McDonald’s launched the Happy Meal in 1978. It was a huge success. Since then, pretty much every big fast food sandwich chain has followed suit. Children, after all, are the most important customer of fast food. Including toys or other gifts in the meals was almost inevitable. As powerful and innovative as McDonald’s was, and is, it would be logical to assume that they were the first fast food chain to offer a special packaged kid’s meal. But, in fact, it was another competing chain that came up with the idea, and had success with it. This was Burger Chef, and they began offering their Fun Meal in 1973, which included prizes. Most of us have never heard of Burger Chef, but in the 1960’s, it was actually McDonald’s number one competitor. It peaked in the 60’s, though, and although it held on through the 1970’s under the ownership of General Foods, the chain was closed in 1981 and sold to Hardee’s, which converted most of the stores into Hardee’s or other restaurants, or closed them. The last Burger Chef franchise, in Cookesville, Tennessee, closed in 1996, after it’s franchise agreement ran out.
You can see a photo of an early Burger Chef Funmeal box as Burger Chef Memories. The box is a “Funburger – The Hamburger with a Surprise of a Prize!
Although McDonald’s was inspired by the success of the Burger Chef fun meal, and certainly modeled their offering after it, the Burger Chef chain was itself modeled after McDonald’s, in both the look of the store and its internal operations. What was different is that it was started by a company that manufactured fast food service machines, called General Equipment Company. This company was started by Frank P. Thomas, Sr. who built one of the first frozen custard machines, in 1930. His son, Thomas Jr., who worked with his father and later became an engineer, continued the company after Thomas Sr. retired, and produced automatic shake machines and soft-serve ice cream machines. In the fifties, the company was quite successful, selling these machines to restaurants.
It is at this point that we discover a connection between Burger Chef and Burger King. Around 1956, Thomas Jr. was contacted by David Edgerton who owned a little hamburger chain called Insta-Burger King. Edgerton was using General Equipment’s shake machine, called the Sani-Shake. He had himself, however, built a flame broiler contraption for his restaurants. He wanted to know if Thomas, Jr. would be interested in making more of them to sell. Thomas took a look at the machine and agreed to get involved. General Equipment began making the flame broiler and called it the Sani-Broiler. He supplied the broiler to Edgerton for his chain. Edgerton later changed the name of the chain to Burger King. Edgerton could sell the machines in Florida, as part of the agreement, but Thomas had the right to sell them everywhere else. At this point, General Equipment was making pretty much everything you needed to start a fast food restaurant.
But don’t get the idea that Thomas wanted to get into the fast food restaurant business. He simply wanted to sell his equipment to them. To sell the equipment, he figured it would be a good idea to demonstrate it in use. So, to that end, he opened a demonstration store, in 1957, in the Little America Amusement Park in Indianapolis. It was really an amusement park walk up kiosk stand. He called it Burger Chef. It was a success in its own right. He opened another demonstration store in Kokomo, Indiana and later opened a few others in the state.
The idea had been to stimulate equipment sales. But he began to get inquiries about buying the Burger Chef concept itself. He had not really wanted to franchise the operation, but after all the questions about it, he gave it some serious thought and eventually partnered up with his brother, Donald J. Thomas, and his brother-in-law Robert Wildman to franchise the company. The upshot was that General Equipment would be able to sell equipment to every new franchise store. The three brought in a new partner, John Wyatt, to help with the franchising side of the business.
They used McDonald’s for their inspiration and Burger Chef was officially incorporated in 1958, with the first restaurant opening in the same year, at 1300 West Sixteenth Street, Indianapolis. At the beginning, growth was slow, but after deciding to target mostly small towns, things started to pick up quickly. By 1962, there were 170 locations, and by 1968, it had grown to 585. It was, at this point, the fastest growing hamburger chain in America, and the second largest. I don’t need to tell you who the first largest was. to put things in perspective, at this point there were only 274 Burger Kings. In the image below is a 1960’s era Burger Chef location.
But then, Burger King was acquired by Pillsbury. Given the vast resources this would bring to the Burger King chain, Burger Chef realized it would soon have two chief competitors, instead of just one. The company did not have the resources to compete. Therefore, when General Foods expressed interested in buying the chain, Thomas Jr. and his partners agreed, feeling it was the only way they would be able to compete. They sold it for $25 million. Frank Jr. stayed on as president in the beginning, if only part time.
General Foods expanded aggressively, and by 1969, there were 1000 stores. Remember, by 1968 there were not even 600. Thomas Jr. left in 1970 and you can guess what happened next. General Foods had, of course, not understood the market and expanded too quickly. In 1972, they closed 100 stores. New people were brought on to try to recover the business, including a former McDonald’s vice president. New building designs, menu changes, salad bars, etc. were tried. The advertising focus was changed. Some of it helped but it wasn’t quite enough. So, by 1981, General Foods was ready to sell the chain. There were now only around 650 stores. Hardee’s bought it for $43.5 million. You can read more about Burger Chef and the General Equipment Company in the book Flameout: The Rise and Fall of Burger Chef by John P. Mcdonald. Also see Burger Chef (Image of America) by Scott R. Sanders, which was my chief source of this summary.
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