Special Report

25 Iconic Food and Drink Brands Born in California

Shakey’s Pizza Parlor
> Year founded: 1954
> Original location: Sacramento
> Original name: Shakey’s Ye Public House

Sherwood “Shakey” Johnson and his friend Ed Plummer opened a tavern in a former grocery store in the California capital, at first serving only beer, but soon adding pizza ovens and renaming their operation to its current moniker. Shakey’s became the first franchised pizza chain in the country. At one point, Shakey’s had about 500 locations in America and there were franchises in a number of foreign countries. Today, only about 50 remain in the U.S., almost all of them in California, but there are still more than 400 abroad.

Sizzler
> Year founded: 1958
> Original location: Culver City
> Original name: Sizzler Family Steak House

Delmar Johnson, an ice cream salesman whose family had owned a restaurant in Illinois, read an article in 1957 about a steakhouse chain that offered complete steak dinners for $1.09 (around $10 today) and thought he could run a bargain-priced steakhouse himself. With his friend Jim Collins, who owned a burger stand, he and his wife opened the first Sizzler Family Steak House in their garage. He sold a top sirloin steak with potatoes for $1.19, and once a week offered a second one for a penny. Collins bought out the Johnsons in 1967, by which time there were 156 franchised locations plus four owned by the founders. When the pandemic hit, there were 270 locations in the western U.S., mostly in California, but in September last year the company filed for bankruptcy, and it’s uncertain how many will reopen.

Source: Joshua Blanchard / Getty Images

Taco Bell
> Year founded: 1962
> Original location: Downey
> Original name: Same

Glen Bell was running a hot dog and hamburger drive-in when he noticed that diners were lining up to eat at a little Mexican place across the street, where the specialty was crisp-shelled tacos. He borrowed the idea and went on to open a three-unit operation called Taco Tia, then sold it and opened a taco stand called El Taco’s. In 1962, he went comparatively upscale, commissioning an architect to design a unique faux-Mexican-look restaurant (with walk-up service only), complete with Mission-style bell, that he dubbed Taco Bell. He began franchising the concept and by 1978, there were 868 Taco Bells. Today, owned by Yum! Brands (which also owns KFC and Pizza Hut), Bell’s concept has expanded to more than 6,000 restaurants in 26 countries.

Source: Photo by Kam L. via Yelp

Trader Vic’s
> Year founded: 1934
> Original location: Oakland
> Original name: Hinky Dink’s

Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron ran an Oakland saloon called Hinky Dink’s, on whose menu the most exotic dish was Ham and Eggs Hawaiian (with bananas and pineapple). After a trip to Cuba, however, he began mixing rum cocktails at the bar, and after visiting a couple of South Seas-themed restaurants in Hollywood, he decided to add Chinese-inspired tropical dishes to the bill of fare. His wife suggested that he give Hinky Dink’s a new name, and because he loved to barter, he settled on Trader Vic’s. The original grew into a chain that defined the tiki bar (and restaurant) trend, with many outposts located in Hilton hotels. Bergeron began expanding internationally in 1963. Today, there are only three locations left in the U.S., but another 16 are thriving in Europe, Asia, and above all the Middle East.

Source: Photo by Winchell's Donuts via Yelp

Winchell’s Donuts
> Year founded: 1948
> Original location: Temple City
> Original name: Same

After failing with a jukebox business and a used car lot, Verne Winchell decided to try his luck with a drive-thru doughnut shop. After opening a couple more stores, and introducing the “Winchell’s Dozen” — 14 doughnuts rather than the usual “baker’s dozen” of 13 that other purveyors sold — he launched his first “coffee room,” with tables for indoor dining. At first, Winchell stuck to California, but after the company went public in 1961, he expanded into Colorado and Arizona. There are now 104 Winchell’s, in five western states, Guam, Saipan, and Saudi Arabia.