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

Photo: YouTube

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

Photo: YouTube

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

Photo: YouTube

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.