Oldest Fast Food Chains in the World

10 Oldest Fast Food Chains in the World

While other countries and civilizations have had “fast food” (foods that can be eaten on the go) for centuries, the concept of fast food as we know it today originated in the United States in the early 20th century. These early pioneers of the fast food industry were some of the first to demand consistency across all of their locations to ensure that their customers had the same experience at every restaurant with their name. Many of these fast food chains invented industry staples, such as the two-way intercom ordering system. All of these fast food chains are still around today and have grown into global powerhouses.

10. Burger King

Year Founded: 1953
Founder(s):  Keith J. Kramer and Matthew Burns
Year Franchising Started:  1953
Current No. of Locations: over 15,200
Headquarters: Miami-Dade County, Florida, USA

Burger King was founded in 1953 as Insta-Burger King by Keith J. Kramer and Matthew Burns in Jacksonville, Florida. Kramer and Burns named their new restaurant Insta-Burger King after the Insta-Broiler machines they used to cook their burgers. The broiled burgers were such as hit that Kramer and Burns started franchising right away and required all franchises to use the Insta-Broiler machine.

Insta-Burger King grew rapidly within two years, but began facing financial troubles despite the success. As the company continued to struggle, Miami-based franchisees David Edgerton and James McLamore purchased the company and renamed it Burger King in 1959. Edgerton and McLamore are responsible for many of Burger King’s signature features. They invented the flame broiler machine used today after they realized that the Insta-Broilers would breakdown from the meat drippings. Edgerton and McLamore also created the chain’s mascot, the Burger King in 1955 and McLamore invented the Whopper in 1957. Today, Burger King is one of the largest fast food burger chains in the world and has over 15,000 locations around the world.

Did You Know?

All Burger King restaurants in Australia are called Hungry Jack’s because the name Burger King was already trademarked by a food shop in Adelaide when the company decided to expand into the country. Australian master franchisee, Jack Cowin, chose the name Hungry Jack’s from a list provided to him by Burger King.


9. Sonic

Year Founded: June 18, 1953
Founder(s):  Troy Smith
Year Franchising Started:  1956
Current No. of Locations: over 3,606
Headquarters: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA

Sonic was founded in 1953 as Troy Smith was trying to return to his life in Seminole, Oklahoma after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. Smith spent some time working as a milk and bread deliveryman before purchasing a small diner. Not long after, Smith sold the diner so he could start a fast food restaurant called Troy’s Pan Full of Chicken. In 1953, Smith once again shifted gears and took over a walk up root beer stand called the Top Hat, the original name of Sonic.

Initially, customers had to walk up to the Top Hat stand to place their orders, but Smith installed drive-in speakers after seeing them in Louisiana. Smith then hired carhops to deliver the food, thus creating the Sonic of today. In 1956, Smith began franchising the Top Hat after he met Charles Woodrow Pappe, an entrepreneur, who was impressed with Smith’s drive-in restaurant. After learning that Top Hat was already trademarked, Smith and Pappe changed the chain’s name to Sonic in 1959. Since then, Sonic has grown to over 3,600 locations in 45 states.

Did You Know?

Instead of having a traditional franchise fee, Troy Smith and Charles Pappe charged two cents per hamburger, which amounted to a penny profit per bag stamped with Sonic’s logo.


8. Jack in the Box

Year Founded: February 21, 1951
Founder(s):  Robert Oscar Peterson
Year Franchising Started:  early 1970s
Current No. of Locations: 2,200
Headquarters: San Diego, California, USA

Jack in the Box was founded in 1951 by Robert O. Peterson in San Diego. Peterson already owned a small chain of restaurants called Topsy’s Drive-In. By the end of the 1940s, Peterson’s restaurants had a circus décor, which he carried over when he opened the first Jack in the Box.

Jack in the Box was one of the first drive-thru restaurants that used the intercom system, which Peterson had bought the rights to use in 1947 from George Manos. Peterson improved on the intercom system and established the first two-way intercom system, the one used today by ever fast food drive-thru. Over the next few decades, Peterson expanded Jack in the Box and in 1968, he sold the company to Ralston Purina Co. Under Ralston Purina, Jack in the Box began franchising and by the end of the 1970s, the chain had 1,000 locations. Today, Jack in the Box is owned by Apollo Global Management and has come to be known for its quirky mascot and wide variety of items meant to satisfy any craving.

Did You Know?

Although Jack had always been a staple of Jack in the Box (as the clown on the top of store’s roof and atop the drive-thru intercom), he made his debut as we known him today – the company’s fictional founder, CEO, and ad pitchman – in 1995.


7. Dunkin’ Donuts

Year Founded: 1948
Founder(s):  William Rosenberg
Year Franchising Started:  1955
Current No. of Locations: over 12,400
Headquarters: Canton, Massachusetts, USA

Dunkin’ Donuts dates back to 1948 when William Rosenberg opened a donut and coffee restaurant in Qunicy, Massachusetts called Open Kettle. Two years later, after brainstorming with company executives, Rosenberg decided to rename the restaurant Dunkin’ Donuts. It is the oldest fast food donut chain in the world.

Rosenberg’s goal was to “make and serve the freshest, most delicious coffee and donuts quickly and courteously in modern, well merchandised stores.” Dunkin’ Donuts was an immediate success and in 1955, Rosenberg began opening franchised locations. Within 10 years, Dunkin’ Donuts grew to 100 locations and has not slowed down since. Over time, Dunkin’ Donuts began selling other food, such as breakfast sandwiches. To reflect its expanded menu, Dunkin’ Donuts is currently rebranding itself as just Dunkin’.

Did You Know?

Today, there are over 12,400 Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants across 46 countries.


6. In-N-Out Burger

Year Founded: October 22, 1948
Founder(s):  Harry and Esther Snyder
Year Franchising Started:  N/A – all locations are company-owned
Current No. of Locations: over 342
Headquarters: Irvine, California

photo source: Flickr via Jeremy Hall

In-N-Out Burgerphoto source: Flickr via Krista

Of all the fast food chains on this list, none have a bigger cult following than In-N-Out Burger. The chain’s popularity is due to its regional availability – In-N-Out does not franchise and never opens locations outside of the Western half of the United States (California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas, and Oregon). In-N-Out also touts family values and serves simple yet high quality food that is beloved by nearly everyone that’s tried it.

In-N-Out was founded in 1948 by Harry and Esther Snyder in Baldwin Park, California. The Snyders established In-N-Out as a drive-thru hamburger stand, which was the first of its kind in California. For much of its history, In-N-Out has been family owned. For a few years, following the death of Esther Snyder in 2006, In-N-Out had its first non-family member as the company’s president. However, In-N-Out is once again controlled by a Snyder, Lynsi Martinez, Ester and Harry’s granddaughter.

Did You Know?

In-N-Out’s packaging features Bible citations, such as John 3:16, as a reflection of the Snyder family’s Christian beliefs. This was started by Rich Snyder, Harry and Esther’s son, in the 1980s when he took over the company.


5. Dairy Queen

Year Founded: June 22, 1940
Founder(s):  John Fremont McCullough
Year Franchising Started:  1940
Current No. of Locations: over 6,800
Headquarters: Edina, Minnesota, USA

Dairy Queen is probably better known for its frozen treats, especially its signature Blizzard, but the chain also sells hot foods, including chicken strips, fries, and burgers. However, Dairy Queen did originally only sell soft-serve ice cream, which was invented in 1938 by Dairy Queen’s founder, John Fremont McCullough and his son Alex.

Initially, McCullough sold his product from his friend’s, Sherb Noble, ice cream shop. In 1940 the McCulloughs and Noble opened the first Dairy Queen in Joliet, Illinois. Throughout the 1950s, Dairy Queen introduced many of its iconic menu items, including the Dilly Bar. Today, Dairy Queen has thousands of locations around the world.

Did You Know?

The little curl on the top of Dairy Queen’s soft-serve ice cream cones is trademarked by the company.


4. McDonald’s

Year Founded: May 15, 1940
Founder(s):  Richard and Maurice McDonald
Year Franchising Started:  1955
Current No. of Locations: over 37,241
Headquarters: Chicago, Illinois, USA

While McDonald’s official stance is that Ray Kroc invented the company in 1955 by himself, this couldn’t be further from the truth and erases the real founders and the chain’s namesakes, Richard and Maurice McDonald. The McDonald brothers opened their first drive-in restaurant in 1940 in San Bernadino, California. Although McDonald’s is famous for its burgers today, the brothers actually originally sold slow-cooked barbecue sandwiches. Eventually, they started selling burgers and in 1947 they realized that most of their profits came from their hamburgers.

The McDonalds ended up closing their drive-in restaurant to open a new restaurant with a streamlined system that only hamburgers, cheeseburgers, potato chips, coffee, soft drinks, and apple pie. The chips and pies were swapped out for french fries and milkshakes the following year. Their concept was a success and by the early 1950s, there were several McDonald’s restaurants in southern California. Ray Kroc became a McDonald’s franchisee in 1955 and eventually pushed the McDonald brothers out of the company and the restaurant industry completely. So, while Kroc may not have been McDonald’s real founder, he is responsible for turning it into the global powerhouse it is today.

Did You Know?

McDonald’s iconic Golden Arches were designed by architect Stanley Clark Meston and his assistant Charles Fish and the first McDonald’s location featuring the new logo opened in 1953 in Phoenix, Arizona.


3. KFC

Year Founded: March 20, 1930
Founder(s):  Harland Sanders
Year Franchising Started:  September 24, 1952
Current No. of Locations: over 20,925
Headquarters: Louisville, Kentucky

KFC is the world’s first fast food chicken chain restaurant and began in 1930 when Harland Sanders began selling food to hungry travelers out of the gas station that he owned at the time. As business increased, Sanders decided to purchase the gas station across the street because it had more visibility. With the second station converted into a restaurant, Sanders started selling fried chicken and the rest is history.

Since fried chicken took too long to cook, Sanders began looking for a way to prepare the chicken faster. In 1939, the first commercial pressure cookers were released to the market and Sanders bought one and converted it into a pressure fryer. Sanders revolutionized the cooking method for fried chicken and he was able to produce larger quantities of chicken that were cooked through, remained juicy, and were crisp on the outside. The following year, Sanders perfected his famous Original Recipe of 11 herbs and spices. Today, KFC is the second largest fast food chain in the world (by sales) after McDonald’s.

Did You Know?

Colonel Sanders is not technically a real military colonel, but in 1939 Governor Rudy Laffoon made him an honorary Kentucky Colonel for his contributions to the state’s cuisine.


2. White Castle

Year Founded: September 13, 1921
Founder(s):  Billy Ingram and Walter Anderson
Year Franchising Started:  N/A – all locations are company owned
Current No. of Locations: about 420
Headquarters: Columbus, Ohio, USA

Since A&W started out as a root beer stand, many people consider White Castle to be the world’s first true fast food restaurant. White Castle was founded in 1921 by Billy Ingram and Walter Anderson in Wichita, Kansas. From the start White Castle sold burgers, so it is definitely the oldest fast food burger chain in the world.

Although Anderson already had experience operating burger stands, when he and Ingram decided to start White Castle, Americans weren’t obsessed with hamburgers like they are. In fact, many people saw burgers as unsafe and undesirable. To help change public perception, Anderson and Ingram made sure their first White Castle restaurant was clean and spotless. They also made sure their employees were well-groomed. Another innovative touch that Anderson and Ingram added was to grind the beef in full view of customers. All of their ideas worked and White Castle began expanding in the area within a few years.

Did You Know?

White Castle remains relatively small compared to some of the other chains on this list because it has never franchised and all locations remain company-owned.


1. A&W

Year Founded: June 20, 1919
Founder(s):  Roy W. Allen and Frank Wright
Year Franchising Started:  1925
Current No. of Locations: 1,100+
Headquarters: Lexington, Kentucky, USA

A&W traces its roots to June 20, 1919  Roy W. Allen opened a root beer stand in Lodi, California. Allen had purchased his root beer recipe from a pharmacist and decided to start selling the drink on a hot summer day that happened to coincide with a city-wide party celebrating the homecoming of local World War I heroes.

Allen’s root beer was a hit and two years later, he partnered with former employee Frank Wright to open additional root beer stands in the area. Around this time, Allen and Wright coined the name A&W, which uses the first letter of both of their last names. As their success continued, Allen and Wright decided to sell A&W franchises in 1925. This makes A&W the oldest fast-food chain in the world. Over time A&W expanded its menu and added food such as burgers, hot dogs, cheese curds, and other typical fast food fare.

Did You Know?

A&W opened its first international location in Canada in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1956. The restaurant chain now has locations around the world.

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