I was born and raised in hamburger heaven. Four hours away was Lodi, California, where the oldest restaurant chain in America was founded by two guys named Allen and Wright, hence the name A & W. Supposedly, they were also the first chain to introduce car hops and root beer served in frosted mugs that came straight from the freezer. In 1926 the chain evolved into a franchise operation and in the same year they invented the bacon double cheeseburger. For that I think we can all be eternally grateful. They were also the first, I’m pretty sure, to open a franchise in Bangladesh! Really.
The small town where I grew up was two hours north of Los Angeles, and its many environs, where fast food was born. In 1937 the precursor to McDonalds was opened in Monrovia, by Patrick McDonald and his sons Richard and Maurice. It was called the “Airdrome” and its success led to their opening of a restaurant named McDonald’s along Route 66 in San Bernardino, California in 1940. After finding that hamburgers were 80% of their business they concentrated on burgers when they introduced the first fast food in 1948 which included burgers that were cooked and served in one minute.
A salesman of milk shake machines noticed that one restaurant was sending in orders for an inordinate number of machines and it piqued the salesman’s interest. That salesman was Ray Kroc who would eventually become CEO of McDonalds and he expanded the chain and its first mascot, a hamburger-faced “Speedee”, across America. Their first hamburgers cost 15 cents and their fabulous fries were 12 cents. Interestingly, Kroc supposedly copied the franchise system from the Singer Sewing Machine Corporation.
McDonald’s success fostered a slew of competitors and copy cats and soon the average American was eating three burgers per week. After coming to California to see the secret to McDonald’s success two guys from Miami went home and started their first store in 1954 under the Insta-Burger King name, which later became Burger King.
Bob’s Big Boy was started in 1936 in Glendale, California, and would become famous, among other things, for introducing the first double deck cheeseburger. Jack In The Box was started in San Diego, with a giant clown perched on its roof and customers in their cars ordered by talking to a clown that had an intercom for guts. Interestingly, Jack in The Box had a clown for a mascot before Ronald McDonald came along.
Other chains that had their start in California included Foster Freeze in 1946 in Inglewood, Hot Dog on A Stick in Santa Monica in 1946 (originally called Party Puffs) and Carl’s Jr. also in 1956 in Anaheim that originally was a hot dog stand. Again, all these places were within two hours of my home but my mother never let us eat at a single one of them because she thought fast food was the handiwork of the devil.
One of my favorite chains that used a lot of beef but didn’t sell hamburgers was Taco Bell which was started in 1962 in another suburb of LA: Downey. Taco Bell was an immediate success and it gave rise to Del Taco two years later in Yermo, California. Taco Bell got its name from the founder’s last name which was Bell.
Glen Bell and his wife gave encouragement and the name to the owner of Weinerschnitzil which also started in California and eventually became the largest hot dog chain in the world. Another chain started in California that didn’t serve hamburgers but did sell beef was Panda Express that went into business in 1972 in Glendale with its rendition of American Chinese food.
Perhaps not since McDonalds has a California chain caused so much commotion as In-N-Out Burger. This chain began with a single restaurant in Baldwin Park (not far from McDonald’s original location) and soon its drive up windows were overwhelmed by customers who wanted their Cheeseburger Double-Doubles. In-N-Out is the anti-McDonalds with all its burgers made from whole muscle cuts that are fresh, never frozen. Although it’s been mostly a California phenomenon until now, they’ve begun their march eastward.
Heaven forbid, if you ever tired of plain burgers there were other California beef delights developed in the Golden State like French Dip sandwiches and Chili burgers. For dessert you could go to other California-founded chains like Baskin Robbins, IHOP or Orange Julius.