The 30 Oldest Restaurant Chains in America

Source: rojer / Flickr

Jack in the Box
> Year founded: 1951
> Original location: San Diego, CA
> Approximate number of units (US only): 2,228

If you’ve ever ordered fast food from a drive-thru, you have Jack in the Box, and its founder Robert O. Peterson, to thank. Peterson already owned a handful of successful circus-themed fast food restaurants, called Topsy’s Drive-Ins, when he decided to convert one into a hamburger stand and experiment with a new concept called the two-way intercom system; he called this location Jack in the Box. Customers could drive up and place their order via intercom, then drive to a window where they could pick up their order; this allowed employees to work on multiple orders at the same time, vastly increasing the speed of service. Due to its smashing success, all Topsy’s locations were soon rebranded Jack in the Box, and 180 locations opened by 1960.

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> Year founded: 1949
> Original location: Quincy, MA
> Approximate number of units (US only): 8,500

Dunkin’ Donuts (officially shortened to Dunkin’ in 2018) was founded as a coffee shop called Open Kettle by William Rosenberg in 1948; he changed the name to Dunkin’ Donuts in 1950. Rosenberg got his start selling food at construction sites and factories, and noticed that doughnuts and coffee were far-and-away his top sellers. His operation was a success, and Rosenberg started franchising in 1955. By 1963, when William’s son Robert took over as CEO (at age 25!), there were 100 locations but menus varied wildly; some only sold coffee and doughnuts while others served full breakfasts. Robert standardized the menu, took the company public in 1968, oversaw a massive expansion, and stayed on as CEO until retiring in 1998.

Source: EEJCC / Wikimedia Commons

Skyline Chili
> Year founded: 1949
> Original location: Cincinnati, OH
> Approximate number of units (US only): 160

A Cincinnati staple since 1949, Skyline Chili was founded by Greek immigrant Nicholas Lambrinides and his three sons. Lambrinides, who arrived in the US in 1912, spent decades perfecting his chili recipe before opening in a neighborhood with a panoramic view of downtown (hence the name). The restaurant was a huge success, and a second location opened in 1953. Lambrinides’ sons continued to expand throughout Cincinnati after Nicholas’ 1962 passing, and his original secret chili recipe – not chili in the Texas sense but a thick, Greek-spiced meat sauce that tops hot dogs and spaghetti – has remained unchanged since day one.

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In-N-Out Burger
> Year founded: 1948
> Original location: Baldwin Park, CA
> Approximate number of units (US only): 358

Few restaurant chains are as synonymous with California sunshine as In-N-Out Burger, which was founded in the LA suburb of Baldwin Park by Harry and Esther Snyder in 1948 as the first drive-thru hamburger stand in all of California. Like Jack in the Box, it allowed customers to place orders via a two-way intercom system. The concept was successful, but by the time the couple’s son, 24 year-old Rich Snyder, took over in 1976, there were only 18 locations. Rich oversaw a rapid expansion before sadly dying in a plane crash in 1993; his brother Guy then grew the business to 140 locations before also tragically dying, of an accidental drug overdose in 1999. The current president and sole owner, Guy’s daughter Lynsi Snyder, took over in 2010 and became the youngest American female billionaire at age 30 in 2012.

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> Year founded: 1947
> Original location: Los Angeles, CA
> Approximate number of units (US only): 100

Another Southern California staple, Fatburger was founded by Lovie Yancey, an African-American woman, and a handful of start-up partners in LA’s Exposition Park neighborhood in 1947. It was called Mr. Fatburger until 1952, when Yancey bought out her partners (becoming sole owner) and simplified the name. Yancey was a beloved fixture at the original location (counting Redd Foxx and Ray Charles as regulars) until she sold the company to an investment group in 1990; she passed away at age 96 in 2008. Fatburger remained a SoCal chain until the late 1990s, but today there are more than 200 locations worldwide.

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