Yesterday’s Food And Retail by Grady Ellis (Editorial)
Yesterday’s Food and Retail by Carrollton resident Grady Ellis is an editorial series brought to you by The City Menus, LLC. The following piece is unedited and in its original state. In no way does it reflect the views or opinions of The City Menus, LLC or its additional contributors.
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Once upon a time, McDonald’s was getting off the ground in California. Other names we now know like Taco Bell, KFC, among others were also getting started. Frank and Donald Thomas had patented the flame broiler by parent company, General Equipment Corporation; and by 1957 they opened a restaurant in Indianapolis Indiana that would become a true innovator when it came to fast food as we know it today called Burger Chef.
After the opening of Burger Chef’s first location, other locations opened throughout the United States, with a focus upon opening in smaller towns such as Carrollton, LaGrange, and Newnan. Burger Chef’s expansion into our region started in Newnan, on Temple Avenue, in 1966. Carrollton’s location would open in 1969 on the new Four Lane we now know as South Park Street, the first Fast Food burger chain to open along the corridor. A location would also open in LaGrange on Commerce Avenue, but short-lived. Today Krystal sits where Burger Chef stood until the early 1970s. Burger Chef arrived before McDonald’s, Hardee’s, and Burger King and had the West Georgia market covered and became a very popular, and inexpensive place for families to eat, and children enjoyed it as well which we’ll soon know why.
In 1968 Burger Chef was bought by General Foods Corporation, and by 1972 had 1,200 locations, second to McDonald’s, which were already then in the Atlanta area and spreading our way. It was in the Early 1970s, the “Works Bar” where you could top your burger yourself that was immensely popular with patrons. The “Funmeal” would be introduced, and to this day when reflection on Burger Chef, people will refer as “Burger Chef and Jeff”. Burger Chef was a mascot and Jeff was his young sidekick and would be a part of the Funmeal, telling of their stories with other characters on the packaging entertaining the young children enjoying their Funburger. The Funmeal would also include riddles, puzzles, and toys. Although many today think McDonald’s created the first Happy Meal, Burger Chef preceded them by over seven years, and when McDonald’s introduced it in 1978, Burger Chef would sue, and lost.
As fast as the rise was for Burger Chef, and its popularity among people; by the mid 1970s other rival chains would begin to appear. This would hurt Burger Chef, yet by the mid to late 70s, the chain was beginning to falter. By the late 1970s, Carrollton and Newnan were the two remaining locations in our region. In 1979 Burger Chef suddenly closed in Carrollton. Within 10 years a legacy had been started and abruptly ended. Increased competition would lead to their demise as the 1980s arrived, and Newnan would be the last to close in the early 1980s, ending a run of success and leaving behind sweet memories for many people who enjoyed Burger Chef.
In 1982 Burger Chef was sold to Imasco, who at the time owned Hardee’s. Many Burger Chefs that were still open were converted to Hardee’s, and allowed franchises that were located near a Hardee’s to covert into another brand. Some kept the name, others would change their brand, and some simply closed. The final Burger Chef location carrying the legendary name would close in 1996 ending an era.
The rise and the fall of Burger Chef is a very interesting story, and it peaked too fast and then fell into rival hands. In some areas of the Midwest for some limited runs, Hardee’s served the “Big Shef” that was a classic upon the Burger Chef menu. I wish I could have gotten to see this place in person when it was around our area. But if I ever want to get a remote taste of this classic part of mid 20th Century Americana, Cleveland Tennessee has a location that’s still going strong after all these years called “The Chef”. It is the closest one you’ll find in the Southeast. The Newnan and Carrollton locations still stand in 2018. The Newnan location’s presently Amigo Auto Sales; and the Carrollton location currently the popular Mexican eatery El Monterrey which is next to Billy Bobs BBQ. Although they are now a memory to many, when you go to any modern fast-food restaurant, you’ll see a touch of Burger Chef Innovation. From flame-broiled hamburgers at Burger King, to McDonald’s Happy Meal, Burger Chef was a pioneer in the fast food industry that’s still remembered today.