Remember restaurants? They are still out there. Many are offering curbside pickup and delivery to make ends meet until they can resume on-site dining. Many more remain shuttered with little hope of reopening. The National Restaurant Association estimates the industry lost $120 billion in sales during the first three months of the coronavirus outbreak, with tens of thousands of restaurants unlikely to survive the pandemic. Already, the parent company of Chuck E. Cheese has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, though locations remain open for now.
While 2020 has certainly been unique, restaurant operators are no strangers to risk. The failure rate for new restaurants is notoriously high and maintaining success is infamously challenging even for the most popular eateries. Look to history for proof. Here are a dozen seemingly invincible restaurant chains that attracted legions of fans in their day and still conjure up nostalgic memories of meals past. Find out what happened to your favorite restaurant chain of old.
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1. Howard Johnson's
What happened: American road trips in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s were not complete without a stop at an orange-roofed Howard Johnson's restaurant. It didn't matter where you were coming from or going. With more than 1,000 locations at its peak, HoJo's was bound to be somewhere on the way, ready to serve its signature fried clam strips, grilled hot dogs and 28 flavors of ice cream to weary wanderers. (The company also opened its first motor lodge in 1954.)
But it couldn't keep up with growing competition among roadside restaurants. Fast-food chains like McDonald's could provide similarly limited menus quicker and cheaper. And fast-casual restaurants such as Applebee's and Chili's could offer a wider variety of food options and an upgraded dining experience.
Current status: The Lake George, N.Y., location is the last HoJo's standing. It rates high for nostalgia, but scores just two stars on Yelp with negative reviewers noting poor food quality and service. (More than 300 HoJo Hotels remain scattered across the country and are now owned by Wyndham Hotels and Resorts.)
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What happened: The Irish-themed bar and grill was a popular spot for both happy hours and family gatherings in the 1980s and ‘90s. But it failed to distinguish itself from a growing field of casual-dining chains that included T.G.I. Friday's and Applebee's, serving up similar menus of standard bar fare and ambiance. In 2008, with the Great Recession afoot, Bennigan's buckled under the pressure of rising costs and falling consumer spending. Its parent company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and immediately closed its 150 corporate-owned locations. (More than 100 franchisee-owned locations held on at the time.)
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3. Hot Shoppes
What happened: Marriott may be famous for its hotels, but the family actually got its start in the hospitality industry when it opened the first Hot Shoppes in Washington, D.C. In the following year, the third location, also in the District, became the first drive-up restaurant on the East Coast, letting customers order curbside and eat food delivered by “curbers” or “running boys” off trays propped on the car doors. By 1964, the chain had 73 locations across 13 states and D.C.
But in the following decades, people's tastes and the Marriott Corporation's focus both shifted. As its hotel business was growing, in the late ‘70s, the company began winding down its restaurant holdings, which included, on top of Hot Shoppes, Roy Rogers and Bob's Big Boy (more on the latter later). The last of the Hot Shoppes closed in 1999.
Current status: Anthem, a breakfast and lunch cafe at the Marriott Marquis in D.C., serves up nostalgia with the Classic Club, Mighty Mo, Orange Freeze, root beer float and milkshakes called out on its lunch menu as Hot Shoppe Classics. You can also try recreating your favorite Hot Shoppe dishes at home using the Marriott Hot Shoppes Cookbook.
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4. Shakey's Pizza
What happened: How can you go wrong with pizza and beer? The first Shakey's Pizza Parlor opened in Sacramento, Calif., as “Ye Public House” for the two staples (except the pizza ovens weren't actually ready on opening day, so it really just started with beer). Soon, the company became the first pizza chain to franchise in 1959 — a year before its rival, Pizza Hut. By 1977, Shakey's boasted more than 500 locations in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Japan and the Philippines. But over the years, ownership changes and fighting between the company and its franchisees have added a sour note to the chain's simple recipe for success.
Current status: About 50 Shakey's still stand in the U.S., with the majority located in Southern California. The chain has found greater success abroad lately, with more than 200 locations in the Philippines, as of late 2019.
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PHOTO BY: Paul Sancya/AP Images
5. Steak and Ale
What happened: Take the Bennigan's story, subtract the Irish theme, and add a salad bar plus affordable prime rib, and you have the story of Steak and Ale. Restaurateur Norman Brinker is credited with founding both brands, along with Chili's Grill and Bar, and helping to popularize the casual-dining experience in the U.S. At its peak in the ‘90s, Steak and Ale had more than 110 dimly lit restaurants worldwide, pushing itself as the low-price option for an upscale steakhouse.
In 2008, however, squeezed by rising operating costs and shrinking consumer spending (thanks to the Great Recession), corporate Steak and Ale locations shuttered (along with sister restaurant Bennigan's) after its parent company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Current status: Trying to make a comeback. Legendary Brands Restaurants now owns both Bennigan's and Steak and Ale and hopes to revive them. The steakhouse's return is set for the first quarter of 2021 in Cancun — though the company is tweaking plans for its classic salad bar, in light of COVID-19 concerns. In the meantime, according to its website, the current Bennigan's menu offers three “Steak and Ale Classics,” the Kensington Club (an 8-ounce top sirloin marinated in a “secret” Kensington glaze) and two chicken dishes, but no prime rib or salad bar.
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6. Bob's Big Boy
What happened: Predating McDonald's, Bob's Big Boy introduced the world to the double-decker burger, a virtual culinary emblem for the U.S. The Beatles even dined at the Burbank location while on tour in 1965 when they craved a taste of “a real American diner,” according to the L.A. Tourism and Convention Board. Like the East Coast's Hot Shoppes — owned by the Marriott Corporation, which bought the Big Boy chain in 1967 — it also operated as a drive-in with carhops delivering orders to parked customers.
In the ‘80s, the number of Big Boys topped out at about 950 nationwide. But that proved to be too many, and overexpansion left the brand heavy with debt. By 2000, when the Elias Brothers Corporation (which bought the franchise from Marriott in 1987) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, only 455 Big Boy restaurants remained.
Current status: Big Boy still has a small — and, the new owners hope, growing — physical presence. The Burbank location, which opened in 1949 and was deemed a California Point of Historical Interest in 1992, is the oldest remaining Big Boy. It continues to operate (complete with carhop service and weekly classic car shows), along with 73 other locations, mainly in Michigan with a few in California, North Dakota and Ohio.
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7. The Magic Pan
What happened: Paulette and Laszlo Fono fled Soviet oppression in their native Hungary in 1956 and found refuge in the U.S. in 1957. Within just a few years, the immigrant couple opened the first Magic Pan in San Francisco and began feeding Americans’ craving for something different, a new taste of Old Europe. The sit-down restaurant's menu was all about crepes — and so was the U.S. in the ‘70s and ‘80s, delighting in the Magic Pan's light fare of crepes, both savory (filled with things like creamed chicken or ratatouille) and sweet (with fillings such as strawberries and whipped cream), all for modest prices.
The Quaker Oats Company acquired The Magic Pan in 1969 and spread the chain across the country, peaking at more than 100 locations, before selling off its restaurants in 1982. By then, sales had declined as tastes changed and Americans sought heartier meals. New owners tried to adapt the menu, adding fried appetizers, pasta dishes and meat dishes. Still, the last Magic Pan locations closed in the mid ‘90s.
Current status: Closed. A revival attempt in the ‘00s brought The Magic Pan name back to a smattering of shopping malls and airports in crepe-stand, rather than sit-down restaurant, form. But those are all closed now, too.
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8. Kenny Rogers Roasters
What happened: Country music legend Kenny Rogers partnered with former Kentucky Fried Chicken CEO and former Kentucky governor John Y. Brown Jr. to open his namesake restaurant in Coral Springs, Fla. The fast-casual chain centered its menu around rotisserie chicken, with several hot and cold side options, and quickly grew, up to a ‘90s peak of more than 350 locations around the world. But it folded just as fast, unable to hold on against a flood of competition from KFC, Boston Market and Cluckers (which Kenny Rogers bought after it sued his restaurant). A Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection filing was made in 1998.
Current status: The last U.S. location closed in 2011, but Kenny Rogers Roasters is thriving in Malaysia and the Philippines. (And you can still revisit the chain's heyday by watching reruns of its infamous turn on Seinfeld — which was based on a true story.) Kenny Rogers died in March.
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What happened: Famous for its beer-soaked hot dogs, Lum's first appeared in Miami Beach and gained popularity through the ‘70s, with nearly 400 locations across the country at its peak. The company was doing well enough to go public in 1969, but a couple of years later, the restaurant chain was sold to John Y. Brown Jr., who was head of Kentucky Fried Chicken at the time (and still 20 years away from partnering with Kenny Rogers). While KFC flourished, Lum's struggled. The chain was sold again in 1978, but still couldn't turn things around and ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 1982.
Current status: Remembered fondly.
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PHOTO BY: claudio zaccherini/Shutterstock
10. Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips
What happened: Piggybacking on the British Invasion of the ‘60s, Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips pushed the traditional English fare of fried cod and fries onto America's fast-food scene — never mind that it was founded in Columbus, Ohio. (Helping provide an air of authenticity, the chain's namesake and spokesperson was the British actor who played Constable Jones in the original Mary Poppins film.) At its peak, the chain had aggressively grown to around 800 locations around the country in just a few years.
But fast-food competition — including another fish-centric venture that opened in the same year, Long John Silver's — coupled with rising cod prices (driven up by “Cod Wars” between England and Iceland) forced the chain to reverse course. By the early ‘80s, some trouble between franchisees and corporate and a couple changes in ownership saw the chain file for bankruptcy protection twice.
Current status: Managing to stay afloat. Three locations remain in Ohio and four in the New York-New Jersey metro area.
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PHOTO BY: GENE J. PUSKAR/AP Photo
What happened: Give Chi-Chi's credit for popularizing Tex-Mex food. Opening far from the U.S.-Mexican border, in a suburb of Minneapolis, the chain served up Americanized versions of supposedly Mexican cuisine, such as sizzling fajitas, burritos, chimichangas, fried ice cream and of course a margarita (or a pitcher of them) to wash it all down. In its first few years, Chi-Chi's was a stunning success, with each restaurant pulling in an average $2 million to $3 million a year in revenues. It grew to 237 locations across the U.S. by 1986.
Its success also inspired a surge in competition: Other Tex-Mex chains like Chevy's Fresh Mex (once owned by Taco Bell), El Torito, Casa Gallardo and On the Border ate into market share. Later, faster, cheaper options — including Chipotle (founded in 1993) and Moe's Southwest Grill (2000) — also threw their sombreros in the ring. In 2003, Chi-Chi's filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, but it was tainted green onions that finally shut it down. At a Pittsburgh-area restaurant, the bad bulbs caused a hepatitis-A outbreak that left 636 people sick and four dead. The remaining 65 U.S. locations closed soon after.
Current status: You can still find a few franchises abroad, but in the U.S., you can only get a taste of Chi-Chi's at the grocery store; Hormel Foods now owns the Chi-Chi's brand, products of which include salsas, tortillas, chips and seasonings.
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PHOTO BY: Dave Pickoff/AP Photo
12. Horn & Hardart Automats
What happened: Automats somehow seem both old-timey and futuristic. Centering around sort of big, oddly stocked vending machines, the dining style invites you to help yourself to menu items — no human interaction necessary. You just insert the appropriate change into a slot and wait for your food to appear in a designated case among a wall of chrome and glass.
And it wasn't just chips and candy or even fruit and pre-wrapped sandwiches like you might be accustomed to finding in a vending machine. Horn & Hardart's automats dished out fresh comfort foods like macaroni and cheese, baked beans and all kinds of pie, both savory and sweet. The chain was also the first in New York to offer fresh-brewed coffee, for just a nickel a cup. Over the next four decades, the automatic restaurants gained in popularity, growing to more than 50 Horn & Hardart locations in Philadelphia and more than 100 in New York City. The 1918 influenza pandemic didn't hurt, as it encouraged people to avoid interacting (i.e. social distance), and people tended to consider automats a clean and safe food-service strategy.
After World War II, however, fast-food chains started taking over, and people's tastes shifted to burgers and fries. Automats couldn't compete, and Horn & Hardart converted many NYC locations into Burger Kings. The last NYC location closed in 1991.
Current status: Horn & Hardart's memory is preserved at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, but the automat lives on (still popular in parts of Europe) and is gaining some renewed interest in the U.S., given this current pandemic. A couple of modern takes on the automat (Bamn! Automat and Eatsa) folded within a couple of years of opening. But Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is giving it another go this summer.
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