The United States is the king of fast food restaurants.
It is a place that has always been known for a variety of restaurants and a great culinary tradition, but it is also the place where most fast food chains are born and where they die.
If you don’t believe us, then think about all the fast food restaurants that are in your local area and look up how many actually began in America.
If you live within the states, then it is probably close to 100% and if you live outside the states, then it is probably still about 70% to 80%.
These restaurants have been around for a long time, and today we are going to dive in and look at the oldest of the fast chain restaurants, to see exactly how long they have been around.
The first fast food restaurant on our list is Subway, the submarine sandwich king. Subway was founded in 1965 in Bridgeport, Connecticut by an 18-year-old high school student named Fred De Luca.
In order to fund his tuition to medical school, De Luca borrowed $1000 off of a friend, Dr Pete Buck, and began his own sandwich selling business called ‘Pete’s Submarines’, which eventually became ‘Pete’s Subway’ and finally ‘Subway’ in 1968.
While the first year was a challenge, De Luca learned many things from this time.
He realized the importance of marketing and location, and so moved his store to a new location. This second store was an instant hit and is still owned and operated as a Subway today.
De Luca and Buck continued to grow the business and by 1978, they had opened their 100th store. By 1987, they had opened 1000.
During De Luca’s tenure, the Subway franchise grew to be the biggest in the world, and it is easily one of the most iconic and recognizable brands in the world at large today.
Looking into the rise of Subway is certainly looking into a masterclass of how to grow a business.
From the biggest sandwich chain in the world to the second biggest, Arby’s are known for their iconic roast beef sandwiches and for doing a great balancing act between being a hamburger restaurant and a sandwich restaurant.
This is all by design, as the Arby’s chain was set up by the Raffel Brothers, Forrest and Leroy in 1964 in Ohio, who saw a market opportunity for making a fast-food chain not based around hamburgers.
Since they already owned a business around selling restaurant equipment, they got to see this hamburger bottleneck first hand and their assumption proved correct, with the roast beef sandwiches being a hit.
The family also made the interior design more luxurious than most fast food restaurants to make Arby’s stand out more.
By the 1970s, the Arby’s brand had exploded in popularity, and they began opening new stores at a rate of about 50 per year, with their menu expanding to match the new demand.
Since that time, Arby’s has continued a steady rate of growth and has just under 3500 stores in operation throughout the world today – though mostly in the US.
3. Taco Bell
Many are actually surprised to learn just how old Taco Bell is. While it may not be the oldest on this list, it is certainly up there in terms of age itself, being around about 60 years.
It was founded in 1962 by Glen Bell, an entrepreneurial man who had attempted to make money from a hot dog stand in 1948 called Bell’s Drive-in.
However, he was outcompeted by the Mexican restaurant across the street called Mitla Café, known for their hard-shelled tacos.
In order to compete, Bell tried to reverse engineer the recipe, but was eventually allowed by the owners of the restaurant to see how they made the tacos.
Bell took the knowledge he had learned and opened a new stand that went through several name changes until he settled on Taco Bell.
Then in 1962, Bell finally opened the first true Taco Bell store in Downey, California.
Since that day, Taco Bell has gone from strength to strength and now has over 7000 stores operating worldwide, offering many different products, but still producing that hard shelled taco that Bell learned to make from those kind restaurant owners.
Pizza is one of the oldest forms of fast food in the world, and one of the most iconic brands of pizza is that of Dominos.
Unlike the previous restaurants on this list, this chain has a slightly different beginning, as it wasn’t started from scratch by the people who would facilitate its rise.
It was originally known as DomiNicks and brothers Tom and James Monaghan took over its operation from the original owner Dominick DeVarti in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1960.
James left the business within 8 months, due to the hectic nature of running a business and having his own full time job.
However, Tom turned out to be a savvy operator and by 1965, he had purchased another two locations in the same area.
Since the original owner forbade the sharing of his ‘DomiNicks’ name to other stores, a store worker, Jim Kennedy, suggested Dominos and Monaghan loved it.
The brand has only continued to grow since that time. In 1967, there were 4 stores, in 1978 there were 200 stores, and today there are over 17,000 Dominos locations around the world.
5. Little Caesars
Not as big as the two enormous pizza chains of Dominos and Pizza Hut, but well known and loved in its own right, Little Caesars has been around a while.
Started as ‘Little Caesar’s Pizza Treat’ in Garden City, Michigan, in 1959 by husband and wife, Mike and Marian Ilitch, the location for this first restaurant helped them branch out majorly.
Since it was in a strip mall, people would stop by all the time to get a pizza, especially during the cold winters of Michigan.
It first franchised in 1962 to a new location in Warren, Michigan and since that time it has grown to encompass more than 5000 different locations in the US and abroad.
6. Pizza Hut
While Dominos was making waves in Michigan, another chain had already existed for two years in Wichita, Kansas.
Founded in 1958 by brothers, Frank and Dan Carney, Pizza Hut was founded quite literally in a hut – the first building was a tiny brick building close to their childhood home.
The location was ideal and a perfect way to attract interest in the business. It was in a beautiful neighborhood with tree lined streets and next to a scenic park, so the cozy little hut fit in with the aesthetic and piqued interest.
By the end of their first six months, the brothers had acquired another store. By the end of their first year, they had acquired six other Pizza Hut stores.
Seeing the importance of looks and visibility, the brothers contacted a Chicago architect, George Lindstrom, to design the style of their restaurant, which was implemented in 1969.
With the good food, stylish design, and great service, Pizza Hut has managed to build a pizza empire of 17,000 worldwide stores and no slowing down in their growth in sight.
7. Sonic / Burger King
This next one on our list is a bit of a double entry; two fast food chains that were actually founded in the same year, 1953.
We will start with Oklahoma’s own, Sonic (see also ‘10 Delicious Gluten-Free Food Items From Sonic‘). Troy N. Smith Jr – the man who founded Sonic – took a few attempts to get it right.
He started as a milkman after WW2, then a bread delivery man, then a diner owner, then a different fast food restaurant, before going into business with a partner and opening Top Hat, a restaurant and root beer stand that also sold burgers and hot dogs.
Seeing how well the stand did, Smith immediately bought out his partner and focused on the stand instead, adjusting later to incorporate speakers and drive through mechanics with controlled parking.
With a name change, Sonic was truly born and today boasts over 3000 locations.
Over in Jacksonville, Florida, Burger King was being born in the same year as ‘Insta Burger’.
The founders of Burger King, Keith J. Kramer and Matthew Burns, had visited the McDonald’s original restaurant the previous year.
They had seen the profit to be made from such a store and purchased the rights to a couple of ‘insta-machines’ – like the ‘insta-broiler’.
Using these machines, their new restaurant became an instant hit, and soon they began franchising the chain outwards.
When the company was purchased in 1959 by James McLamore and David R. Edgerton, they changed the name to Burger King, thus making history.
Now, with more than 19,000 locations worldwide, Burger King is one of the largest fast food brands in the world.
Jack-in-the-box does well in the modern day, but it had the potential to falter heavily early on.
Robert Oscar Peterson founded Jack in the Box in 1951, but actually bought the location in 1941, by which point he already owned several highly successful restaurants.
He called this location Topsy’s Drive-In and developed circus-like decor for it, but was still not really sure about the direction he wanted to take it in.
Then, in 1947, Peterson purchased the rights to an intercom ordering concept from George Manos, which would later be used to make Jack-in-the-box a true success.
In 1951, Peterson changed Topsy’s Drive-In into Jack-in-the-box, which was a hamburger restaurant focused on drive through service.
This wasn’t new, but the two-way intercom system was – it was the first major chain to use one. This allowed ordering to be done incredibly quickly, and Jack in the Box became incredibly popular.
Soon, all of Peterson’s other restaurants were converted into Jack in the Box restaurants, and so began its rise as a chain.
Today, there are over 2000 Jack-in-the-box restaurants in 21 states throughout the US, making it one of the most popular franchises in existence.
The burger jewel of the south and southwest, Whataburger has been a favorite in these areas (especially Texas) since its inception.
The chain was started in 1950 by Paul Burton and Harmon Dobson, when they opened their first restaurant in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Dobson has said that his goal at the time was to ‘make a better burger that took two hands to hold and tasted so good that when you took a bite you would say ‘What a burger!’’
The partnership between Dobson and Burton ended in 1951, when Burton became concerned with Dobson’s idea of a price raise, but the chain kept surging on.
Unlike other stores on this list, where their explosive growth was due to a particular piece of innovation or branding, Whataburger has maintained a steady growth in revenue and locations over the years, due to people just loving the food.
Today, there are 880 Whataburger stores with over 670 being in Texas, while the rest dot the southern United States, including the states of New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.
10. In-N-Out / Dunkin’ Donuts
Another two for one here, but we will start with In-N-Out first. In-N-Out is a California-based burger chain, and it was founded in 1948 in the city of Baldwin Park, California by husband and wife Harry and Esther Snyder.
The restaurant was the first drive-through hamburger stand in the state, which made it incredibly popular, as food was ordered and then brought to the car for you.
Like Whataburger, In-N-Out grew slowly, with it remaining a relatively small chain until the 1970s (having 18 stores by 1976).
This is because of the insistence (still to this day) of the Snyder family that food quality and customer satisfaction be placed over rapid business growth.
As such, the chain has a relatively modest 358 locations, but none are franchised and all are beloved by their clientele.
Dunkin’ Donuts was founded in 1948 as Open Kettle by Bill Rosenberg in Quincy, Massachusetts, before changing the name to Dunkin’ Donuts in 1950.
Rosenberg got the idea when he was selling food at factories and construction sites. He noticed the most popular food was always coffee and donuts.
By 1963, Dunkin’ Donuts had expanded to 100 different locations and had become an incredibly popular chain.
Nowadays, the company has over 12,000 different locations across a multitude of different countries, proving that Bill Rosenberg had the right idea about donuts being popular.
Chick-fil-A is one of the true heavyweights of the fast food world and the largest fast food restaurant that specializes in chicken sandwiches.
The chain was founded in 1946 in Hapeville, Georgia by a man named S. Truett Cathy and was originally called the Dwarf Grill.
It was deliberately located near the Atlanta Assembly Plant of Ford Motors, as the workers would come out looking for lunch and dinner.
While this restaurant was successful, it wasn’t until 1961 that the business really took off. In this year, Cathy discovered a pressure-fryer that could cook a chicken sandwich in the same amount of time as a hamburger on a flat top.
Once he discovered this, Cathy filed for the name change for the restaurant to Chick-fil-A and began their history as a huge chain store.
Despite the deeply religious nature of the company and its insistence on some values – closure on Sundays – Chick-fil-A has proved incredibly popular and there are now over 2800 locations of it around the country.
Now onto the big dog of the restaurant world. You know it, we know it, there are only a few people in the world today that have not seen or heard of this restaurant, McDonald’s.
The largest restaurant chain and restaurant business in the world was started as a tiny restaurant in 1940 by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in San Bernardino, California.
The brothers followed the ideas set down by White Castle for a successful fast food business and realized that a mascot could really help them become an icon.
Originally, the mascot was a hamburger in a chef’s hat called Speedee. However, by 1961 they had trademarked ‘McDonald’s’ and the famous golden arches in 1962.
The brothers went into business with Ray Kroc when they franchised their ninth store, an aggressive business partner who basically turned the restaurant chain into the megacorporation it is today and drove the brothers out of the business.
McDonald’s (see also ‘Top 12 Best Breakfast Items To Order At McDonald’s‘) now has over 40,000 stores worldwide and in almost every major city on the globe, making it the undisputed king of fast food.
From the largest to the second largest, fried chicken has been a staple of the American diet for a long time, and no one does it like KFC.
Colonel Harland Sanders had a long and storied career – a Military Wagoner, a steam engine stoker, lawyer, ferry boat operator and more – but in 1937 he opened Sander’s court and café.
During this time, he was frustrated by the time it took to pan fry the chicken, but felt that deep-frying reduced the quality of the meat.
In 1940 though, two things occurred that changed this. The first was the first pressure cookers being released on the market.
Sanders found that they cooked the chicken quickly and to a good quality. The second was Sanders finally completed his original recipe spice blend.
This is the point that KFC is thought of to be born, even though the name was not used for another 15 years.
From this, Sanders franchised his chicken recipe across the country and in 1963, there were 600 different KFC restaurants across America.
Today, KFC has over 24,000 restaurants around the globe and is the second-largest restaurant in the world.
14. White Castle
Generally credited as the first fast food hamburger chain, the first White Castle restaurant opened in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas.
The founders, Billy Ingram and Walter Anderson, were a chef and insurance salesman respectively who partnered together after Anderson saw the success of Ingram’s converted streetcar diner.
The original idea was to make a chain of restaurants that were identifiable, and boy did it work.
They did this by not only marketing it well, but making sure the service was quick and everything was spotlessly clean.
Today, there are over 300 different white locations throughout the Midwest and New York.
15. Nathan’s Famous
That’s right, the oldest chain the restaurant in the US is in fact Nathan’s Famous. It was founded in 1916 in Coney Island, New York by Nathan and Ida Handwerker, Jewish immigrants from
Poland. Ida and her grandmother created the hot dogs and the recipe, while Nathan managed the business.
Through their hard work, the business proved immensely popular, but it wasn’t until his son took over that expansions of the business took place. The first to Oceanside in New York in 1959, and then another to Yonkers in 1965.
There are currently a modest 198 Nathans’ Famous restaurants today over multiple different countries, but each one is doing incredibly well and will continue to do so in the future.
Many of the oldest restaurant chains that we adore in the US are still around today and are still beloved by their clientele.
It is truly amazing that these restaurants continue to exist, but none of them show any signs of slowing down or stopping in their expansions, and none of us want them to.
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