact, 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.
In many cases, the origins of today’s most popular chain restaurants aren’t exactly what you might expect. Many of them had different names when they were founded, as well as different menus and concepts. With the exception of Olive Garden, which was invented by General Mills as opposed to a single lucky entrepreneur, most of the big chains got their start when someone opened up a restaurant that just happened to do really, really well. And if it happened to fall into that new style of fast casual dining, wealthy investors were waiting around every corner during the '70s and '80s to take advantage of this newest dining trend.
Once a chain restaurant is well-funded and its concept and menu are fully in place, it’s amazing how quickly it can spread. Panera Bread, one of the youngest major chains, only got its start 20 years ago, but today there are more than 1,600 units and it’s rapidly growing. Whether it’s an Australian-themed steakhouse, an inexpensive wing joint, 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.
Dan Myers is the Eat/Dine Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @sirmyers.