The 5 Once Biggest Burger Chains in America That Went Out of Business – Eat This Not That
Our obsession with quick-service burgers dates back more than a century, when White Castle, America’s oldest burger chain, introduced us to the joy of equally perfect minced meat patties on small buns.
There have been several burger giants on the scene (and burgers have only gotten bigger). Some, such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, have demonstrated their staying power by rising to the top of the pack and still occupying the top spot in the burger industry today.
But there have been great people who have come and gone. These chains once served as shining examples of successful burger franchises—in operation for several decades, expanding to hundreds of restaurants across the country. Unfortunately, due to a combination of things like poor management and increased competition, they have faded into oblivion.
Here are several burger chains that were once the most beloved restaurant destination in America.
It’s the 1950s and drive-ins are all the rage. Bressler’s Ice Cream Company, a Chicago chain that sells 33 flavors of ice cream, wants to take action and decides to expand into fast food.
Henry’s Hamburgers was started in 1954 as that fast-food branch, and while it was originally intended to boost sales of malt and ice cream, the burger took on a life of its own. By the mid-1960s, the chain had expanded from coast to coast to over 200 restaurants and, at one point, was even larger than McDonald’s.
Henry’s was known for its 15-cent burger (or ten for a buck!), 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 became increasingly competitive. Failing to keep pace with his teammates, Henry declined in the 1970s, closing places at a rapid pace.
Today, the beloved burger empire is gone, but a Henry Hamburgers location still operates in Benton Harbor, Mich.
A true fast-food giant of its time, Burger Chef was founded in 1957 and grew to over 1,000 nationwide locations within 15 years. In fact, in 1972, its 1,200-location footprint was bested only by McDonald’s, which operated 1,600 restaurants at the time.
Thanks to its inventive founders, brothers Donald and Frank Thomas, the Indianapolis-based brand used several industry firsts to achieve success: a patented flame broiler, automatic milkshake machine, soft-serve ice cream machine and the first child of fast-food. . Food that bundles food with toys.
The chain saw major growth in the 1960s and 1970s, from 600 restaurants in 1968 to over 1,000 by 1972. But by the late 1970s, the brand had begun to lose its footing, and then, criminal competition was on the rise. The classic idea of a children’s food chain was being copied by giants such as Burger King and McDonald’s, and Burger Chef failed to maintain its monopoly on the lucrative menu category, despite several lawsuits filed.
Hardy’s acquired Burger Chef in 1981 for $44 million and lost no time rebranding most of the restaurant. The Ultimate Burger Chef, based in Cookville, Tenn., closed its doors in 1996.
Founded in 1957 by NFL Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti, this burger chain was quite the regional powerhouse in the mid-Atlantic of the 1960s. Instead, combined menu staples such as Gino the Giant, predecessor of McDonald’s Big Mac and sports memorabilia. It also introduced bundled family deals like A meal for five costs $1.75, which makes for a popular family destination.
Although the chain’s footprint had grown to 330 by 1972, the success did not last long. In the 1980s, Marriott bought Gino and merged it with its existing Roy Rogers brand. A new iteration of the Gino Burger and Chicken called Gino’s opened in 2010 with a new menu, and there are two Gino’s locations still operating in Maryland today.
Home of the Big Barney and Barnbuster Burgers – creations that paralleled similar items in large burger chains as well as the first self-service salad bar in fast food, Red Barn was a pioneer. The chain was established in 1961 in Springfield, Ohio, and has grown to an impressive footprint of 300 to 400 restaurants in 19 states and international markets in Canada and Australia.
The Red Barn changed ownership several times during its relatively short life, which ultimately led to its demise. Once it passed into the hands of Citi Investing Company due to a 1978 merger, priorities and resources shifted from the burger business and into real estate ventures. By 1988, the series had ended.
Coming into existence in 1926, five years after White Castle, White Tower was branded from the outset as a blatant copy of America’s oldest fast-food chain. From menus to names, and even buildings like the White Fort, it was removed from its Kansas-based role model. The founding father-son duo even hired a former White Castle operator to help them with the business.
Naturally, in the 1930s White Castle successfully sued White Tower and forced the series to change its aesthetic. White Tower endured litigation and peaked in the 1950s at 230 locations, operating restaurants throughout the East Coast and Midwest.
Ultimately, suburban migration culminated in the chain’s demise, thanks to the fact that its restaurants operated mostly from valuable pieces of real estate in city centers. Its last location was closed in 2004.