With more than a century under its belt, the chain restaurant landscape is rich in experiences, stories and insights that are still relevant today. Every brand and trend that has emerged and faded over time offers a case study to consider, ideas that can be copied and mistakes that should be avoided.
This timeline is our best attempt to highlight the brands and trends that have defined the industry. It is surely incomplete - the history of chain restaurants certainly warrants more than a single web page. But in recognition of that, we will continually update this page as we do more research and learn more from our guests.
Even in the early years, restaurants functioned in various ways: there were automats, cafeterias, drive-ins, fast-food brands and upscale steakhouses, to name a few.
Early fast-food concepts were serving some of the most craveable items that are still broadly popular, including burgers, soda, hot dogs, ice cream and doughnuts.
Notably off the menu for all concepts in the 1920s was alcohol due to prohibition. Some operators had to get creative to stay around and replace the lost sales.
Fast-food chains went all in on branding strategies to convey the safety of eating at restaurants. White Castle(and knock-offs White Towerand Royal Castle) relied on its name, ornate unit designs and pristine uniforms to convey food safety. Likewise, Krystal's name refers to the founder's desire for crystal clean restaurants. Steak 'n Shake's owner, meanwhile, would wheel in barrels of fresh steaks and grind them into burger patties in front of guests, believing transparency would instill confidence among customers.
White Castle launched the concept of takeout in 1927, starting a trend that, simply put, would never go away.
Horn & Hardart (1912)
Nathan's Famous (1916)
Morrison's Cafeteria (1920)
S&W Cafeteria (1920)
White Castle (1921)
Kirby's Pig Stand (1921)
Howard Johnson's (1925)
White Tower (1926)
The Palm (1926)
Hot Shoppes (1927)
Blue Boar Cafeterias (1931)
Valle's Steak House (1933)
Steak 'n Shake (1934)
Big Boy (1936)
Krispy Kreme (1937)
K&W Cafeterias (1937)
Royal Castle (1938)
The decade started out with McDonald's being founded as McDonald's Bar-B-Q and ended with the brand being revamped. In 1948, the McDonald's menu was cut down to 9 items with a clear focus on burgers and fast service. Then in 1949, the brand replaced potato chips with fries and added milkshakes.
Speaking of milkshakes, what a decade this was for ice cream and frozen dessert concepts. Dairy Queen was launched in 1940 and added malts and shakes before the end of the decade; Braum began processing ice cream; Snowbird Ice Cream and Burton's Ice Cream - the predecessors of Baskin Robbins - were founded. So, while ice cream parlors are some of the oldest concepts in the country, several notable frozen dessert chains got their start in the 1940s.
World War II beef rations forced White Castle to alter its menu and introduce fried eggs and hot dogs. Later, in 1945, White Castle began to add holes to its patties for quicker cook times and better flavor.
In-N-Out was founded in 1948 and introduced an innovative two-way intercom system so consumers didn't need to leave their cars. The innovation was one in a long series of moves that have made it simpler for consumers to eat outside of a restaurant's four walls, typically in their cars.
Dairy Queen (1940)
Carl's Jr (1941)
Dickey's Barbecue (1941)
Pizzeria Uno (1943)
Piccadilly Restaurants (1944)
Snowbird Ice Cream (1945)
Burton's Ice Cream (1946)
Dwarf Grill (1946)
Luby's Cafeterias (1947)
Jack in the Boxand SONIC, initially known as Top Hat Drive-in, were both founded with intercom-style ordering advancements that would remain critical, especially for drive-thrus, for coming generations.
A number of breakfast-oriented concepts, many with a specialization in pancakes, emerged in the 1950s. This includes Denny's, The Original Pancake House, Waffle House, Perkins and IHOP. Disneyland also debuted its own concept, Aunt Jemima's Pancake House, which operated outside of the theme park as well. Based on Quaker Oat's well-known but controversial Aunt Jemima pancake products, the restaurant would soon be criticized for its branding.
Sambo'sis another restaurant concept from the 1950s that would draw controversy. It's name, based on the names of founders Sam Battistone and Newel Bohnett, is a derogatory racial term that predates the restaurant's founding.
Dunkin' Donuts (1950)
Jack in the Box (1951)
Church's Chicken (1952)
The Original Pancake House
Burger King (1954)
Burger Chef (1954)
Henry's Hamburgers (1954)
Waffle House (1955)
Aunt Jemima Pancake House (1955)
Burger Queen (1956)
Pup 'N' Taco (1956)
Gino's Hamburgers (1957)
Pizza Hut (1958)
Little Caesars (1959)
Round Table Pizza (1959)
Straw Hat Pizza (1959)
What a decade for restaurant architecture. Whataburger's orange and white A-frame design debuted; McDonald's introduced Mansard roof designs; and Pizza Hut raised the red roofs.
McDonald's had quite an impressive decade from a menu development perspective, with the Filet O Fish and Big Mac both dating to this decade. And, both were created by franchisees.
Steak & Ale launched in 1966, an event often referred to as the start of the casual-dining segment. Several other casual-dining brands were founded in the 1960s, but keep reading to see this segment really explode.
Activists fought for change in the restaurant industry. McDonald's Southern units were desegregated after sit-ins, and the first Black-owned franchise opened. Aunt Jemima'sPancake Housewas the target of protests, preventing the opening of a location in New York State.
The casual-dining segment continued to grow, but many of the chains founded in this time featured fairly traditional menus centered on burgers or pizza.
Chuck E. Cheese, founded in 1977, would go on to be thought of as the original 'eatertainment' chain. The brand's founding set off a wave of imitators. Also on the entertainment front, McDonald's began adding McDonald Land Parks - or, play places.
McDonald's expanded drive-thrus across much of its system in the 1970s. Wendy's, founded in 1969, was among the first to utilize a separate grill for drive-thru orders starting in the 1970s.
Breakfast became a bigger deal for fast-food chains. Though Jack in the Box lays claim to the first fast-food chain breakfast sandwich, McDonald's made waves with the Egg McMuffin - another McDonald's classic formulated by a franchisee.
Lou Malnati's (1971)
Ruby Tuesday (1972)
Golden Corral (1973)
Godfather's Pizza (1973)
Hungry Howie's (1973)
Mellow Mushroom (1974)
Chi Chi's (1975)
The Melting Pot (1975)
Jason's Deli (1976)
Old Chicago (1976)
Chuck E. Cheese (1977)
The Cheesecake Factory (1978)
Marco's Pizza (1978)
Jet's Pizza (1978)
Au Bon Pain (1978)
Taco Cabana (1978)
Sweet Tomatoes (1978)
Edwardo's Natural Pizza (1978)
Marco's Pizza (1978)
Fogo de Chao (1979)
Menus in the casual-dining segment diversified, with a notable number of Italian, Mexican and Sports Bar concepts founded during this decade. And Chili's famously moved beyond burgers, adding fajitas and ribs.
Several formative fast casuals were founded in the 1980s, though the term 'fast casual' didn't yet exist, at least not in the mainstream. Included in this list is Panera Bread, Panda Exress, Jimmy John's and Five Guys - all brands that were seen as higher quality than fast food but more convenient and affordable than casual-dining concepts.
Pizza chains started expanding their menus to include different styles. Pizza Hut added a pan pizza and a hand-tossed pizza; Domino's added its own pan pizza; Little Caesars introduced its square deep dish. Adding to the pizza innovation was California Pizza Kitchen, founded with unique signature pizzas, as well as buffet-style concepts Pizza Ranch and Cici's.
Some of the oldest concepts in the country made notable acquisitions in the 1980s. Horn & Hardart, America's original automat, acquired Bojangles, and Morrison's Cafeterias bought Ruby Tuesday. The moves represented how the industry shifted away from early formats, like the automat and cafeteria, to fast-food and casual-dining concepts.
Burger chains looked beyond burgers. McDonald's added Chicken McNuggets and Whataburger's added Whatachick'n. And if we're going to mention chicken, we should also bring up Panda Express, which debuted orange chicken in 1987.
Following Wendy's Super Value Menu in 1989, other fast-food restaurants emphasized low prices and affordability with special menus in the early 1990s. Taco Bell introduced items priced at $0.59, $0.79 and $0.99, and McDonald's added $0.59 hamburgers and $0.69 cheeseburgers.
In 1991, Kentucky Fried Chicken rebranded to become KFC, with some citing the move as a way to distance itself from the word 'fried'. Regardless of how true this is - there were some political reasons - health concerns did become more prominent in the 1990s. Subway capitalized by introducing a popular menu of 7 sandwiches with 6 grams of fat or less later in the decade.
Technomic introduced the term 'quick casual' in 1993 to define a new segment of restaurants nestled between fast-food and casual-dining restaurants, eventually known as fast casuals. That same year, Chipotle was founded - it would soon become one of the most influential fast-casual restaurants.
An e. coli outbreak connected to Jack in the Box in 1993 would lead to new food safety standards in the industry. Jack in the Box was able to rebound not just by adopting new food safety policies but also by running a string of successful ads in the 1990s touting the upgrades. Included in this was the return of its spokesman, Jack.
Domino'skept up its innovation, introducing not only a thin crust pizza but several non-pizza items as well, including breadsticks and wings. The brand also debuted its website, and Pizza Hutdid the same. And thus began two trends critical to the pizza space: non-pizza items and technology.
Several of the most notable multi-chain operators underwent significant changes in the 1990s. After starting acquisitions in the late 1980s, Chili's would become Brinker International in the early 1990s and then bring plenty more brands under its umbrella. Both General Mills and PepsiCo would spin off their own restaurant groups this decade, which would go on to be Darden Restaurants and Yum! Brands, respectively. Outback Steakhouse would also bring more brands under its umbrella, creating what would become known as Bloomin' Brands.
Boston Market had one of the most successful restaurant IPOs in the 1990s as its home-meal replacement model was seen as the future. But the concept soon began to struggle and would declare bankruptcy before the end of the decade.
Multiple brands started to look for opportunities in new locations. Starbucks opened its first licensed airport location and entered the grocery channel; Subway opened units in convenience stores and truck stops; Panda Expressopened in an airport and a stadium; McDonald's started opening locations in Walmart; Pizza Hut developed an express prototype for non-traditional locations. And for good measure, In-N-Outfinally left California, albeit just for nearby Las Vegas, and Portillo's, by this time a staple of the Chicago suburbs, finally entered downtown.
Barbecue chains set themselves up for growth. Dickey's began franchising in 1994, the same year Famous Dave's was founded. Famous Dave's went public two years later, with it's stock price increasing from $7.50 in November 1996 to $19.00 in September 1997. A year later, the stock was below $3.00 per share.
Jamba Juice (1990)
Capital Grille (1990)
Bar Loui (1990)
Toppers Pizza (1991)
Logan's Roadhouse (1991)
Wing Zone (1991)
Corner Bakery Cafe (1991)
Saltgrass Steak House (1991)
Planet Hollywood (1991)
Kenny Rogers Roasters (1991)
Dutch Bros. Coffee (1992)
Texas Roadhouse (1993)
PF Changs (1993)
Firehouse Subs (1994)
Famous Dave's (1994)
Rainforest Cafe (1994)
Zoes Kitchen (1995)
Black Bear Diner (1995)
Official All Star Cafe (1995)
Biggby Coffee (1995)
Tijuana Flats (1995)
Raising Cane's (1996)
Another Broken Egg (1996)
Yard House (1996)
Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. (1996)
Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse (1996)
Tropical Smoothie Cafe (1997)
Texas de Brazil (1998)
Brixx Wood Fired Pizza (1998)
Smokey Bones (1999)
The fast-casual segment began to revolutionize two huge categories: burgers and pizza. Five Guys began a nationwide expansion in the early 2000s, and competitors like Shake Shack, Smashburger, Mooyah and Burger 21 would soon follow suit. MOD Pizza, Your Pie and Uncle Maddio's launched, starting a wave of fast-casual, build-your-own pizza chains, each striving to become "the Chipotle of pizza".
Speaking of Chipotle, the brand switched to Niman Ranch pork, allowing the chain to further highlight the quality of its ingredients. Chipotle seriously contributed to a widespread trend of cleaner, higher quality ingredients.
GrubHub was founded in 2004, foreshadowing trends not just around takeout and delivery, but also the rise of technology companies heavily focused on the restaurant industry.
Subway passed the 10,000 unit mark and added toaster ovens in 2005. A few years later, the brand introduced the $5 footlong, a historically successful promotion, in the midst of the Great Recession. Meanwhile, key Subway competitor Quiznos faced several franchisee lawsuits throughout the decade and started closing thousands of units after the Great Recession.
Steak & Ale declared bankruptcy in the wake of the Great Recession, closing all units. It was somewhat symbolic in that the brand that started casual-dining would go down during a recession that forever changed the casual-dining segment. Many full-service chains wouldn't recover and consumer preferences shifted toward fast casuals, driven by the up-and-coming millennial generation.
Still, BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse performed relatively well during the recession, compared to many other public casual-dining companies, in part by emphasizing lower-priced options. Conversely, Ruby Tuesday struggled as it had tried to upscale the brand just before the financial crisis.
Domino's started the decade with an impressive jump in same-store sales following a reformulated pizza and an about-face ad campaign acknowledging the need for new recipes. The chain kept its momentum by investing heavily in tech amenities and new ordering methods. Soon enough, it became the country's largest pizza chain.
Chick-fil-Abecame a source of controversy following comments on same-sex marriage made by an executive and member of the Cathy family. There were calls of boycott but also efforts to support the Christian brand. Despite becoming politically divisive, Chick-fil-A was one of the strongest performers this decade, climbing up the rankings to become the third-largest chain in the country. This included usurping Subway, which began closing units. The sandwich chain's attempt to bring back the $5 footlong were met with stiff opposition from franchisees.
Beyond Chick-fil-A, other chicken brands also performed well, including Wingstopand Raising Cane's. In 2019,Popeye's released its chicken sandwich, arguably the most successful new product launch of all time.
While much of the casual-dining segment struggled, Texas Roadhouse continually posted positive sales and notably ignored opportunities its competitors pursued, like delivery and lunch, to remain focused on its core business.
With the industry saturating, brands started to target new dayparts, but to mixed results. Subway and Taco Bell added breakfast; Outback introduced lunch nationwide; Starbucks debuted its Evenings program to drive traffic later in the day. Meanwhile, all-day breakfast became a key trend with McDonald's driving sales by introducing all-day breakfast.
Third-party delivery services like DoorDashandUberEatsproliferated, bringing a new convenience for consumers but headaches for operators. Soon, off-premise service became a new expectation, and many chains that traditionally focused on dine-in sales started emphasizing takeout and delivery. It also led to new strategic initiatives, such as ghost kitchens, which found mixed results at this time.
Countering the off-premise trend, the eatertainment trend made a comeback due to brands like Punch Bowl Social. Starbuckstargeted these two trends by making to-go occasions more seamless while also opening large, experience-focused Reserve locations.
Fast-casual concepts continued to drive industry growth, with many emerging concepts now emphasizing global cuisines. Various full-service brands experimented with fast-casual spinoffs, such as Red Robin Burger Works, Holler & Dash(Cracker Barrel), Hoots (Hooters) and B-Dubs Express (Buffalo Wild Wings). Full-service brands also made a handful of acquisitions to get into the fast-casual space.
In a decade full of acquisitions, Inspire Brands stood out as a leading multi-concept operator with brands spanning fast-food, fast-casual and full-service restaurants. Most other large MCOs at this time were specialized in full-service (Darden, Bloomin', Brinker, Dine Brands Global) or limited-service (Yum!, Restaurant Brands International, FOCUS Brands) concepts.
Chipotle started and ended the decade as one of the hottest restaurant brands, but the years in-between included food safety crises and challenges to grow other brands like ShopHouseand Tasty Made.