Famous Restaurant Chains That Are Hard to Find

1. Howard Johnson Restaurants
> Restaurants in 2012: 2
> Restaurants in 1980: 129
> Year founded: 1927

Howard Johnson’s was, for decades, one of the most well-recognized American businesses in the country. The franchise expanded from a single ice cream store located in Quincy, Mass., in 1927 to an empire of restaurants and hotels. By the 1970s, there were more than 1,000 Howard Johnson’s restaurants in the United States. Currently, there are only two restaurants in the entire country: one in Bangor, Me., and one in Lake Placid, N.Y. One of the factors contributing to the decline of the chain was the decline of the motel industry nationwide, according to Tristano. The chain has since shifted focus to its hotel division and now maintains properties across the world.

2. Mister Donut
> Restaurants in 2012: 0
> Restaurants in 1980: 835
> Year founded: 1955

Harry Winouker founded Mister Donut in 1955 after dismantling a failed business venture with his brother-in-law, Bill Rosenberg, the future founder of Dunkin’ Donuts. By 1970, there were hundreds of franchised locations across the United States, and the brand was acquired by International Multifoods, at the time one of America’s biggest food companies. In 1983, Japan’s Duskin Co. Ltd. bought the rights to Mister Donut for all of Asia. Since then, the brand has caught on in Japan, where it is the largest donut chain, with more than 1,100 stores. Worldwide, there are more than 10,000 Mister Donut stores. But as the brand expanded abroad, it vanished at home. Currently, there are no Mister Donut locations in the U.S., after most were acquired in 1990 by Dunkin’ Donuts’ former parent company Allied-Lyons. “The growth of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Brands, and their domination of the U.S. has certainly forced out Mister Donut, and other donut places,” said Tristano.

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3. Steak & Ale
> Restaurants in 2012: 0
> Restaurants in 1980: 196
> Year founded: 1966

Steak & Ale was once, alongside Bennigan’s, part of Pillsbury’s chain restaurant holdings. In 1980, there were just under 200 Steak & Ale locations in the United States. But by 2008, that number had dropped to 50. That is when S&A Restaurant Corp., which ran the chain as well as Bennigan’s, filed for bankruptcy. Although Bennigan’s has been revitalized and continues to operate, Steak & Ale no longer exists. Both chains were conceived by Norman E. Brinker, who also helped to popularize Chili’s and built Brinker International Inc. (NYSE: EAT), one of the nation’s largest food companies.

4. Chi-Chi’s
> Restaurants in 2012: 0
> Restaurants in 1980: 81
> Year founded: 1975

Chi-Chi’s was founded in Minneapolis in 1975 as a family-style Mexican restaurant. By 1985, the company had nearly 200 locations around the country. But, according to Tristano, the success of other Mexican-themed chains like Taco Bell and Chipotle began to chip away at the company’s success. In 2011, Chi-Chi’s filed for bankruptcy. At the time of the filing, the chain had roughly $100 million in debt. Shortly after the filing, a hepatitis A outbreak at a location resulted in several deaths. All franchise restaurants have since closed. However, “Chi-Chi’s still has their brand licensed for salsa and tortilla chips. So the brand is still around, even though they have no restaurants,” Tristano added.

5. Ground Round
> Restaurants in 2012: 25
> Restaurants in 1980: 177
> Year founded: 1969

Ground Round was founded as a pub-style restaurant in 1969 with a small menu and casual environment. The chain was once part of the 1,000 Howard Johnson’s stores. Now, the brand is owned by its own franchisees, who acquired the assets of Ground Round in a bankruptcy sale in 2004. As of 2012, there were just 25 locations nationwide, mostly in northern states, with four in North Dakota and seven in Minnesota. According to the Farmington Independent, a new Ground Round location will open in Farmington, Minn., in September. The restaurants were located primarily in more rural locations and were forced out by other national chains like Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebees, according to Tristano.

6. Sambo’s
> Restaurants in 2012: 1
> Restaurants in 1980: 1,118
> Year founded: 1957

Sambo’s was named after its two founders, Sam Battistone and Newell “Bo” Bohnett. At one point the chain included 1,118 restaurants. However, many customers, especially in the Northeast, felt uncomfortable with the name and the company’s history. In its early marketing efforts, Sambo’s used the principal character from Helen Bannerman’s 1899 book “Little Black Sambo,” which has been widely criticized for promoting negative racial stereotypes. Issues of political correctness were damaging to the brand as early as the 1970s, Tristano said. The chain suffered from financial troubles and filed for bankruptcy in late 1981 after failing to restructure its debt. The first Sambo’s in Santa Barbara, which is owned by the founder’s grandson, remains in business.

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7. Bennigans
> Restaurants in 2012: 32
> Restaurants in 1980: 40
> Year founded: 1976

Irish-American-themed restaurant Bennigan’s was founded in 1976. It was owned for a time by the Pillsbury Corp., which also owned Burger King. After finding success in the 1990s, Bennigan’s began facing heavy competition from other casual family chain restaurants such as Chili’s, Applebee’s and TGIF. In 2008, Bennigan’s filed for bankruptcy and closed more than 200 franchises. Currently, there are just 32 Bennigan’s locations in the United States. But the company has come out of bankruptcy under new ownership, and there may be hope for the future of the restaurant chain. Tristano noted, however, that the chain was still closing its weakest-performing restaurants.

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