The Humble Origins of 11 Chain Restaurants

They’re seemingly everywhere, yet they all started somewhere. Here are the stories of the humble beginnings of 11 chain restaurants.

1. Applebee’s

The world’s largest casual dining chain celebrated 30 years of eatin’ good in the neighborhood in 2010. The original Applebee’s, which was named T.J. Applebee's Rx for Edibles & Elixirs, opened in Atlanta in 1980. The founders of the original restaurant, including Bill and T.J. Palmer, wanted to name the restaurant Appleby’s, but that spelling had already been registered. Cinnamon’s and Peppers, two other names considered, were taken as well. The Palmers settled on T.J. Applebee’s, which was just different enough from their first choice. “Menu items ranging from munchies to steak and quail are served at round, high-topped tables on platforms,” read one newspaper review from 1981. A second location was opened in Atlanta before T.J. Palmer’s ownership group sold the restaurant concept in 1983. The name was changed to Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill in 1986 and became the first casual dining chain to hit 1,000 locations in 1998.

2. Bob’s Big Boy

In 1936, Robert Wian sold his Desoto roadster for $350 to purchase a hamburger stand he named Bob’s Pantry on Colorado Blvd. in Glendale, California. The double-decker burger Wian created for a hungry group of musicians that wandered into the restaurant late one night and asked for something different was an instant sensation. Wian, who named his creation the Big Boy after a chubby kid in overalls who frequented Bob’s Pantry, opened a second location in Los Angeles in 1939. In 1969, one year after McDonald’s introduced its Big Mac, Wian sold his chain of 600 Big Boy restaurants to the Marriott Corporation for $7 million. The oldest standing Bob’s Big Boy is in Toluca Lake, Calif.

3. Bob Evans

Bob Evans began producing sausage on his farm in 1948 for a 12-stool diner he owned in southeastern Ohio. His patrons raved about the sausage, prompting Evans to enter the sausage-making business on a larger scale. Bob Evans Farms was launched in 1953, and when the number of visitors to his farm began to increase, Evans saw an opportunity. Evans opened a small restaurant called the Sausage Shop in front of his brick farmhouse in Rio Grande, Ohio, in 1962. The Sausage Shop is considered the first of Bob Evans’ now-famous chain restaurants. Today, Evans’ farmhouse, known as the Homestead, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

4. California Pizza Kitchen

In 1985, federal prosecutors Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax opened the first California Pizza Kitchen in Beverly Hills. Rosenfield and Flax, who were inspired by Wolfgang Puck’s popular Spago restaurant in West Hollywood and hired Puck’s original pizza chef at CPK, read Ray Kroc’s autobiography prior to starting their business. Today, the chain has grown to more than 250 restaurants.

5. Cheesecake Factory

In 1972, Oscar and Evelyn Overton moved from Detroit to a suburb of Los Angeles to launch a wholesale bakery specializing in cheesecakes. Six years later, the Overton’s son, David, opened a salad and sandwich shop in Beverly Hills that featured 10 flavors of his mom’s cheesecake. One of the main purposes of the shop was to get local restaurateurs to carry the Overton’s cheesecake in their own establishments, but it turned into a booming business of its own. Overton opened a second restaurant in Marina Del Rey in 1983. The rest was history.

6. Cracker Barrel

In 1969, Dan Evins, who worked in his family’s gasoline business, opened the first Cracker Barrel Old Country Store off Highway 109 in Lebanon, Tennessee. By 1977, 13 additional Cracker Barrel stores had opened. The goal of the original Cracker Barrel was to provide a place for motorists to fill their tanks and their stomachs, and the inspiration for the concept came from the general stores that Evins frequented as a child. According to the Cracker Barrel website, goods such as crackers were shipped to these stores in barrels, and when the barrels were empty, the base was often used for a checkerboard. The gift shop remains a staple of Cracker Barrels today.

7. Denny’s

Harold Butler founded Denny’s in Lakewood, Calif., in 1953 as Danny’s Donuts. First-year earnings totaled $120,000. Butler opened 20 additional shops and expanded the menu to include sandwiches and other entrees over the next six years before renaming his restaurants Denny’s. Butler began franchising Denny’s in 1963 and introduced its signature Grand Slam breakfast in Atlanta in 1977. In 2000, Denny’s opened a restaurant in Rhode Island, which was the only state without one.

8. IHOP

The first IHOP was opened by brothers Al and Jerry Lapin on July 7, 1958, in Toluca Lake, California. Part of the reason the Lapins chose Toluca Lake was to capitalize on the overflow crowd from Bob’s Big Boy. Al Lapin had operated a series of coffee carts in Los Angeles when fast-food chains started to take off and saw the potential for a fast-food restaurant that specialized in breakfast. Today, IHOP boasts more than 1,500 restaurants in all 50 states. IHOP purchased Applebee’s in 2007.

9. Red Lobster

Bill Darden opened the first Red Lobster in Lakeland, Fla., in 1968. The restaurant, which offered seafood at reasonable prices, was popular from the start and Darden soon opened four additional locations throughout Florida. In 1970, General Mills purchased Darden’s chain. The original restaurant was closed in 1997 after Darden determined that Lakeland would be better served by only one location.

10. TGI Friday’s

Alan Stillman opened the first T.G.I. Friday’s at First Avenue and 63rd St. in New York City in 1965—partially as a means of meeting airline stewardesses. “The other thing is that my timing was exquisite, because I opened T.G.I. Friday’s the exact year the pill was invented,” Stillman told the New City Reader last year. “I happened to hit the sexual revolution on the head, and the result was that, without really intending it, I became the founder of the first singles bar.” The first Friday’s featured Tiffany lamps, sawdust on the floor, and distinctive red and white striped awnings. First year revenues at the original Friday’s were $1 million. A second location opened in Memphis in 1970, and within 10 years, eight other T.G.I. Friday’s had opened. Stillman eventually sold Friday’s and launched Smith and Wollensky Steakhouse in 1977.

11. Waffle House

The original Waffle House opened on Labor Day 1955 on East College Avenue in Decatur, Georgia. In 2008, the 13-stool diner that launched more than 1,500 Waffle Houses reopened as a Waffle House museum, with vintage equipment and memorabilia displays of old uniforms and place settings. “That was the year McDonald’s and all the hamburger chains started doing takeout,” Waffle House co-founder Joe Rogers told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008 of his idea to open a restaurant with his neighbor, Tom Forkner. “We wanted to do sit-down, and we knew you couldn’t take out a waffle or it’d become flimsy.” 

10 Frank Facts About the Wienermobile

Business Wire
Business Wire

This year marks the 83rd anniversary of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, that effortlessly charming, street-legal marketing tool on wheels. The next time you’re in the vicinity of one—a fleet of six makes up to 1400 stops annually—take the time to reflect on the past, present, and future of history’s most famous locomoting hot dog.

1. The Wienermobile started as a kind of land sub. 


Oscar Mayer

In 1936, Carl Mayer, nephew of hot dog scion Oscar Mayer, suggested a marketing idea to his uncle: build a 13-foot-long mobile hot dog and cruise around the Chicago area handing out his “German wieners” to stunned pedestrians. Crafted from a metal chassis, the vehicle was operated by Carl, who could usually be seen with his torso sticking out from the cockpit.

2. The Wienermobile was once driven by "Little Oscar."

Throughout the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, Oscar Mayer enlisted various little people to portray “Little Oscar,” a company mascot sporting a chef’s hat. Little Oscar soon assumed piloting duties for the Wienermobile, waving to crowds and dispensing wiener whistles that kids could use to alert other children to the presence of the car in their neighborhood. Performer George Malchan portrayed the character from 1951 to 1987.

3. The Wienermobile disappeared for decades.

While novelty automobiles were all the rage circa World War II, Oscar Mayer saw interest wane in the 1960s and 1970s, as kitsch gave way to more contemporary advertising campaigns. But when the company put a Wiener back on the road for its 50th anniversary in 1986, they discovered a whole generation of consumers who were nostalgic for the car. The company ordered six new models in 1988.

4. Wienermobile drivers train at Hot Dog High.

Since resurrecting the marketing campaign, Oscar Mayer has trained aspiring Wienermobile drivers at Hot Dog High in Madison, Wisconsin. The company receives 1000 to 1500 applications for the 12 available positions annually, typically from college graduates looking for a road trip experience. Those selected for duty are given 40 hours of instruction and assigned a different region of the country. The company tracks their routes with a GPS.

5. Wienermobile passengers ride "shotbun."

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Wienermobile motorists—a.k.a. Hotdoggers—typically ride in pairs, with the driver keeping an eye on the road and the passenger acknowledging and waving to passersby who want to interact with the vehicle. This is known as riding “shotbun,” and the greetings are mandatory. Some occupants have reported that even after going off-duty, they’ll keep waving to other drivers out of habit.

6. The Wienermobile interior is just as delicious.

Wienermobile fans who are invited to board—and promise to fasten their “meat belts” before rolling—are treated to a rare peek inside the vehicle’s interior. Ketchup- and mustard-colored upholstery surround the six seats, with condiment "stains" dotting the floor; for parades, occupants can wave from the “bunroof.” Two accent hot dogs are parked on the dashboard.

7. The Wienermobile once crashed into a house.

Though it can be challenging to pilot an enormous hot dog, most Wienermobiles log mileage without incident. A rare exception: a 2009 accident near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when a driver attempted to back the vehicle out of a residential driveway, thought she was in reverse, but shot forward and bored into an unoccupied home.

8. Al Unser Jr. drove the Wienermobile for laps at the Indy 500.

While one might expect the Wienermobile to have the handling of a tube-shaped camper, some models were surprisingly nimble. Race car driver Al Unser Jr. took to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1988 and drove it for laps. The dog reached an impressive 110 miles per hour.

9. There's a version of the Wienermobile called a "Wienie-Bago."

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile WIENIE-BAGO
Oscar Mayer

Super Bowl attendees who couldn’t snag a hotel room in San Francisco for the 2016 showdown between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos had a pork-based solution: Oscar Mayer auctioned off two nights in their Wienie-Bago, an RV that sleeps four. Missed it? If you're in Chicago, you can rent a Wienermobile that sleeps two for $136 a night. A bed, outdoor dining area, and a fridge stocked with hot dogs are all included.

10. You can buy a miniature Wienermobile.

For the 2015 gift-giving season, Oscar Mayer issued a limited-edition, remote-controlled version of the Wienermobile. The 22.5-inch-long mini-dog sent collectors scrambling on Cyber Monday, when the company released just 20 for purchase at a time. The Rover is able to hold two hot dogs for transport across picnic tables. You can still find them on eBay.

Autumnal Dessert Spices and Cubed Meat Collide: Pumpkin Spice SPAM Now Exists

David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

Does sipping on a pumpkin spice latte ever make you think: “Man, I wish this were cubed meat”? Soon, it will be. According to NBC News, Hormel will start selling Pumpkin Spice SPAM on September 23.

It all started back in October of 2017, when Hormel announced via its Facebook page that pumpkin spice SPAM was coming—as a joke. The post clearly stated that it wasn’t real, but that didn’t stop scores of people from making comments about how it would probably taste delicious and asking where they could purchase a can.

Now, a Hormel publicist has confirmed to NBC News that the limited-edition, fall-themed flavor will soon be available to order online from Walmart or Spam.com.

"True to the brand’s roots, SPAM Pumpkin Spice combines deliciousness with creativity, allowing the latest variety to be incorporated into a number of dishes, from on-trend brunch recipes to an easy, pick-me-up snack,” Hormel told NBC News.

While Pumpkin Spice SPAM might not yet be accepted into pumpkin spice canon alongside lattes and muffins, it’s far from the strangest product that has been imbued with the mysterious, cinnamon-y spice blend to date; we’ll leave automotive exhaust spray and light bulbs to duke it out for that designation. And the Facebook commenters might have actually been onto something when they dared to suggest that Pumpkin Spice SPAM had palatal potential. After all, ham recipes often include sweet ingredients like maple syrup, brown sugar, and honey. And, according to TIME, the word spam was invented as a portmanteau of spiced ham.

Wondering what other SPAM innovations you might be missing out on? Check out these recipes from around the world.

[h/t NBC News]

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