Fast food restaurant chains are a time-honored tradition in the United States. For nearly a century, eateries offering quick and tasty options have been springing up across America.
But over the years, tastes tend to change, and people begin craving new flavors and different dining experiences. And unfortunately, not every chain survives.
Here are five fast food franchises that flourished at one time or another, but ultimately failed to keep up with the times.
Burger Chef had been gone for nearly two decades before a reference on AMC’s “Mad Men” renewed interest in the now-defunct franchise. Shortly after the episode aired, a 2014 Time profile detailed the chain’s humble beginnings in Indianapolis in 1958, as well as its rise to becoming nearly as ubiquitous as McDonald’s by 1967 (at the time, Burger Chef had only 100 fewer restaurants than Mickey D’s). General Foods purchased the chain and went on to open 1,200 restaurants by 1971. In the next decade, Burger Chef changed hands a few more times before being purchased by Hardee’s in 1982 with only a little over half of its once 1,200 locations. The last location closed in 1996.
Only one Howard Johnson location remains in Lake George, N.Y., according to The Atlantic, but it was up for sale earlier this year. The chain began in 1925 as one store in the suburbs of Boston, with a soda fountain and an orange roof. Howard Johnson expanded his business to include more than just ice cream and operate as a full-service restaurant by 1929. In 1935, Johnson franchised the business and there were 130 Howard Johnson locations five years later. An Eater article about the last location in New York (where Rachel Ray once worked) writes that cost-cutting measures “degraded the quality of the food” after the company went public in 1961. Years later in 1979, the company went through a series of complicated ownership changes, resulting in its 1,040 restaurants and 520 motor inns eventually separating into different entities, leaving the restaurants to close one by one.
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According to Louisville Business First, the first Chi-Chi’s location opened in 1976 in Minneapolis, though its headquarters moved to Louisville, Ky. As of March 26, 1995, Family Restaurants, Inc. — the owner of Chi-Chi’s — owned and operated 210 locations, and reported asales of $90.5 million as of the quarter ending that same month. But a little over a year later, there were only 199 locations and sales were down over 17 percent. Then, in 2003, right after the chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Chi-Chi’s made headlines when a restaurant outside of Pittsburgh was at the center of the largest food-borne hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history, according to The New York Times. Contaminated green onions were blamed as the source of the outbreak, with the CDC reporting at least 3 dead and hundreds of others sickened. The company’s website says that all CHI-CHI’s Restaurants are now closed — they still sell Chi-Chi’s-branded Mexican-inspired foods including sauces, tortillas and salas at supermarkets — but Instagram and TripAdvisor indicate there’s still a Chi-Chi’s in Luxembourg. There’s also evidence the chain survived in China, Indonesia, Kuwait and the U.A.E.
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According to a restaurant profile in The Pennsylvania Gazette, White Tower was founded after a father and son saw a White Castle restuaurant in Minneapolis restaurant and decided they’d like to imitate it. The first locations opened in 1926 around Detroit and Milwaukee, where they sold hamburgers from white buildings with tower-like entrances. The two chains later clashed in a lawsuit, and White Tower was ordered to pay White Castle $100 for each new location it opened, and also send White Castle photos of said locations. White Tower’s distinctive restaurants dwindled from 230 to just around 20, until they eventually disappeared in the 1980s.
Kenny Rogers Roasters
While some may only associate his name with country music stardom, Kenny Rogers — along with former Governor of the state of Kentucky, John Y Brown Jr., also known for his role in the successful KFC chain — started the Kenny Rogers Roasters brand in 1991. Kenny Rogers Roasters eventually boasted 350 locations, and was even the subject of a “Seinfeld” plot, but filed for bankruptcy in 1998, leaving only seven stores open nationwide. Time reports that Nathan’s Famous Inc. bought the company and kept it in the U.S. until it was sold off to a foreign franchising group in 2008. While the company no longer prospers in the U.S., they seem to be doing well in Asia, with 88 locations still operating.
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