Not all of the restaurant concepts that influenced the industry’s evolution could be considered successful. Their very boldness may have been the turnoff for the dining public, though some might say they were just ahead of their time. But judge for yourself. Here are six concepts that left their mark—and then passed into obscurity.
The Horn & Hardart Automat
A restaurant newcomer bets that automation can take the place of employees and drive down menu prices accordingly, giving consumers on a tight budget the sort of place they could afford. Sound familiar?
The first Automat in the United States opened in 1902, seven years after a prototype made its debut in Germany. The restaurants consisted of what resembled safety deposit boxes, fronted with glass instead of a metal door. Patrons pumped in nickels for fare such as egg salad sandwiches, Salisbury steak, mac and cheese, pudding, slices of pie and beef stew. The coins unlocked the glass doors, enabling patrons to grab their food and find a chair in the central dining area. A plate of baked halibut with spaghetti cost 35 cents.
With prices like that, the Automat became a favorite of office workers in Philadelphia and New York City. It would grow to 157 stores. But a perception that the food might have been sitting behind glass for days eventually thinned traffic, particularly as quick-service restaurants provided an attractive low-price alternative. The last Automat, in New York City, closed in 1991.
It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time when many Americans might have thought a burrito was a smallish pack animal. Exposure to Tex-Mex fare was largely limited to the Sun Belt.
Chi-Chi’s, which disappeared as a restaurant brand in 2004, was the great popularizer for many during its 30-year run. Its food wasn’t the most authentic, but it offered spice and novelty, and provided an alternative to more well-known ethnic cuisines of the time.
As Americans’ experiences expanded and they got a taste of what authentic border cuisine was like, Chi-Chi’s sales and appeal slid accordingly. It lives on as a retail brand and in international locations.
Sure, the concept is still around, recast as the more broadly focused Boston Market. But it was the earlier incarnation that briefly became an industry fixation. The brand was acquired from Boston entrepreneurs Kip Kolow and Arthur Cores by Scott Beck and the other partners behind Blockbuster. They recast the concept into a specialist in “home meal replacement,” or high-quality homestyle foods, including sides that could have come right out of grandma’s kitchen.
The concept’s 1993 IPO was the most successful in Wall Street history up to that point.
Beck’s team was sure their brainchild would generate gangbuster numbers, so it paid top dollar for A+ sites. But the expected sales didn’t materialize, site costs couldn’t be covered, and the model collapsed.
Brinks Coffee Shop
Not many people knew this place, in part because it came and went in a flash.But it played a key role in the industry’s maturation, though the impact wouldn’t be seen for another decade or so.
Brinks was the first solo restaurant venture of Norman Brinker, who would emerge as one of the industry’s most celebrated visionaries of the 1970s and beyond. By the time he opened the place in 1964, Brinker had already been president of a new Southern California quick-service concept called Jack in the Box.
Brinks was an amalgamation of ideas that occurred to Brinker as he was building that brand. The core notion: Young adults, conditioned by fast food to expect bargain pricing, wanted a new dining-out experience, with more service and better food options. Brinks was his lab for trying features that would be the foundation for casual dining’s rise in the 1980s and ’90s. Its emphasis was on quality without the fanciness.
The concept took off, prompting Brinker to sell it for a huge profit two years after opening.
Fast food’s upscaling in the 1980s could be traced back to this regional chain based in Columbus, Ohio, which was also home to Wendy’s headquarters. Some wags even referred to it as Wendy’s R&D kitchen, due to the fact that many of its features, such as baked potatoes and salad bars, soon showed up at Wendy’s.
The concept never mustered the marketing might and national penetration enjoyed by its many copycats—at the brand’s height, it extended to roughly 500 restaurants stretched across 38 states. But it was a brand the whole industry watched.
The copycatting stopped when Rax decided to really push its quest to be what some insiders termed “the Champagne of quick service.” It expanded its salad bars to include everything from mini bagels to Chinese food. Costs soared while declining food quality ate into sales.
The parent company would ultimately file for bankruptcy, but a few Rax units remain in operation today.
The middle and working classes might’ve felt as if they’d climbed a few rungs of the socioeconomic ladder when they sat down to a plate of Welsh rarebit or charcoal-broiled steak at Howard Johnson’s. And what sort of sophisticate wouldn’t appreciate the ultramodern blue and orange color scheme and unique architecture? For families enjoying the prosperity of the 1950s and ’60s, it was an affordable taste of the good life.
The concept was also the industry’s first megachain, topping 1,000 units by 1975. Age finally caught up with it in the 1980s, when the remnants of the chain were sold and hopes of resurrecting the brand dimmed. The last HoJo's location was put up for sale last year.