The Origin Stories of Eight Famous Fast Food Chains

Photo credits: 1. Scott Eisen/Bloomberg/Getty Images, 2. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Although we might think of fast food as a recent creation, the need for easy-to-prepare, inexpensive, on-the-go food has driven innovative restaurants for centuries. In ancient Rome, food vendors selling stews, breads, and pre-cooked vegetables were popular with urban populations who did not have access to kitchens in their own homes. Even a 2nd century Han dynasty text speaks of noodle stalls that stayed open all night!

Consumers today have almost limitless choice when it comes to fast food. From burgers and fries to Chinese, pizza and ice cream, the stories behind these eight famous fast food chains and where they started are bound to be a treat!


One of the first McDonald’s fast food restaurants in Des Plaines, Illinois, circa 1955. (Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Brothers Dick and Mac McDonald opened their first McDonald’s located in San Bernardino, California. The brothers were successfully operating a drive-thru restaurant, but in 1948 they took a risk and streamlined their operations. By designing the Speedee service system, the restaurant offered a limited menu of burgers, shakes and fries at an affordable price. The Speedee system made it possible to quickly make items to order, and by standardizing what went on each product with specialized kitchen tools, they kept costs low and efficiency at an all-time high.

The brothers opened ten more franchise restaurants – the rest is history! Today McDonald’s is one of the most prolific fast food chains in the world with approximately 38,000 pitches worldwide.

The first Pizza Hut location in Wichita, Kansas

The first Pizza Hut location on the campus of Wichita State University, Kansas. (Photo credit: Sanjay Acharya / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1958, two brothers and Wichita State University students borrowed $600 from their mother to open a pizzeria near their school’s campus. With room for just eight letters on the panel, they chose to name it pizza hut. Soon the restaurant gained a huge clientele who kept coming back for the great pizza and friendly service.

Pizza Hut is now owned by Yum! Brands, a company that has acquired other fast food giants like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell. With 18,000 locations in over 100 countries, customers can always find a great slice of ‘za wherever they go!

jack in the box

Founded in 1951 in San Diego, California, the original jack in the box the locations were quirky and (for those afraid of clowns) slightly terrifying. The restaurant’s founder, Robert Oscar Peterson, gave his existing restaurants a circus theme in the late 1940s, and in 1947 he was granted the rights to use a intercom steering wheel control system – a rare and revolutionary invention at the time.

Today, the fast food chain has more than 2,000 locations across the United States, serving an interesting menu of burgers, fries, tacos and spring rolls.

Dunkin’ Donuts

The sign at the original location of Dunkin' Donuts

The original Dunkin’ Donuts location in Quincy, MA opened in 1950. (Photo Credit: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Before America ran on Dunkin’, the coffeehouse chain was originally called Open Kettle, first opened in 1948 in Quincy, Massachusetts. Founder William Rosenberg changed the name to Dunkin’ Donuts in 1950 with the goal of providing customers with the best coffees and donuts “quickly and courteously”. In 1955, Rosenberg opened its first franchise, and ten years later the company had 100 stores.

Today, Dunkin’ serves nearly two million cups of coffee each year with more than 11,000 locations worldwide.

dairy queen

Original Dairy Queen sign

A quirky Dairy Queen spot. (Photo credit: Paul Sableman / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)

dairy queen was a smash hit in 1938 when a father and son experimented with a new way to make soft serve ice cream in Green River, Illinois. They contacted their friend Sherb Noble to arrange an “all you can eat” trial of the new soft serve ice cream at his ice cream shop, and within two hours over 1,600 servings of ice cream were sold to satisfied customers.

When World War II hit, the newly franchised company took a hit but came back bigger and better than ever after the war. Beginning with just 100 stores in 1947, that number grew to 1,446 in 1950 and 2,600 in 1955. Today, Dairy Queen still serves beloved frozen treats in more than 6,000 restaurants in 20 countries.


Original location of Pete's Subway Sandwich Shop

One of Subway’s original locations. (Photo credit: Author unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain)

Subway is, surprisingly, the most popular fast food restaurant in the world. He has 42,998 pitches worldwide (McDonald’s has 37,200 for comparison). Subway began in 1965 when 17-year-old Fred DeLuca asked a family friend for advice on how to pay his tuition. Instead of getting a regular job, DeLuca opened an underwater sandwich shop using $1,000 investment family friend Peter Buck, a nuclear physicist.

The first Subway was opened in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where they served customizable sandwiches – a revolutionary idea at the time!


While the names of the founders of most other fast food restaurants on this list are rarely remembered, everyone knows the name behind Kentucky Fried Chicken: Harland “Colonel” Sanders. Sanders bought a roadside motel in Corbin, Kentucky in 1930 and began selling his Southern-style homemade fried chicken. After nine years, he finally perfected the top-secret blend of 11 herbs and spices that makes KFC so popular today.

In 1952, Colonel Sanders opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah. Sanders’ name (and face) has become so recognizable over the years that the Colonel has been named the second most recognizable celebrity in the world according to a survey. Today, KFC’s famous “finger-licking” chicken is sold in 25,000 KFC Restaurants in more than 145 countries.


The first one Starbucks Coffee a venue has popped up in Seattle, the well-known mecca for coffee lovers. Opened in 1971 in Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market, the coffee chain’s unconventional name comes from the classic Moby-Dick story – a tribute to the “seafaring tradition of early coffee traders.”

A New Yorker named Howard Schultz joined the company in 1982, and when he traveled to Italy the following year, he marveled at Italy’s thriving coffee culture. Bringing those same ideals and techniques home Starbucksthe café has become an artisan café serving artisanal espressos and lattes.

More about us: Colonel Sanders was not a real colonel

Today, Starbucks is still loved for its original coffee creations with seasonal beverages and customizable flavors available in more than 32,000 stores in 80 countries.

Elizabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and historical content writer. After completing her Masters in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada, Elisabeth shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter and volunteer with local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast. The Digital Dust Podcastwhich covers topics on everything from art history to graduate school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially excited to share her love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast

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