It’s easy to assume that all major restaurant chains have been around basically forever. If you were born at any point within the past 40 years or so, major ones like Burger King, IHOP, and Applebee’s seem to have just always kind of existed, emerging into the world franchise-ready. But all restaurant chains, large and small, obviously started somewhere, and took years, if not decades, to become the brands we know and love today. And some of them have been around for much longer than you might realize.
The past handful of years have seen an explosion in the world of restaurant chains, especially ones in the fast-growing “fast casual” sector (think Chipotle). Operations like Shake Shack, Jersey Mike’s, and Wingstop have been growing at lightning speed, offering high-quality food at a reasonable price and with lots of convenience. (These are America’s fastest-expanding restaurant chains.)
Chains like these are staking their claim in a super-competitive industry and are well on their way to becoming household names, but some of the true old-timers blazed trails at a time when fast food, and chain restaurants in general, were still considered a novelty. It’s no coincidence that many of the oldest chains were founded in California, the true land of opportunity, at a time when new freeways translated to lots of hungry travelers looking for a quick, inexpensive bite. (These iconic food and drink brands were born in California.)
Over the years, some of the earliest chain restaurants expanded nationwide, spawning countless imitators and forever changing the way Americans eat (we’re looking at you, White Castle). But some were content to remain smaller regional chains for a variety of reasons, falling into the camp of regional restaurant chains we wish were nationwide.
To compile a list of America’s 30 oldest restaurant chains, 24/7 Tempo examined lists of the country’s top nationwide and regional food service operations from sites including Nation’s Restaurant News, Restaurant Business, and QSR Magazine. We then filtered out those known to be relative newcomers, determining the founding dates, original locations, and number of U.S. locations for the remaining chains from their own websites whenever possible. In cases where that information was not available from the chains directly, we drew data from Statista and Scrapehero. (Note that some of these chains trace their founding date to earlier efforts under different names.)
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