When it comes to business, Americans tend to fall in love with the new—new companies, new products, new deals. But there’s value in the old, too, and across the limited-service industry, major brands like to remind customers of major milestones as way of communicating trust, heritage, and expertise.
From old brands to new, these are the brands celebrating significant anniversaries in 2016.
Think of Nathan’s Famous today and you might think of two things: the hot dogs widely available in supermarkets and restaurants all across the U.S., and the July 4 Hot Dog Eating Contest that draws thousands of spectators every year and countless headlines across consumer media.
But this year, Nathan’s wants consumers to know something far more important than how many hot dogs Joey Chestnut ate in 10 minutes to win this year’s competition (70): The brand is now 100 years old, one of the oldest foodservice brands in the U.S.
Nathan Handwerker founded Nathan’s Famous in New York’s Coney Island in 1916, selling 5-cent hot dogs out of a hot dog stand that eventually grew to incorporate an entire city block. Wayne Norbitz, long-time president of Nathan’s Famous, says that back then, the going rate for hot dogs was 10 cents, and Handwerker was forced to get creative in attracting New Yorkers to his stand.
“What he did to overcome that was he hired actors to dress up in white coats and wear stethoscopes around their necks to stand in front of his stand and eat hot dogs all day long,” Norbitz says. “That was his way of telling people that … if they’re good enough for doctors, then they’re good enough for you.”
Handwerker sold an all-beef hot dog mixed with a special blend of spices from his family, and to this day, the product formulation hasn’t changed. What has changed is how many people now have access to that hot dog.
The Handwerker family sold Nathan’s Famous to private investors in 1987, and the company went public in the ’90s. The new management expanded the brand to franchise locations—especially nontraditional real estate like airports and ballparks—as well as to supermarkets through a licensing deal. The Nathan’s hot dog is also available as a branded product through other restaurant operators.
Today, Norbitz says, the company is working on preserving the heritage of Nathan’s Famous while also incorporating modern-day appeal.
“We feel that the value of our heritage is very important and we want it preserved, but at the same time, we have to be contemporary in many different ways, whether it comes through service mechanisms or communications mechanisms,” he says. “We have to be contemporary; we have to meet expectations.”
Of course, the Hot Dog Eating Contest remains one of Nathan’s biggest annual promotions; Norbitz says some estimates peg the contest as worth millions of dollars in free advertising for the company.
“In the ’70s, the idea was to put a card table in front of the store and wait for a couple of big guys to walk by and say, ‘Would you like to be in a hot dog eating contest?’” Norbitz says. “The object was to get one picture in the New York Post. I would love to tell you that it was by grand design that it was going to turn out this way, but really, it just every year got a little bigger, and things escalated the publicity. I’m as surprised as everyone else about the publicity it gets.”
Nathan’s dialed back the clock for Memorial Day, offering hot dogs for the original 5-cent price at its Coney Island location. Norbitz says there were two lines stretching three to four city blocks all day. In addition, the brand has advertised its centennial in radio and TV spots, as well as through branded products in restaurants and hats given to kids.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on that says we’re 100 years old,” Norbitz says. “We’re proud of it and we think it means something. You don’t get a chance to do this many times, so we’re going to keep on doing it until the year ends.”
As one of the oldest national quick-service chains, White Castle has built a rabid fan base over the course of nearly a century by sticking to its tried-and-true sliders. The brand launched in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, when founder Billy Ingram and local cook Walt Anderson opened the first location, which sold 5-cent sliders, Coca-Cola, coffee, and apple pie.
Now based in Columbus, Ohio, but still owned by the Ingram family, White Castle kicked off a year-long celebration of the anniversary in February when it offered its loyal fans—dubbed the “Cravers”—bundled “Share a Meals” for $9.95.
As one-half of the CKE Restaurants portfolio—together with East Coast mainstay Hardee’s—Carl’s Jr. has built a reputation from California to Texas and points in between as a destination for big, juicy burgers.
But the brand didn’t actually start with burgers. It started as a hot dog stand in Los Angeles that founder Carl Karcher, a farm boy from Ohio who drove a bread truck, purchased from the original owner.
“When the hot dog cart went up for sale, Carl decided he wanted to go into business,” says Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE. “He had a brand-new Plymouth Super Deluxe, which he took to the bank and borrowed $311 on. His wife had $15 in her purse, which got them to the $326 that this guy wanted for the hot dog cart.”
Karcher, of course, eventually added burgers when he opened Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue, and in 1956, a smaller version of the Drive-In—Carl’s Jr.—was born.
This year, to recognize Carl’s Jr.’s heritage, CKE restored two cars: a 1975 Corvette that was given away through a sweepstakes, and a 1941 Plymouth Super Deluxe—just like the one Karcher sold—that will be auctioned off to charity. Both cars were shown off at restaurants across the West Coast.
CKE also hosted a company-wide party in July that honored franchisees, staff, and vendors. “People need to understand the history of the company,” Puzder says. “I think people feel very good and very positive about being with a startup or new company and building it from the ground up, but people also feel good being involved with a company that has a very rich history.”
Puzder adds that it’s important to promote a significant milestone like a 75th anniversary to customers because it builds trust and lets them know the brand isn’t some flash in the pan. But while heritage is important, he says, so is keeping up with the times.
“You can’t make yourself a new company,” he says. “We’re a company with about 3,700 restaurants in 44 states and 38 countries, and you can’t be the new domestic brand when you do that. But we do everything we possibly can to remain young and fresh and appeal to what’s youthful in everybody.”
Jack in the Box
While Jack in the Box has mostly kept the Jack (mascot) and the Box (logo) separate from each other in modern days, the original location, opened by businessman Robert O. Peterson in San Diego in 1951, had an actual Jack in the Box keeping watch over customers from the roof.
The Jack character was a significant part of Jack in the Box’s growth as it grew to more than 1,000 locations across the West in the ’70s, but was dispatched in 1980 as the chain attempted to mature its menu and branding. He was revived in the mid-’90s as an irreverent brand mascot, and has helped Jack in the Box establish itself as a laid-back destination for burgers, tacos, and other munchies ever since.
For its first 15 years, Mike’s Subs in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, was a humble submarine sandwich shop on the Jersey Shore that attracted fans from up and down the Eastern Seaboard. But in 1975, 17-year-old employee Peter Cancro purchased the restaurant and rebranded it Jersey Mike’s, and he’s spent the past 41 years growing the brand into a 1,200-unit better-sandwich titan.
The company celebrated its 60th anniversary with franchisees and managers at its National Conference in Orlando in April.
Pal’s Sudden Service
Customers across the country may not be familiar with Kingsport, Tennessee–based Pal’s Sudden Service, but other quick-service operators sure are. The 26-unit burger stand founded by Pal Barger is a legend in the service arena, having established service speeds that are four times faster than competitors, order accuracy that is 10 times better than its closest competitor, and employee turnover that is half the industry average.
Pal’s has been so good at what it does for the last 60 years that it was the first foodservice business to win the coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2001, and has since trained other restaurant operators through its Pal’s Business Excellence Institute.
Sbarro has fallen on hard times in recent years. The New York–style pizza chain filed for bankruptcy in 2014 after malls across America—Sbarro’s bread and butter real estate—faded from retail relevance. In addition, the fast-casual pizza category rose to power in the same time frame, proving the most daunting competitive threat to the delivery guys. As neither a fast casual nor delivery brand, Sbarro was lost in the middle.
But a new executive team—headed by CEO and former Wendy’s exec David Karam—is committed to salvaging Sbarro’s heritage, which includes being founded by Gennaro and Carmela Sbarro 60 years ago as an Italian grocery in New York. The company updated its logo and branding, and is investing in both non-mall real estate and more high-quality pizza as part of an enhanced menu strategy.
Founded in April 1971 by Gerald Baldwin, Gordon Bowker, and Zev Siegl, the original Starbucks store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market was a quaint outlet full of character and coffee aroma. The product, namely dark-roasted blends, took center stage. None of the men envisioned a business empire.
Fast forward 45 years, and Howard Schultz—who joined Starbucks in 1982 as its marketing chief and was inspired by Italian coffee bars—has turned the coffee brand into just that. Starbucks is now the No. 2 limited-service restaurant in the U.S., growing on the strength of its beverage innovation, mobile ordering and loyalty platforms, and commitment to its employees. Just this year, the company upped that team-member commitment, pledging to increase pay, improve benefits, and evolve the dress code across the country.
Forty years after Joe Tortorice Jr. opened the first Jason’s Deli in Beaumont, Texas, the fast casual remains family owned and committed to wholesome, natural ingredients.
The 260-unit chain celebrated year No. 40 with the return of its Deli Cowboy sandwich, which includes a half-pound of brisket, barbecue sauce, melted Cheddar, and red onions on New Orleans French bread. The Deli Cowboy was inspired by the Pork Rib Po’boys at J’s BBQ & Washateria, the restaurant owned by Tortorice’s father, Joe Tortorice Sr.
While some chains are perfectly capable of thriving in one particular region (looking at you, Pal’s), others, like Capriotti’s, appear capable of thriving in two. Founded in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1976, Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop took root in the West when its founders moved to Las Vegas in 1991.
Eventually, franchisees Ashley Morris and Jason Smylie purchased the company from the founders and now serve as CEO and CMO, respectively. They’ve grown the chain to more than 100 locations in 18 states.
In June, to celebrate the big 4-0, Capriotti’s hosted a “Celebrating Extraordinary 40” initiative and sweepstakes, through which customers had the opportunity to win $40 gift cards.
“It’s an acknowledgement of committing to the brand promise for an extended period of time and continuing to be engaged with the customers,” Smylie says of celebrating the chain’s big anniversary with customers.
Smylie adds that it was important for the company to communicate its heritage to guests who might not know how significant it is to be a fast casual that has come this far. “We’ve been through recessions; we’ve been through challenging times where a lot of brands have faltered on what they were founded on and cut quality,” he says. “We’ve kind of stayed consistent with what we’ve been offering our customers for this long. And I think it’s important to point out that milestone to reinforce that we’re not going anywhere, and we’re not changing what we’re doing.”
Fortunately for Capriotti’s, guests don’t want it to go anywhere. The better-sandwich category is gaining steam, positioning the brand to capitalize on the trend toward high-quality food.
“There’s a huge trend toward high-quality, all-natural ingredients, and our founder was really ahead of her time, because we’ve been doing that for 40 years,” Smylie says. “I think what we’re doing today resonates well with the younger generation, who is trying to eat real food.”
It took 35 years, but Buona, The Original Italian Beef—destination for one of the Chicago area’s most iconic dishes—finally opened its first shop within Chicago city limits this year. The restaurant opened in the Beverly neighborhood in March.
Founded in 1981 by the Buonavolanto family, Buona uses a secret family recipe that stems back to the original beef stands in the stockyards. The concept grew to 17 locations in the Chicagoland area and in recent years has updated its menu and branding to better fall in line with fast-casual trends.
Quiznos celebrated its 35th anniversary this summer with a $3.50 deal for Ciabatta Toasties. But that’s about all the sandwich chain, which was founded by Jimmy Lambatos in Denver in 1981, has to celebrate at the moment. Down to fewer than 1,000 U.S. locations after growing to nearly 5,000, the toasted sandwich chain is in the midst of another executive-team overhaul after CEO Doug Pendergast stepped down earlier this year.
As one of the first limited-service chains to offer entrée-sized salads, Saladworks has grown to more than 100 locations in 15 states through a franchise program that launched in 2001. But the Pennsylvania-based concept went through a rocky patch in 2014 and 2015, including a power struggle between investors and founder John Scardapane and, eventually, bankruptcy.
But if your 20s are for finding yourself and your 30s are for settling down, then Saladworks—which is now owned by private equity firm Centre Lane Partners—is right on track. The chain is in the midst of a rebranding, which includes the hiring of CEO and president Patrick Sugrue as well as executive chef Andy Revella.
For their first two decades in business, Jerry Murre ll and his four sons—the five eponymous guys—were well known across the Washington, D.C., area for their indulgent burgers and fries. And with the explosive launch of their franchise program in 2003, they’ve become known for the same thing from the East Coast to the West.
The burger franchise celebrated is big anniversary with employees, challenging them to a photo contest in which team members were to come together for snapshots of their excitement for the anniversary and national company conference. Winning photos scored a $1,000 prize.
The Connecticut–based chain has been through some big transitions in its history, but has always stuck to its hometown burger-joint roots. What started as Jake’s Hamburgers in 1991 became Jake’s Wayback Burgers when it launched its franchise program in the late 2000s and, eventually, just Wayback Burgers.
The company celebrated 25 years on February 21 with a $3.99 deal for a Wayback Classic Cheeseburger with purchase of any side and any drink.
Fast-casual sandwich chain Potbelly first opened in the ’70s, but Potbelly Sandwich Shop as we know it launched in 1996 when Bryant Keil purchased the Chicago-based restaurant. Keil grew the company to more than 400 locations before exiting the business in 2015, two years after Potbelly went public.
There are plenty of fast-casual Mexican chains, but none of them blend California influences with authentic Mexican recipes and an irreverent skater attitude quite like Chronic Tacos. The franchise, founded by Randy Wyner using recipes from a friend’s Mexican family, is leveraging its authentic options and high-quality sourcing practices to expand across the U.S., which has recently included its first East Coast locations.
Snappy Salads, which opened on St. Patrick’s Day in 2006 and has become known for its sustainable sourcing and environmentally friendly operations, celebrated its 10-year anniversary this past March 17 with a limited-time-only salad called the Leprechaun. The salad was a mix of spinach, romaine, iceberg, quinoa, cucumber, green onion, broccoli, celery, green olive, avocado, fried onions, and a special “Anniversary Dressing.”
What started in 2006 as a single Torchy’s Tacos trailer with a small menu has become a chain of 40-plus brick-and-mortar stores offering a choice of 20 breakfast and lunch tacos. Founder Michael Rypka left a fine-dining executive chef job to open the first Torchy’s, which has since become known across Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado for its funky attitude and innovative tacos.
Tender Greens, the Los Angeles–based fast casual 2.0 concept that counts Danny Meyer among its investors and has 21 locations to its name after a decade, celebrated its 10th anniversary in June with several customer-forward promotions. There was a month-long dessert special (Strawberry Almond Cupcake), an Instagram contest, a scavenger hunt in collaboration with radio station KCRW, special Snapchat filters, and an opportunity for guests to win a special 10th anniversary T-shirt for sending an email about how much the company has meant to them. Founders Erik Oberholtzer, Matt Lyman, and David Dressler also sent a letter to the 1,100 employees detailing just how much everyone means to the success of the company.
What does it mean to be a fast-casual concept committed to a chef-driven menu, locally sourced ingredients, healthy eating, high-tech ordering, and sustainable operations? These days, it means… well, keeping up with the field. In the crowded fast-casual space, especially within densely concentrated urban areas brimming with hungry Millennials, operators who don’t invest in these high-quality attributes tend to fall behind the pack.
But for San Francisco–based Good Food Guys—parent company to Mixt Greens and Split Bread—these characteristics have been at the core of the company’s identity for 10 years, much longer than many others in the category have existed. And this year, a decade after Mixt Greens became one of the first fast-casual salad concepts—and four years after founders David and Leslie Silverglide and Andrew Swallow bought the brand back from a private equity firm—the company put one big foot forward into the future by refreshing its branding, name, and messaging to remind customers of its roots.
“The 10-year anniversary was a great time to look at our brand and do a revamp,” says Mollie Allick, vice president of marketing for Good Food Guys. “Certainly, branding and design go a long way. … But it’s less about change and it’s more about staying true to our roots and our original messaging.”
As part of the rebrand, Mixt Greens ditched the latter half of its name—known now just as Mixt—and rolled out an updated website and mobile app that reflect a new logo and branding. In addition, Mixt introduced a new store design, which includes a fresh, modern aesthetic with stainless steel, wood, and tile furnishings.
What started as a project for a business class at the University of Texas, Austin, has turned into a fast-casual Mediterranean concept that’s growing across the U.S. For more on how VERTS founders Michael Heyne and Dominik Stein have created a runaway success story in just five years, flip to Page 40.
Back in 2011, the restaurant world was abuzz with the launch of LYFE Kitchen in Palo Alto, California. The fast-casual chain was founded by two former McDonald’s executives, had a menu designed by celebrity chef Art Smith, and wanted to conquer the U.S. with healthy food just as McDonald’s had with burgers and fries. And to a large degree, it’s succeeded; LYFE Kitchen has grown to 14 locations and was acquired by Memphis, Tennessee–based Wendy’s franchisee Carlisle Corporation in 2014.
The fast-casual pizza industry has exploded in the last three years, with dozens of brands competing for a slice of the market. But Pie Five lays claim to being one of the first to market, founded by casual chain Pizza Inn in 2011. The concept celebrated the anniversary by donating $1 for every pizza sold June 20–24 to Children’s Health, a pediatric health system in Texas.