A History of America’s Chain Restaurants, Doughnut Shops, and Convenience Stores

White Castle  

Year Opened: 1921  

First Location: Wichita, KS  

Bite of History: The very first White Castle opened its doors on just $700. Founder Billy Ingram sold his slider-style burgers at the bargain price of five cents per patty and, over the years, the chain prided itself on offering affordable food. By 1941, White Castle had sold more than 50 million burgers, and it wasn’t until 1950 that the price made it past the 10-cent mark. In 2011, the famous drive-in known for its five-hole burger — which the company maintains cooks the patties “faster and more evenly” — will celebrate its 90th anniversary.  

Photo Credit: Courtesy of White Castle  


Year Opened: 1927  

First Location: Dallas, TX  

Bite of History: Long before we were cooling down with Big Gulps and Slurpees, 7-Eleven, first known as the Southland Ice Company, was an outpost for Dallas folks to stock up on solid ice. In May of 1927, Jefferson “Uncle Johnny” Green expanded his shop to offer not only ice but also basic provisions like bread, milk, and eggs. The store, unlike most markets, was open seven days a week, 16 hours a day. The model proved successful, and soon others followed with speedy service and more offerings — all in convenient locations. Today 7-Eleven operates more than 7,100 stores in the U.S. and Canada and over 31,000 affiliated branches from Singapore to Sweden. Oh, thank heaven for 7-Eleven!  

Photo Credit: Courtesy of 7-Eleven  

Kentucky Fried Chicken  

Year Opened: 1930  

First Location: Corbin, KY  

Bite of History: Harland Sanders’s first outpost of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Sanders Court and Café, was located in the front room of a local gas station in Corbin, Kentucky. Word spread quickly that Sanders’s special recipe for fried chicken cooked in an iron skillet was finger-lickin’ good. The only issue: The more popular the restaurant, the harder it was to meet the demand. Not wanting to compromise quality, Sanders sought out a way to cut time without sacrificing flavor. After seeing a demo for the latest gadget — the pressure cooker — Sanders tweaked his process, and to this day, KFC’s Original Recipe is always fried under pressure.  

Photo Credit: Courtesy of YUM! Brands, Inc.  


Year Opened:1940  

First Location: San Bernardino, CA  

Bite of History: Dick and Mac McDonald started McDonald’s as a very different concept. Instead of hamburgers, the brothers created a drive-in restaurant with a full barbecue menu. Eight years later, they scrapped the BBQ in favor of a slim, nine-item menu: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, soft drinks, milk, coffee, potato chips, pie, French fries, and milkshakes. By 1952, word of their success (and a cover story in Restaurant magazine) traveled as far as Arizona, where the McDonalds licensed Neil Fox to launch a carbon copy of their restaurant, featuring the signature golden arches. Three years later, Ray Kroc, a Multimixer milkshake machine salesman, took the reins as their national franchising agent. On April 15, 1955, the first franchise opened in Des Plaines, IL, selling fries for 10 cents and burgers for 15 cents, which they encouraged customers to “buy by the bag.”  

Photo Credit: Courtesy of McDonald’s Corporation  


Year Opened: 1948  

First Location: Baldwin Park, CA  

Bite of History: In 1948, founders Harry and Esther Snyder set out to change the California burger-stand experience. Before In-N-Out opened, customers were serviced by carhops, with doorside delivery to each car. Harry thought an innovative two-way drive-thru speaker would be a better system. It was thus that the first drive-thru in California was born. Sixty-two years later, the West Coast chain, known for its secret menu items like the “animal style” burger (made with mustard-cooked beef), still maintains its mom-and-pop-shop identity.  

Photo Credit: Courtesy of In-N-Out  

Dunkin’ Donuts  

Year Opened: 1950  

First Location: Quincy, MA  

Bite of History: With only an eighth-grade education but a keen business sense, William “Bill” Rosenberg opened his first Dunkin’ Donuts shop. The individual sweet cakes in flavors like maple frosted and apple ‘n spice cost just five cents each, and a cup ‘o joe just a dime. By 1955, Rosenberg had five locations under his belt and soon licensed the brand, launching the Dunkin’ empire we know and love. Sixty years later, the company services over 3 million people per day with more than 8,000 shops in over 30 countries.  

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dunkin’ Donuts  

SONIC Drive-In  

Year Opened:1953  

First Location: Shawnee, OK  

Bite of History: After a stint as a milkman, Troy Smith opened a small root beer stand named Top Hat Drive-In. The little stand was very profitable, and Smith decided to expand the offerings and install a carhop system, where drivers received individual service without having to leave their car. The concept proved successful and in 1956, Smith partnered with Charles Pappe to open a second location in nearby Woodward. Unfortunately, in 1959 Smith was forced to change the name due to trademark issues. Top Hat was renamed SONIC Drive-In, as its motto was “service at the speed of sound.” Today, the franchise is one of the few drive-ins to offer the carhop system, and some even showcase roller-skating servers!  

Photo Credit: Courtesy of SONIC Drive-In  

Burger King  

Year Opened: 1954 (as Insta-Burger King)  

First Location: Jacksonville, FL  

Bite of History: While the first official location of Burger King is unknown, this location is certainly the birthplace of the famous Whopper. In Miami, FL, on March 4, 1957, founders David Edgerton and James McLamore conceived their perfect burger using their signature preparation: flame-broiled beef. That burger — a quarter-pounder with ripe, juicy tomatoes, crispy lettuce, mayo, ketchup, onions, and briny pickles — appeared on the Burger King menu a week later for a mere 37 cents and forever became a whopping success.  

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Burger King Corporation  

Pizza Hut  

Year Opened: 1958  

First Location: Wichita, KS  

Bite of History: On May 31, 1958, with just $600, Frank and Dan Carney opened the doors of their first pizzeria on a busy corner in Wichita, Kansas. Because of the small structure, their sign could only accommodate a name nine letters long. The brothers wanted to use “pizza,” but a family member pointed out that the building looked much like a hut — and the first Pizza Hut was born. The menu consisted of only 10-inch and 13-inch thin-crust pies plus the usual toppings. It wasn’t until 1980 that the thicker-crust “pan pizza” was introduced. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Pizza Hut has expanded its menu over the years to include buffalo wings, cheesy bites, and the latest: pastas.  

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Yum! Brands  

Taco Bell  

Year Opened: 1961  

First Location: Downey, CA  

Bite of History: In 1954, Taco Bell founder Glen Bell opened Bell’s Drive-In in San Bernardino, California. Seeing the fast-food industry’s growth, Bell expanded to open the first Taco Bell in 1961 at 7126 Firestone Boulevard in Downey, California. It wasn’t long before the restaurant was franchised, and in 1978, PepsiCo, Inc., purchased the chain through an exchange of stock. Taco Bell thrived under PepsiCo, creating such memorable ad campaigns as “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” Today, over 2 billion tacos and 1 billion burritos are served in Taco Bell each year, but you won’t find them at Bell’s first location. Though no longer a Taco Bell, the original building still stands today.  

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Taco Bell Corp.  


Year Opened: 1965  

First Location: Bridgeport, CT  

Bite of History: The first Subway opened as Pete’s Super Submarines on September 28, 1965, named after co-founder, physicist, and family friend Dr. Peter Buck, who lent 17-year-old Fred DeLuca $1,000 to start the sandwich business. The hope was that the shop would finance DeLuca’s college education. The original menu consisted of seven cold sandwiches with 11 ingredients: meat, bread, onions, tomatoes, green pepper, olives, oil, and seasonings, plus cheese. The concept became a wild success, and one year later the two partnered on a second location. The only issue: The name Pete’s Submarines sounded like “pizza marines,” which prompted several customers to order pizza. The founders decided to drop the “Pete’s” and soon settled on Subway to convey the sandwich that made them popular.  

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Subway  


Year Opened: 1969  

First Location: Columbus, OH  

Bite of History: In the late 1950s, Dave Thomas and business partner Phil Clauss had the good fortune of working with the legendary founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Harland Sanders. In 1962, Thomas was charged with turning around four underperforming KFC restaurants. If he succeeded, the high school dropout would become a millionaire. Six years later, he fulfilled his obligation and was hired as a regional director. A year later, Thomas left KFC to pursue his own restaurant concept. On November 15, 1969, inside an old car dealership, Thomas opened Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers (named after his 8-year-old daughter, Melinda Lou, nicknamed “Wendy” by her siblings), selling made-to-order burgers for just 55 cents. Today, there are more than 6,000 Wendy’s worldwide.  

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Wendy’s International  


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