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A Look Back at Burger Chef

By • Sep 22nd, 2010 • Category: Burger Blog

My last post on the history of the Big Mac got me thinking.  I was remembering my own introduction to fast food, wondering why I never gravitated toward the Big Mac (and never even tried one until last year) when I suddenly had a blast from the burger past.  Remember Burger Chef?!?


Founded in 1954 in Indianapolis, the chain exploded in popularity from Day One.  By 1969, there were almost 900 stores, and the chain was second only to McDonald’s in number of locations, with just about 100 stores difference.

Burger Chef’s claim to fame was the char-grilled burger, a unique fast-food offering at the time, thanks to the flame broiler patented by founding brothers Frank and Donald Thomas.  But Burger King isn’t the only modern chain who owes a debt of gratitude to the Chef.  You know the fixings bar that put Fuddruckers on the map?  Burger Chef pioneered the self-serve “Works Bar” in the ’70s.

They were also the first chain to offer a “value combo” (hamburger, fries, and a soda for 45 cents… in the ’50s) and the first to serve a specially-packaged all-in-one kids’ meal with toys, the Funmeal (Burger Chef actually sued McDonald’s when they introduced their similarly-themed Happy Meal, but lost).  Much of the company’s promotional material featured cartoon mascots- Burger Chef (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Peter Griffin on TV’s “Family Guy”) and his young sidekick Jeff.

The chain’s signature sandwich was the Big Shef, a double burger with an oddly-familiar middle bun:

In 1968, Burger Chef was purchased by General Foods Corporation for $20 million, and the expansion hit another gear entirely, spawning almost 2,400 locations by 1970.  But it proved to be too much, too soon, with General Foods selling the chain to a Canadian company (the parent company of Hardee’s) in 1982.  Many locations were converted to Hardee’s restaurants; many more were simply shut down.

Some franchisees sued, accusing General Foods of wrongfully forcing them to perform costly renovations while simultaneously shopping the chain to prospective buyers.  Amazingly, due to lengthy delays in litigation, the Cookeville, Tennessee store remained open under the Burger Chef name until 1996.

But the legacy of Burger Chef thrives today, if you know where to look.  A few die-hard enthusiasts have exhaustive websites that chronicle the chain’s rich history and feature photo galleries documenting what the remaining Burger Chef buildings look like today, with their instantly-recognizable architecture and distinctive “open-kite-design” signs:

And Burger Chef memorabilia is a hot commodity on eBay.  Besides the usual store signs and fixtures, menu boards, and dining room paraphernalia, some of Burger Chef’s promotional giveaway items are among the most sought-after collectibles.  Their biggest tie-in was with Coca-Cola and Star Wars, with officially-licensed posters that I remember to this day.  (Mom, Christmas gift alert!)

Even the food lives on… kind of.  Perhaps trying to capitalize on the nostalgic wave of Gen-Xers who remember Burger Chef fondly, Hardee’s resurrected the Big Shef (although slightly different from the original- no middle bun) on a limited-time-only basis in 2001, and then again wider in 2007.

While apparently not available everywhere, it does appear as a menu offering on the Hardee’s website, although with no mention whatsoever of the Burger Chef name… or of this chain’s incredible place in history as the brand that almost beat McDonald’s at its own game, and then vanished into thin air.

This article’s facts and photos were compiled from several of the painstakingly-researched and maintained websites devoted to Burger Chef.  They are all fascinating and well worth your time.  I encourage you to visit them for more than I could ever present in a few hundred words on this almost-lost chapter in burger history.  I am indebted to these keepers of the flame.

http://www.freewebs.com/burgerchef/ (the most comprehensive of the sites I found)

http://jsfburgerchef.homestead.com/ (also well-detailed with numerous photos)

http://www.waymarking.com/cat/details.aspx?f=1&guid=65766bda-9049-4276-9ee6-1fe3ed9e6d1f and http://www.agilitynut.com/eateries/bchef.html (photos of former Burger Chef locations)

http://www.lostindiana.net/Lost_Indiana/Lost_Indiana__Burger_Chef.html (interesting history specific to the chain’s birthplace in Indiana)

5 Responses to “A Look Back at Burger Chef”

  1. 1
    Rich Says:

    It is a shame to have lost this chain.

  2. 2
    Bill Ore Says:

    Hey, Todd,

    I worked for Burger Chef from the late 60′s until the late 70′s, for both franchisees and corporately-owned stores. I have quite a few memories of that time and some of the people I met and worked with. If you’d like some of this for your site, I’d be glad to provide it. I’ve contributed to some of the other sites listed above, but most of them aren’t very active any more, if at all. I really think most people have forgotten about Burger Chef, so I’d like to keep the memory alive. Let me know if I can contribute to your site, and what you would like.

    Thanks,
    Bill

  3. 3
    Alan Kraus Says:

    In Northeast Philadelphia, our Burger Chef was at 1624 Cottman Avenue, across from Northeast High School. I remember it being built in 1959. I have to check the date but this Burger Chef was razed to make way for the present Burger King, which is on the same property but further east. I beleive it was the same franchisee at the time. They use the original address. I remember the thick milkshakes. You couldn’t drink them through a straw. I used to watch them fill the soft serve machines. The outer carton read “Moo-Moo Milk”. Burger Chef and McDonald’s taught most of us what fast food is. What happened to Burger Chef? Then again, what happened to 15c hamburgers, fries and shakes?

  4. 4
    Mark Tolbert Says:

    1977 in flint i bought a hamburger for 25 cents, i miss that place.

  5. 5
    Jim Says:

    I remember going to Burger Chef. I still have the glow in the dark frisbee I got with my meal years ago. For some reason, hardly anybody remembers Jeff.

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