Our obsession with quick-serve burgers dates back more than a century, when America’s oldest burger chain, White Castle, introduced us to the pleasures of evenly perfect ground patties on tiny buns.
There have been many burger giants on the scene since (and the burgers have only gotten bigger). Some, like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s, have demonstrated their staying power by rising to the top of the pack and still holding the top spots in the hamburger industry today.
But there have also been greats who have come and gone. These chains were once shining examples of successful burger franchises — many had been in business for decades, expanding to hundreds of restaurants across the country. Unfortunately, they have since fallen into oblivion, thanks to a combination of factors such as poor management and increasing competition.
Here are several burger chains that were once America’s most beloved dining destination.
We are in the 1950s and drive-ins are all the rage. Bressler’s Ice Cream Company, a Chicago-based chain selling 33 flavors of ice cream, wants in on the action and decides to expand into fast food.
Henry’s Hamburgers was launched in 1954 as an offshoot of fast food, and while originally intended to boost sales of malts and ice cream, burgers have taken on a life of their own. By the mid-1960s, the chain had grown to over 200 restaurants coast to coast and was, at one point, larger than McDonald’s.
Henry’s was known for its 15-cent (or ten for a dollar!) burgers, fresh, hot fries, and orange soda that was “the best in town.”
But with the growth of companies like McDonald’s and Burger King, the market has become increasingly competitive. Failing to keep pace with its peers, Henry’s went into decline in the 1970s, closing locations at a rapid pace.
Today, the beloved hamburger empire is gone, but there is still a Henry’s Hamburgers location in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
A true fast-food giant of its time, Burger Chef was founded in 1957 and has grown to more than 1,000 locations nationwide in 15 years. In fact, in 1972, its footprint of 1,200 locations was surpassed only by McDonald’s, which operated 1,600 restaurants at the time.
Thanks to its inventor founders, brothers Donald and Frank Thomas, the Indianapolis-based brand used a number of industry firsts to achieve success: a patented flame grill, automated milkshake machines, soft serve ice cream makers and the first children of fast food. meal that combined food with toys.
The chain experienced significant growth in the 1960s and 1970s, growing from 600 restaurants in 1968 to over 1,000 in 1972. But by the late 1970s the brand was starting to lose its footing, and again, the culprit was increasing competition. The chain’s brilliant idea of kids’ meals was being copied by giants like Burger King and McDonald’s, and Burger Chef failed to maintain its monopoly on the lucrative menu category, despite several lawsuits being filed.
Hardee’s acquired Burger Chef in 1981 for $44 million and wasted no time in renaming most of the restaurants. The last Burger Chef, located in Cookeville, Tennessee, closed in 1996.
Founded in 1957 by NFL Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti, this burger chain was quite the regional powerhouse throughout the 1960s in the Mid-Atlantic. Its locations combined menu staples like Gino Giant, a predecessor of McDonald’s Big Mac, and sports memorabilia. It also offered bundled family deals such as a meal for five was priced at $1.75, making it a popular family destination.
Although the chain’s footprint eventually reached 330 by 1972, the success did not last. In the 1980s Marriott bought Gino’s and merged it with its existing Roy Rogers brand. A new iteration of Gino’s called Gino’s Burgers and Chicken opened in 2010 with a new menu, and there are still two Gino’s locations in operation in Maryland today.
The home of the Big Barney and Barnbuster burgers – creations that predated similar items at the big burger chains – as well as the first self-serve salad bar in fast food, Red Barn was quite the pioneer. The chain was founded in 1961 in Springfield, Ohio, and has grown to an impressive footprint of 300-400 restaurants in 19 states and international markets in Canada and Australia.
Red Barn changed hands several times during its relatively short life, which was ultimately its demise. Once it fell into the hands of City Investing Company through a merger in 1978, priorities and resources shifted from the hamburger business to real estate businesses. In 1988, the channel was gone.
Established in 1926, five years after White Castle, White Tower was branded from the start as a blatant copycat of America’s oldest fast food chain. Everything from the menu to the name, and even the white fortress-like buildings, were removed from its Kansas-based template. The founding father-son duo even hired a former White Castle operator to help them with the business.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before White Castle successfully continued White Tower in the 1930s and forced the chain to alter its aesthetic. White Tower eventually withstood the lawsuit and peaked at 230 locations in the 1950s, operating restaurants throughout the East Coast and Midwest.
Ultimately, suburban migration ended up being the chain’s demise, thanks to the fact that its restaurants were mostly operated out of expensive downtown real estate. Its last location closed in 2004.