Pizza by the foot. Burgers sold from a giant barrel. A 56-foot-tall steel chicken. These were all actual things back in the day. We’ve rummaged through the archive to find 40 extraordinary photos that illustrate what the fast-food world was once like — so read on to be entertained and amazed. But a word of warning: after reading this, you might well experience an urgent craving for burgers, pizza, or fried chicken...
The first McDonald’s
Here’s a blast from the past — the very first McDonald’s restaurant. Actually, it’s not quite that.
Firstly, it’s a replica of the original, titled the McDonald’s Museum. Secondly, it’s not really the first Mcdonald's. It is the first one opened after Ray Kroc partnered with the actual McDonald's brothers Maurice and Richard. Kroc launched the franchise system in 1955 and this was its first outlet in Des Plaines, Illinois. McDonald's actually opened their original restaurant in 1940.
As any fan of the restaurant knows, the predominant color of Wendy’s cups and packaging is red. But there have been times, as this photo attests, when the color was flipped to yellow.
Although as you can see, the trademark name and pigtailed girl were still picked out in red. So what was with the color change? We have absolutely no idea. Even Google doesn’t know.
If you weren’t a regular at Taco Bell back in the 1990s, you might struggle to recognize the restaurant’s trademark look of the time. But here it is in all its glory.
A style mish-mash best consigned to history or an inspired use of color and form? You decide. At least the tacos looked more or less the same 30 years ago.
“Pizza by the foot,” this promo poster from Little Caesars promises. It sure seems a long way from the original circular version of the dough-based dish, which is said to have originated in the Italian city of Naples more than two centuries ago.
Still, at 11 bucks for almost 3 feet of pizza, who’s complaining?
Home of the Whopper
The two men who started Burger King, David Edgerton and Jim McLamore, introduced the world to the Whopper in 1957, The Gainesville Sun newspaper reports. The Whopper, with flame-grilled patties of course, cost just 37 cents when it first went on sale to an eager and hungry public.
And 60 years later, we’re still eating them. Although they cost a bit more.
King of the cones
This stylish stand was in Cherokee, Oklahoma, and the image is from 1979. Frederick J. R. Miller was the man behind Miller’s Dairy King.
He was by all accounts a versatile character who had spells as a roughneck in the oil business, as a farmer, and as a mechanic. He also found time to run the Dairy King business alongside his wife Mary.
Yellow, yellow, and more yellow
The interior of this Subway restaurant dating from the late 1990s or early 2000s can only be described as yellow. Although if you screw up your eyes, perhaps it could be a lime-ish shade of green.
Whatever, it’s on the garish side. We’ll just have to hope that the color scheme didn’t spoil the experience of the diners in this shot.
What would fast food be without some accompanying merchandise? Less profitable for a start.
Here’s Ronald McDonald, shamefully more or less no-platformed by his own company years ago for being too creepy. Let’s face it: he was too creepy. Also featured on the plate is Ronald’s sidekick Grimace. He’s gone, too.
Burger in a barrel
As a name for a fast food restaurant, Beef Burger is nothing if not accurately descriptive. But this one in Amarillo, Texas, and photographed in 1976 is set inside a giant, white barrel for some reason.
In fact, there is a reason. Originally, it was an A&W Root Beer outlet opened in 1937. So that explains the barrel shape.
Jack in the Box
McDonald’s wasn’t the only fast food corporation to sell its wares with a scary clown. As this photo from the 1970s attests, Jack in the Box was at it as well.
With a startling lack of originality, the clown was called Jack I. Box. We’d say anything that has what looks like an enormous ping pong ball for a head is best avoided.
Remember the days when your parents would take you to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal? You’d wolf down your sandwich while mom and dad ate their meal with rather more decorum.
So that meant there was some time to kill. Then the games came into their own. There they were, right under your meal when you’d finished it, on the paper covering the tray. Simple pleasures, happy times.
“We’re number two!”
If you’d taken a trip to Springfield, Ohio, in 1980 you’d have come across this rather austere Burger King restaurant there. The company website tells us that the brand made its debut in 1954 and that today it’s “the second-largest fast food hamburger chain in the world.”
We’ll leave you to guess which burger joint is in the number-one spot.
Pink’s Hot Dogs
“Pink’s celebrates 59 years” proclaims the banner above the serving window at this stand in Los Angeles, California. Judging by the line at this outlet in 1998, the frankfurters were still highly popular after all those years.
Pink’s did indeed appear early in the story of American fast food. Paul and Betty Pink got started with $50 and a handcart in 1939.
This 1989 version of the signage for Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers is familiar enough. But just who is the little girl with the pigtails?
It turns out the drawing was based on a real person, Melinda Lou Thomas, nicknamed "Wendy" as a child. Her dad, Dave Thomas, founded Wendy’s in 1969, opening the first restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. And he chose his own eight-year-old daughter as the model for the Wendy’s logo.
Dunkin’ Donuts comes to town
Apparently anxious that some folks might be missing out on the good stuff from Dunkin’ Donuts, the company decided to go on the road. It’s 2010, and we’re told that this truck is delivering free goodies to some office workers.
Of course, it wasn’t just pure altruism. Think of it as a large mobile advertisement, much cheaper than TV slots despite the initial investment.
Here’s the first Hardee’s franchise restaurant, opened in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1961 by Leonard Rawls and James Gardner. It’s got something of a colorful back story.
Wilbur Hardee opened his first outlet in 1960. But he played a game of poker with Gardner and Rawls, staking a controlling interest in his business. They won. Remember that the next time you tuck into a Monster Angus Thickburger at Hardee’s.
Original Nathan’s Hot Dogs
A visit to New York’s Coney Island boardwalk would hardly be complete without a stop at Original Nathan’s Hot Dogs. Founded in 1916, it’s got to be one of America’s oldest fast food joints still in business today.
We should honor Nathan Handwerker, for it was this Polish immigrant that opened the first of the hot-dog stands with his name.
Back to basics
It’s 1939, and seven hungry citizens are busy fueling up at this modest roadside stand in Harlingen, Texas. The 7Up sign catches our eye with its spectacularly cheap breakfast offer.
Ham and eggs and a cup of joe for 25 cents, it proclaims. The venue might not be too glamorous, but that’s what we call value.
As you drive along the highway in Las Cruces, New Mexico, you can hardly fail to notice this burger joint with its screaming orange-and-white striped roof. It is, of course, a Whataburger outlet, with colors that were its trademark back in 2003 and which are still used today.
It’s another fast food operation with a long history: the first restaurant opened in Corpus Christi, Texas, back in 1950.
A sea of packaging
Look at all that packaging! How much of it is recyclable?
We’re not sure. But these polystyrene boxes were once as much part of the fabric of daily American life as mom and apple pie. These particular cartons all came from McDonald’s. But to be fair to the fast food giant, it was hardly the only such firm creating massive amounts of waste each year. These days, the food comes in cardboard containers.
Irresistible ice cream
Imagine you’re a ten-year-old kid. Could you resist this trio of mouth-watering ice creams?
We think not. Actually, there are plenty of adults we know who’d be tempted by this display of Wendy’s confectionery. These cones are from 1999, and just to prove Wendy’s had international reach, this photo was taken in Melbourne, Australia.
This advertisement for Bojangles and its “Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits” is somewhat bizarrely juxtaposed with a promotion for a bookshop. The connection?
We’ve no idea. In any case, it’s 1989, and the ad is located at North Carolina’s Durham Athletic Park. We’re happy to say that Bojangles is still very much in business. Sadly, the Intimate Bookshop is not.
Wanted: hot dogs
This bunch of hungry looking customers clamoring for service was taken at the legendary Nathan’s. What the occasion was in 1947 — other than a much-anticipated dining opportunity — we do not know.
But the keen appetites are plain to see. And fun fact: Nathan’s in Coney Island sells up to 10,000 hotdogs a day in the summer season.
It definitely looks like a castle. And it’s certainly white.
So, of course, it must be a White Castle restaurant. This one’s in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and photographer John Margolies captured the image in 1981. He spent almost 40 years touring America to snap roadside structures that caught his eye, often fast food restaurants or their signs.
This colorful (perhaps "lurid" would be a better word) sign is actually on display at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City. Its website tells us that one Troy Smith opened a restaurant called the Top Hat in 1953 in a derelict root-beer concession.
In 1959, the Top Hat name was abandoned and the first Sonic Drive-In launched, boasting “Service with the Speed of Sound.”
It’s a McDonald’s sometime in the early part of the 1980s. The young server’s uniform style confirms the era of the photograph.
In fact, smartly uniformed staff have always been a central part of the McDonald’s corporate culture. A look back at images from the 1950s reveals servers dressed in white shirts, pants, and paper hats. Colored uniforms emerged later.
It might not have the most elegant name, but The Bucket’s promise of “Giant Home Made Burgers” is certainly tempting. The photo is from 1977 and the burger joint is in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles.
The Bucket opened for business in 1935 and sadly closed in 2013. However, there was good news in 2018 when L.A. student newspaper The Occidental reported that the venerable institution had reopened its doors.
Nuggets or tenders?
You can call them nuggets or tenders. But either way, these ones came from Burger King and this image triggered a torrent of nostalgia when it was posted on Reddit.
One commenter was in no doubt about the virtues of these crown-shaped poultry morsels, asserting, “These chicken tenders were THE BEST EVER.”
It’s 1984, and we’re in Queens, New York, outside the Rego Park Branch of Dunkin’ Donuts. And a banner draped along the roof proclaims something earth-shatteringly new: the ice cream cookie sandwich.
How sweet-toothed folks got along without that confection previously is hard to fathom. It’s a question we’ll have to leave to social and culinary historians.
Pictured in 1978 and tricked out in the company’s trademark red-and-white livery, this branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken was in Daly City, California. Colonel Harland Sanders founded the chicken chain in 1952 with the first branch in Salt Lake City.
Although he did serve in the military, his title of Colonel was actually an honorific bestowed by Kentucky’s Governor Ruby Laffoon in 1935.
Buzzards Bay Bananas
The folks at the Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, branch of Dairy Queen seem to have been keen followers of surrealism. At least that seems to have been the case, given the giant bananas.
On the other hand, maybe they were simply promoting a banana shake back in 1950. We prefer to think they were enthusiastic Salvador Dali fans.
Food or toy
What did you prefer at McDonald’s when you were a kid: the Happy Meal, or the toys? For many, the excitement of unwrapping the free toys may have left the actual burgers or nuggets in the shade.
Here is a sample from a fine collection of more than 80 plastic figures and gizmos spanning a period from 1987 to 1993.
We’d have to say that Hamburger Castle, photographed in 1979 in Shawnee, Oklahoma, hardly lives up to its name. Truth be told, it looks more like a squat, whitewashed bunker than a stately fortification.
Having said that, its red-painted roof and neon signage are authentically representative of the roadside style of the era.
A giant of a chicken
This fantastic fowl advertising the Kentucky Fried Chicken eatery beneath it was built in 1963 at the behest of owner Stanley R. “Tubby” Davis.
Constructed of steel, the 56-foot-tall chicken actually features moving eyes and beak. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the landmark is known locally as “The Big Chicken.” It still stands proudly at Cobb Parkway and Roswell Road in Marietta, Georgia.
In line at McDonald’s
Judging by the line, it looks like it’s probably lunchtime at this McDonald’s restaurant. Photographer Thomas J. O’Halloran captured this fly-on-the-wall photo in 1979.
He worked as a press photographer for 35 years chronicling everyday life in the U.S. And what could be more typically American than a bunch of guys waiting for their burgers?
This image from McDonald’s got the Reddit crowd going. If you’re not a gaming expert, what you’re seeing here are Nintendo 64 game centers running Mario Party 3.
For dedicated gamers, this Reddit-posted image was an opportunity for unabashed nostalgia.
Ring any Bells?
Way back in 1973, you could score a tostado or a burrito for a measly 29 cents and wash it down with a 15-cent root beer. Those were the days!
We’re looking at the menu of a Taco Bell in San Anselmo, California, and the prices are a real eye-opener. Why Taco Bell? Because the founder was Glen Bell. He opened Bell’s Drive-in in 1954 and the first Taco Bell came along in 1962.
Sombrero Taco Shop
This shot is from 1978 but looks like it could have been taken much earlier. The Sombrero Taco Shop was in San Diego, California, and it certainly appears to have been the real deal.
Diners were invited to eat in or take away. We’d have chosen to take our tacos onsite so that we could soak up the retro atmosphere.
It’s so cheap!
It’s 1979, so everything on this Wendy’s menu board looks like an absolute bargain. Fries at 55 cents, a quarter-pounder at 89 cents, and a soda for 35 cents.
It’s all good. Of course, truth is there has been a certain amount of inflation in the last four decades. But even so, it’s fun to fantasize about paying those prices.
Pete’s Super Submarines
Subway is one of the most recognizable brands on Earth today, but it wasn’t always known by this name. During its earliest days before 1968, the sandwich store was called Pete’s Super Submarines.
Yet this isn't the only surprising fast food fact you'll find.
All I want for Christmas is… KFC
All over America on Christmas day, families sit around a table to gorge on a roasted turkey and all the sides that come with it. But for some households in Japan, the traditional Christmas dinner is a little different.
Rather than spending hours in the kitchen, they simply run down to KFC for some of the Colonel’s finest chicken.
All about presentation
There was once a time before 2013 when Pizza Hut bought more kale than any other company. This is no longer the case, but the fact that it used to be true is quite surprising.
Especially when we consider that Pizza Hut never actually offered kale as part of its menu. So why did it purchase so much? Well, the company decorated its salad bars with it.
The mighty McRib originated from a chicken shortage
Since the 1980s McDonald’s has teased its customers by having the McRib sporadically appear and disappear from the menu. But if it hadn’t been for a lack of chicken, we might never have had it at all.
Basically, the product was developed in the wake of the Chicken McNugget’s invention. People loved the McNuggets and wanted more than the company could supply – so an alternative menu item was needed. And with that, the McRib was born.
The Colonel loved White Castle
Having opened up back in 1921, White Castle is generally considered to be America’s first-ever fast food joint. The restaurant laid the groundwork for other places like it to develop – and it welcomed some important patrons.
None other than Colonel Sanders is said to have frequented White Castle outlets, with the KFC founder even stating that his most-loved food came from there.
Burger and a steam
If you’ve ever felt that eating a burger isn’t quite as relaxing as it could be, then you’re in luck. Head to the Finnish capital of Helsinki, and you can enjoy a Burger King and a steam at the same time.
The chain opened up a branch inside a sauna in the city, meaning you can consume burgers, fries, and even alcohol from the comfort of the spa.
Jason Mraz’s side hustle
On top of his success in the music industry, pop star Jason Mraz also has another line of work. When he’s not on stage or in the studio, he spends his time on his avocado farm.
And if you’ve ever been to a Californian branch of Chipotle, then there’s a chance that you may even have eaten some of his produce. According to reports, he supplies the restaurants with around 30,000 pounds of avocado each year.
If you notice a faint oaky quality to cheese from a fast food place, you might not be going crazy. Wood pulp – disclosed in ingredient listings as “powdered cellulose” – is sometimes put in cheese to stop it from being too sticky.
Reports have suggested that this is the case for the cheese in a spicy chicken wrap from Wendy’s.
An “exotic” name
Were it not for painter Don Anderson, the franchise we know as KFC might well have been called something different. Anderson had been called in to paint a sign for the original outlet, but the name hadn’t yet been decided.
But when he arrived, Anderson suggested Kentucky Fried Chicken. He thought that it had an “exotic” ring to it.
The Waffle House Index
If there’s been an earthquake or a hurricane, the first thing to do is… check if your nearest Waffle House is open. That sounds crazy, but it’ll tell you how bad the damage has been.
In fact, there’s even a so-called Waffle House Index. If the index shows you green, that means the restaurant is fully operational, and local infrastructure is working well. If the index shows you yellow, then the Waffle House is only offering a partial menu because water’s flowing, but the power’s out. Red means that the restaurant is shut, and both power and water have been cut in the area.
Never missing a trick
If you’ve ever been within the vicinity of a Cinnabon outlet, you’ve probably been enticed by the smell wafting from the place. Well, this isn’t an accident.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that it’s company policy to put cinnamon rolls in the oven every half-hour so that the signature smell draws in customers. And apparently some outlets have been known to simply bake sugar and cinnamon just to keep the smell around.
A Friday sandwich
The Filet-o-Fish has been on the McDonald’s menu since 1962, but not necessarily for the reason you might think. It may seem like that the sandwich was invented to offer patrons with a healthier seafood alternative to hamburgers.
But it was actually created to appeal to Catholic people on Fridays. You see, this is a day on which some Catholics have traditionally avoided meat.
Even the Queen of England wants in on the famous golden arches
If you’re ever in Banbury Gateway Shopping Park in Oxfordshire – which isn’t very far from the English capital of London – you should call into the area’s local McDonald’s outlet. At a glance, there’s nothing particularly special about this place.
You might say it’s a little fancier than some McDonald’s branches, but you wouldn’t necessarily realize that it has a famous owner. But the property is actually controlled by the Crown Estate, meaning that the Queen is effectively the owner.
Eau de Burger King
There’s a range of fragrances on the market these days, but it’s unusual to find any that smell like hamburgers. It’s not impossible, though.
Back in 2015, in fact, Burger King introduced a cologne to the Japanese market. Wearers would be covered in “the scent of seduction with a hint of flame-broiled meat.” Delicious.
Starbucks’ not-so-classified location
Starbucks has a mind-bending number of outlets around the world, but one in Langley Virginia, is a little different to the rest. Here, patrons’ names aren’t scribbled onto the cups and the receipts given out list the place as “Store Number 1.”
So why all the weird secrecy? Well, this branch happens to be located in the CIA headquarters.
Sometimes, it isn’t a person’s primary project that brings them success. And it’s fair to say that Steve Ells knows this from personal experience.
When he finished up at culinary school, Ells wanted to set up a restaurant for fine dining. But to finance this endeavor, he opened up a more casual establishment. It was called Chipotle.
In good shape
If you’re hungry, you probably don’t have the restraint to examine your McNuggets before gorging on them. But if you did, you might notice that there are four distinct shapes to them.
And they’re each known by a different name – there’s the bone, the ball, the bell, and the boot.
Subway’s interesting ingredient
There was a time in which Subway added a chemical known as azodicarbonamide to its bread. This ended up catching people’s attention, as the component is also used in the manufacture of yoga mats.
There was public uproar about the ingredient, however, and the chain phased it out of its sandwiches.
Toys and fries
McDonald’s is one of the most recognizable fast food restaurants on Earth, but it also holds another crazy distinction. In addition to all those burgers it provides, McDonald’s is also known to distribute more toys to consumers than any other business.
It’s a surprising fact, but when you consider how many Happy Meals are sold in a day, it makes sense.
A bug shake
If you enjoy milkshakes or juices from fast food joints, then you might be getting more than you bargained for. Many of these products have been known to contain carmine, a coloring agent made from crushed insects known as cochineals.
Starbucks, for instance, used to add carmine to its Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino, but it later changed the recipe. Still, though, if you want to avoid bugs in your shakes, keep an eye out for the ingredient.
A scientific wonder
Despite its name, the McRib doesn’t actually contain a single rib bone. The McDonald’s favorite was actually invented in a lab, created using novel techniques similar to those used in sausage production.
The resulting food product was initially similar in appearance to a pork chop, but McDonald’s later insisted on shaping it like ribs.
In 2001 a Russian cosmonaut named Yuri Usachov got a special delivery while he was aboard the International Space Station. A pizza had arrived, having made its way from Earth on a Russian rocket.
The delivery hadn’t come cheap, though, with Pizza Hut reportedly spending around a million dollars on the project.
If you find yourself in Australia with a hankering for a Burger King, you might be perturbed to discover that you can’t locate a branch. Don’t despair, though.
Burger King can be found in Australia, it’s just known by a different name. Down Under they call the franchise Hungry Jack’s.
Although his face is still plastered all over the franchise today, it turns out that Colonel Sanders actually fell out of love with KFC. After the brand’s recipes changed over the years, the Colonel grew to dislike it so much that he even tried to set up a rival called Claudia Sanders, The Colonel’s Lady.
This was in dedication to his wife, but it wasn’t very successful. KFC even took him to court, and he eventually sold the business.
Convenient and tasty
Your nearest Waffle House outlet can actually be so helpful. It’s open 24/7, and it can make package deliveries a whole lot easier.
That’s because all over America, branches act as official meeting spots for users of Roadie: a delivery service app. This works by having users collect other folk’s packages and dropping them off along the way during a trip they were taking anyway.
For a rainy day
When people get caught up in a rainstorm in Southern California, they can at least seek consolation at Subway. Whenever it rains in the region, the sandwich chain’s outlets have a special offer.
Customers get a free small sub or soup when they buy their own sandwich and a 30-ounce beverage.
The vertical Subway
Constructing One World Trade Center was no mean feat, and the laborers on the site obviously needed to eat. So Subway came up with a way to get its sandwiches to them.
A moveable restaurant was created, which was capable of moving up and down the structure. This meant that workers didn’t have to spend their breaks making their way down to ground level.
The LGBTQ+ community’s beef with Wendy’s
In 1997 a famous episode of sitcom Ellen was broadcast, during which Ellen DeGeneres’ protagonist stated that she was gay. This unfortunately wasn’t greeted positively by everyone, with fast food chain Wendy’s pulling its commercials from Ellen in response.
And with that, the gay and lesbian community decided to boycott the restaurant.
A whole lotta chicken
Whenever a Chick-fil-A outlet opens its doors for the first time, the company runs a special event at the new location. People bring tents and camp outside the store, queuing up to gain entry when the place finally opens.
And why do they do this? Because the first 100 people to make it inside get to eat for free for an entire year.
Younger people might not realize that McDonald’s once sold pizzas in some of its outlets across America. But it’s true.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s a number of outlets nationwide offered pizza with a range of topics. It didn’t work out, though, because pizzas took too long to prepare.
KFC detective work
One day, Mike Edgette made a discovery on Twitter. He noticed that KFC followed a limited number of accounts on the platform.
These were the five ladies that once made up the Spice Girls, as well as six people called Herb. Edgette put two and two together, realizing that this was a reference to the components that supposedly make up KFC’s coveted recipe. For his sleuthing, Edgette was rewarded with a painting of Colonel Sanders carrying him on his back. He later tweeted, “Dreams DO come true.”
Pharrell’s pricey hat
When Pharrell showed up at the Grammys in 2015 wearing a rather ostentatious hat, people were quick to note its similarities to the logo of Arby’s. So, when the pop star decided to auction the thing on e-Bay, there was only one bidder that was ever going to win.
Arby’s itself purchased the headwear for over $44,000, which was donated to charity.
A company called Nuro has spent the past few years trying to create autonomous vehicles. The startup’s even managed to see these things dropping groceries off to homes in the cities of Houston and Phoenix.
And in 2019 news emerged that Domino’s was going to use the cutting edge inventions for getting pizzas to households.
Inky burger buns
For American sensibilities, these squid ink burgers might be a little on the maverick side. But it seems that Burger King felt comfortable rolling the jet-black dishes out in Japan.
For a brief time back in 2014 customers in the Asian country could order burgers with black buns, cheese, and sauce.
Ronald McDonald is always close by
There’s an old saying that states you’re never more than six feet from a rat at any given time. Now, on top of that, we can say that Ronald McDonald is always within 115 miles of everyone in America.
And if you’re in a city, there’s almost certainly a McDonald’s branch that’s far closer than that.