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.