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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.