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Posted: Aug 18, 2010 2:49 pm
10 Restaurant Chains that Flopped
by Patrick Kiger

Feeling famished?

Got a hankering for a Lums hotdog steamed in beer
Or a Gino Giant burger drenched in Ameche 35 sauce or the fabled "banquet in a bun"?
How about a plate of Minnie Pearl's down-home fried chicken?
Chi-Chi's tangy nachos grande?
Or maybe you're in the mood for something classier, like Steak and Ale's signature herb-roasted prime rib?

Well, too bad, because those delectable treats were on the menus of national restaurant chains that no longer exist. Whether you're talking about humble burger joints or fancy sit-down dining establishments, the restaurant trade is relentlessly, mercilessly Darwinian.

Just as the sabre-toothed tigers and mastodons roamed the land eons ago, there was a more recent time when American roadsides were dotted with orange-roofed Howard Johnson's restaurants and their promise of 27 different ice cream flavors, the gleaming ivory facades of White Tower hamburger stands, and Chi-Chi's imitation Mexican cantinas, among others.

Some restaurant chains lost out because of diners' changing tastes, while others were swallowed up by larger competitors. And a few succumbed ignominiously to stock market scandals, unfortunate name choices and an occasional outbreak of food-borne illness.

But we also must thank defunct restaurant chains for innovations that revolutionized American casual dining, ranging from the salad bar to special kids' meals.
Here are 10 restaurant chains that are either outright defunct, or -- as in the case of Howard Johnson's --have shrunk to just a few remaining locations.

1. Burger Chef

Opened: 1954
Current Status: Defunct as of 1996
McDonald's 1950s success inspired a competitor, the Indianapolis-based General Equipment Manufacturing Company, to try its hand at cooking up even more efficient technology for peddling burgers and shakes.

In 1958, General Equipment launched the Burger Chef chain, whose franchises were equipped with automatic conveyor broilers designed to churn out 800 flame-broiled patties with "cook out flavor" per hour, in addition to similarly prolific automated milkshake blending machines.

By 1972, Burger Chef had grown to 1,200 outlets, second only to McDonald's 1,600. But too-rapid expansion turned out to be Burger Chef's undoing. Faced with declining profits, in 1981 then-owner General Foods sold out to Hardee's.
But one Burger Chef legacy remains: the insidious fast-food marketing tactic of packaging a cheap plastic toy with a small hamburger, fries, drink and dessert, which it invented in 1973 with the Fun Meal.

2. Gino's

Opened: 1957
Current Status: Defunct as of 1982 (revival plans currently in the works)
Numerous restaurant chains have tried sports themes, including Slammin' Hank Aaron's Barbeque Stands and the Muhammad Ali-endorsed Champburgers.

But the prototype combination of sports and fast food may have been Gino's Hamburgers, founded in 1957, the namesake of NFL Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti.

Gino's was a hit with commercials featuring comedian Dom DeLuise as the "Gino's Genie," and with its "Ameche 35" burger sauce. The chain grew to 330 outlets in 1972.
A decade later, Marriott bought the chain for $48.6 million and merged it into Roy Rogers.

3. Minnie Pearl's Chicken

Opened: 1967
Current Status: Defunct as of 1970

Country music themed-restaurant chains have included Conway Twitty's ill-fated Twitty Burger fast food chain, whose demise actually inspired a tax court judge to pen a song in Twitty's honor.
But one of the most ill-starred was Minnie Pearl's Chicken, a chain that capitalized on the cornpone persona of Grand Ole Opry comedienne Minnie Pearl (aka Sarah Ophelia Colley).

A would-be rival to KFC, Minnie Pearl's opened 567 restaurants and sold 2,700 franchises in the late 1960s. In the rush to expand, Minnie Pearl's management reportedly neglected the chicken recipe, which varied from franchise to franchise, and first-time customers seldom returned.
After federal securities officials forced the company to redo its 1968 filing to show $1.2 million in losses, investors sued, and Minnie Pearl's eventually vanished.

4. Sambo's

Opened: 1957
Current Status: As of 1982 only the original location remains open
Sambo's was founded in Santa Barbara in 1957 by Sam Battistone and Newell F. Bohnett, who combined their names to form the moniker, apparently without realizing it was also an epithet directed at African-Americans.

(In their defense, Helen Bannerman's children's book "Little Black Sambo", actually is about a dark-skinned child in India, not Africa.
In addition to serving its Sambo burgers and stacks of Sambo cakes, Sambo's had an innovative equity-sharing scheme that rewarded restaurant managers with a piece of the pie.

When the chain reached its apex in the early 1980s, it had 1,117 restaurants. By then, though, Sambo's was already starting to falter financially. Worse yet, its name became such a lightning rod for anti-discrimination protesters that the company tried going by "Sam's" and "Jolly Tiger" in some locations.
As the chain gradually collapsed in the 1980s, many of its locations became Denny's.

5. Steak and Ale

Opened: 1966
Current Status: Defunct as of 2008
Steak and Ale was yet another creation of Norman Brinker, the legendary restaurant visionary who turned Jack in the Box and Chili's into runaway successes.
Brinker started Steak and Ale in Dallas in 1966 to compete against the conventional full-service restaurants that he derided as "starchy" and overpriced.

Brinker deduced that middle-class customers would flock to a joint that charged just $1.95 for an eight-ounce filet, which was something of a no-brainer. But he also wowed America with another innovation, the self-service salad bar.

When Brinker sold the chain to Pillsbury in 1976, he had 109 restaurants in 24 states.

Steak and Ale's success may have been its undoing, because the "casual dining" genre that it created became crowded with imitators. It ultimately became part of billionaire John Kluge's Metromedia Restaurant Group, which shut down its last 50 of the restaurants in 2009.
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 2:52 pm
6. Chi-Chi's

Opened: 1976
Current Status: Defunct as of 2004
You wouldn't think that a Mexican restaurant chain's founders would be two guys from Minnesota with Scottish-sounding names.

But that's exactly what happened in 1976, when restauranteur Marno McDermitt partnered with former Green Bay Packers star Max McGee to open the first Chi-Chi's, despite warnings that the largely Scandinavian-American population in the area would reject the unfamiliar cuisine.
The restaurant chain helped launch the Mexican food boom in the 1970s and 1980s, serving gigantic portions of intensely flavored food such as its chili powder, jalapeno-and-onion-laden nachos grande, with the help of an innovative computerized kitchen capable of serving up orders in nine minutes or less.

As with Steak and Ale, Chi-Chi's success spawned scores of competitors, and in late 2003, the restaurant chain was forced to file for bankruptcy due to poor cash flow.
Shortly after that, the Mexican green onions that helped make Chi-Chi's food so tangy became its undoing, when a batch tainted with Hepatitis A sickened 660 diners and killed three at a Chi-Chi's in Pennsylvania, leading to the chain's demise the following year.

7. Lums

Opened: 1956
Current Status: Defunct as of 2009
In 1956, a struggling young lawyer named Clifford Perlman and his brother Stuart, a door-to-door salesman, scraped together $12,000 to buy a humble six-year-old restaurant called Lum's in Miami Beach. And they were surprised by how well it did while other local eateries struggled.

As Clifford later explained to Fortune magazine, he figured out that the difference was not the menu, but their restaurant's clear-glass doors, which seemed more inviting to passers-by than the solid ones the competition had.
Pretty soon, they bought a second eatery and put in glass doors, and daily revenues increased there from $20 to $150 a day. By the time they ditched the weiner trade for a Vegas casino and sold their chain to KFC owner John Y. Brown for $4 million in 1971, nearly 400 franchises served the hot dogs steamed in beer that were the Lum's trademark.

According to newspaper reports the company eventually was passed into the hands of a German company that went bankrupt in the early 1980s, and the once-prosperous chain dwindled down to a single restaurant in Davie, Fla., which closed in 2009.

A thief later made off with the 400-pound wooden Lum's sign, so don't be surprised to see it turn up eventually on eBay.

8. White Tower

Opened: 1926
Current Status: Defunct as of 2004
White Castle, which in 1921 became the nation's first fast-food hamburger chain, introduced such innovations as the steam-cooked square, the onion-laden hamburger, the industrial-strength spatula and a distinctive gleaming white exterior.

They all worked so well that when Milwaukee dance hall operator John E. Saxe and his son Thomas decided to launch a competing chain in Milwaukee five years later, they slavishly copied White Castle, down to the fake turrets on their restaurants, and adopted the sound-alike name White Tower. They even copied White Castle's "Buy 'em by the sack" advertising slogan, with "Take Home a Bagful."
By the early 1930s, there were more than 120 White Towers in cities ranging from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. White Castle responded with lawsuits, which White Tower eventually settled by agreeing to pay $82,000 and change its architecture from fake medieval to an updated Art Deco look.

White Tower grew to 230 restaurants at its peak in the 1950s, but then gradually faded away, as customers moved away from its locations in declining urban areas.

The last surviving White Tower franchise in Toledo shut down in 2004.

9. Howard Johnson's
Opened: 1935
Current Status: Only 3 restaurants remain open
In 1935, Howard D. Johnson opened a roadside soda fountain and restaurant in Orlean, Mass., with borrowed capital and then quickly began selling others the rights to open similar establishments, with Johnson retaining half-ownership and controlling the menu and operation. He found plenty of takers.

By 1970, there were 870 HoJo restaurants, mostly concentrated along highways in the northeastern U.S. and adorned with the chain's signature orange roofs and cutesy piemaker-kid-and-dog logo.
But HoJo's customers gradually tired of the chain's menu, which was built around chicken, clams, hot dogs and ice cream confections, when other more specialized competitors came along like Friendly's, KFC and Long John Silver's.

By 2009, the orange roofs had dwindled to just three locations -- Bangor, Maine, and Lake Placid and Lake George, N.Y.

10. Kenny Rogers Roasters

Opened: 1991
Current Status: Only one location remains open as of 2008
Kenny Rogers Roasters, a chain that the singer started with pal and former KFC mogul John Y. Brown in 1991, probably became most renowned as a plot device in a 1996 "Seinfeld" episode, in which the eccentric Kramer hangs a "Bad Chicken" banner outside his apartment to protest the restaurant's sleep-depriving neon sign.

By show's end, the character drops his complaints when he becomes addicted to KRR's rotisserie chicken.
In real life, Kenny Rogers got good reviews for its cuisine, but the chain found it tough going in a market crowded with competitors. It went bankrupt in 1998 and eventually was sold to Nathan's, the hot dog stand chain, according to news reports.
Today, only one U.S. outlet remains in Ontario, Calif.

Oddly, however, the brand, which is now owned by a Malaysian company, is going great guns in Asia, with at least 100 franchises.

In a 2008 interview with the Raleigh News-Observer, the country crooner lamented the chain's domestic demise. "You know, we had those little corn muffins that actually had corn in them," he said. "I miss that."
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 2:59 pm
I so wanted to break into the Roasters out by Gresham after it shut down and steal the gold record off the wall.

A friend had the ultimate Roasters shirt. On the back was just the line : "It's the wood that makes it good!"
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 3:12 pm | Edited by: Tiger Blinds
Start a fast food franchise in central america to embezzle money and smuggle drugs.....
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 3:13 pm
OMG! only THREE HoJo's left in the universe???
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 3:15 pm
I hit up Church's all the time!!!
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 3:19 pm
Doh! shoulda quoted before the edit!
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 5:21 pm
My friends and I always wanted to kidnap the Big Boy, shoot him in the head, and leave him in a ditch.
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 6:14 pm
Start a fast food franchise in central america to embezzle money and smuggle drugs.....

Los Pollos Hermanos?

Is Bonanza still around? My parents stopped taking me there around 1989 because I'd just eat ambrosia and soft serve for dinner.

Also, Planet Hollywood! There used to be one in Vancouver, but it didn't last long.
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 6:30 pm
There was a chain called Judy's, an obvious rip-off of Wendy's, right down to the cartoon girl on the sign and the square burgers. There was one on Austin Peay, late '70s.
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 6:31 pm
My friends and I always wanted to kidnap the Big Boy, shoot him in the head, and leave him in a ditch.

Styrofoam Hamm's Bear at the store I worked at got beat up and thrown in the woods by a coked-out coworker. It was pretty sad.
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 6:42 pm
OMG! only THREE HoJo's left in the universe???

my thoughts exactly. there was a hojo's in the town where i grew up we used to smoke pot in their back parking lot when i was in high school.
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 6:59 pm
there was a story on sambo's in one of the issues of mutiball, i want to say one of the last was on the oregon coast
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 10:22 pm
sambo's is still around, my friends. original location in santa barbara is rockin'. last i saw a few years ago anyway. something tells me i would have heard about it if it closed.
Posted: Aug 18, 2010 10:26 pm
Current Status: As of 1982 only the original location remains open
Sambo's was founded in Santa Barbara in 1957 by Sam Battistone and Newell F. Bohnett, who combined their names to form the moniker, apparently without realizing it was also an epithet directed at African-Americans.

i meant one of the last, it actually may have been this one, it was over 10 yrs ago
Posted: Aug 19, 2010 9:06 am
Ate at Sambo's as a kid.
Pretty sure it became a Big Boy
Posted: Aug 19, 2010 4:29 pm
There was a Chi-Chi's in the Vancouver suburbs long ago ... I recall it being pretty good actually.

I also remember seeing one in Barcelona, of all places!
Posted: Aug 20, 2010 1:20 pm
I dated a girl who worked at Chi-Chi's.

Ironicaly, she had very small tits.
Posted: Aug 20, 2010 2:03 pm
They've still got the Kenny Rogers Roasters in Asia. I saw one in Singapore. It cracked me up, but not enough to try it out.
Posted: Aug 20, 2010 5:02 pm
My friends and I always wanted to kidnap the Big Boy, shoot him in the head, and leave him in a ditch.

Styrofoam Hamm's Bear at the store I worked at got beat up and thrown in the woods by a coked-out coworker.

Circa 1985 the local news reported of a plastic lifesize Ronald being stolen/kidnapped from the McDonalds drive-thru in my hood. It went missing for a few days til it was found floating in a lake 20 miles away.
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