The Most Popular Fast Food Restaurant the Year You Were Born
There once was a time when you couldn't grab a Cheesy Gordita Crunch for lunch, or a Caramel Frappuccino on your way to work. But by the 1940s and '50s, quick and cheap eats had exploded onto the restaurant scene!
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McDonald’s is the original fast food restaurant and has dominated the fast food industry throughout history. It was founded in 1940 but really began to take off in the early 1950s.
That might be because McDonald’s introduced its best-selling menu item in 1949: french fries. Before that, only potato chips were available. Learn more surprising facts about McD’s.
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In-N-Out Burger, 1948
In-N-Out Burger’s first location was opened near Los Angeles in 1948, making it the first drive-thru hamburger stand in California. In-N-Out was one of the first restaurants to use the two-way speaker system for ordering. Most fast-food spots at the time used carhops to take orders and serve food.
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Dunkin’ Donuts, 1950
“America Runs on Dunkin'”, but that wasn’t always the case. Founded in 1950, Dunkin used to be a small coffee shop called Open Kettle. It franchised and exploded in popularity because they were known for offering 52 kinds of doughnuts, when a mere four or five options was the norm.
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Church’s Chicken, 1952
There aren’t many fast-food chains that offer fried okra! But Church’s Chicken does, along with other popular sides. The first Church’s Chicken (then named Church’s Fried Chicken To-Go) opened in Texas in 1952. At that time, two pieces of chicken and a roll cost only 49 cents.
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Waffle House, 1955
Craving a waffle (or any other breakfast delight) at 3 a.m.? There’s only once place to go—Waffle House. The first Waffle House was opened in 1955 by two neighbors whose goal was to combine the speed of fast food with the charm of table service, and offer it to customers around-the-clock.
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Pizza Hut, 1958
Pizza Hut was founded in 1958 by two brothers, and within a year the chain already had six locations. For a long time, if you wanted Pizza Hut pizza, you had to eat at the restaurant. But the Hut finally introduced a delivery option in 1986. It paid off right away, when in 1989 Pizza Hut delivered pizzas to the White House for a pizza party hosted by First Lady Barbara Bush. Take a look at the first-ever Pizza Hut. Plus, even today the chain will bring back original favorites from that time—like the Big New Yorker.
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Sonic Drive-In, 1959
The Sonic Drive-In you know and love, was once a root beer stand named The Top Hat. In 1959, after learning the Top Hat name was already taken, the name was changed to Sonic. Today, Sonic locations are still designed with a retro flair and are known for their use of carhops, some on roller skates. Sonic even holds an annual competition to determine the best skating carhop.
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Wilbur Hardee opened the first Hardee’s in 1960. The menu in 1964 offered hamburgers for 15 cents, fries for 10 cents and milkshakes for 20 cents. (What a deal!) Eventually franchised, there were over 200 locations in the United States by the end of the 1960s. To set Hardee’s apart from McDonald’s, the Hardee’s buildings were designed in a hexagonal shape with a pointed roof. Some Hardee’s burger patties were also hexagonal.
Hardee’s is hot again today—thanks to trendy new menu items like these.
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Kentucky Fried Chicken, 1963
Kentucky Fried Chicken was founded by Harland Sanders in 1955, but it really took off by 1963 when it became the largest fast food operation in the United States with 600 locations. With a market dominated by burgers, KFC’s chicken and secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices was an instant hit.
The well-known “finger lickin’ good” slogan came about by accident, though. When a KFC commercial showed a man licking his fingers in the background, a viewer called in to complain. The Kentucky Fried Chicken manager responded: “Well, it’s finger lickin’ good!”
Don’t feel like goin’ out? Try making this fried chicken that’s better than KFC.
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Arby’s was founded in 1964, with the idea to open a fast-food restaurant that served something other than hamburgers. Originally, customers could only order roast beef sandwiches, potato chips and soft drinks. Popular items like the Beef n’ Cheddar, curly fries and their signature Horsey Sauce didn’t join the menu until the 1970s.
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At its beginning, Domino’s was called DomiNick’s. It was renamed Domino’s Pizza in 1965, shortly after franchised pizza restaurants began to open. Thanks largely to its delivery service, Domino’s was the fastest-growing pizza restaurant in the United States by 1985. Today, Domino’s has 100,000 pizza delivery drivers that drive 10 million miles a week to deliver 400 million pizzas a year! See how Domino’s ranked in our pizza taste test. Plus, this is what America’s best pizza chain of 2022 is.
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Founder S. Truett Cathy discovered a pressure-fryer that could cook chicken in the same amount of time it took to make a burger. It inspired him to open Chick-fil-A in 1967. You might not know that for many years Chick-fil-A was strictly a mall food court restaurant, not opening its first freestanding location until 1986. Here’s the most popular Chick-fil-A menu item right now.
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Originally called Pete’s Super Submarines, the sandwich shop was renamed Subway in 1968. The restaurant started to gain popularity in the late 1970s, and by 1982 the company claimed to be the largest “sub chain” in the United States. Don’t want a footlong? You could order “The Snak,” Subway’s original name for its 6-inch sandwich.
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The first Wendy’s opened in 1969 and dominated fast food into the 1970s. It was unique thanks to its square hamburger patties and the introduction of a salad bar in 1979. The famous Frosty was one of the original items on the menu in 1969, and is still one of Wendy’s best-selling products today. See what Wendy looks like in real life.
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Taco Bell, 1970
Believe it or not, Taco Bell started as a hot dog stand! But then Glen Bell realized there was an opportunity in the market for Mexican food, and started selling tacos for 19 cents. He didn’t have many competitors for fast-food tacos, and there were 325 Taco Bell restaurants by 1970.
You can have Taco Bell at home with our best copycat recipes.
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Sure, Starbucks is on every corner now. But in 1971, the one and only location opened in Seattle, Washington. Starbucks went public in 1992 and got crazy popular; it quickly became the largest coffee chain in the world. By 2000, there were 3,500 Starbucks cafes. That’s the growth you get with all-day access to caffeine!
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Long before its chicken sandwich took the world by storm in 2019, Popeye’s was a humble restaurant. Originally called “Chicken on the Run,” it opened in 1972 to compete with Kentucky Fried Chicken. By 1975, the company had been renamed Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken, and by 1985, it had 500 locations.
Del Taco, 1973
Originally named “Casa Del Taco,” the “Casa” was dropped in 1973 and it became the Del Taco you know today. In addition to classic tacos, burritos and burgers, Del Taco also offers a variety of vegetarian and vegan menu items using plant-based crumbles they call “Beyond Meat.” See what other fast-food restaurants are best for vegetarians.
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Burger King, 1978
McDonald’s has long dominated the fast-food burger world, but Burger King gave ’em a run for their money in the late ’70s. Burger King hired former McDonald’s exec Donald N. Smith in 1978. He restructured the company and began to market more to children, to compete with McDonald’s Happy Meals. By 1980, company sales were up 15%! See what’s on the secret menu at Burger King.
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Five Guys, 1986
Five Guys was founded in 1986 by Janie and Jerry Murrell. Their four sons (Jim, Matt, Chad and Ben), along with Jerry, were the original “five guys.” Five Guys began franchising in 2003 , and within a year and a half, there were permits for 300 additional locations! Many customers are drawn to their hamburger buns, which are rumored to be sweeter and “eggier” than normal buns.
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Chipotle Mexican Grill, 1993
Inspired by popular burrito stands in California, Steve Ells opened the first Chipotle Mexican Grill in Denver, Colorado in 1993. Even after worldwide expansion, Chipotle continues to have a basic menu. As the founder says, “It’s important to keep the menu focused, because if you just do a few things, you can ensure that you do them better than anybody else.” Here are the secrets Chipotle employees won’t tell you.