Drive down the busiest street of any major American city and you’d be hard-pressed to miss the countless fast food signs that litter the skyline. But before you could rely on these drive-thrus to have an outpost at every rest stop, these fast food restaurants boasted humble beginnings akin to your local pizzeria.
Oftentimes, broke founders had just a few bucks and big dreams to their name, yet they ultimately launched some of the most successful quick-service restaurants today’s America has ever seen.
If you’ve ever wondered what the Golden Arches looked like before their revenue equated to a small country’s GDP or whether or not White Castle was ever an actual fortress, we’ve got you covered with this inside look into what every fast food chain looked like on its birthday.
These throwback photos will take you a time when Macbooks were as ubiquitous as unicorns and hamburgers cost less than a quarter. See below for some major nostalgia, and if you want healthy recipes, supermarket shopping guides, and essential nutrition tips at your fingertips, subscribe to the new Eat This, Not That! magazine now! For a limited time, you can save 50 percent off the cover price—click here!
In 1954, James W. McLamore and David Edgerton opened the first Burger King franchise in Miami, Florida where they sold their classic hamburgers and milkshakes for just 18 cents. The famous Whopper debuted just three years after the chain’s inception and is now one of the most iconic fast food meals in America.
In 1967, Truett Cathy founded and opened the first Chick-fil-A restaurant in Atlanta’s Greenbriar Shopping Center—just three years after inventing the quintessential Original Chicken Sandwich. And in 1986, the chicken chain debuted its first free-standing location outside mall food courts in North Druid Hills Road in Atlanta.
Backtrack to July 13, 1993, when Steve Ells opened up the very first Chipotle location on Evans Avenue in Denver, Colorado. The brick and mortar shop offered tacos, fajitas, and, of course, the emblematic giant burritos with fillings including beans, lime-cilantro rice, salsa, guacamole, peppers with onions, chicken, pork, and beef, according to Bustle.
The year 1948 marked the inception of Open Kettle, a restaurant dedicated to serving premium coffee and doughnuts. In 1950, founder Bill Rosenberg decided to rename the joint Dunkin’ Donuts because the sweet treats are just better when dipped in a cup of Joe! Munchkins were only introduced to the menu in 1972 followed by bagels in 1996 and Coolatta frozen drinks and breakfast sandwiches in 1997.
Shawnee, Oklahoma circa 1953 was the home of the first-ever Sonic Drive-In location, which was actually dubbed Top Hat. Back in the 50s, the fast food giant had customers place their orders via curbside speakers—without stepping foot outside their cars. This revolutionary technology coined the now-trademarked slogan, “Service at the Speed of Sound.” Inspired by the slogan, Troy Smith Sr. changed the name from Top Hat to Sonic Drive-In in 1959.
After Dick and Mac McDonald failed in the movie biz, they took the drive-in restaurant business by storm, casting the first Golden Arches in 1948 in San Bernardino, California. The McDonald brothers perfected their Speedee Service System, which cranked out hamburgers, shakes, and fries all sold for just 15 cents—that’s just $1.58 in today’s dollar. In April 1955, Ray Kroc became McDonald’s franchise agent and opened up the first franchised location in Des Plaines, Illinois.
As outlandish as it may seem, Krispy Kreme’s glorious empire all began when founder Vernon Rudolph bought a secret doughnut recipe from a French chef. After snagging the write-up, Rudolph began selling his Krispy Kreme doughnuts on July 13, 1937, to local supermarkets around North Carolina. Passersby were so enticed by the freshly-baked aroma wafting through the streets that they asked to buy the warm treats on the spot. Rudolph complied, selling his Original Glazed doughnuts through a hole in the wall (seriously—he cut a hole in the outside wall of his building).
Back in 1964, brothers Leroy and Forrest Raffel wanted to serve up speedy sandwiches instead of all-too-ubiquitous burgers, and so Arby’s was born. The first location debuted in Boardman, Ohio. Seven years later, the franchise revamped their signature roast beef recipe, and the slow-roasted, freshly-sliced meat has been served the same way since.
In 1930, Colonel Sanders debuted the first unofficial Kentucky Fried Chicken hotspot: Sanders Court&Cafe in Corbin, Kentucky. Most notably, the fast food icon struck success in his sixties, when he cooked for hungry travelers making a pit stop at a service station in Corbin. While the secret 11 herbs and spices are under locks in a safe in Kentucky, Harland Sanders used to store his special blend in his car.
Before Taco Bell became the #1 hotspot for drunk diners, founder Glen Bell created Bell’s Drive-In and Taco Tia in the San Bernardino area in 1954. Eight years later, Bell opened up the first Taco Bell restaurant in Downey, California. Decades later, in 2015, executives chose to save Taco Bell Numero Uno from demolition and relocate it to T-Bell’s headquarters in Irvine, CA.
On June 15, 1958, University of Wichita students Frank and Dan Carney opened the first Pizza Hut to address the 50s pizza craze. And, ironically enough, the pizza joint’s name was influenced by the building’s structure, Wichita State University reports. “The building had a sign that would only accommodate nine characters. The brothers wanted to use ‘Pizza’ in the name and that left room for only three more letters. A family member suggested that the building looked like a hut—and Pizza Hut was born.”
Brothers Tom and James Monaghan opened up a pizzeria named Dominick’s Pizza in 1960 and later changed the name to Domino’s, which spurred the red, white, and blue logo. A little fun fact: the three dots on the logo actually represent Tom’s first three pizza shops.
Inspired by an image of a blimp in a dictionary, three New Jersey natives decided to name their bigger and better sub shop Blimpie. Blimpie has been serving hoagies jam-packed with deli meats, cheese, veggies, and condiments since April 4th, 1964.
Seasoned veterans of the business, Jack Fulk and Richard Thomas had a vision when they opened the first Bojangles’ Restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1977. They saw a rising consumer demand for quick-service and sought out to separate their brand with distinctive flavors made from scratch, topped off with a festive restaurant design and friendly southern-style service.
The world’s first Whataburger opened its doors in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1950. Equipped with zero restaurant experience, Harmon Dobson decided to realize his vision of a burger so big that diners couldn’t help but say “What a burger!” After Dobson invented the original five-inch burger—which was a whole inch larger than other fast food burgers at the time—the speedy selling rate proved the burgers lived up to their name.
Clad with just $700 and a lofty idea, Billy Ingram debuted his famous sliders in 1921. But if you look really close, you’ll notice that the fortress-shaped joint is labeled “No. 4.” Here’s why: “Before partnering with Billy Ingram, our co-founder, Walt Anderson, operated three hamburger stands, but each lacked some of the defining characteristics of our Castles. When the two men started building Castles together, they started with #4,” White Castle clarified on Facebook.
Long John Silver’s
Inspired by a fish and chips dish he enjoyed on a trip to the coast, businessman Jim Patterson returned on a mission to bring the meal to the rest of America. In 1969 in Lexington, Kentucky he did just that when he opened the first Long John Silver’s. Within decades, the iconic chain spread across the country, introducing coastal cuisine to even the farthest communities from the sea.
The java giant started small in a 1,200-foot shop nestled in Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1971. Folks from all over the globe flock to the still-standing corner store that’s clad with vintage-style manual espresso machines, wooden counters, and a shockingly brown logo—the original. The OG shop boasted no seating, let alone free WiFi, and its address, 1912 Pike Place, is the namesake of Starbucks’ signature Pike Place Roast.
In quite possibly the best advice a professor has ever given a student, nuclear physicist Dr. Peter Buck (and family friend) changed the life of college freshman Fred DeLuca when he suggested they open a submarine sandwich shop together to help cover the cost of his tuition. Peter provided the initial investment for a small store in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the pair had opened their first location, which was originally dubbed Pete’s Super Submarines in 1965. They sold 312 subs on their first day. If you plan to hit up the hoagie behemoth for lunch, don’t miss our report, Every Subway Sandwich—Ranked for Nutrition!