Just last week, I saw a commercial announcing the 84th birthday (1936 – the same year that Mom was born) of the “Big Boy” restaurants chain and their signature, self-titled, double-decker, cheese burger. The “Big Boy” was introduced to the public long before Ray Kroc started the McDonald’s fast food chain, offering the same double-decker, cheese burger – slightly changing the name to “Big Mac”!
Funny note: In the mid-1970s, the McDonald’s Corporation was very upset, to say the least, when Mom started imitating their signature offerings and, likewise, slightly changing the name of her products to “Big Match”! The only difference was that Mom was selling the recipes, not the final products, so people could make their favorite products, at home, themselves (and at less of a cost than eating out).
I compared the “Big Boy” to the “Big Mac” – both offer 2 beef patties with a “special” sauce (resembling 1000 Island dressing), lettuce, pickles, onions, and cheese on a 3-piece, sesame seed bun. I found that the “Big Boy” is (normally*) “plated” and “presented” to you, in an eye-pleasing, palatable way, at your table, by a waiter/waitress (*except right now, during Covid-19 restrictions, as you can only get it as take-out/delivery in many areas).
Conversely, the “Big Mac” is assembled quickly, (some might say it’s “thrown” together) without regard for eye-pleasing palatability, and it’s served to you in a disposable, cardboard box at the cashier’s counter/drive-thru window. Additionally, you first have to pay for it, sight-unseen; then you can take your food to a table, yourself, to sit and eat; or you can leave with it, to eat elsewhere.
That’s basically what separates a restaurant chain apart from a fast food or “cafeteria-style” chain – how it’s ordered, along with being paid for first, and then how it’s received (in disposable packaging). I was inspired to look into what else classifies fast food chains from restaurant chains and which ones were the oldest in the U.S.
Although a wide variety of different foods, in either establishment, can be made FAST, the term, “fast food“, is a commercial term limited to food sold in a restaurant (or “store”) with frozen, preheated and/or precooked ingredients. In the restaurant realm, food that is made fast is called “short order”.
I found that a restaurant chain is a set of “related” eateries in different locations that are either under a shared corporate ownership or a franchising agreement. What depicts a restaurant/eatery (from the fast food establishments) is the majority of its food sales are in-store, with sit-down service, where the food is served in washable dishes and/or baskets for consumption on the premises.
[Of course, Covid-19 restrictions have affected that explanation, as most restaurants are, for now, limited to only take-out, curbside services and deliveries.]
Did you know that, fast-food and restaurant chains have been around for over a century? I formed a list of 30 of the oldest restaurant and fast food chains I could think of, but as I wrote a small paragraph about each one, it ended up being too long for one blog post. So, I’ve cut my list to give to you over the next few weeks’ blog entries. I stooped at 1940 for today’s blog entry and I will continue with the nostalgic list over the next week or two, as well.
Some information I learned from these three, wonderful articles: https://www.oldest.org/food/fast-food-chains/ and https://www.tasteofhome.com/collection/the-countrys-oldest-chain-restaurants/ and https://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Media/Slideshow/2017/01/13/26-Oldest-Restaurant-Chains-America?page=25 – along with material I gathered from Mom’s 40+, self-published cookbooks and hundreds of newsletter issues, as she has written about and made many imitations of the famous foods from almost all of the following chains. I’ll also re-share, with you, some of Mom’s recipes for these famous chains that I’ve shared in previous posts.
FROM MOM’S MEMORIES…
As seen in…
Gloria Pitzer’s Cookbook – The Best of the Recipe Detective (Balboa Press; Jan. 2018, p. 7)
FAMOUS FOODS FROM FAMOUS PLACES
THEY LAUGHED! THEY DOUBTED! They even tried to take me to court when some famous food companies insisted that I stop giving away their secrets. They couldn’t believe me when I said that I did NOT know, nor did I want to know, what they put in their so-called secret recipes. I did know that there are very few recipes that can’t be duplicated or imitated at home. And we could do them for much less than purchasing the original product. I proved…it can be and should be done!
FAMOUS FOODS FROM FAMOUS PLACES have intrigued good cooks for a long time – even before fast foods of the 1950’s were a curiosity. When cookbooks offer us a sampling of good foods, they seldom devote themselves to the dishes of famous restaurants. There is speculation among the critics as to the virtues of re-creating, at home, the foods that you can buy ‘eating out’, such as the fast food fares of the popular franchise restaurants. To each, his own!
Who would want to imitate ‘fast food’ at home? I found that over a million people who saw me demonstrate replicating some famous fast food products on The Phil Donahue Show (July 7, 1981) DID – and their letters poured in at a rate of over 15,000 a day for months on end! And while I have investigated the recipes, dishes, and cooking techniques of ‘fine’ dining rooms around the world, I received more requests from people who wanted to know how to make things like McDonald’s Special Sauce or General Foods Shake-N-Bake coating mix or White Castle’s hamburgers than I received for those things like Club 21’s Coq Au Vin.
Nathan’s Famous is the oldest restaurant chain I could find. It first opened as in 1916 on Coney Island (NY); founded by, husband and wife, Nathan and Ida Handwerker! They built a reputation on and are most famous for their all-beef franks and signature-spiced Coney sauce, which are also marketed in grocery stores in all 50 states. There are more than 300 Nathan’s Famous restaurants. The original one still stands at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues, in Coney Island, New York. Mom developed several of her own copycat versions of “Coney Sauce” over the decades, but never accredited any as being like that served by Nathan’s Famous restaurants.
A&W is the next oldest chain I could find. Originally, it started as a drink stand, founded by Roy W. Allen in California in 1919. Allen’s employee Frank Wright partnered with him in 1922 and they founded their first restaurant in Sacramento, CA, in 1923. A&W developed the first “drive-in” carhop option to “casual dining”. However, It didn’t franchise until 1925. Thanks to A&W, by the WWII era, carhop services for drive-up establishments, serving burgers and other “fast food” choices, became common place. A&W’s signature Root Beer Float was always a family favorite treat for us. Mom developed several imitations of A&W’s menu offerings, including their Coney sauce!
White Castle was the next fast food chain establishment to open in 1921. It was founded, initially, by Billy Ingram, in Wichita, KS. The small, square hamburger (called a “Slider”), for which they are most famous, was declared the most influential burger ever, by Time® Magazine, in 2014! White Castle was one of the few fast food chains that were actually FLATTERED by Mom’s imitations of their products, sending her a very complimentary letter and a check to purchase a bunch of her cookbooks for all of their company’s executives.
Howard Johnson’s was founded in 1925, by Howard Deering Johnson; starting as an ice cream/soda fountain shop, near Boston, that was very popular. It later grew into a full-service, family restaurant in 1929, in Cape Cod.
Most famous for its signature orange roof and cupola, the Simple Simon and the Pie Man plaques, and its limited-menu food items – including it’s most famous 28 flavors of creamy, “homemade” ice cream, GRILLED hot dogs, and fried clam strips – it officially became a chain in 1935, when the first “link” opened in a “hot spot” in the Orleans district of Cape Cod, where Routes 28 and 6A meet. Howard Johnson’s continued to grow, becoming one of the biggest restaurant chains in the country. It evolved even more, in 1954, by becoming a chain of motels, as well.
Mom developed her own versions of their ice creams, sherbets, Boston Brown Bread, and Clam Chowder – just to name a few!
The Krystal restaurant first opened in 1932, in Chattanooga, TN. It was founded by Rody Davenport Jr. and J. Glenn Sherrill, who were “inspired” by the White Castle they visited in Chicago. Like the McDonald’s-Big Boy copycat story (above), they also offered their customers small, square hamburgers called “Sliders”.
In 1936, in California, Bob Wian founded the first restaurant in the soon-to-be-famous Big Boy® chain of family restaurants. The Big Boy® restaurants went under slightly different owners’ names per region/franchise – but always with “Big Boy” in the title. Bob’s Big Boy® is in California. Frisch’s Big Boy® is in Ohio. Big Boy® Restaurants (formerly Elias Brothers’…) are in Michigan and Shoney’s are in Tennessee.
Big Boy® was always one of our family’s favorite restaurant chains! Mom loved to imitate their dishes at home when we couldn’t afford to go out; and she replicated just about every item their menus featured! I’m working on a “Master Index List” of all the recipes from all of Mom’s works. So far, there are 35 recipes listed that Mom developed to imitate her favorite Big Boy® offerings at home – most of which appeared in her first 4 cookbooks, and many of those were among her “Original 200” recipe cards, on which Mom had built her Recipe DetectiveTM legacy.
Also, finding its start in 1936, was Chicken in the Rough; which was founded by Beverly and Rubye Osborne, in Oklahoma City.
Only two other cities, besides Oklahoma City, still serve “Chicken in the Rough” today – Port Huron, MI (just north of where we live, in St. Clair) and in Sarnia, Ontario (Canada), just east of Port Huron, across the southern base of Lake Huron, where it meets the north end of the St. Clair River.
Although most people would assume McDonald’s was the first fast-food chain, it actually didn’t start until after many others of their famous competitors. In fact, it was decades after the launches of A&W and White Castle, in 1954, when Ray Kroc purchased the McDonald’s fast food chain from the McDonald brothers, Dick and Mac.
Mom absolutely loved McDonald’s! She imitated many of their menu offerings. In fact, it was her imitations of McDonald’s “Special Sauce” and the “Big Mac” that began her “Original 200” recipes collection, on which she built her Secret RecipesTM and Recipe DetectiveTM legacy!
The soft-serve ice cream formula was first developed in 1938 by John Fremont “J.F.” “Grandpa” McCullough and his son Alex. They convinced, friend and loyal customer, Sherb Noble to offer the product in his ice cream store. In 1940, the soft-serve ice cream chain, called Dairy Queen, was launched in Joliet, IL and operated by Sherb Noble. In 2001, the “Grill and Chill” eatery concept was added to some of their ice cream shops. Mom imitated several of their sweet treat offerings – but just going there was always a fun treat in itself!
Next week, I’ll cover the launching of other fast food fare chains from 1941 through 1960!
In honor of today, being #NationalTrailMixDay, here is Mom’s copycat recipe for “Snacker Crackers”, as seen in her self-published cookbook, Mostly 4-Ingredient Recipes (Secret RecipesTM, St. Clair, MI; April 1986, p. 104). Add your favorite nuts, dried fruit, and/or chocolate chips/candies. Enjoy!
P.S. Food-for-thought until we meet again, next Monday…
…35 down, 17 to go!