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!

  • 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.

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    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.