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How We Got Here: 1980s

Illustration by Restaurant Business

The decade would be regarded by many as a golden age for the restaurant industry. The business itself grew by leaps and bounds. Regional American cuisine—local specialties produced with locally grown ingredients—caught the attention of consumers and the global culinary world alike, a result of what was being done in kitchens by American chefs such as Paul Prudhomme, Alice Waters, Dean Fearing, Mark Miller, Robert Del Grande, Jeremiah Tower, Brendan Walsh and Jonathan Waxman. 

Casual dining came into its own as brands such as Chili’s Grill & Bar, Chi-Chi’s and Red Lobster expanded at a significant clip. Competition jumped extraordinarily in quick service as Burger King made the audacious move of favorably comparing its flame-broiled burgers in national TV ads with the grilled patties used by McDonald’s and Wendy’s. The head-to-head comparisons brought lawsuits against the King and sit-downs aimed at convincing the chain to halt the comparative ads. Instead, Burger King ramped up its cheeky marketing. Talk of the Burger Wars became the stuff of water cooler conversations.

Yet the decade was a prime era of restaurant advertising. Wendy’s, still a relative newcomer to the business, grabbed the nation’s attention with a 1984 spot showing Clara Peller demanding of a Wendy’s rival, “Where’s the beef?” It made Peller a star and lit a rocket under Wendy’s sales. 

Industry efforts 

Among the issues that captured the industry’s attention was an effort to curb drunken driving, a highly visible undertaking of the newly formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). The industry stepped up by teaching waitstaffs and bartenders to “serve responsibly” and curb overindulgence by patrons who intended to drive.  

The industry also pressed to hold an increase in the minimum wage to $4.25 over a two-year period. 

The educational programs offered by the National Restaurant Association were combined with the offerings of the National Institute for the Foodservice Industry, another source of training and professional development, to form the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF). 

Toward the end of the decade, ecological concerns prompted the industry to address ways of reducing its contributions to landfills. The Association set the reduction of solid waste as a key priority.

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