The 30 Oldest Restaurant Chains in America

Source: cindyfunk / Flickr

> Year founded: 1926
> Original location: Urbandale, IA
> Approximate number of units (US only): 31

A Maid-Rite, also called a loosemeat or tavern sandwich, is a beloved Midwestern sandwich of seasoned ground meat on a bun; think of it as a sloppy joe without the sauce. It was invented by an Iowa butcher named Fred Angell, who opened a restaurant to serve them in 1926. Not only did the original Maid-Rite introduce this regional icon, it was also the first restaurant to feature carhop service, where orders were brought directly to customers in their cars. Maid-Rite remains a popular Iowa chain, with 21 locations in the state and about 10 elsewhere.

Source: Courtesy of JCI Grill via Facebook

James Coney Island
> Year founded: 1923
> Original location: Houston, TX
> Approximate number of units (US only): 17

If you happen to be hundreds or thousands of miles outside of New York City and you encounter a restaurant that specializes in coneys, or Coney Islands, don’t be confused: it’s the old-timey name of a style of hot dog brought west by Greek and Macedonian immigrants, topped with a savory, Greek-spiced meat sauce and other optional toppings including diced onions and mustard. You’ll find coney stands in states including Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, and Ohio, as well as Texas by way of Houston-based James Coney Island. Founded in 1923 by two Greek immigrant brothers, James and Tom Papadakis, James Coney Island was one of the city’s first major hot dog vendors. It remained family-owned until being sold to private investors in 1990, and there are still 17 locations in the city.

Source: Robert Alexander / Getty Images

White Castle
> Year founded: 1921
> Original location: Wichita, KS
> Approximate number of units (US only): 355

Fast food hamburgers didn’t really exist until White Castle was founded in Wichita, Kansas, by food stand owner Walter Anderson and insurance salesman Billy Ingram in 1921. Ground beef still made a lot of Americans squeamish at the time due to the 1906 publication of Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the meatpacking industry, “The Jungle,” so the duo decided to lure in customers by outfitting their small, white buildings with spotless stainless steel interiors and their employees with spotless white uniforms. Their small, inexpensive burgers were a smash hit, and a second location opened the following year in El Dorado, Kansas. It continued its expansion nationwide, spreading its influence and spawning countless imitators in the process.

Source: annspan / Flickr

> Year founded: 1919
> Original location: Lodi, CA
> Approximate number of units (US only): 517 (including co-brands with KFC or Long John Silver’s and convenience store locations)

Way back in 1919, an entrepreneur named Roy W. Allen set up a roadside stand to sell a rich new carbonated drink called root beer to spectators at a parade for returning World War I vets in Lodi, California. Along with his employee, Frank Wright, they opened their first restaurant (with root beer as their signature offering) in 1923; the name A&W was derived from their initials. It soon became famous for its “frosty mugs” of root beer and curbside service, and the following year Allen bought out Wright’s share of the business. He began franchising his root beer in 1925 while allowing franchisees to add other menu items of their choosing; this is argued to be the very first successful example of food franchising. More than 200 franchises had opened by 1930, and Allen sold the company and retired a wealthy man in 1950.

Source: loozrboy / Flickr

Nathan’s Famous
> Year founded: 1916
> Original location: Coney Island, NY
> Approximate number of units (US only): 295 (including delivery-only locations)

Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker arrived in New York in 1912, and quickly got a job serving thin German sausages called frankfurters (made handheld by tucking them into buns) at popular Coney Island restaurant Feltman’s, for 10 cents each. Encouraged to go into business on his own by singing waiters Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante (as legend has it), he built a stand a couple blocks away and started selling frankfurters of his own, based on a recipe from his wife, for five cents instead. He lured cleanliness skeptics by bringing in men wearing surgeon’s smocks to be seen eating hot dogs in front of the stand, and the crowds appeared soon after and never left. The original Nathan’s remains a must-visit Coney Island destination to this day, and a nationwide expansion was kicked off by Nathan’s son, Murray, in 1959.

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