The Fast Food Explosion of the 1950s - When It Was Cool!

By: Karl Stern (@wiwcool)

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Today, hundreds of fast food places clutter the landscape in virtually every town above 5,000 people in population.  Today, fast food is often viewed as being low quality in exchange for speed and convenience. However, in the 1950s, fast food was viewed as pure Americana with chain fast food franchises seen as an extension of the popular American Diner.  


The fast food explosion of the 1950s began with McDonald's. Although it was founded in 1940 as a barbecue restaurant by Richard and Maurice McDonald, in San Bernardino, California, the first McDonald's franchise opened in Phoenix, Arizona in 1953 and then spread across the country. Ray Kroc joined the company as a franchise agent in 1955 and eventually purchased the chain from the McDonald brothers.

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Burger King grew out of the idea that McDonald's had of an assembly line hamburger restaurant.  Burger King was founded in 1953 as Insta-Burger King, a Jacksonville, Florida based restaurant chain. After Insta-Burger King ran into financial difficulties in 1954, two Miami-based franchisees, David Edgerton and James McLamore, purchased the company and renamed it "Burger King", partially inspired by a trip to McDonald's to see the assembly line burger in action.  Burger King enjoyed exceptional growth during the 1970s.


Once the franchise model of food networking had been established, many others followed.  Col. Harland Sanders had been selling fried chicken out of his gas station in Corbin, Kentucky when the Interstate came through and passed his gas station by.  He began trying to sell his Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe and cooking process to other restaurants as a way of making money and he finally found a taker in Salt Lake City, Utah and in 1952 Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) began franchising out across America as well.  


One of those who owned some Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises was Dave Thomas who decided to take the franchise idea out on his own and open the Wendy's chain of fast food restaurants in the late 1960s.  Today, Wendy's has grown into the third largest Hamburger chain in the world.

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Another food favorite of the 1950s and beyond and originating about the same time as McDonald's was Dairy Queen which became a diner favorite  due to it's distinctive soft serve ice cream.


Hardee's (known in some parts of the United States as Carl's Jr.) founder, Wilber Hardee, opened his first restaurant in Greenville, North Carolina, on September 3, 1960.  After a year, Wilber decided to expand his restaurant and open another location so he met with James Gardner and Leonard Rawls to discuss doing so.  Soon thereafter, the first company store was opened in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in May 1961 by James Carson Gardner and Leonard Rawls on, oddly enough, McDonald Street.

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