Special Report

America’s 30 Oldest Restaurant Chains

Shakey’s Pizza
> Year founded: 1954
> Original location: Sacramento, CA
> Approximate number of units (US only): 52

Shakey’s Pizza – founded in Sacramento, California, in 1954 by Sherwood “Shakey” Johnson and Ed Plummer – was the first franchise pizza chain in America. Shakey played Dixieland jazz (he was inducted into the American Banjo Museum’s Hall of Fame) and brought in jazz musicians to entertain customers, and up until the 1970s classic barbershop song lyrics were provided to customers so they could sing along with the band (it was a simpler time). Second and third locations opened in Oregon in 1956 and 1959, and by the time Johnson sold his interests in the company in 1969 there were 272 locations. The chain has shrunk since then.

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Burger King
> Year founded: 1953
> Original location: Miami, FL
> Approximate number of units (US only): 7,257

The chain known today as Burger King was founded in 1953 as Insta-Burger King, Jacksonville, Florida, residents Keith Kramer and his uncle-in-law, Matthew Burns, opened their first units after buying a piece of cooking equipment called an Insta-Broiler, which was able to cook 12 burgers from both sides simultaneously. The company failed in 1959 and was purchased by two Miami franchisees, James McLamore and David R. Edgerton, who renamed the company Burger King, replaced the Insta-Broiler with a new “Flame Broiler” that’s since become their claim to fame, expanded to more than 250 locations, and sold the company to Pillsbury in 1967.

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Denny’s
> Year founded: 1953
> Original location: Lakewood, CA
> Approximate number of units (US only): 1,475

Denny’s was founded in Lakewood, California, in 1953 by Harold Butler and Richard Jezak as Danny’s Donuts. After Jezak left three years later, Butler turned their locations into 24-hour coffee shops, and in 1959 changed the name to Denny’s to avoid confusion with a chain called Coffee Dan’s. Denny’s soon caught on in popularity by opening uniquely-designed restaurants with glass walls and boomerang-shaped roofs near highway off-ramps, and there were more than 1,000 locations in all 50 states by 1981.

Sonic
> Year founded: 1953
> Original location: Shawnee, OK
> Approximate number of units (US only): 3,552

When Troy N. Smith Sr., the owner of a Shawnee, Oklahoma, fast food restaurant called Top Hat, happened upon a restaurant in Louisiana that used an intercom system for customers to place their orders, he had a lightbulb moment and hired local jukebox repairmen to install a similar system at his restaurant. This allowed customers to order directly from their cars and have their food brought to them by carhops, and sales immediately tripled. Because the Top Hat name was already trademarked, Smith changed the name to Sonic in 1959 to correspond with their motto, “Service with the Speed of Sound,” and dovetail with the burgeoning Space Age.

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KFC
> Year founded: 1952
> Original location: Salt Lake City, UT
> Approximate number of units (US only): 3,984

“Colonel” Harland Sanders is a fast-food icon, not just because he founded KFC, but also because he played a huge role in turning fried chicken from a special occasion dish to a fast food staple. This was all due to his brilliant idea to modify a then-new invention, the pressure cooker, into a pressure fryer, which vastly increased the speed at which he could cook fried chicken to serve to customers at his North Corbin, Kentucky, restaurant and motel, called Sanders Court & Café. By 1940, he’d perfected his fried chicken recipe (which included his signature 11 herbs and spices), and in 1952 he had another brilliant idea: to franchise his recipe to his friend Pete Harman, who operated one of Salt Lake City’s largest restaurants. Sanders then traveled the country franchising his recipe and training restaurant operators on how to cook his chicken, collecting a cut of the profits of every order sold. A sign painter hired by Harman coined the term “Kentucky Fried Chicken,” a name that many recipe franchisees then changed their restaurants’ names to, and by 1963 there were more than 600 franchisees nationwide.

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