It’s 2029 in Albany, New York—your average American city. A family of four stops by the corner sandwich shop for lunch, and the glass doors automatically slide open as they enter. A brand ambassador greets the family by name at the door, a tablet in her hand displaying the date and details of their last visit. She guides the family to an open table, fitting them each with a head-mounted display, which transforms the tabletop into an assembly line of fresh meats, cheeses, and vegetables.
It’s an oft-cited statistic: One in four Americans eats at a fast-food establishment each day—that’s nearly 79 million consumers, considering the latest national population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And depending on one’s definition of “fast food,” that number could edge higher for the broader limited-service restaurant industry, which also includes fast casuals.
While historians and quick-service industry veterans alike still hotly dispute the exact origin of the drive-thru window, one thing is certain: The rise of the auto industry revolutionized the fast-food business. Quick-service restaurants evolved in tandem with Americans’ growing use and purchase of the automobile—from the drive-in experience of the early ’20s and ’30s to the boom in the ’40s and ’50s of brands like
In-n-Out and Jack in the Box, which were specifically built around the drive-thru lane.
From a 95-year-old fast-food founding father to a five-year-old upstart, several quick-serve brands celebrate important anniversaries this year. While some have been modest in their celebrations, others are throwing company-wide bashes and passing on savings to guests through promotional deals. A select few are even taking the special occasion to revamp.
Here are 18 brands celebrating milestones in 2014—and how each has left its mark on the rest of the industry.
Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint
In a move that shook the fast-food industry earlier this week, Burger King announced its official merger with Canadian coffee-and-doughnuts concept Tim Hortons. The new company, to be headquartered in Canada, will be the third-largest quick-service company in the world, with more than 18,000 locations across 100 countries and nearly $23 billion in sales.
On November 15, 1969, Dave Thomas put 20-plus years of restaurant experience into the opening of his very own fast-food joint, Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers. That first restaurant, located in Columbus, Ohio, set a precedent for quick-service burger chains by capitalizing on a promise to consumers that its iconic square patties were fresh, never frozen. Even in those years the buzzword resonated, and so Wendy’s began its journey to becoming one of the nation’s largest hamburger chains.
For every limited-service chain pushing for growth and expansion across the U.S., there’s a crop of independent single-unit brands forgoing the traditional growth strategy to focus on excellence at the community level. Operators at these restaurants wear many hats, often performing the tasks of an entire C-suite on their own. But while the job is a challenging one, it’s also a rewarding one, allowing these indies to be a driving force in their respective communities.
The movie theater’s lights dim. A man and woman sit cradled in a leather love seat–style recliner as the previews begin. A handful of black-clad waiters and waitresses scatter from the aisles, quietly, unobtrusively making their way out as the film rolls. The man and woman settle further into their seats and unfold napkins onto their laps. Before them is a sturdy foldout tray holding dinner and drinks: two gourmet cheeseburgers with sweet potato fries and a pair of ice-cold beers.
Like the melodic tune of a mythical fish-tailed woman luring in unsuspecting sailors on the open ocean, the siren of Starbucks’ famous logo beckons the masses toward a promise of quality, of familiarity, of a ubiquitous yet iconic American coffee experience. Part muse, part marketing tool, she sings of an experience upon which a quick-serve empire was built and continues to grow.
Fast food gets a bad rap. The industry is actively cutting back on calories, sodium, trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, and other ingredient components that are detrimental to nutrition, but consumers and watchdogs alike are still quick to point fingers when the nation’s health woes come under debate.