Failed Restaurant Chains From Our Youth

The restaurant business is a notoriously tough one. According to CNBC, about 60 percent of new restaurants fail within their first year, while 80 percent don’t make it to five years. Even for those that make it past that benchmark, perpetual success is far from guaranteed, and chains that are hits for decades can still find themselves dealing with unexpected downturns and untimely ends. 

Let’s take a look at just a few restaurant chains that enjoyed fame and prosperity for a time, before closing their doors and fading from memory.

Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor

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We’ll start with a recent addition to the list of chain restaurants that have met their end. Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor was founded in 1963, with Bob Farrell and Ken McCarthy opening the first location in Portland, Oregon. Serving ice cream as well as sandwiches, burgers, and other meals, Farrell’s restaurants were decorated in a style reminiscent of the turn of the 20th century, complete with player pianos and servers in dandy period dress. One of its signature items, the “Zoo,” was an enormous ice cream sundae, intended for multiple people, brought out by servers on a stretcher, to the fanfare of ambulance sirens.

By 1975, Farrell’s had been acquired by the Marriott corporation and opened 120 locations throughout the country. After this time, however, business started to drop off. Marriott sold the chain in 1982, and most locations had closed by 1990. Farrell’s eventually resurfaced in the ’00s and ’10s with seven California locations and one in Hawaii. Unfortunately, the revived chain didn’t perform well, and the company was $2 million in debt by 2016. The final Farrell’s location in Brea, California closed last June.

Howard Johnson’s

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Founded in the 1920s by entrepreneur Howard Johnson, “HoJo’s,” as it’s been called colloquially, began life as a soda fountain and lunch counter before expanding into a full-fledged restaurant chain. By 1954, the chain had 400 locations in 32 states, ballooning up to 605 by 1961.

The restaurant’s signature dishes included the Ipswich Clam Plate, along with a variety of sandwiches including the Western, consisting of, simply, lettuce and mayo on bread. Unfortunately, Howard Johnson’s began to lose business to fast food chains like McDonald’s in the 1970s, causing this mainstay of American cuisine to shut down.

White Tower Hamburgers

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If a hamburger joint named “White Tower” brings to mind any other ivory-castle themed burger spots, then you’re not alone. White Tower was founded in 1926, directly lifting the theme of the already-existing burger chain White Castle, right down to medieval-style decor in its locations. They even had a similar slogan: “Buy ’em by the sack,” versus White Castle’s “Take Home a Bagful.”

White Tower managed to open 120 locations before White Castle sued them in the 1930s. The company was forced to pay White Castle $82 thousand and change the look of their locations, which switched over to an art deco style. The new iteration of White Tower was a success, with the chain peaking at 230 locations in the 1950s. 

However, business declined in the second half of the century, and the last White Tower closed in Toledo, Ohio in 2004.

Chi-Chi’s

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In the 1970s, Mexican dinner options were hard to come by in the Midwest. That is, until Chi-Chi’s came along in 1975, opening its first location in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Chi-Chi’s went on to open 237 location by 1986, and became well-known for signature dishes like their chimichangas and deep-fried ice cream.

Unfortunately, business took a hit in the late ’80s due to a downturn in overall drinking and the aging of Chi-Chi’s baby boomer demographic. The final blow came in 2003, when a Pittsburgh location was found responsible for the largest Hepatitis A outbreak in US history, sickening 660 and killing 4. As a result, no Chi-Chi’s restaurants exist in the U.S. today.

Henry’s Hamburgers

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In 1954, the Bresler’s Ice Cream Company was looking to get into the burgeoning drive-thru industry pioneered by McDonald’s. To do this, they created Henry’s Hamburgers. The venture was a success: Henry’s had 35 locations in the Chicago area by 1956, expanding out to 200 total locations by the early 60s.

The ’70s, however, were not so lucrative for the chain. Henry’s fast-food competitors McDonald’s and Burger King grew in popularity during that decade, thanks to consistent new additions to their menus and robust national marketing budgets. Henry’s didn’t have the resources to keep up, and was eventually swallowed up by the competition. Today, just one location remains in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

Kenny Rogers’ Roasters

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In 1991, singer Kenny Rogers, famous for the country hit “The Gambler,” decided to try his luck in the fast-food industry. With the help of KFC mogul John Y. Brown, the musician opened Kenny Rogers’ Roasters, a restaurant chain with a special focus on rotisserie chicken. Served with sides like coleslaw, fruit salad or mashed potatoes, Kenny’s rotisserie chicken was a big hit, with the chain expanding out to 425 locations.

Photo: YouTube

Unfortunately, Roasters was ultimately unable to compete in a fast-food field crowded with chicken joints (including KFC). The company went bankrupt in 1998, and was bought by the Nathan’s corporation.

Today, Kenny Rogers’ Roasters lives on in nearly 100 locations located in Asia, but is no longer a presence in the U.S. However, the chain made a strong impression on the public consciousness during its short run. Perhaps most famously, Roasters was the focus of an episode of Seinfeld, where Kramer boycotts a location whose bright sign shines into his apartment, only to end up falling in love with their delicious chicken. Roasters is just one of many reasons that Rogers, who passed away recently, will be missed.

Druther’s

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First opening in Winter Haven, Florida in 1956, this fast-food restaurant chain originally went by the name Burger Queen. A force in the Midwest and south, the restaurant had opened 50 locations in Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennesse by 1973, serving burgers and fried chicken, and offering a salad bar.

In 1981, the name was changed to Druther’s in order to showcase the restaurant’s non-burger options. At that point, the chain had opened 171 locations across 7 states. While the chain succeeded for a while, in the ’90s its parent company decided to convert most Druthers restaurants into Dairy Queens. 

Today, only one Druther’s remains in Campbellsville, Kentucky.

Lum’s

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Famous for offering hot dogs steamed in beer, Lum’s was founded in 1956 by the Pearl family in Miami, Florida. Aside from its signature dogs, Lum’s boasted an extensive menu, including a hot roast beef sandwich, a submarine sandwich, a fish sandwich, fried clams, a shrimp basket, and a variety of sides and desserts.

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Lum’s was wildly successful in its heyday, thanks in part to its large menu. At its peak, Lum’s had 400 locations across the country. In fact, at one point in 1969, the company had grown so large that it was able to buy Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

It would all be downhill from there, though. In 1978 Lum’s was bought by the Wienerwald company, and in the following years was badly overextended, leading to bankruptcy. The last Lum’s closed its doors in 2009.

The Original House of Pies

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Restaurateur Al Lapin Jr., who had previously been responsible for expanding IHOP and Orange Julius across the country, created his own chain restaurant in the form of the Original House of Pies in 1965. Using his previous experience in expansion, Lapin was able to open locations all over the US, serving homemade pies alongside many other diner classics.

Though it was initially successful, the chain ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 1986. Most of the locations were subsequently closed down, but some individually owned stores remain in the Los Angeles and Houston areas, calling themselves simply House of Pies.

Burger Chef

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While McDonald’s Happy Meal is probably the most recognizable kid-friendly fast food combination, some might be surprised to learn that the idea came from another, now-defunct burger chain. The first Burger Chef opened in 1958, just eight years after the McDonald’s. Its claim to fame was originally a unique system that served customers via conveyor belt. Reportedly, these belts were able to serve up to 800 burgers per hour, far outpacing the competition. Burger Chef had 1,200 locations by 1972, second only to McDonald’s at 1,600.

In 1973, Burger Chef introduced the kid-friendly Fun Meal, providing the template for the Happy Meal, which debuted six years later. However, the 1970s saw the company overextend itself, and in 1981 the brand was sold to Hardee’s and retired for good.

Sambo’s

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Looking to open up a restaurant in Santa Monica in 1957, business partners Sam Battistone and Newell F. Bohnett decided to combine their names for something to call it. The result was Sambo’s, a name that would work for a while before ultimately causing the company’s downfall. 

Sambo’s customers could get a stack of pancakes for 40 cents, a cup of coffee for 10 cents, and a full breakfast for just $1.25, deals which surely played a role in the chain’s popularity. At its peak, Sambo’s had 1,117 open in the early ’80s.

Photo: YouTube

Despite the restaurant’s popularity, Sambo’s had one very large liability: its name. Though the name was arrived at accidentally, it happened to also be the name of a black character in a deeply problematic children’s book called Little Black Sambo. The fact that the restaurant’s theme and decor took inspiration from the book, where the titular character encounters a tiger, made matters even worse.

By the 1980s many felt the name could not be overlooked any further, and anti-discrimination protests ensued at Sambo’s locations. As a result, many locations changed their names to things like Sam’s and Jolly Tiger, while others were converted into Denny’s. Today, only one Sambo’s location remains in Santa Barbara, California.

ESPN Zone

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While the sports bar concept was nothing new in the late ’90s, ESPN Zone’s goal was to improve upon the idea in a big way, creating a sports and dining experience for the whole family. The idea came about when Disney bought the television sports network in 1996. Looking at the same time for shopping and dining to include at the Disney Boardwalk in Walt Disney World, the company came up with the idea of a restaurant based on the popular channel. ESPN Zones included arcades, TV and radio studios, in addition to the requisite big screens and dining of a typical sports bar.

ESPN Zone opened a handful of locations in high-profile areas, including Las Vegas and New York’s Times Square, in addition to those located in Disney properties, including Downtown Disney in California. However, the popularity of ESPN Zone took a downturn after the financial crisis of 2008. The last location to close was in Downtown Disney in 2018, although an ESPN Grill remains at the Disney Boardwalk.

York Steak House

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Known for its cafeteria-style seating and for its presence in malls across the country, York Steak House first opened in Columbus, Ohio in 1966. The brand saw decent success on its own, expanding out to 47 locations by 1977. At that point, the company was sold to General Mills, after which the brand really took off. At its peak, York Steak House boasted around 200 locations across 27 states.

Unfortunately, the ’80s were not so kind to York Steak House, as business started to decline during that decade. Locations closed one by one, and today, the only remaining York Steak House is in the brand’s home town of Columbus.

Horn & Hardart Automat

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When it first opened in Philadelphia way back in 1888, the first Horn & Hardout Automat must have looked like a vision from the future. The concept was simple yet unique: the walls were filled with glass cases containing various items, including sandwiches, pies, and cakes. Customers would pay with nickels inserted into coin slots, the glass case would open, and they would take their item. Decades before fast food, Horn & Hardout was an early attempt at improving speed and efficiency in serving and dining.

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Horn & Hardout experienced a “golden age” from the 1920s to the 1950s. During this time, the restaurant chain had 200 locations on the East Coast. Shortly thereafter, however, was the rise of fast food, a trend that the automat business model ultimately could not keep up with. Horn & Hardout held on for much of the second half of the 20th century, but eventually closed doors on its final location in New York in 1991.

Casa Bonita

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Kids of the ’90s might be surprised to learn that the extravagant Mexican restaurant featured in a particularly twisted episode of South Park was actually a real thing. Founded in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1971, Casa Bonita combined family dining with themed experiences worthy of the best amusement parks. Locations could accommodate more than 1000 guests and emulated the look of a traditional Mexican village, complete with a town square. There were caves to explore, tropical gardens, arcades, theaters, and waterfalls with cliff-diving shows.

Casa Bonita locations opened up across the country, including in Colorado, where South Park takes place. Today, however, only one location remains in the Denver suburb of Lakewood.

Minnie Pearl’s

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Kenny Rogers wasn’t the first country star to try to break into the chicken game, at least if comedians count. In 1966, Sarah Ophelia Colley — better known to fans as Grand Ole Opry comedian Minnie Pearl — lent her name to a chain of chicken restaurants founded by Nashville attorney John Jay Hooker. 

At its peak in the late ’60s, Minnie Pearl’s boasted 567 locations and 2700 franchises. Unfortunately, success was short-lived, and the chain was through by the end of the decade. A major reason was that there was no standard chicken recipe between locations, meaning the food tasted different every time — thus, no signature “Minnie Pearl” flavor. However, the more direct cause was a lawsuit brought against the company after it was forced to re-report its taxes for 1968, revealing a $1 million loss.

Wetson’s

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More of a regional success, Wetson’s hamburger joints were nevertheless a New York area mainstay in the ’60s and ’70s with over 70 locations. Directly inspired by a visit to the first McDonald’s, Herbert Wetanson founded the chain in 1959 in the image of the fast-food juggernaut. Wetson’s had its own Big Mac-style burger in the Big W, and even had twin clown mascots named Wetty and Sonny.

Although initially popular, Wetson’s ended up drowning in the fast-food boom of the ’70s, losing ground to larger chains including McDonald’s. The company was sold to the Nathan’s corporation in 1975, and Wetson’s was immediately shut down.

Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse

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Residents of New York and New Jersey may be familiar with Charlie Brown’s Fresh Grill, which currently has 16 operating chains in those states. The Fresh Grill rose from the ashes of an earlier restaurant concept, Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse. With its first location opening in Warren, New Jersey in 1966, the chain became famous for its salad bar and enjoyed a period of marked success in the ’90s, when it first expanded into New York and Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last, and the company declared bankruptcy in 2011. It was sold to a private equity company, and today what remains is a handful of locations in its home state of New Jersey, as well as New York.

Little Tavern

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These cozy little burger shops originated in Louisville, Kentucky, when businessman Harry F. Duncan opened the first location in 1927. True to their name, Little Taverns were known for being compact — most locations functioned as takeout with minimal seating. Little Tavern enjoyed regional success throughout much of the late 20th century, reaching 50 locations at its peak.

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Business started to decline in the ’80s, however, and locations started closing in the ’90s. The last official Little Tavern closed in 2008. However, it was soon reopened as Laurel Tavern Donuts, selling burgers prepared with the Little Tavern recipe.

Steak and Ale

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Known as the inventor of the self-serve salad bar, Steak and Ale was a fast-casual force upon entering the field in 1966. Founded in Dallas by Norman Brinker, the mastermind behind Jack in the Box and Chili’s, the chain grew rapidly over the next decade, opening 109 locations in 24 states. In 1976, Brinker sold his chain to Pillsbury, and locations increased to 280.

Sadly, Steak and Ale was lost in the field of fast-casual giants in the ’90s and ’00s, and the doors closed on the last 50 locations in 2009.

All-Star Cafe

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This sports-themed restaurant chain was owned by Planet Hollywood, known for their elaborate restaurants centering on movie memorabilia. All-Star Cafe was backed by an array of sports star investors, including Shaquille O’Neil, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana, Monica Seles, Ken Griffey Jr., and Andre Agassi, some of whom also appeared in commercials.

Like Planet Hollywood, the All-Star Cafe combined dining with a gift shop and sports memorabilia store. However, the concept never caught on in the same way as its Tinseltown-themed relative, and when Planet Hollywood filed for bankruptcy in 2011, All-Star Cafe met its end.