The Humble Origins of 11 Chain Restaurants

They’re seemingly everywhere, yet they all started somewhere. Here are the stories of the humble beginnings of 11 chain restaurants.

1. Applebee’s

The world’s largest casual dining chain celebrated 30 years of eatin’ good in the neighborhood in 2010. The original Applebee’s, which was named T.J. Applebee's Rx for Edibles & Elixirs, opened in Atlanta in 1980. The founders of the original restaurant, including Bill and T.J. Palmer, wanted to name the restaurant Appleby’s, but that spelling had already been registered. Cinnamon’s and Peppers, two other names considered, were taken as well. The Palmers settled on T.J. Applebee’s, which was just different enough from their first choice. “Menu items ranging from munchies to steak and quail are served at round, high-topped tables on platforms,” read one newspaper review from 1981. A second location was opened in Atlanta before T.J. Palmer’s ownership group sold the restaurant concept in 1983. The name was changed to Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill in 1986 and became the first casual dining chain to hit 1,000 locations in 1998.

2. Bob’s Big Boy

In 1936, Robert Wian sold his Desoto roadster for $350 to purchase a hamburger stand he named Bob’s Pantry on Colorado Blvd. in Glendale, California. The double-decker burger Wian created for a hungry group of musicians that wandered into the restaurant late one night and asked for something different was an instant sensation. Wian, who named his creation the Big Boy after a chubby kid in overalls who frequented Bob’s Pantry, opened a second location in Los Angeles in 1939. In 1969, one year after McDonald’s introduced its Big Mac, Wian sold his chain of 600 Big Boy restaurants to the Marriott Corporation for $7 million. The oldest standing Bob’s Big Boy is in Toluca Lake, Calif.

3. Bob Evans

Bob Evans began producing sausage on his farm in 1948 for a 12-stool diner he owned in southeastern Ohio. His patrons raved about the sausage, prompting Evans to enter the sausage-making business on a larger scale. Bob Evans Farms was launched in 1953, and when the number of visitors to his farm began to increase, Evans saw an opportunity. Evans opened a small restaurant called the Sausage Shop in front of his brick farmhouse in Rio Grande, Ohio, in 1962. The Sausage Shop is considered the first of Bob Evans’ now-famous chain restaurants. Today, Evans’ farmhouse, known as the Homestead, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

4. California Pizza Kitchen

In 1985, federal prosecutors Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax opened the first California Pizza Kitchen in Beverly Hills. Rosenfield and Flax, who were inspired by Wolfgang Puck’s popular Spago restaurant in West Hollywood and hired Puck’s original pizza chef at CPK, read Ray Kroc’s autobiography prior to starting their business. Today, the chain has grown to more than 250 restaurants.

5. Cheesecake Factory

In 1972, Oscar and Evelyn Overton moved from Detroit to a suburb of Los Angeles to launch a wholesale bakery specializing in cheesecakes. Six years later, the Overton’s son, David, opened a salad and sandwich shop in Beverly Hills that featured 10 flavors of his mom’s cheesecake. One of the main purposes of the shop was to get local restaurateurs to carry the Overton’s cheesecake in their own establishments, but it turned into a booming business of its own. Overton opened a second restaurant in Marina Del Rey in 1983. The rest was history.

6. Cracker Barrel

In 1969, Dan Evins, who worked in his family’s gasoline business, opened the first Cracker Barrel Old Country Store off Highway 109 in Lebanon, Tennessee. By 1977, 13 additional Cracker Barrel stores had opened. The goal of the original Cracker Barrel was to provide a place for motorists to fill their tanks and their stomachs, and the inspiration for the concept came from the general stores that Evins frequented as a child. According to the Cracker Barrel website, goods such as crackers were shipped to these stores in barrels, and when the barrels were empty, the base was often used for a checkerboard. The gift shop remains a staple of Cracker Barrels today.

7. Denny’s

Harold Butler founded Denny’s in Lakewood, Calif., in 1953 as Danny’s Donuts. First-year earnings totaled $120,000. Butler opened 20 additional shops and expanded the menu to include sandwiches and other entrees over the next six years before renaming his restaurants Denny’s. Butler began franchising Denny’s in 1963 and introduced its signature Grand Slam breakfast in Atlanta in 1977. In 2000, Denny’s opened a restaurant in Rhode Island, which was the only state without one.

8. IHOP

The first IHOP was opened by brothers Al and Jerry Lapin on July 7, 1958, in Toluca Lake, California. Part of the reason the Lapins chose Toluca Lake was to capitalize on the overflow crowd from Bob’s Big Boy. Al Lapin had operated a series of coffee carts in Los Angeles when fast-food chains started to take off and saw the potential for a fast-food restaurant that specialized in breakfast. Today, IHOP boasts more than 1,500 restaurants in all 50 states. IHOP purchased Applebee’s in 2007.

9. Red Lobster

Bill Darden opened the first Red Lobster in Lakeland, Fla., in 1968. The restaurant, which offered seafood at reasonable prices, was popular from the start and Darden soon opened four additional locations throughout Florida. In 1970, General Mills purchased Darden’s chain. The original restaurant was closed in 1997 after Darden determined that Lakeland would be better served by only one location.

10. TGI Friday’s

Alan Stillman opened the first T.G.I. Friday’s at First Avenue and 63rd St. in New York City in 1965—partially as a means of meeting airline stewardesses. “The other thing is that my timing was exquisite, because I opened T.G.I. Friday’s the exact year the pill was invented,” Stillman told the New City Reader last year. “I happened to hit the sexual revolution on the head, and the result was that, without really intending it, I became the founder of the first singles bar.” The first Friday’s featured Tiffany lamps, sawdust on the floor, and distinctive red and white striped awnings. First year revenues at the original Friday’s were $1 million. A second location opened in Memphis in 1970, and within 10 years, eight other T.G.I. Friday’s had opened. Stillman eventually sold Friday’s and launched Smith and Wollensky Steakhouse in 1977.

11. Waffle House

The original Waffle House opened on Labor Day 1955 on East College Avenue in Decatur, Georgia. In 2008, the 13-stool diner that launched more than 1,500 Waffle Houses reopened as a Waffle House museum, with vintage equipment and memorabilia displays of old uniforms and place settings. “That was the year McDonald’s and all the hamburger chains started doing takeout,” Waffle House co-founder Joe Rogers told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008 of his idea to open a restaurant with his neighbor, Tom Forkner. “We wanted to do sit-down, and we knew you couldn’t take out a waffle or it’d become flimsy.” 

The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

iStock
iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

Harry & David Just Released a Cats-Inspired Gourmet Gift Collection

Harry & David
Harry & David

Year after year, Harry & David proves itself to be the undefeated champion of helping people gain the favor of tough-to-please recipients on their holiday gift lists. From baskets of cheese to buckets of popcorn, there’s a gourmet food—or collection of foods—for pretty much everyone.

This Christmas, the company has partnered with Universal Pictures to release a line of deluxe gifts that all evoke the enchanting, sophisticated style of the upcoming film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic musical Cats.

The products don’t come with cat ears, furry bodysuits, or pint-sized action figures of Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo, and the rest of the star-studded cast. Instead, in true Harry & David fashion, the gifts are decorated with tasteful Cats ribbons and subtle touches of black and gold.

The simplest option for anyone with a sweet tooth is the $30 Classic Sweets Box, which includes dark chocolate-covered pretzels, raspberry galettes, dark chocolate truffles, and Harry & David’s signature Moose Munch popcorn. For healthy eaters or fans of fruit in general, there’s a box of Royal Riviera pears, hand-wrapped in gold foil, which you can purchase with (for $70) or without (for $50) a bottle of Pinot Gris. There are also a few larger dessert baskets with a broad assortment of truffles, caramels, popcorn, chocolate-covered cherries, and more mouthwatering confectioneries.

Though you’d be ill-advised to share most of those desserts with your actual cat, they might be able to enjoy the savory meats from the other boxes and baskets—after all, cats can have a little salami. Items include sausage, salami, smoked salmon, pepper jack cheese, sharp white cheddar cheese, garlic-stuffed olives, water crackers, and roasted almonds, among other things.

In summary, the Cats collection is ideal for these demographics: people who like Cats the musical, people who like Cats the movie, people who like gift baskets, people who like gifts, and people who eat food.

You can shop all the options here, and find out everything you need to know about Cats the movie here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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