4 Once America’s Largest Restaurant Chains That Went Out of Business – Eat This Not That

As in other industries, rankings in the restaurant industry change over time as businesses expand, contract, and compete for limited consumer demand. While Subway, for example, was once the largest restaurant chain in the world, it was officially overtaken by McDonald’s last year and will most likely be overtaken by Starbucks in the near future.

Similarly, the biggest restaurant chains of decades past are not the same as the biggest restaurant chains of today. In an industry with a 30% failure rate, here’s a look at four restaurant chains that once dominated America’s fast food scene, but are now a distant memory. No one is too big to fail!

RELATED: 4 Restaurant Chains Make Biggest Returns After Bankruptcy

Route-Maven / Tripadvisor

Beloved for its fried clams, frankforts and signature ice cream available in 28 flavors, Howard Johnson’s was once the largest restaurant chain in the United States, with a footprint of more than 1,000 locations. HoJo’s popularity peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, but waned soon after as the chain struggled to keep pace with competitors like McDonald’s and KFC.

CEO Howard B. “Bud” Johnson sold the company to Imperial Group (a British tobacco company) in 1979 for $630 million, and five years later Imperial passed the brand on to Marriott for about half the price . Marriott has gone on a restaurant closing spree, reducing the number of company-owned HoJos and shrinking the chain’s footprint to a fraction of its original size.

With the recent closure of Howard Johnson’s last restaurant, located in Lake George, New York, the former giant is officially gone for good.

red barn restaurant
Arn Kashino/Facebook

Red Barn, founded in 1961 in Springfield, Ohio, was popular for its Big Barney and Barnbuster burgers (the first of which predates the Big Mac),

The brand was acquired in 1963 by Richard O. Kearns and grew into a huge franchise with a national footprint of 300-400 restaurants in 19 states. It even had branches in Canada and Australia.

Red Barn’s progress, however, slowed when it was acquired by United Servomation in the late 1960s and, within a decade, absorbed by City Investing Company, the parent company of Motel 6. primarily through the chain’s real estate, the investment firm phased out Red Barn’s operations, ending marketing of the brand and letting franchisee leases expire. In 1988, the once beloved red barn was no more.

henry's burgers sign
Gregory M. / Yelp

Founded in 1954, Henry’s Hamburgers got its start as a subsidiary of Bresler’s Ice Cream, a Chicago ice cream chain. While Henry’s was originally conceived as a vehicle for Bresler’s popular malts and milkshakes, by the mid-1960s it had taken on a life of its own, expanding to more than 200 restaurants coast to coast. (outnumbered McDonald’s at one time).

But with the growth of other burger brands like Wendy’s and Culver’s, the fast food industry has become increasingly competitive. Failing to keep up with its peers, Henry’s went into decline in the 1970s. Today, only one Henry’s Hamburgers remains – a location in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

burger chef restaurant exterior
Burger Chef / Facebook

Burger Chef was founded in 1957 in Indianapolis. Leveraging a number of industry innovations, including a patented flame grill and fast food’s first kid’s meal, its popularity and footprint grew rapidly.

The chain experienced significant growth in the 1960s and 1970s, growing from 600 restaurants in 1968 to over 1,000 in 1972 (placing it roughly on par with McDonald’s, which in the same year had a footprint of around 1600).

By the late ’70s, however, the brand was beginning to lose its footing, and again the culprit was growing competition. While Burger Chef managed to stand out with its meals for kids, which debuted in 1973, it failed to retain its monopoly on the lucrative menu category.

In 1978 McDonald’s launched the Happy Meal and Burger Chef lost a subsequent copyright lawsuit. The chain rallied in 1978 with a Star Wars licensing deal but still couldn’t keep up with Mickey D’s and all of its innovative ideas.

Hardee’s acquired Burger Chef in 1981 for $44 million and wasted no time in renaming most of the chain’s restaurants.

Owen Duff

Owen Duff is a freelance journalist based in Vermont, home of Ben & Jerry’s. Read more

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