vintage fast food chains

29+ American Fast-Food Chains We Almost Forgot About


| LAST UPDATE 03/22/2022

By Eliza Gray

It's a (hot)dog-eat-dog world in the food industry. And despite the best intentions, some fast-food chains just couldn't keep up with the ever-changing market. Here's a round-up of chains from the past.

Burger Chef

When Burger Chef broke onto the scene in 1954, it made a name for itself as one of the big chains during the fast-food boom in America. In fact, by 1973, they had over 1,000 locations and even expanded to Canada.

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John Margolies via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the empire expanded beyond its means, and brothers Donald and Frank Thomas started drowning in losses. By the 1980s, funds were dry, and the folks at Hardee's swooped in to buy what was left of the chain. While a thing of the past, Burger Chef lives on in pop culture thanks to references in shows like Mad Men.

Showbiz Pizza Place

If we asked the average child who dined at Showbiz Pizza Place, they'd most likely have a positive review. But the parents? Not so much. And that most likely had something to do with the flashing lights and blaring sounds from the in-house arcade in each chain location.

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Wikimedia Commons via Ray or Jane Schumin

Staples like the Rock-afire Explosion and Billy Bob the bear, unfortunately, didn't make the cut, and business eventually plummeted by the early 1990s. But Chuck E. Cheese was right there, ready to swoop in and take charge, and they rebranded all the locations by 1992.

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Steve's Ice Cream

Little did Steve Herrell know that he'd inspire brands like Dairy Queen, Ben & Jerry's, and Cold Stone Creamery when he decided to add a crumbled Heath bar into his ice cream. But by 1973, he opened his first location in Massachusetts and hoped for the best.

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Instagram via @hungryhungryheejin

But despite his best intentions, business wasn't booming, and he sold off his locations. After a brief stint in supermarkets in the 80s, Herrell cut his losses and shut his brand down for good by the late 1990s. While his chain is a thing of the past, he certainly inspired some of the most popular ice cream brands of today.

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Red Barn

"When the hungries hit, hit the Red Barn!" Whether one knew them for their distinct red structure or their ear-worm of a jingle, chances are that if one was a fast-food lover in the 1960s or the 1970s, then Red Barn was on their radar. So what happened to this beloved franchise?

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Facebook via Ryan Lee

Well, despite the ahead-of-its-time menu with items like salad bars and fried chicken, the fast-food chain couldn't keep up with other big-name competitors like McDonald's and Wendy's. But to this day, one can still find devoted fans of this burger joint in a 5,000-plus person Facebook group.

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When Carrols locations started popping up around New York and Pennsylvania in the 60s and 70s, they were welcomed by open arms and open mouths of customers eager for a step-up from the options available at their local McD's or Burger King. At their peak, there were roughly 150 locations in the Northeast.

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Flickr via Todd Berkun

But Carrols met the same fate as Red Barn. They just couldn't compete with the big budgets that these national franchises had at their disposal. The small chain put up a valiant fight, but by 1977 they shut their doors for good and threw in the towel. Their three-decker Club Burger is now just a memory of the past...

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Fashion Café

On paper, Fashion Café seemed like a million-dollar idea for founding entrepreneurs Tommaso and Francesco Buti. They got some of the biggest models of the day to invest in the idea. And in 1995, the doors opened on the first location in Manhattan. But it just wasn't meant to be.

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Images Press / Contributor via Getty Images

From poorly reviewed food to fraud charges, Fashion Café suffered hit after hit, and the chain was a thing of the past just five years later. As author Matt Haig put it, "The connection between models and food wasn't an obvious one, and 'fashion' was not a theme that made people feel hungry."

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Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria

As the sign in the picture suggests, this American fast-food joint was way ahead of its time - and not because of the menu. Sholl's was an institution beloved by open-minded government employees and tourists alike because of their fair hiring practices and embracement of the Civil Rights Movement.

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The Washington Post / Contributor via Getty Images

However, there was a sharp change of tune following the devastating events of 9/11. Suddenly, Sholl's found itself with a slashed customer base and rising rent prices. By 2001, the last standing location closed its doors for good, but it will forever be remembered for all the good it did for the community.

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Horn & Hardart Automats

Not all American fast-food locations of the past came with a friendly face greeting us at the counter! Back in the day, busy Americans frequented Automats during their lunch break to grab items such as sandwiches, pie, and much more. All that was required were some small changes and patience to scan the selection of items.

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David Wilson via Flickr

However, as more and more people packed up and moved to the suburbs, this faceless fast-food joint dropped in popularity. By 1991, the last location shut down in New York City. But to see one for ourselves, we can check out an authentic automat at the Smithsonian Museum.

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Chicken George

While Chicken George didn't stand the test of time, back in its heyday, it marked a significant moment in history as the largest fast-food chain owned by an African-American entrepreneur. For 12 years, it expanded from its Baltimore base to six locations around the United States.

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Flickr via Phillip Pessar

By 1991 the small franchise went belly-up, leaving its loyal customers craving more of their menu favorites like fried chicken, gumbo, fish and chips, and more. However, founder Theodore Holmes' legacy lives on to this day in pop culture references like in the 1977 production Roots.

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Minnie Pearl’s Chicken

Inspired by the achievements of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Nashville-based attorney John Jay Hooker got to thinking about how to cash in on the chicken-loving market in America. He partnered with Hee Haw star Minnie Peal in order to use her brand and got to work.

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Twitter via @tomservo10

The packaging was iconic alone, and soon Hooker had an empire of over 500 locations across the country. From fried chicken to biscuits and honey packets, they were a crowd-pleaser. But business controversy ultimately resulted in the franchise's demise.

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Wimpy Grills

Recognize the name? That's because this chain was named after a character from Popeye known for "gladly [paying] you Tuesday for a hamburger today." At its peak, there were 26 locations around the States that offered a variety of burgers and breakfast food.

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Wikimedia Commons via Editor5807

However, it struck luck overseas with over 1,500 joints around the globe. While there are many locations in countries like England to this day, all U.S. Wimpy's closed down following the founder's death. Keep scrolling for more fast-food franchises of the past...

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Bikinis Sports Bar & Grill

While this chain may be a thing of the past, its founder, Doug Guller, lives on in public memory for coming up with the catchy monicker, "breastaurant." And if one frequented one of 14 locations, they'd understand why the name was perhaps the perfect fit for this bar and grill.

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Wikimedia Commons via MarkScottAustinTX

Like its competitor, Hooters, BBG's was known for its risky work uniform, which ensured waitresses would be in a bikini top, jean shorts, and cowboy boots year-round. Despite the appeal to many, the chain couldn't stand up to the changing social climate, and the locations were shut down by 2018.

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Don Pablo’s

For a fast-food chain serving Tex-Mex cuisine, Don Pablo's did a fairly good job at holding its own during its years of operation. From Don Pablo's beginnings in Lubbock, Texas, back in 1985, it grew to a national chain with over 100 locations scattered across the country.

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Yelp via Kent D.

Unfortunately, it lacked that certain special something to help it compete in the ever-changing market. There were dozens of other chains serving nearly identical burritos and nachos, and it didn't take long for Don Pablo's to suffer a decline of business.

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It wasn't poor customer service or bad food that brought on the demise of this breakfast food chain - it was just a case of bad marketing choices. But when Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett combined their names to create the fast-food chain, they had no idea the mistake they'd made.

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Flickr via Steven Miller

In the public's mind, the restaurant was linked to The Story of Little Black Sambo, a not-so-politically correct book from the past. The entrepreneurs tried to fight the bad press with unbeatable prices, but the damage was already done. They ended up filing for bankruptcy by the 80s.

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Royal Canadian Pancake House

While locations may not have extended outside NYC, at its prime, Royal Canadian Pancake House was a fan-favorite amongst busy locals and tourists. But don't let the name fool ya: there was nothing Canadian about this place - rather, it was known for America's love of super-sized servings, like pancakes the size of pizzas.

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Flickr via nauyiret

Womlette and Canadian Cracker were menu staples that people lined up at the door to grab. So with such a cult following, why did they close up shop? Well, that would have to do with the owner's legal troubles surrounding claims of ethical violations. All locations were closed by 1998.

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Henry’s Hamburgers

The thing about franchises is that (if we're lucky), we may be able to find one or two locations still standing even if the chain itself has long bit the dust. And that's just the case with Henry's Hamburgers. The original is still operating in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and celebrated 60 years in business!

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Yelp via Thomas T.

Fans of the 1960s era diner will recall the catchy phrase "Aren't you hungry for a Henry's?" in addition to super affordable items like 10 burgers for $1. Unfortunately, most of the locations closed up shop as owners changed frequently and the menu couldn't keep up with competitors.

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White Tower Hamburgers

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Or is it a business-savvy marketing move? Either way, fast-food lovers couldn't ignore the resemblances between White Tower and White Castle. They even opened within five years of one another back in 1926 and 1931!

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Wikimedia Commons via Improbcat

But White Castle wasn't a fan of similar marketing strategies and sued their rivals for unfair competition in addition to spying on their locations. It was the beginning of the end for this chain, and despite a boom in the 1950s, the majority of locations are now a thing of the past. Today, only one remains in Toledo, Ohio.

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G.D. Ritzy’s Luxury Grill and Ice Creams

From the design to the menu, G.D. Ritzy's was a crowd favorite back in the day. They were known for their funky designs and unique menu items like shoestring fries and PB&Js with fresh strawberries packed inside. Plus, the kid meals were served in miniature sports cars made of cardboard!

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Yelp via Jeremy C.

At its peak, there were 120 locations scattered across the country. However, its rapid expansion was ultimately the wrong move. By the 1990s, locations were shutting down left and right, leaving many nostalgic fast-food lovers wanting more. But if one's up for the drive, there are three still standing in southern Indiana.

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The Original House of Pies

The Original House of Pies was just one of Al Lapin Junior's many franchise ideas. He's the entrepreneur behind other fast-food chains like International House of Pancake and Orange Julius! But the first of his House of Pies opened in Texas back in 1965.

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Yelp via Nicholas A.

The locations were known for their cottage-like exterior and a wide selection of over 50 different types of pies. The downfall ultimately came not from unsatisfied customers but lawsuits filed by franchise owners. Too costly to manage, Al closed up shop - but some independent locations are still open to this day.

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Bresler’s Ice Cream

While the Great Depression knocked many American businesses to their feet, William J. Bresler found success in Chicago by selling ice cream bars in Lincoln Park. Once the economy picked up again, he expanded by buying a plant and opening locations, adopting the name Bresler's 33 Flavors.

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Reddit via u/AxlCobainVedder

He was also the genius behind Henry's Hamburgers, which he named after his brother. However, after Bresler's passing in 1985, a change in ownership saw a complete changeover in branding, signifying the ultimate end of the original concept. Keep scrolling for more fast-food chains of the past...

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Chi Chi's

Despite its heavy Mexican cuisine influence, this fast-food chain didn't get its start close to the border. Rather, it was founded in 1975 in Richfield, Minnesota, by Marno McDermott and Max McGee. This wasn't McDermott's first venture - he was also the brains behind Zapata, which ultimately came to be known as Zantigo.

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Twitter via @tomservo10

Business was going well, and at one point, there were over 200 Chi Chi's locations around the United States! However, a public health controversy brought the chain to its knees in the early 2000s, resulting in bankruptcy and closure. After clearing out shop, most emptied locations were taken over by Outback Steakhouse.

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Koo Koo Roo

One thing's for sure: Koo Koo Roo was ahead of the game when it came to healthier chicken options when they opened back in 1988. In a sea full of deep-fried chicken joints, this Los Angeles-based chain was the first of its kind with low-calorie and delicious meals.

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Flickr via Shamrock Tattoo

Fans of the fast-food joint loved items such as the broiled chicken, beans, and Mediterranea salads - but the market proved to be too much. From competitors to sky-high rent, Koo Koo Roo bit the dust and filed for bankruptcy in 2003. But perhaps Koo Koo Roo walked so Nando's could run...

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Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse

While some of these fast-food chains of the past may be memorable because of their menu items, chances are that Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse diners remember the bold decor more than anything. From robotic pine trees greeting one at the door or mounted moose heads on the wall that could talk, it certainly made an impact.

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Flickr via Sean

Bugaboo was like many other steak houses of its time, like Outback and Montana's. And while they tried their best, it just wasn't enough to stand out in a flooded market. Eventually, the franchise went belly-up in 2010, resulting in the closure of all 30 locations just six years later.

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Pup ‘N’ Taco

While the choice of name turned many heads, Pup 'N' Taco carved a spot in the fast-food explosion that swept across America in the 1950s. It got its start in Long Beach, California, back in 1956, and gradually expanded over 30 years to an empire of roughly 100 locations around the country.

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Flickr via Cisco Lution

From tacos to pastrami sandwiches, fans of the fast-food- joint could pull up in their car and grab their beloved items at competitive prices. Unfortunately, Taco Bell ultimately swooped in and purchased nearly all the buildings, leaving just three behind in New Mexico. They, too, closed their doors in the 2010s.

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Before Lum's was an American fast-food favorite, it was a humble hot dog stand in Miami. But soon, the founding brothers broadened the menu with classic picks like Budweiser-soaked hot dogs and much more. By the 1970s, there were close to 500 locations across the whole country.

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Florida Memory via Wikimedia Commons

Things were looking good, and the founding brothers even put in a $60 million bid for prime Las Vegas real estate. Unfortunately, a change in ownership was the ultimate demise of this classic franchise. Even their secret Ollieburger recipe wasn't enough to keep up with the bills. We said goodbye in 1982 to this institution.

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Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour

Just like Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse, Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour offered quite an immersive experience for visitors! From singing employees to blaring train whistles on the speakers, people weren't just going to Farrell's for the large serving sizes. It got its start back in Oregon back in 1963.

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Yelp via Elizabeth L.

Struggling in the new century, Farrell's luckily scored a big investment in 2016 that was meant to put it on the right track. However, due to poorly managed funds, the chain was in just as much trouble as before. The last standing location closed its doors for good in 2019.

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Steak and Ale

Steak and Ale broke into the market back in 1966, with its first location in Dallas, Texas. It was opened by well-known restauranteur Norman Brinker, who sought to create a royal dining experience with classic furniture and ambiance. Plus, it offered great cuts of meat at competitive prices.

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Flickr via The Caldor Rainbow

But like so many beloved joints on the list, Steak and Ale just couldn't keep up with the times - especially as vegetarianism became more popular in the States. It officially declared bankruptcy in 2008. However, a comeback was rumored back in 2016. Maybe it's not over yet...

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For sports lovers and fast-food lovers, ESPN Zone was a match made in heaven. But this wasn't our ordinary burger joint - rather, this chain could accommodate up to 500 guests at a time and was stacked with entertainment such as flat-screen TVs lining the walls and in-house arcades.

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Yelp via B. L.

However, it quickly gained a reputation as more of an event hall than a dining experience, and popularity dropped. With mounting rent bills, the Disney-owned restaurant chain made the tough decision to start closing up shop in 2010. And, of course, the financial turmoil of the 2000s didn't help.

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Beefsteak Charlie’s

When Larry Ellman made his Beefsteak Charlie's vision a reality, he initially found great success with 60 locations around the East Coast during the 1970s and 1980s. He eventually sold the chain, which ultimately brought about its demise shortly after.

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Facebook via Norma Sheredos-Herbst

But for people who'd frequented the chain, the financial troubles weren't a mystery. They offered huge portions of steaks, fresh seafood, and all-you-can-eat shrimp cocktails! Not only that, but beer, wine, and sangria were free of charge. Many thought it was a miracle it lasted as long as it did with deals like that...

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Gino's Hamburgers

Like so many of these beloved chains of the past, Gino's Hamburgers hopped aboard the 1950s and 1960s fast-food boom and opened up shop in Dundalk, Maryland, in 1959. And for NFL lovers, there's a sports connection in the name: Gino Marchetti, former Colt's captain, joined in as a partner!

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Facebook via Robert Oberkehr

At its most successful, there were over 350 locations across America. However, by 1982, it was purchased, and the branding was swapped for Roy Rogers Restaurants. One more lasted until 1986 before closing its doors as well. While a thing of the past, their burgers remain a beloved memory for burger lovers of all ages.

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