For starters: this is not a story about economics. Sure, the below fast food joints are worth many millions – if not billions – of dollars, however this is an exploration of the speedy-serve restaurants that can lay genuine claim to being iconic. The eateries that spawned a movement, moved the needle, or reinvented the wheel of convenience-based dining.

It was an alternative place for people to go and meet in public that was clean, and that was not a saloon

Chewing over the topic for us is a pair of superhero food scholars – Sarah Wassberg Johnson aka The Food Historian, and the author of Hamburger: A Global History and Fast Food: The Good, the Bad and the Hungry, Andrew F. Smith. 

“I think to understand fast food in America, you kind of have to have a little context,” says Johnson. “So the 1920s and ’30s – and some of them later in the ’40s – is really when most of the surviving American fast food chains start, and it’s in large part because the demographics in the United States were changing.

A lot of fast food places came out of the ice cream parlor tradition

“People were eating outside the home a lot more, and the very first mobile fast food places were actually saloons and push-carts – both of which sort of started to be demonized in the 1910s, due to the sanitation movement and also prohibition.

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“A lot of fast food places came out of the ice cream parlor tradition, which is why a lot of fast food places have ice cream, soda and things like that. It was an alternative place for people to go and meet in public that was clean, easy to regulate and that was not a saloon. So that’s part of the context of how we actually got fast food in early 20th century.”

Let’s dig in.

McDonald’s

It was that model that virtually launched fast food in America

Andrew F. Smith: “The question is, how do you define fast food? There are certainly predecessors of fast food that had been operating around the world and were fairly successful, but I think the difference was McDonald’s. It figured out how to serve inexpensive food, very quickly, to large numbers of people.

“In 1948, in what would become the model for American fast food operations, they sold exactly five items: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, soda, shakes and fries.

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“The first time that I can remember going was 1955 – you would walk up and there could be 20 people in line, but within five minutes the line would have gone and you’d have picked up your food. That was that, and it literally became the model. There were certainly fast food chains that came before, but it was that model that virtually launched fast food in America.” 

White Castle

Many of the things that they started, the McDonald brothers built on

Sarah Wassberg Johnson: “McDonald’s is probably the most famous, and a lot of people think of it as the first fast food place, but White Castle predates it by a couple of decades, actually. It started in Kansas in the 1920s, and it was probably one of the first franchises to have burgers.

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“They’re well known for their sliders [not to mention Hollywood stoner movie: Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle], but I feel like you either love White Castle or you hate it; there’s really not a lot of in between. Fast food in the 21st century is very different from fast food in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.” 

It looked really lower class

AFS: “One of the problems White Castle had was that all of them were constructed in a similar architecture, but then it got old and the franchisees didn’t change it. And so it looked really lower class as the whole corporation aged.

“McDonald’s concluded that what they really needed to do was constantly update and revise what they had, so franchisees are required to update their stores every 10 years. 

“White Castle was regional – they never made it to the West Coast, they never made it to the American South; they started in Kansas and then they moved eastward. But many of the things that they started, the McDonald brothers built on to create what we all know about today.” 

I can’t think of any other country where people purposely think it’s fun to go eat in your car

SWJ: “It’s not quite as prevalent as other chains because it’s a drive-in rather than a drive-thru, but Sonic comes out of a tradition of local drive-in restaurants. Even today, you have a bellhop on roller skates that comes out and puts your food on a tray that hooks on to the side of your door, and you eat in your car. That’s a distinctly American thing – I can’t think of any other country where people purposely think it’s fun to go eat in your car. It started in the South West, Oklahoma, in 1953.”

Burger King

When Burger King opened they realized they couldn’t compete with a 15-cent hamburger, so instead they planned to make it higher quality

AFS: “Keith Cramer launched a place called Insta-Burger King in Daytona Beach, Florida, and before he launched he went to California to look at what the McDonald brothers were doing. There were two Insta-Burger King franchises, and it was the owners of those franchises, James McLamore and David Edgerton, who purchased the company to create the first Burger King, in Miami in 1954.

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“When Burger King opened they realized they couldn’t compete with a 15-cent hamburger, so instead they planned to make it higher quality – adding more beef as well as other ingredients – creating an upper-class restaurant, when compared with McDonald’s.

“As soon as McDonald’s found out that Burger King was alive and well, rapidly expanding throughout the United States, they then created the Big Mac, as competition for the burgers that Burger King were putting out.”

KFC

Sanders figured out you could use a pressure cooker, and do it 15 minutes

AFS: “As far as KFC goes, I want you to know I’m prejudiced – I gave a presentation in Kentucky and the Governor of Kentucky gave me an award. But what’s interesting is that Colonel Sanders created a recipe which he went around trying to franchise to existing restaurants; it was really other people that created KFC. 

“The problem with chicken was very simple – speed. But Sanders figured out you could use a pressure cooker, and do it 15 minutes. So along came other people, led by John Brown Jr, and said that what you need to do is do exactly what McDonald’s did. So they did. In 1964 they bought Sanders out, kept him as an advertising gimmick, then created McDonald’s – but selling chicken.”

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SWJ: “Chick-fil-A is definitely iconic, but it’s a little controversial right now because the owner is very religious [since opening in 1967, restaurants have always been closed on Sundays], and came out against gay marriage. It’s largely been a Southern restaurant, but started to expand more in the North East and the Midwest over the past five or so years.”

Wendy’s

The tradition of portable fried chicken in the South has a long history

SWJ: “I think what’s interesting is that, in the South in particular, there was a culture among African-Americans where people would have a restaurant out of their house. It started in the 1930s and ’40s as a way for people to make money, and there were also a number of out-of-the-home restaurants that fundraised for the civil rights movement.

If you got tired of McDonald’s and Burger King, you could go into Wendy’s

“It’d be like fried chicken and sides, and you could either go pick it up or eat in their house. The tradition of portable fried chicken in the South has a long history, so the fact that someone decided to make a fried chicken sandwich and franchise it is not that surprising.”

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AFS: “Dave Thomas, who started Wendy’s, worked at KFC. Then, in 1969, he decided he could make a better burger than Burger King and McDonald’s, and because of his background and knowledge of how to manage franchises, Wendy’s took off. It was a quality product – far better in my opinion than anything at McDonald’s, including the Big Mac – but it also tasted different. So if you got tired of McDonald’s and Burger King, you could go into Wendy’s.” 

Subway

It has the largest number of franchises in the world

SWJ: “A lot of fast food places have an unsavory reputation for not being clean, or you don’t know what’s going into it – they’re not as trusted as sit-down restaurants for cleanliness – whereas at Subway, they’re making it right in front of you. You can see what’s going into it, and you can choose as you go.”

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AFS: “I haven’t checked the latest statistics, but as far as I know it has the largest number of franchises in the world [40,000+], which is something like three or four thousand more global franchises than McDonald’s. 

There are now a number of places like Subway that are considered ‘casual’ fast food restaurants – Chipotle, for example

“Subway started in 1965 in Connecticut, and the advantage was that you could put whatever you wanted on your sandwich. In McDonald’s you might have been able to remove a pickle, or get some minimal shifts and changes in what they were putting together, but at Subway: you want beef? Put beef down. You want cheese? Ok, what type of cheese? So you had options that were not available in places like McDonald’s. In that way, there are now a number of places like Subway that are considered ‘casual’ fast food restaurants – Chipotle, for example – that does the same thing, just with different types of food.”