Franchises are a huge part of American culture, as chains such as McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Target, or Burger King provide a sense of familiarity in every major U.S. city. However, history is littered with proof that no franchise is guaranteed to stick around forever, as even some of the most popular have gone by the wayside. When it comes to restaurants specifically, it’s very easy for chains to go out of business. Do you remember these once-popular restaurant chains?
Howard Johnson’s is one of the most storied franchises to ever encounter a near complete collapse…at least if you’re not counting movie rental franchises. Howard Johnson’s was born in the 1920s and had over 1,000 locations by the 1960s. However, for whatever reason, other franchises started appealing more to customers, and the owners sold off the hotel portion, leaving only the restaurants intact. The brand lost its identity, and as of this year, only one location was still in business.
The first Sambo’s restaurant was opened in 1957, offering pancakes, steaks, chicken, sandwiches and other items. However, the company was shrouded in controversy from the beginning. Founders Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnet said they got the name by combining parts of their names, but many noted that it could also be the reference to a rarely heard, but nonetheless offensive racial slur. Unfortunately, they chose a very stereotypical black caricature to display as well, and they went from 1,000 locations to zero in the 80s, selling many locations to Denny’s.
Kenny Rogers’ Roasters
Kenny Rogers couldn’t miss in the 1980s, but by the 90s, he was pretty much a forgotten fad. Perhaps his restaurant chain was a sign of things to come, as he launched the chicken business in 1990 and by 1998, the company was selling off its assets, which went to Nathan’s. However, the restaurants have been given a place in history for a strange reason – they were featured in an episode of Seinfeld.
Minnie Pearl’s Chicken
Back in the 1960s, franchising was becoming a big thing. However, despite a great start, country singer Minnie Pearl and businessman John Jay Hooker’s collaboration was doomed to fail. It had almost 500 locations at its height of popularity, but unlike other successful chains, the recipes and menus weren’t consistent from location to location. Within a few years, Minnie Pearl’s Chicken was just a memory.
The All-American Burger
Even if you never ate at The All-American Burger, you have seen one if you’ve watched the 80s classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which featured a scene in the restaurant. Unfortunately, the chain never became much more than a regional success, and though its west coast locations stuck around for almost 50 years, they closed down by 2010. There is still one location on Long Island, which has the same logos, uniforms, and all.
If you look at the picture below, you may mistake White Tower for another rather similar restaurant named White Castle. When White Castle opened up in 1921, it began a new trend toward fast food, which of course led to a lot of imitators. Some of these imitators, like White Tower, were a little too brazen about their attempts to emulate the industry leader. There were eventually 230 White Tower locations, but White Castle legally forced them to change everything, and they eventually died out.
In the 1970s, NFL player Max McGee and Marno McDermitt first launched Chi-Chi’s, which got ahead of a big trend by offering Mexican food that may not have been super authentic but was approachable. However, when actual Mexican people saw that there was a demand for Mexican food, they began opening their own restaurants, and diners found that they actually preferred an authentic taste. A 2003 Hepatitis outbreak linked to Chi-Chi’s killed three customers and also the chain.
The Pearlman brothers opened the first Lum’s restaurant back in 1971. The Florida restaurant featured beer-steamed hot dogs, which was the big hook of the place. A lot of people must have liked the taste of the hot dogs because there were 400 Lum’s locations at one time. The last Lum’s closing occurred in 2009, but this isn’t a terrible ending, as the brothers sold the chain to KFC for $4 million, which is a tidy little sum.
Steak and Ale
The simply named Steak and Ale was a pretty simple concept, offering – you guessed it, steaks and cold beers. Unlike other steakhouses years ago, Steak and Ale was meant to be a more affordable, casual concept. However, the competition was too much and eventually, all of the locations closed during the 2010s. A comeback may be on the way though, as Bennigans’ parent company has purchased the rights to the Steak and Ale name.
Valle’s Steak House
Like Steak and Ale, Valle’s Steak House was supposed to be a comfortable place to enjoy a nice, juicy steak. They also offered lobsters and other items. Created in 1933, Valle’s had success along the East Coast up until the 1970s, which presented hard economic times where many restaurants saw their business drop dramatically. While some businesses made it through, Valle’s was not one of them.
Good ol’ Gino’s Hamburgers was a real institution in the 1970s, with over 300 locations found throughout the United States. Pro Football Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti founded the first store in 1957, but he got out of the game and sold the successful chain to Marriott in the early 1980s. Sadly, Marriott turned the remaining Gino’s locations to Roy Rogers, although Marchetti has since opened up a new restaurant.
Not to be confused with Burger King, Burger Chef was McDonald’s largest rival for a while in the 1960s and 1970s. The chain had over 1,000 locations in the United States. In fact, they were so successful that McDonald’s copied some of their ideas, such as kids’ meals that featured free toys. However, Hardee’s bought the chain in 1981, and that was all she wrote.
There were a lot of steakhouses in the 1970s, and many of them positioned themselves as family restaurants offering comfortable, casual dining experiences. Mr. Steak was just such an establishment, but the extreme amount of competition put a strain on the company and its 300 locations. New restaurants such as Sizzler and Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus hurt Mr. Steak’s business, and Mr. Steak checked out for good in 1987.
Bob’s Big Boy
The Big Boy brand of restaurants has had a long and winding history since founder Bob Wian opened Bob’s Pantry in 1936. He soon named the restaurant Bob’s Big Boy and added new locations, eventually creating a franchise. In 1967, Marriott bought Bob’s Big Boy, and they eventually renamed it “Marc’s Big Boy” and eventually, just Big Boy. Although there were once over 600 Big Boy restaurants, now just five remain.
Bennigan’s was a huge part of the initial wave of casual sit-down dining and sports bar chains. If you’ve been to a place where random things hung on the wall, servers wore pieces of flair, and the menu had a little bit of everything, Bennigan’s was just like that. Some of those establishments have since moved toward extinction (Bennigan’s, Cheddars), while others continue to survive (Applebee’s, TGIFriday’s).
Ponderosa and Bonanza Steakhouses
Ponderosa Steakhouse and Bonanza Steakhouse were two of a kind back in the 1980s. Unlike many buffet restaurants, you didn’t just grab your plate and help yourself to rolls and mashed potatoes at these establishments. You actually ordered a steak or other entree and also got access to the buffet. Unfortunately, while there were hundreds of each of these steakhouses in the past, they are now owned by the same firm and have less than 20 combined locations in the U.S.
Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse
Yep, you guessed it…another steakhouse! As you can tell, there were tons of steakhouses in the mid to late 20th century, and only so many could survive. In the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed like Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse would be one of the survivors, but it wasn’t to be. Some franchises are still open, but the corporation is out of business. Just like Charlie Brown in the comic strips, this steakhouse just couldn’t win.
Founded in 1970, Naugles launched on the west coast and primarily offered Mexican fast food along with some American dishes, too. In the 1980s, Naugles was a success and had up to 225 locations, but the brand had a precipitous drop that ended when the Carson City, Nev., location closed for good in 1995. However, one many decided to buy the rights to the brand and open two locations in California two years ago, so who knows what the future holds?
Druther’s was a down-home chain of restaurants that had rather goofy marketing aimed mostly at children. The restaurant offered burgers and fried chicken and featured a friendly bee mascot named Andy Dandytale. The restaurant’s slogan was “I’d Ruther Go To Druther’s Restaurant.” Kind of catchy, I suppose. Nearly all of the restaurants closed in the early 1980s, though, although one is still operating in Kentucky somehow.
Henry’s rode the fast food wave created by the success of McDonald’s in the 1950s. For three decades, Henry’s was very relevant, with over 200 locations at one point in time. However, the fast food industry was very competitive by the 1970s, and Henry’s did not adapt well. There were also rumors about the use of horse meat that definitely didn’t help the brand’s image.
Pup ‘n’ Taco
Pup ‘n’ Taco was founded in 1956 as a drive-in restaurant, but over the next seventeen years, it would expand to much more, with 62 restaurants offering not just hamburgers and hot dogs, but also tacos and pastrami sandwiches. The Pup ‘n’ Taco story wasn’t really a failure, as Taco Bell purchased 99 locations in California back in 1984. The remaining stores actually went by Pop ‘n’ Taco and closed a few years ago.
D’Lites tried to take a different route with its marketing, promising customers that their burgers were of higher quality, more natural and more nutritious than those at other fast food restaurants. It seemed to work, as it took just seven years for the chain to reach 100 locations in 1985. However, just a year later, there was already trouble as the company stopped its franchising efforts. Hardee’s bought 90% of D’Lites’ restaurants in 1987.
A&W Restaurants were very popular back in the day, both because of the tasty root beer that they served in frosty mugs and the convenient in-car dining options where workers brought your meal right to you. The company was founded in 1919 and actually had more stores than McDonald’s in the 1970s! However, the company was sold in 1982, and many of the locations disappeared. Now, after another sale, many A&W restaurants have come back, often co-branded with Long John Silver’s or KFCs.
Even before the success of Burger King and McDonald’s, there was Carrols Restaurants. The place was always jumping in the 1950s and 60s, offering 15-cent hamburgers and doing media tie-ins like special edition Looney Tunes glasses long before other chains tried doing the same thing. However, founder Herb Slotnick saw the writing on the wall with the success of Burger King and sold his restaurants to the chain.
Herb Wetanson created this chain after visiting a McDonald’s restaurant in California and being impressed by the concept. He changed the name slightly from his own and opened the first store in Long Island, inviting customers to “buy a bagful” of burgers. Unfortunately, the company could not hold off McDonald’s and Burger King when the speedily growing franchises expanded to the East Coast in the 1970s.
Rax Roast Beef
Arby’s may be the place you think of when it comes to casual, quick roast beef restaurants, but there was also Rax Roast Beef in the 1980s. Rax was innovative, offering salad bars long before many other chains tried them. However, the company that went from Jax Roast Beef to Rix Roast Beef to Rax Roast Beef eventually became nothing at all, with the company closing most of its stores by now.
Claudia Sanders Dinner House
Claudia Sanders Dinner House was not always known by that name, which is a lot of the reason that there’s just one location still around today. Originally, the restaurant was founded by former Kentucky Fried Chicken creator Harlan Sanders as Claudia Sanders, The Colonel’s Lady. As you can imagine, KFC sued the company and stopped their expansion attempts short, leading all of the restaurants but one to close.
Fast food hamburgers and chicken are pretty commonplace, but Red Barn was able to set itself apart for two reasons: its motif was literally a big red barn, and it was the first fast food establishment to really offer larger burgers. The success of Big Barney burgers led to nearly 400 restaurants opening in the US, Canada, and even Australia, but the corporation itself broke ties with franchisees in the 1980s, and just one location is still open today.
Pioneer Chicken was huge in the 1980s. The chain had 270 locations and was touted by celebrities and regular people alike. How big was Pioneer Chicken? O.J. Simpson himself endorsed them! Like O.J. himself, in the 1990s Pioneer started a serious slide which has left just two locations still in business, both of which are located in California.
A lot of fast food entrepreneurs were inspired by McDonald’s; the founders of Sandy’s were actually angry at McDonald’s. They were former franchise owners that were not happy with McDonald’s due to changing franchise terms, so they struck out on their own. They copied many aspects of McDonald’s but changed a lot of the franchising requirements. However, they never picked up steam on the national level and sold their locations to Hardee’s in the 1970s.