Things We Just Learned About Fast Food Pioneers That Made Us Hungry For More

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Vote up all the facts about fast food founders you find fascinating.

Fast food is big business; Americans spend an estimated $200 billion per year on it, and internationally the fast food market value is around $930 billion. Chains such as McDonald's, KFC, Jack in the Box, and Subway have huge name recognition not just in the US, but all over the world.

But who are the individuals who founded some of the world's most iconic fast-food brands, and how did they come up with the idea of venturing into this competitive industry? Some, like Subway's cofounder, were still in their teens when they opened their first restaurant. Others landed in the food industry only after working in others. 

A handful of these classic businesses are still owned by family members of the original founder/s. Others were sold off long ago. And some founders, like the McDonald brothers, had to fight to keep their legacy from being erased.

Below are stories of how some of the most famous fast food chains were born - vote up the best!


  • 1
    481 VOTES

    Wendy's Founder Dave Thomas Was The Star Mentee Of Colonel Sanders

    Dave Thomas opened his first Wendy's fast food restaurant in Columbus, OH, in November 1969. By that time he had been involved in the food service industry for more than two decades; at 15 he dropped out of school to take a full-time job at the Hobby House Restaurant in Fort Wayne, IN.

    Thomas was head cook when Harland Sanders came to Fort Wayne in the mid-1950s looking for restaurant owners interested in turning their businesses into a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. Hobby House owner Phil Clauss was interested, so Thomas became a cook for this new KFC franchise.

    Sanders quickly became a mentor for Thomas, with the latter claiming the former “saved” him by giving him a big opportunity at a time when he was struggling to support his family. But Sanders disapproved when Clauss asked Thomas to take over four struggling KFC restaurants in Columbus, OH, in 1962. He didn't want Thomas running the restaurants because - as Thomas explained in a 1997 interview with POV Magazine - Sanders didn't like some of his methods:

    He used to chew me out. He didn't want people dumping his chicken. And I dumped it. He wanted you to ladle out from the pot… He couldn't see [dumping it was a more productive system]. He told me not to open up this restaurant… He said, “if you do [dump the chicken], don’t ever talk to me again.” I did, and he was really mad about that. I used to be real close with him, I used to travel with him and everything else. And our relationship was strained after that… I had to do what I had to do. You really couldn't reason with him.

    Thomas did have other ideas that Sanders approved of, however. It was Thomas who came up with the idea of the rotating red bucket KFC sign, and he talked the colonel into appearing in television ads for the fast food franchise. 

    Thomas eventually sold his interest in the KFC franchise to Sanders for $1.5 million. He used this money to open his first Wendy's, which he named after one of his daughters.

    481 votes
  • 2
    521 VOTES

    Little Caesars Founder Mike Ilitch Paid Rosa Parks’s Rent For Years

    In 1959, former minor league baseball player Mike Ilitch, with the help of his wife Marian, opened Little Caesar's Pizza Treat in a strip mall in Garden City, MI. From that humble start, the business grew to the point where, as of September 2021, it was the third-largest pizza chain by total sales in the US.

    In addition to his fast food empire, Ilitch, who passed in 2017, was probably best known for being the owner of two professional sports franchises: the MLB's Detroit Tigers and the NHL's Detroit Red Wings. He bought the Red Wings in 1982 and the Tigers a decade later. Under his ownership, the Red Wings won four Stanley Cups, while the Tigers made it to the World Series twice (although they failed to win a title).

    But Ilitch was far more than a successful businessman; he was a philanthropist who launched multiple projects, including one to help feed the hungry and another to help honorably discharged veterans transition to careers outside of the military. He also quietly paid the rent of a civil rights icon.

    Rosa Parks, who sparked the Montgomery, AL, bus boycott in the 1950s, had moved to Detroit. In 1994, the 81-year-old was robbed and assaulted at her apartment. According to a 2014 article in the Sports Business Journal, when Ilitch read that civil rights activist and federal judge Damon Keith was helping Parks find a safer place to live, he reached out to Keith and offered to pay Parks's rent. In the article, Keith said:

    It’s important that people know what Mr. Mike Ilitch did for Ms. Rosa Parks because it’s symbolic of what he has always done for the people of our city.

    Ilitch reportedly continued to pay Parks's rent until her passing in 2005.

    521 votes
  • Before he became known worldwide as the face of the fast food empire he founded, Harland Sanders cooked country dishes for customers - mainly truck drivers -  outside his roadside Shell gas station in Kentucky. He began doing this in 1930; interestingly, fried chicken was not on the menu, as the dish took too long to cook. Instead, the most popular items were country ham and steak dinners. 

    Sanders soon opened a restaurant across the street from the gas station, and it was there that he started selling fried chicken. In 1939, he began cooking the chicken in a pressure cooker and came up with what would eventually be known as KFC's famous “secret” recipe" of 11 herbs and spices.

    The first KFC franchise opened in 1952 in an unlikely location - Salt Lake City, UT. Operated by a friend of Sanders's named Pete Harman, it was at this restaurant where the famous bucket container was introduced and where the Kentucky Fried Chicken name was first used. Sanders, who was in his early 60s in 1952, spent the next few years signing up franchises around the country. In 1964, he sold his company to a group of investors for $2 million, although he became a salaried brand ambassador. He later became critical of the franchise's product and sued the company for $122 million (the suit was settled out of court). 

    Sanders, who passed in 1980 at the age of 90, was known as a bit of a hothead. Back when he was still running his gas station, he got into a feud with a rival station owner named Matt Stewart, who was angered by the fact that Sanders would paint signs advertising his business on barns in the area. When Sanders learned Stewart was trying to paint over one of the signs, he and two Shell Oil representatives went to confront the other man. According to the account in Josh Ozersky’s book, Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, the argument turned violent; Stewart shot and killed Robert Gibson, Shell Oil's district manager. Sanders then shot Stewart, hitting him in the shoulder. 

    Stewart was sentenced to 18 years in prison for murder. All charges against Sanders ended up being dropped.

    430 votes
  • Brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened their first restaurant  -  a roadside joint called McDonald's Famous Barbeque - in San Bernardino, CA, in 1948. When they realized that hamburgers were the biggest seller, they briefly closed shop to streamline the business, making service more efficient and fast. They soon created a kitchen assembly line called the “Speedy Service System” that helped revolutionize the fast food industry; it could deliver a complete meal to a customer in less than 30 seconds.

    But customers, accustomed to having carhop service at other fast food places, hated the new system where they had to get out of their cars and go to a counter to place their orders. Within a few months, however, the McDonalds started to get a steady stream of customers, and before long the brothers were seeing profits of about $100,000 per year.

    In 1952, the McDonalds began offering franchises. For a fee of less than $1,000, an entrepreneur got an operating manual, the loan of a counter employee for a week to demonstrate how to run the store, and blueprints for a specially designed red-and-white tiled restaurant, complete with attached golden arches.

    Depending on the source, the brothers had franchises in between six and 20 locations at the time they met milkshake mixer salesman Ray Kroc in 1954. He persuaded them to expand the business, and opened his first McDonald's franchise in Des Plaines, IL, in 1955. 

    The brothers and Kroc fought over control of the company over the next few years; in 1961 the latter bought the business, and the rights to the McDonald's name for $2.7 million. (As of 2017, the company was worth more than $100 billion). After buying the company, Kroc changed Richard McDonald's original design of the golden arches to the current design.

    The deal did not include rights to the original McDonald's in San Bernardino, a fact that enraged Kroc, who admitted: “I was so mad I wanted to throw a vase through the window. I hated their guts.” Even the brothers changing the name of the original restaurant to The Big M didn't appease him. As vengeance, Kroc built a McDonald's not far away from The Big M; after a few years of trying to compete with the mega chain, The Big M had to close down.

    Kroc began referring to himself as the founder of McDonald's, which didn't sit well with the McDonald brothers. In a 1991 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Richard McDonald stated:

    Suddenly, after we sold, my golly, he elevated himself to the founder… Up until the time we sold, there was no mention of Kroc being the founder, If we had heard about it, he would be back selling milkshake machines.

    In a 2017 feature for CBS Sunday Morning promoting the film The Founder - which purported to tell the real story of how the fast food giant came to be -  Richard McDonald's grandson Jason McDonald French spoke about the family legacy: 

    As children we weren't allowed to talk about it. Our parents didn't want us going around saying we were the grandson of Richard McDonald. It's always kind of been that family secret that no one really talked about. We never really advertised it.

    French added that his grandfather never really talked to him about Kroc: “Ray Kroc was kind of a touchy subject… he [Richard McDonald] worked with Ray for years, and they had a great relationship. Up until the end.”

    At the time of the 1961 sale, Kroc allegedly offered the McDonald brothers a handshake deal that guaranteed them a half percent royalty on all future McDonald's proceeds. The family claimed that Kroc never paid them a cent. In 2017, that equated to about $100 million a year. But French stated the family didn't hold a grudge against Kroc: 

    My grandfather was never bitter over it. So why would we be bitter over something that my grandfather wasn't bitter over?

    303 votes
  • In 1941, Robert Oscar Peterson started a small fast food chain in San Diego, CA, called Topsy’s Drive-In. Later renamed Oscar's, it was known for its circus-themed décor, including a funny-looking round-headed clown that would eventually become the chain's famous mascot.

    Peterson renamed the Oscar's on El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego Jack in the Box in 1951. With the aid of its drive-thru and a two-way intercom that let customers place orders from the comfort of their cars, the restaurant became quite successful; soon, all of the Oscar's locales were renamed Jack in the Box.

    Red's Giant Hamburg, which opened in Springfield, MO, in 1947, is widely credited with being the first drive-thru restaurant in the US. And a restaurant in Anchorage, AK, is thought to be the first to utilize a two-way intercom system. But until Peterson, no one had thought of putting a two-way intercom in a drive-thru restaurant. Peterson hid the device inside a giant clown's head; this greatly reduced customers' wait for food, as they could place their orders before driving up to the window. More modern versions of this two-way intercom are still in wide use in the fast food industry.

    Peterson, who passed in 1994, sold Jack in the Box to Ralston-Purina in 1967. By that time, the franchise had grown to more than 300 locations.

    227 votes
  • On October 22, 1948, Harry and Esther Snyder, recent transplants from the Pacific Northwest, opened the first In-N-Out Burger stand in the Baldwin Park area of Southern California. At first they were the only employees; he did the cooking and she oversaw the business. According to Stacy Perman, author of In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules, the restaurant was Harry's idea; he believed that what busy Americans needed in their food was “a place people can get their sandwiches and go.”

    As his nephew Bob Meserve told Perman, Harry hated cheap food: “He wanted to take the lettuce off the ground, the tomato off the vine and the onion and prepare the burger fresh right now.” Esther agreed with her nephew's recollection:

    Mr. Snyder stressed quality from the first day he opened for business. No matter the price, he believed that the customer deserved the best product they could produce. 

    The stand was a hit from the start; Perman estimated the couple sold approximately 2,000 hamburgers in its first month of operation. Because the Snyders refused to buy anything on credit or to franchise their restaurant, the In-and-Out empire grew slowly. When Harry succumbed to cancer in 1976, there were just 18 In-N-Out restaurants, all in Southern California.

    The Snyders had two sons, Guy and Rich. According to friends of the family, Rich was a conservative corporate type, while Guy was a rebellious type who struggled with a drug problem that got out of control after he was in a serious motorcycle accident in the mid-1970s. After Harry's passing, the family decided that 24-year-old Rich would become the company's president, while his slightly older brother became executive vice president. Esther, meanwhile, became the secretary-treasurer.

    According to Meserve, “Rich was shrewder as a business person. Harry was old school and Richard was new school. Rich had vision. He knew what he wanted to accomplish.” A born-again Christian, Rich came up with the idea to put Bible verses on cups and burger wrappers.

    In 1992, In-N-Out Burger opened its 80th restaurant, located in Las Vegas, NV. But tragedy struck on December 15, 1993, when Rich perished in a plane crash. He had visited his estranged brother just one day prior to his death in the hope of repairing their relationship. Now Guy was expected to take his brother's place at the company. He became the new chairperson, but much of the actual work running the company was left to Esther and some of the longer-term employees. 

    The company kept expanding; by 1997 it had 124 locations. In 1999, Guy died of an accidental drug overdose, leaving a 79-year-old Esther and her teenage granddaughter Lynsi Snyder to keep the company going. Internal strife began to show its face, and things turned nasty in 2006 when longtime company vice president Richard Boyd sued In-N-Out. He claimed Lynsi and her second husband were trying to take control of the company away from Esther, and that they had forced employees to attend Bible studies and pray at meetings. The company countersued, but the conflict was settled out of court and Boyd left the company.

    Esther passed in 2006, leaving Lynsi, then 24, in sole control of the company. Despite the tragedy and turmoil, In-N-Out continued to thrive, growing to more than 300 locations across the West and Southwest. Although Lynsi rarely grants in interviews, in 2015 she told CBS she had no plans of taking the company public:

    The only reason we would do that is for the money, and I wouldn’t do it. My heart is totally connected to this company because of my family, and the fact that they are not here — I have a strong tie to keep this the way they would want it.

    217 votes