The fast-food industry in this country has a long and storied history. The founders of America’s biggest chains built mega-empires based on the pursuit of the American dream, and in the process changed the way that the world eats. But how did these chains first get off the ground?
Given the ways that fast food influences everything from American pop culture to politics to dietary trends, it’s fascinating to look back on the origins of the biggest players in the industry. One of the first fast-food chains to emerge was White Castle, founded by Bill Ingram in Wichita, Kan. in 1921; the design of the original White Castle was inspired by the Water Tower building in Chicago.
The novel and efficient system developed by the McDonald brothers at their original San Bernardino, Calif., location inspired a handful of other up-and-coming entrepreneurs to try their hand in the industry, namely Keith J. Kramer and Matthew Burns (founders of Insta-Burger King, which would later become Burger King), Carl Karcher (founder of Carl’s Jr.), and Glen Bell (founder of Taco Bell). But certainly the person most famously inspired by the original McDonald’s was Ray Kroc, who bought the company from the McDonald brothers in 1954 and turned it into the mega-corporation that it is today.
Restaurants come and go, but for one reason or another (usually a combination of quality product, smart marketing, and good luck) these 15 chains have firmly cemented their place in history. But as big and powerful as they are today, they all started just like any other restaurant: small and driven by one person with a dream. Read on to learn the origins of 15 of America’s most popular fast food chains.
In 1940, brothers Mac and Dick McDonald opened McDonald’s Bar-B-Que in San Bernardino, Calif.; eight years later they decided to revamp the restaurant’s concept to specialize in their most profitable menu item, hamburgers, and shortened the name to McDonald’s. In 1954, Multimixer salesman Ray Kroc visited the restaurant and was blown away by the efficient system developed by the McDonald brothers; he started franchising the brand and bought the company one year later.
Former KFC franchise owner Dave Thomas opened the first Wendy’s location on November 15, 1969, in Columbus, Ohio. The following year, Thomas opened a second location, this time adding a drive-thru pickup window. From the beginning, the chain served up its signature square burgers and milkshakes.
This story was originally published in May 2014. Additional reporting by Molly Aronica.