Fast Food


To a man, the investors bit. Some bought territories that covered an entire state. The up-front prices ranged from twenty-five to fifty thousand dollars. Axene also charged each new franchise forty-five cents on every gallon of dairy mix. As a result of the chain’s success, Axene became one of the nation’s first fast-food millionaires virtually overnight.

Pinched by the Depression, Howard Johnson lit on the idea that founded the industry.

The tremendous growth of Dairy Queen was based on several factors besides a popular product. For one thing, the menu was naturally limited. Because no elaborate equipment was required to open a store, the cost of franchising was kept low—only thirty thousand dollars in most cases. The minimal cost, combined with the chance to run one’s own business, held tremendous appeal for the returning GIs of World War II. GI loans were plentiful; the economy was in a growth spurt. By the time Axene moved from Dairy Queen in 1948 to start the Tastee Freeze line with Leo Moranz—on the basis of a purportedly superior freezer and ice-cream process—there were twenty-five hundred Dairy Queen outlets in operation.

On the hamburger front it was Bob Wian and his Big Boy restaurants that began the franchising boom in the late 1930s around California. The key product was a result of serendipity. When a regular customer asked for something different late one night, Wian responded with a hamburger that gave customers “the works”—two hamburger patties served on a triple-deck bun. Soon customers were lined up for a taste, and Wian began selling Big Boy franchises around the country.

In chicken there was only one name: Harlan Sanders. His story is remarkable. In 1952, while he was the owner of a successful service station and restaurant, Sanders met a Utah man named Pete Harmon who was looking for a specialty item to add to the menu at his hamburger stand. The Colonel taught him the secret recipe to his fried chicken, and when he later visited Harmon’s restaurant he had to squeeze through a throng of customers waiting to taste the “Kentucky Fried Chicken” that now accounted for half of Harmon’s business.

On the same day in 1955 that he received his first Social Security check of $105, Sanders auctioned off his property. The business for which he had earlier refused an offer of $164,000 had been ruined by a new interstate highway that diverted traffic seven miles to the west. With unusual tenacity and Harmon’s encouragement, Harlan Sanders took to the road armed with a pressure cooker, eleven herbs and spices, and an idea. He stopped at random restaurants and offered to cook for them if they would consider placing his Southern fried chicken on their menu. Before long Colonel Sanders stopped traveling: the chicken that had been a regional legend in his Kentucky restaurant was attracting restaurant owners to him. Operating his business from an office he built behind his house in Shelbyville, Kentucky, the Colonel with the white suit and goatee had by 1960 sold two hundred franchises, and was selling almost as many again annually.

Where were all these fast-food franchises opening? Consider a parcel of land five miles outside the city limits. You’ve seen thousands of building lots like it: high grass, Queen Anne’s lace, tansy, blue aster, highway litter stuck in the mud, and tire tracks that border the street side of the land. If you were around in the early 1950s, the land might appear to hold little value compared with prime corners within the city’s center. But to the early franchisers such parcels of land were the perfect cribs for their new industry.

The competition was fierce, but the American appetite appeared insatiable. During the 1950s and early 1960s, doughnuts, pizza, fish sticks, spicy chicken, barbecued sandwiches, and Mexican tacos acquired brand names that were almost synonymous with the products themselves. Although it is extraordinary to calculate the amount of food these chains produce and sell, it is perhaps even more extraordinary to think of their use of real estate.

Food franchises changed the face, and character, of American towns. In step with other franchises—True Value, Sears, Midas, Firestone, 7-Eleven, car dealerships of all makes and models, B. Dalton’s, Toys “R” Us, Shell, K Mart, Channel Home Centers, Mobile, Sunoco, Dino’s, Sinclair, Esso, A&P, Food Town, and various movie theaters—fast-food outlets abandoned the towns and claimed the nation’s highways and major roads. The commercial centers of many towns shifted and often all but died. Malls eventually became the focus of Saturday shopping trips, but originally it was underdeveloped highway land, or “strips” as they are sometimes called, that altered the physical makeup of suburban and country life.