If you drive along any of our country’s back roads, there is one feature that is ubiquitous: the fast food sign. Sadly, however, the variety of signs you will see along our roadways has been reduced to a relative handful of fast-food giants. Some of the old historic players, which helped build the fast-food industry in America, can still be found in more out-of-the-way places. Here are some signs that may have dotted the road-side from the 1950’s onward to today.
Tastee-Freez began in 1950 when Leo Maranz invented a small soft-serve ice cream freezer. Although the company today bills itself as the original soft-serve ice cream, Dairy Queen opened in 1940 had already been franchised before the first Tastee-Freez operation was opened, using a soft-serve dispenser invented by Harry M. Oltz. However Tastee-Freez, with the help of Harry Axene, who had previously worked with Dairy Queen, built quite a successful operation and gave the Queen a run for her money. They had over 15,00 locations by 1956. Today the chain is owned by the Galardi Group and there are 23 locations in eleven states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Vermont, and Virginia). They serve a full menu of fast food items including burgers, hot dogs, and sandwiches, plus, of course, their class soft serve treats.
A&W Root Beer
Most young people don’t even realize that A&W Root Beer is not just a brand of canned and bottled root beer. Roy Allen opened his first root beer stand in 1919 in Lodi, California. He brewed his root beer based on a recipe he had purchased from a pharmacist in Arizona and served it in frosty mugs so it would stay ice cold while his customers enjoyed it. He then went on to open more stands, one of them being one of the earliest drive-in restaurants!
The A&W company started, which got its name from the last initials of Roy Allen and his partner, Frank Wright began franchising in 1924. The operation had some serious problems, however. They sold territorial franchises, which means one person can own all the franchises in a huge area. This means that all the franchise locations in that area can also disappear at once, as with the locations which were owned by J. Willard Marriot (yes, that Marriot), who converted all his A&W locations to Hot Spot Shoppe barbecue stores. Another and more serious problem was that there was no centralized control or standardization of design, menu, etc. At first, the only thing that any location had in common was the sign and logo! Still, there were over two-thousand locations by the end of the 1950s.
After a change of ownership, A&W Root Beer began to be sold in bottles, and in 1978, a standardized food menu was created, ushering in the era of the A&W Great Food Restaurants. Today, there are only eight A&W locations left, all of them in Kentucky. Four of those are joint-operations, along with Long John Silvers.
The reason you will not see Whataburger locations all over the U.S. is not that it was a once huge operation that has now shrunk down to a few locations. In fact, there are over 800 locations but all of them are located in the Southeastern and Southwestern United States. Like some other privately held fast-food chains, including In-N-Out Burger Whataburger has been a picture of careful and steady growth with a remarkably stable 60+ years run.
Recognized by the 77th Texas Legislature as an official “Texas Treasure” in 2001, the first Whataburger location opened in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1950. According to the company’s official history, the first hamburger was sold by Harmon A. Dobson from a wooden portable stand. A second location opened in Kingsville, in 1953, then the first franchise was that same year to Joe Andrews, in Alice, Texas. By the early 1970s, the company had 100 locations. 1Smith-Rogers, Sheryl. Texas Old-Time Restaurants and Cafes: Ramblin’s and Recipes. Republic of Texas Press, 2000.
Burger Chef was the number-one competitor to McDonald’s, especially during the 1960s. They even emulated McDonald’s “millions served” tagline on their signs, as on the sign below, reading “We sell millions nationwide.” Burger Chef also holds the distinction of having actually invented the first fast food kid’s meal, including prizes.
Henry’s Hamburgers was born in 1954 when Bresler’s Ice Cream Company decided to get into the fast-food business. The principal reason for the venture was to promote their malts and shakes without actually changing the core of their traditional Bresler’s brand. The company named the hamburger chain after Henry Bresler, one of the brothers who had originally founded the company, and they opened franchises at a dizzying rate. Within two years there were 35 Henry’s Hamburger locations in Chicago and by the first part of the 1960s, they had expanded to 200 locations across America so that, at the time, there were more Henry’s than McDonald’s. They sold their hamburgers cheap, starting at 10 cents then later raising the price to 15 cents a piece or ten for a dollar, using the slogans “Aren’t you hungry for a Henry’s?” and “Head for Henry’s.” They even had special student discounts.
Although the chain did quite well during the 1960s, by the mid-70s the franchises began closing faster than the company had originally expanded. The main reason for the closures was probably corporate changes and failure to adapt to new trends in fast food. A rumor that the chain was using horse meat is often cited as another reason for its demise, but such rumors are common in regards to successful hamburger chains and are not likely to be the cause of a chain’s downfall. McDonald’s has been accused of far worse.
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|1.||↲||Smith-Rogers, Sheryl. Texas Old-Time Restaurants and Cafes: Ramblin’s and Recipes. Republic of Texas Press, 2000.|