July 20, 2024


Food & Travel Enthusiast

When were these 24 iconic fast food restaurants founded?

When were these 24 iconic fast food restaurants founded?

America is known for having a lot of chain restaurants, many of which have been around for a long time. But what’s the oldest chain restaurant? What’s the oldest fast food chain? We’ve compiled some of the most popular and a few of our favorites—all of which are at least 40 years old. Here are 24 classic chain restaurants and the years they were founded.



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Famous for their root beer, floats, and burgers, A&W also has the distinction of being the oldest restaurant chain in America. The first location was a stand opened in 1919 in Lodi, California, by Roy W. Allen. Allen and employee Frank Wright (Allen + Wright = A&W) opened a proper brick-and-mortar restaurant four years later in Sacramento, and the business took off. In fact, in the 1970s, A&W briefly had more restaurants than McDonald’s! Currently, they operate about 1,000 locations.



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It may surprise you that Applebee’s has been around for more than a few decades. The “Neighborhood Grill + Bar” actually dates back to 1980, when it was founded in Atlanta, Georgia, by the husband-and-wife duo of Bill and TJ Palmer. The chain now has 2,000 locations in the U.S. and across the world!



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Arby’s has really stepped up their advertising recently, but they’re no newbie. Arby’s was founded in 1964 in Boardman, Ohio, by brothers Forrest and Leroy Raffel, who wanted to capitalize on the popularity of hamburger chains, but instead centered their restaurant around a different popular food: sandwiches.


Burger King

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In addition to being the second largest hamburger chain in the world, Burger King is also among the oldest. It was founded in Miami in 1954 by Keith J. Kramer and his uncle-in-law Matthew Burns, although its predecessor restaurant, Insta-Burger King, actually opened a year earlier.


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The Cheesecake Factory

The Cheesecake Factory

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In the 1950s, Evelyn Overton opened a small bakery in Detroit but gave it up to raise her kids while continuing to bake and sell cakes out of her basement. Two decades later, one of those kids convinced Evelyn to go back into the baking business, this time in the Los Angeles area, and the Cheesecake Factory Bakery was born. In 1978, that same kid, David Overton, opened a restaurant with an extensive dessert menu to show off his mom’s specialty, which is how we got the Cheesecake Factory we all know today.



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S. Truett Cathy opened the Dwarf House in Atlanta in 1946 but didn’t find his niche until 15 years later. That’s when he bought a pressure cooker and figured out he could cook a chicken sandwich as quickly as a hamburger at a fast food restaurant. In 1964, he perfected his “original chicken sandwich” recipe, began licensing it to dozens of other restaurants, and opened the first Chick-fil-A restaurant in an Atlanta mall in 1967.



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Chili’s comes from Dallas, where Larry Lavine opened the first restaurant—housed in a converted post office—in 1975. Less than 10 years later, there were 28 of these burger-centric casual restaurants in the region, and now there are more than 1,600 across the country and world!


Cracker Barrel

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Cracker Barrel is officially known as Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, but it’s not that old—it was founded in Tennessee by Dan Evins in 1969. Evins, a gasoline sales rep, built his first restaurants near highways to attract travelers, and they all had gas pumps in the parking lots. Today, there are only five states without Cracker Barrels!



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Danny’s Donuts was founded in 1953 in Lakewood, California. A few years and several stores later, they changed their name to Danny’s Coffee and began operating 24 hours a day. Although they had amassed quite the following and even more stores by 1959, to avoid confusion with another chain called Coffee Dan’s, the company changed its name to Denny’s Coffee Shop. Two years later, they shortened it to just Denny’s, and that’s the company that now serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner all day every day.


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Domino’s Pizza

Domino’s Pizza

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When brothers Tom and James Monaghan first bought a pizza joint in 1960, it was just one location of a small chain called DomiNick’s. James sold his share of the company a few years later, but Tom had his eyes on expanding and bought two more pizzerias in 1965. He wasn’t allowed to use the DomiNick’s name, so he renamed his shops Domino’s instead!



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The International House of Pancakes was first opened by Jerry Lapin, Al Lapin, Albert Kallis, and Trudy Kallis in Los Angeles in 1958. That restaurant is no longer open, but the second and third locations are! Of course, now they’re just a pair of IHOPs among some 1,700 around the world.


In-N-Out Burger

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Compared to other major hamburger chains, In-N-Out Burger’s 350-ish restaurants may seem small. And as of now, the furthest east they operate is Texas. But the limited availability only makes people crave their food more, and they’ve had plenty of time to build up a following—In-N-Out was founded way back in 1948 by Harry Snyder.



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The Colonel isn’t a made-up mascot, he was a real guy—Colonel Harland David Sanders—and he was, in fact, the founder of KFC. Sanders learned to cook as a kid, and opened up his first restaurant in a former gas station in North Corbin, Kentucky in 1930. He quickly expanded operations, was given the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel by the state’s governor in 1936, figured out how to turn a pressure cooker into a pressure fryer in 1939, and perfected his 11-spice “secret recipe” in 1940. Today, there are more than 24,000 KFC locations worldwide.



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Ray Kroc has received most of the credit for McDonald’s success, as the businessman drastically increased the success of the fast food chain after purchasing and franchising it in 1955. However, the original owners were the McDonald Brothers—Richard and Maurice—who opened their first restaurant in San Bernardino, California in 1940. They already had nine restaurants before Kroc became involved, but now there are more than 40,000 worldwide.


Olive Garden

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Olive Garden sometimes gets criticized for being inauthentic Italian food, and part of the reason is that the chain didn’t start as a single restaurant opened by an independent owner. Instead, Olive Garden was launched in 1982 by the restaurant division of General Mills. But hey, it’s still incredibly popular, and there’s still a reason why Olive Garden now has nearly 900 global locations.


Pizza Hut

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Brothers Dan and Frank Carney were the brains behind Pizza Hut, which first opened in Wichita, Kansas in 1958, primarily catering to Wichita State University students. As the brothers’ business quickly expanded, they added innovations like pan pizza and delivery drivers before selling the company to PepsiCo in 1977 for $300 million.


Red Lobster

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Bill Darden opened the first Red Lobster in Lakeland, Florida in 1968, and today the seafood chain operates some 700 restaurants around the world. Bill Darden later founded Darden Restaurants, a corporation that owns Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, The Capital Grille, and a few other casual and upscale chains. 



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In 1953, when Troy N. Smith bought a piece of land in Oklahoma with a root beer stand and a log house, he planned to run the former to turn a profit while he turned the latter into a steakhouse. However, the root beer stand and its burgers and hot dogs were such a hit that Smith instead focused on a way to use the large parking lot to serve customers faster, and conceived the idea of rigging up an intercom system for ordering food “at the speed of sound.” Smith’s sales tripled, he changed the name to SONIC, and licensed his first franchise location in 1956.



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A college-bound teen named Fred DeLuca asked a family friend, physicist Peter Buck, how to earn money for school. The latter suggested opening a sandwich shop with fully customizable subs, putting up the initial $1,000 investment, and the result was Pete’s Super Submarines—later renamed Pete’s Subway, and then just Subway. The first shop opened in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1965, and Subway is still among the fastest-growing franchises in the world, with some 37,000 shops in 100 countries.


Taco Bell

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In 1948, Glen Bell opened a hot dog stand in San Bernardino, California, and spent most of his time there watching long lines form across the street at a taco stand called the Mitla Café. The kind folks there eventually taught him how to make hard-shell tacos, and he opened up his own stand in 1951. Eleven years later, Glen debuted the first Taco Bell an hour away in Los Angeles and began franchising in 1964. When he had 868 locations in 1978, he sold Taco Bell to PepsiCo for $125 million.


TGI Fridays

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Alan Stillman didn’t know anything about owning a restaurant, he was just a young guy who wanted a place to go out and meet women in New York City that wasn’t a cocktail party at someone’s home or a beer bar for dudes. He opened TGI Friday’s in Manhattan in 1965 with the hopes that it would become a happening place for people in their 20s and 30s, but ended up creating one of the most famous casual restaurant chains of all time, which currently has 300 locations in the U.S. alone.


Waffle House

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The sight of a Waffle House can be a comforting feeling, which is precisely what neighbors Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner wanted when they opened the first restaurant in 1955. They also wanted a sit-down experience at a fast-food pace—and they wanted it to be open 24 hours a day. The concept worked, and it’s now available at 1,900 locations in 25 states.



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Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas grew up eating at Kewpee Hamburger in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where they served square burgers and thick milkshakes. When he was 37 years old, in 1969, Thomas opened his own burger joint in Columbus, Ohio, and named it after his daughter, Melinda Lou “Wendy” Thomas. In March 2022, Wendy’s welcomed their 7,000th restaurant.


White Castle

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A&W might be the oldest chain, but among burger chains, the king fittingly resides at White Castle. The mini-burger joint opened its first store in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, thanks to Walt Anderson and Billy Ingram. White Castle is still around, but outside of Beastie Boys songs and movies about Harold & Kumar, you’ll have to look carefully to find one. There are only about 400 restaurants, and they’re primarily concentrated in the Midwest and Greater New York City Regions.