Food & Drink

14 Restaurant Chains That Changed America

Influential restaurant chains
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Restaurant chains have left an undeniable imprint on American culture. Without them, where would we feed during endless drives across desolate highways? How would Tarantino have introduced us to Jules and Vincent? Who would sponsor our professional sports stadiums?

Not all chains are created equal, though. Some, like the 14 we honor below, have been true game-changers -- not because they slapped their name on a college football bowl game, but because they greatly influenced the way Americans and (sometimes) the world eats.

White Castle
Courtesy of White Castle

White Castle

Founded 1921; 385 locations
White Castle was born a few years after World War I ended -- nearly two decades before McDonald's came to be. This explains why White Castle is so often cited as the starting point when looking for the birth of fast food.

Though it may be difficult to believe now, the humble hamburger was still fighting for legitimacy back then. "At the time, self-respecting moms would not feed their children hamburgers," said White Castle vice president Jamie Richardson. "Upton Sinclair had written The Jungle, and it wasn't a flattering picture of the meatpacking industry or beef in general."

White Castle fought this perception with an emphasis on cleanliness -- gleaming uniforms, polished porcelain and stainless steel surfaces, and tiny beef burgers being ground and steamed on a bed of onions in full view of the customers. Oh, and it didn't hurt that the burgers were sold for a mere nickel -- a solid value even back then. The cardboard containers and low price point also helped White Castle pioneer the practice of carry-out, according to Richardson, noting the "Buy 'em Buy the Sack" slogan that was prominent in the company's marketing for decades.

White Castle is still owned by the descendants of Billy Ingram, who established the brand in Wichita, Kansas, and the chain's relatively modest number of locations hasn't slowed its cultural influence. There's a reason Harold and Kumar would settle for nothing less.

McDonald's

Founded 1940; 36,000+ locations
Talking about McDonald's having influence over the way America eats is like talking about the sun having influence over the way Americans see. After all, every restaurant has an origin story. Not every restaurant becomes so ubiquitous that said story merits a movie starring Michael Keaton.

Subway might have passed McDonald's a few years back in terms of number of international locations, but McDonald's remains the behemoth that immediately comes to mind when you think about a global fast-food powerhouse. How many food brands have inspired a (since disproven) geopolitical doctrine suggesting that no two countries with a McDonald's would go to war with each other?

With tremendous influence naturally comes debate over the nature of that influence, so it's natural that McDonald's becomes a flashpoint when it comes to topics ranging from childhood obesity to automation, both of which require far too much discussion to deal with in full here. Still, the fact that McDonald's inevitably finds itself central to such discussions is a testament to its unshakeable position as the alpha of American fast food. That first Happy Meal is still a rite of childhood. That first Big Mac is still a rite of... later childhood. The Golden Arches are still a welcome beacon on a long drive. And none of that is likely to change anytime soon.

Colonel Sanders
Courtesy of KFC

KFC

Founded 1952; 19,950+ locations
Thirty-seven years since he went to the big chicken shack in the sky, Colonel Harland Sanders is more present than ever, taking the form of various comedians in television spots, lording over a crazy new VR training program, and even emblazoned on the head of obscure guitar legend Buckethead.

But as long as there's been KFC, there's been the Colonel. From the moment he started selling his patented finger-lickin' chicken in North Corbin, Kentucky, outside a gas station in 1930, he was the face of the product. And as he expanded the brand (the first official Kentucky Fried Chicken opened in Salt Lake City in 1952), Sanders himself cruised around the country to court investors and partners with his glorious plan to popularize southern comfort food. He began franchising in 1952, essentially setting the template for the fast-food franchise structure to come. And nearly nine decades later, his spirit of entrepreneurial chicken-slinging lives on. 

"Part of how he grew the company was by developing solid franchise partnerships across the US, some of which are still in place today," said Kevin Hochman, US President of KFC. "In fact, many of KFC franchisees only own one or two restaurants, so ensuring they make our hand-prepared world-famous Kentucky Fried Chicken consistently in our kitchens across the US is no easy feat."

Sanders emerged in a time when burgers were king, specializing in a product that traditionally takes a lot longer to cook than patties. But that didn't stop him -- his name isn't Private Sanders, after all. He streamlined, becoming the first fast-food operation to use pressure cookers and developing a 25-minute streamlined process that every single KFC still utilizes to this day. Slow food suddenly got fast because of the Colonel. 

And all these years later, the Colonel remains one of the most recognizable faces in the game, whether his smiling face is being used to shill weird fried-chicken hot dogs in Korea, the legendary Double Down, Nashville hot chicken, or the same old bucket of Original Recipe that’s been finger lickin’ since the Depression. He is the original -- and the ultimate -- spokesman-mascot. Everyone from Dave Thomas to Papa John owes the Colonel a debt, and so do the people who operate each and every fast-food restaurant post in America.

Waffle House
Waffle House

Waffle House

Founded 1955; 1,881 locations
You can walk into almost any Waffle House and think you're in the only Waffle House. The food's the same as the other locations, as are the uniforms and seating arrangement, but each Waffle House feels like a unique mom-and-pop operation complete with its die-hard regulars and staffers who give the small shoebox of the restaurant its soul. It just so happens that mom and pop have expanded to nearly 2,000 locations and, in doing so, managed to become the paragon of the American, down-home diner experience.

“(Founders) Joe Rogers and Tom Forkner used to joke that they wanted to open up about 10 restaurants and go fishing. We joke that they never went fishing,” said WaHo communications director Pat Warner of the restaurant chain’s rapid expansion.

Over the decades, WaHo transformed into a pure distillation of Americana, a 24-hour oasis for families, blue-collar workers, white-collar professionals, and groggy post-bar crowds looking to soak up their sins with a pile of bacon and a fluffy waffle. Even more impressive, the Waffle House has managed to become an omnipresent fixture in the south -- there’s one on every corner, sometimes across the street from another location -- and beyond not via extensive sloganeering or advertising, but by word of mouth. Lots and lots of word of mouth.

“Our brand has grown organically. We don’t advertise... we might do a tie-in with a local high school,” said Warner. “We just let the experience speak for itself, and that’s what’s built the brand. That’s what endears us as a brand to our Waffle Nation. We just serve bacon and eggs and take care of people. Everything else takes care of itself.”

Domino's

Founded 1960; 14,200+ locations
The little pizza sign on top of the delivery car. The crush-proof corrugated cardboard box. The online pizza tracker. Startlingly difficult Nintendo crossovers. Domino’s didn’t set out to change the way the world ate when it opened up its first shop near the Eastern Michigan University campus in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1960. They just wanted to deliver pizzas to their captive audience of hungry college kids.

But in perfecting the inexpensive, crowd-pleasing pies and delivering them to people’s doorsteps, the chain more or less defined what most people around the world imagine when they think of pizza night. And through that delivery, they set the gold standard for the entire industry, inventing a whole damn way of life where the restaurant comes to you.

“We single-handedly created an expectation that when you order food from any restaurant from this point forward, you expect to get your food in 30 minutes or less,” said Tim McIntyre, Domino’s VP of communications and a 32-year veteran of the company.

Now, Domino’s operates 14,200 pizza shops around the globe, and it’s continuing to grow amid its recent “OK, we suck, but we’re getting better” mea culpa campaign, reigniting loyalty across the board. We currently live in a golden age of pizza, with artisan pie shops popping up everywhere and the big chains vying for dominance. But one thing has never changed: When you think of delivery pizza, you immediately think of Domino’s.

Doritos Locos Tacos
Lee Breslouer/Thrillist

Taco Bell

Founded 1962; 7,000+ locations
Stunt foods and fast food go together like, um, Cheetos and mac & cheese? Donuts and meat? Look, what we're saying is stunt foods are a big deal, but not all are created equal, and no fast-food chain has managed to leverage its innovations into part of its identity as successfully -- or as deliciously -- as Taco Bell.

This is, after all, a company that has unleashed upon the world the wonders of tacos with fried chicken for shells, the Grilled Stuft Nacho, the Enchirito, the Mexican pizza, the biscuit taco, and the coup de grace, the Doritos Locos Taco. Some work. Some go the way of the Bell Beefer. But the thing that really sets T-Bell apart — aside from offering them at Fourthmeal — is the way each of their new “innovations” sends ripples through the food world, and instantly develops a rabid following.

“It could very easily be looked at as stunt food... we don’t really like that word around here,” said spokesman Matt Prince. “That’s our fuel: When we’re creating something, how do we make it not stunt food?”

And while Taco Bell -- also one of the first restaurants to sport brand-specific architecture -- might seem to forge its recipes in pot smoke and moxie, it takes years of testing and development to get even the simplest thing to market, as evidenced by the Quesalupa’s seven-year journey to your stomach. And your Insta feed.

You see, T-Bell has also managed to leverage their unique limited-time items into internet fame, with each new product dominating social media, generating interest and curious customers who come for the fried-egg taco shell, but stay for a gordita. And even when an item disappears, it takes on a special life all its own, as evidenced by the Beefy Crunch Movement, a huge online community dedicated to resurrecting the retired fan fave. And lucky you, it’s also an innovator in customization, meaning you can finesse most of these retired items if you know how to order. Except the naked chicken... maybe we should get a movement started.

Benihana
Courtesy of Benihana

Benihana

Founded 1964; 66 locations
Benihana's never really gone expansion crazy like some of the other entries on this list -- its modest 66 locations just slightly top its 53 years in business. And yet, its cultural heft is undeniable, getting name checked by rappers and emerging as the date-spot of choice for 40-year-old virgins. Oh, and Tyrese has one in his damn house.

Even if you've never been, you probably know the drill. The onion volcano. The shrimp-tail-flip into the hat. The spirit of showmanship traces back to the company's founder, Rocky Aoki, who came to America from Tokyo on a wrestling scholarship and eventually parlayed an ice cream cart where he sold cones embellished with paper umbrellas into a restaurant empire that's become synonymous with birthdays and other celebratory gatherings, making communal dining cool before it emerged as a "new trend" in the 21st century.

On top of that, Benihana managed to convince Americans that an Asian restaurant was worth spending big, special-occasion money on -- no small feat in 1964 when World War II was still very central in the country's collective memory, and considering America is still wrestling with the ramifications of certain immigrant cuisines being perceived as cheap. "It was ahead of its time in the sense that it was asking people to have a little bit of faith that what they served wasn't going to be scary," said Jeannie Means, vice president of marketing at Benihana. "It certainly required a leap of faith to be seated with strangers."

Of course, Benihana's signature steak and chicken dishes hardly feel like a reach in an American dining culture where sushi is available at grocery stores, but Benihana's appeal has persisted, and inspired a slew of special occasion-centric concepts from The Melting Pot to a slew of teppanyaki imitators. But there's still just one Benihana.

Courtesy of Ruth's Chris

Ruth's Chris

Founded 1965; 153 locations
When the majority of us think about a sit-down dinner at a chain restaurant, we envision a Tour of Italy, or perhaps a basket of Cheddar Bay Biscuits. But once her upscale New Orleans steakhouse started to take off in the ’60s, restaurateur Ruth Fertel realized that you didn’t have to skimp on the pomp just because your circumstances gave you the ability to expand globally. 

Ruth’s Chris perfected the art of taking fine dining to the franchise next level in a way that few others have matched. After all, there’s no Peter Luger in Orlando, yet Ruth's usually manages to command the respect of a local favorite as it spreads its influence. It’s eclipsed competitors like Morton’s and paved the way for the McCormick & Schmick's of the world, serving not only as go-to date spot for special nights, but oftentimes as one of the nicest, highest-quality restaurants in the cities where they set up shop. Especially in less trendy food towns, the arrival of a Ruth’s Chris is a sign that the city’s "made it" in many minds. And they’ve repeated that success dozens of times.

But what really sets the place apart, aside from those big honking’ plates of butter-kissed steak, is the fact that each Ruth’s Chris feels like its own thing, a steakhouse tailored to each location rather than a themed outpost shilling novelty foods from the region it calls home (cough... Bloomin’ Onions). "We feel like we are a collection of local steak houses," said vice president of culinary development Abdiel Aleman, via email. And in keeping that spirit, Ruth’s Chris brought an intimate, fine dining experience to places that had long settled for Sizzler over a plate that literally sizzles.

TGI Fridays

Founded 1965; 992 locations
You might not think of the current iteration of TGI Fridays as the it place for hot young singles to get together as you idly swipe through Tinder while feasting on endless mozz sticks and wondering where all the flair went. But the truth is, the original Midtown location became one of Manhattan's first "singles bars" when Alan Stillman opened it in 1965 just as the birth control-fueled sexual revolution was getting in full... swing (sorry).

The huge crowds (and the proportion of the crowds that were female) prompted Memphis entrepreneurs Dan Scoggin and Walt Henrion to inquire about franchising, and soon towns like Phoenix and Dallas had their own hot spots in places where the notion of single women heading to a bar unaccompanied was even more of a foreign concept. "One of the keys to our success was having a lot of single attractive women feeling very comfortable coming to Fridays," Henrion said.

As more and more locations opened, Fridays' casual, freewheeling atmosphere and relatively modest prices began to attract more families, beginning the transition from nightlife epicenter to the more sedate version most patrons expect today. But the influence continued -- Henrion mentions both Houston's and Bennigan's as two of the many successful chains that can trace their influence back to Fridays.

"[Bennigan's founder] Norman Brinker and his management team would come to Fridays in the early days and sit at a table and there was no question what they were doing -- taking notes and asking us questions and so forth," Henrion said.

And what would the casual American bar and grill be without the potato skin, which Fridays is credited with having brought to the masses in the early '70s. So basically, if you met your spouse in a bar and found yourself haggling with your offspring over the last potato skin in a casual family restaurant several years later, you can thank Fridays for having played a role in that entire process.

Wendy's

Founded 1969; 6,500+ locations
Founded at the very end of the '60s, Wendy's was a relatively younger combatant in the Burger Wars of the '80s compared to its chief rivals McDonald's and Burger King, both having had a decade or more head start. With rival companies spending furiously on advertising and cutting prices in search of an edge, Wendy's made a bold move at the end of the decade that would change the trajectory of how the country looks at fast food menus. No, it wasn't the "SuperBar."

Rather than continually discounting flagship items, Wendy's created a whole separate menu of items priced at 99 cents dubbed the "Super Value Menu", offering customers the chance to craft a meal out of a lineup of low-priced items. Dave told people about it, and they liked it. Naturally, many chains followed suit with their own version.

The dollar price point has proved increasingly difficult to stick to in recent years (stay strong Taco Bell!). McDonald's began moving away from its dollar menu in 2013 -- though there are rumblings it may be making a comeback in a different format. Wendy's pivoted to a 4 for $4 menu in 2015, allowing customers to combine items like a four-piece chicken nuggets, junior bacon cheeseburger, fries and a drink for less than a five-spot, according to director of brand communications Frank Vamos.

While prices and configurations will continue to evolve, Wendy's forever changed the way Americans think about attacking the menu when they pull up to the drive-thru.

Starbucks
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Starbucks

Founded 1971; 24,500+ locations
Back in the early '70s, coffee culture could best be defined by closing your eyes, throwing on some deep-cut Simon & Garfunkel, and envisioning some goateed beatnik snapping along while he plowed through a dog-eared copy of Desolation Angels.

My, how things have changed: That socially conscious musical poetry’s now a Paul McCartney exclusive, and that beatnik has been replaced by dozens of commuters, businesspeople, students, couriers, priests, rabbis... basically anyone who drinks coffee. Which is more or less everybody, thanks to Starbucks' unleashing the first wave of the “artisan” coffee movement that seemingly took over the world, planting a mermaid-emblazoned flag in every city, township, and country mile around the world. Then another one across the street.

Starbucks paved the way for other chains -- Biggby, Gloria Jeans, Tim Horton’s, Peet’s, Seattle’s Best, and others among them -- to start brewing better coffee for the masses, and made fancy stuff like the cappuccino the norm in small towns and metropolises alike. It is the inescapable architect of modern American (and, now, world) coffee culture, to the point where words like “grande” have replaced “large” in many people’s vocabularies. While there have been some casualties along the way (RIP, several places called The Elbow Room), coffee culture became what it is today the minute the 'Bucks started expanding. Without it, there would be no Central Perk, no hilarity in hearing your grandma talk about “cuppu-cinis,” and no last line of defense against bad gas-station coffee

California Pizza Kitchen
Courtesy of California Pizza Kitchen

California Pizza Kitchen

Founded 1985; 300+ locations
To be clear -- California Pizza Kitchen (or CPK if you're into the whole brevity thing) did not create California cuisine, or California pizza for that matter. Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck and many other chefs had the jump on them. That said, CPK more than any other entity brought that spirit of freely drawing upon global influences and playfully dispensing with convention to swaths of America where the idea of stepping outside the sausage-pepperoni-mushroom conventions of topping a pizza marked a radical departure.

"Nobody was putting chicken on a pizza in the '80s, it just didn't exist," said Brian Sullivan, CPK's senior vice president of culinary innovation, who has been with the company since 1988 when it had but four locations. Now, Sullivan notes, you're hard pressed to find a pizza joint or even a sports bar that doesn't offer some kind of take on a barbecue chicken pizza.

As CPK expanded in the '80s and '90s, its wide-ranging embrace of different ingredients and influences often served as the catalyst for expanded culinary horizons in a pre-internet, pre-Food Network middle America. Sullivan recalls numerous experiences having to explain to nervous new customers what cilantro was, and it didn't end there.

"Los Angeles obviously had quite a few Thai restaurants, but when you look at some of these other cities across the country, unless you're in a big metropolitan area you didn't know what Thai peanut sauce was," Sullivan said. "And a lot of people had never eaten duck before, or they weren't familiar with hoisin sauce."

It's hard to imagine today in an environment where everyone with a smartphone fancies themselves a budding food photographer or restaurant critic, but before food culture exploded to its current critical mass, CPK was there expanding America's palate, one convention-bending pizza at a time.

Chipotle
Courtesy of Chipotle

Chipotle

Founded 1993; 2,300+ locations
There’s a Chipotle of pizza. A Chipotle of burgers. Indian, Mediterranean, Italian, and Thai? There’s a Chipotle of those too. But there’s only one actual Chipotle.

The cult has grown exponentially since 1993, when Steve Ells decided to up the fast-casual game and more or less define it using fresh, locally sourced and largely organic ingredients for a Mexican-inspired take on the sub-shop model: Point at what you want, watch it become a burrito or taco or a quesarito, if you want to annoy the worker with that secret-menu business. It was fast, it was efficient, and people loved it... so much that the restaurant expanded more quickly than a tortilla stuffed with double meat.

“It was originally supposed to be a cash cow to help (Ells) open a ‘real’ restaurant, The problem that he had, such that it was a problem, was that the first Chipotle was successful beyond his expectations,” said PR director Chris Arnold. “So he opened a second one thinking, ‘If I do another one, I can be on my way to the real restaurant even faster.’ The second one was more successful than the first. So he thought ‘one more’ and ‘one more.’ Now there are more than 2,300 of them.”

Throughout that expansion, Chipotle maintained its mission to change the perception of fast food, focused on those fresh ingredients and utilizing a fresh-prepared catering model for serving its wares, blazing a trail for elevated restaurants in a now-crowded field of over 500 fast-casual joints that have emerged since Ells opened.

Yet none have managed to so successfully mix sustainability while sustaining its customer base, which remained ravenously cultish despite some recent PR nightmares and near-riots when the brand temporarily stopped serving carnitas. (The margaritas probably helped.) Chipotle stayed committed to its cross-country pledge to go as sustainable as possible, showing that fast food and fresh food aren’t mutually exclusive. Truly, the chain is the Chipotle of Chipotle.

Shake Shack
Courtesy of Shake Shack

Shake Shack

Founded 2004; 137 locations
Shake Shack didn't set out to be a publicly traded company and massive industry success story that headlines business school lectures when it began, as the now-famous story goes, as a humble hot dog cart from Danny Meyer's Union Square hospitality group supporting an art installation in New York's Madison Park. "No one ever believed there would be a second, let alone 137 in 12 countries," CEO Randy Garutti said.

But it happened. Why? Garutti cites several outside factors, such as the explosion in social media (Facebook was getting rolling right around the same time as Shake Shack) and the rise of a generation raised on the Food Network possessing a heightened interest in what they're eating. "All these people all of the sudden really wanted to know about their food and cared where it came from," Garutti said.

When Shake Shack finally opened that second location five years later, the iPhone had been invented (with Instagram soon to follow), and Americans were about to stare down their New York friends smashed, griddled burgers lovingly surrounded by a nostalgia-inducing wrapper and a Martin's Famous Potato Roll and involuntarily think to themselves, "I want that."

Their social media-fueled meteoric rise has put Shake Shack at the forefront of what's now known as the "better burger" category, betting that Americans will be willing to pay a higher price for the all-too familiar burger and fries concept if that purchase comes with better-sourced ingredients (Shake Shack uses hormone and antibiotic-free beef) and even better-compensated workers. That, combined with a marked attention to detail when it comes to everything from design to the practice of partnering with local chefs when entering a new market to give locations some sense of individuality, has helped create a noticeable enthusiasm around Shake Shack that many restaurants would love to cultivate.

"We've created these very comfortable, experiential restaurants," Garutti said. "We want you to come in. We want you to feel great. We don't want you to just drive around the back. I think you're seeing more and more of that."

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Matt Lynch once consoled himself with a Ruth's Chris steak after a failed audition for Teen Jeopardy. Get the whole sordid story @MLynchChi.


Senior editor Andy Kryza has also been changed by these chains, and has the stretch marks to prove it. Follow him to onion volcanoes and Crave Cases @apkryza