Monday, December 11, 2017

Wimpy Grills in the Chicago, Illinois Area. (1934-1978)

Originally called Wimpy Grills, the Wimpy brand was incorporated on September 12, 1934, by Edward V. Gold, when he opened his first location in Bloomington, Indiana. The name was inspired by the character of J. Wellington Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons created by E. C. Segar. "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

First Logo Trademark
March 16, 1937
To promote repeat business, Gold copyrighted the slogan "Join the Wimpy Lucky Club" in February of 1935.

Although the Wimpy name is most closely identified with the city of Chicago, Gold did not open his first Chicago area location until two years later in 1936, and after opening units in five other Midwestern cities. 

When Wimpy's leased the Northeast corner of Randolph Street and Wabash Avenue in 1940, making that unit the 10th Wimpy Grill in Chicago and the 25th restaurant in the United States.

Approximately 8 million hamburgers were sold in the Chicago area in 1940.
Wimpy Grills at 1 North Clark Street, Chicago, on the northeast corner. 1958
The Wimpy hamburgers were steamed, 5 hole round patties, with a 'special sauce.' Apparently, they used the same hamburger vendor as White Castle, which opened in 1921, thirteen years before Wimpy's. 

I couldn't find any reference about when Wimpy's small round burgers became a regular size burger.

Edward Gold, Founder of Wimpy Chain, Dies. 
Chicago Tribune, October 16, 1977
"I would gladly pay you Tuesday
for a hamburger today.

Services for Edward V. Gold, 70, founder of the International chain of Wimpy hamburger restaurants, will be at 2:30pm, Tuesday in the chapel at 5206 North Broadway. Mr. Gold, of 1150 North lake Shore Drive, died of an apparent heart attack on Friday, October 14, 1977, in the Crane Restaurant, which he owned, at 69 West Washington Boulevard. He and two friends founded the Wimpy Grills Inc. in 1934. 

Eventually, he had more than 25 restaurants throughout the United States. In the 1950s, he closed most of them and expanded his operation to Europe, working with J. Lyons & Co., a British catering company. In 1967, Mr. Gold sold the foreign business, which had expanded to 1,500 restaurants, to Lyons, but kept the U.S. restaurants. At his death, there were nine Wimpy restaurants, all in the Chicago area, and two downtown Crane restaurants. Mr. Gold, an ardent collector of painting and sculpture, was a former director and treasurer of the Chicago and Illinois restaurant association.

Wimpy's for Sale; is there 2d Ray Kroc?
Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1978

Wimpy's, one of the better-known names in the hamburger, is up for grabs. U.S. rights to the name and trademark are being offered by the estate of the founder of the holding company of Wimpy Grills, Inc., a Chicago firm established in 1934.

"It's a good name and we hope somebody takes it and runs with it," says Tom Moran, a principal of Rothbart, Stein & Moran, attorney's for the estate of Edward V. Gold, Wimpy's founder. Gold, who dies in October of 1977, once had 25 Wimpy's restaurants in the U.S. There are only four left - all in the Chicago area, - with ownership in the estate. Gold had sold the rights of Wimpy's overseas, where 1,500 Wimpy's are operating in 39 countries.

"Maybe there's another Ray Kroc (founder of McDonald's Corp.) around for the 1980s, a man who can do a job with Wimpy's in the fast-food or hamburger business," said William Norwell, a trust officer with American National Bank & Trust Co. The name and trademark would be sold by the American National Bank, co-executor of the estate.

By today's standards, the Wimpy's outlets would not be considered fast-food outlets, though the chain was a pioneer in the fast-service restaurant business. There once were more than 10 Wimpy's outlets in this market. Wimpy has Loop units at 17 East Washington Street, 159 North Wabash Avenue, and 20 West Monroe which is adjacent to the Shubert Theater. The Wimpy's unit in Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg is being sold. According to the co-executor of the estate, the Loop outlets also are for sale. If they are sold [separately], the buyer would not have rights to the Wimpy's name and trademark unless he bought them [all] as well.

Though Wimpy's has high name recognition, it may not be easy to re-establish the name in the $20-billion-a-year fast-food business. But that growth figure suggests a sales opportunity, considering that hamburger outlets account for a least $10 billion of the total.

"For a long-time McDonald's was king (in the hamburger set) and they are still tops - but look at what Wendy's (International) did coming from scratch in the last decade," says an industry observer.

Gold’s U.S. stores received no offers and the units were shuttered.

Wimpy Grills at 1 North Clark Street, Chicago, on the northeast corner. Circa 1955
Wimpy Grills at 1 North Clark Street, Chicago, on the northeast corner. 1955
Wimpy Grills at 1 North Clark Street, Chicago, on the northeast corner. 1957
Looking east on Monroe Street from Dearborn Street, Chicago, 1966.
Wimpy Grills at 20 West Monroe is on the near side of the Shubert Theater.
Wimpy Grills at 4861 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago (July 4, 1965)
Wimpy Grills at 17 East Washington Street at Wabash Avenue, Chicago. (year unknown.)
Wimpy Grills at 17 East Washington Street looking West from Wabash. Marshall Field's on the right, Chicago. (year unknown.)

Note: Not all the locations were open during the same time period. Some stores moved to a new location and some locations were closed. These are the restaurant locations I could verify.

1st - 307 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago; 8th Floor
             the general office moved to:
2nd - 140 North Dearborn Street, Chicago; 12th Floor
             the general office moved to:
3rd - 22 West Monroe Street, Chicago; 2nd Floor

CHICAGO LOOP LOCATIONS (beginning in 1937)
1 North Clark Street, Chicago (@ Madison St.)
17 East Washington, Street, Chicago (@ State St.)
20 West Monroe, Street, Chicago (@ State St.)
50 East Randolph, Street, Chicago (@ Wabash Ave.)
140 North Dearborn, Street, Chicago (@ Randolph St.)
159 North Wabash Avenue, Chicago (@ Benton Pl.)

1055 West Lawrence Avenue
1461 East Hyde Park Boulevard
2104 North Harlem Avenue
3309 North Ashland Avenue
4861 North Milwaukee Avenue
5146 West Madison Street
5322 West Lawrence Avenue
5500 South Lake Park Avenue
6206 West Cermak Road
6350 North Lincoln Avenue (Drive-In w/Car Hop Service)
7133 South Kedzie Avenue
7935 South Halsted Street

5 Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg (lower level next to Fannie Mae Candies) open 1971
6200 Roosevelt Road, Oak Park
98th Street and Western Avenue, Evergreen Park (Drive-In w/Car Hop Service) open 1968
Evergreen Plaza - 9500 South Western Ave, Evergreen Park
Lakehurst Shopping Center - 83 Hurst Road, Waukegan (lower level by J.C. Penny)

Today all of the U.S. Wimpy’s are long gone.

In 1954, Gold sold a license to J. Lyons and Co. to use the Wimpy name in the United Kingdom. Subsequently, in 1957, Wimpy Grills Inc. of Chicago formed a joint company with Lyons called Wimpy's International Inc., based in Chicago, to operate Wimpy Grills in the rest of the world.

The joint company eventually grew to 1,500 locations, and Gold later sold his share to Lyons prior to his death. After obtaining full control of the international licensing outside of the United States, Lyons and its successors handled global franchising through their United Kingdom-based subsidiary Wimpy International Ltd. This arrangement ceased when Wimpy UK became a subsidiary of South Africa-based Famous Brands in 2007 and the South African company started to handle worldwide franchising duties directly from Johannesburg.

Lyons obtained a license to use the Wimpy brand in the United Kingdom, from Edward Gold's Chicago based Wimpy Grills, Inc. and, in 1954, the first "Wimpy Bar" Lyons was established at the Lyons Corner House in Coventry Street, London.
Britain's first Wimpy Hamburger Parlor in the Lyons Corner House cafe (as a Wimpy franchise) on the corner of Rupert Street and Leicester Square, London. 1954
Originally, the bar was a special fast food section within the more traditional Corner House restaurants, but the success soon led to the establishment of separate Wimpy restaurants serving only hamburger based meals.

In the 1955 newspaper column, Art Buchwald, syndicated writer for the Washington Post, wrote about the recent opening of a "Wimpy's Hamburger Parlor" on Coventry Street and about the influence of American culture on the British.

Buchwald wrote, "Food served at the table within ten minutes of ordering and with atomic age efficiency. No cutlery needed or given. Drinks served in a bottle with a straw. Condiments in pre-packaged single-serving packets." In addition to familiar Wimpy burgers and Whippsy milkshakes, the British franchise initially had served ham or sardine rolls called torpedoes and cold frankfurter with pickled cucumber sandwiches called Freddies.

During the 1970s Wimpy refused entry to women on their own after midnight. Some sources speculate that this may be because of an assumption they might be prostitutes.

By 1970, the business had expanded to over 1,000 restaurants in 23 countries.

In July 1977, the business was acquired by United Biscuits. By the end of the 1980s, Wimpy was beginning to lose ground to McDonald’s, which had opened its first restaurant in the country in 1974, and so the new management of Wimpy began to streamline the business, by converting some of the traditional table service restaurants to counter service.

When United Biscuits decided to divest its restaurant division in 1989, it sold the business to Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo). At the time of the sale, there were 381 locations in the United Kingdom. Grand Metropolitan had acquired Burger King the previous year, and it began to convert the counter service restaurants to Burger King since it had greater global brand recognition.

In February 1990, the remaining 216 table service restaurants were purchased by a management buy out, backed by 3i. These were locations that were considered less desirable by Grand Metropolitan. At the time of the buyout, there were also 140 franchised locations outside of the United Kingdom. In October 1999, Wimpy rolled out a chain of restaurants known as Dr. Beaks, to take on brands such as KFC.

The second management buyout occurred in May of 2002, backed by the Bank of Scotland. At the time of the sale in 2002, there were approximately 300 locations in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Their food was served on real plates with silverware.
Although Wimpy outlets have decreased in numbers in the United Kingdom, they are still found in many cities, and at seafront/seasonal locations, such as Clacton-on-Sea, Clarence Pier in Southsea, Porthcawl, and Brean Leisure Park in Somerset. By the beginning of the 21st century, most Wimpys were found in less desirable low rent locations that primarily cater to pensioners and others on a fixed income, and not in the former high street locations of their earlier days. Another big change from earlier times was that most locations were now franchises and not company-owned operations.

On 27 February 2007, Famous Brands, which owns the Wimpy franchise in South Africa, announced that it had acquired Wimpy UK. Having acquired the brand, Famous Brands has rebranded Wimpy in the United Kingdom, to bring it in line with Wimpy South Africa. The "new" logo is actually one used by Wimpy UK from the 1960s until the 1980s.

In November 2009, Famous Brands began to upgrade its 170 locations in the United Kingdom to resemble United States style diners.
By June 2017, only 80 restaurants remain in the United Kingdom, down from over 500 during its height in the 1970s.

Wimpy International opened its first South African location in Durban in 1967. The South African restaurants were sold to Bakers SA Ltd in the late 1970s, which in 1987 sold the South African chain to Pleasure Foods, then known as Juicy Lucy SA. Famous Brands Limited, then known as the Steers Holdings Limited, acquired Wimpy when it bought Pleasure Foods in 2003.

In February 2007, Famous Brands acquired the United Kingdom-based Wimpy to become the parent company for the chain and become in charge in collecting the franchise fees from the other franchises.
The new style of Wimpy Restaurant in Komani/Queenstown, South Africa.
By 2011, Famous Brands had 509 Wimpy restaurants in South Africa, making it the largest franchise in the Wimpy franchise system. 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. I seem to recall a Wimpy’s in Alton, IL in the 1960’s ... Am I just imagining that?

    1. I found a reference to a Wimpy's in Champaign, Illinois, but not a reference to Alton.

  2. Neil, I once read an article that stated the founder willed that the restaurants be closed upon his death?

    1. I included the Tribune article "Wimpy's for Sale; is there 2d Ray Kroc?" So the units were for sale.

  3. I remember going to the Wimpy's location in the Loop on Wabash Avenue and sitting at the counter to eat in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Does anyone have pictures of the inside of the restaurant facing Wabash?

  4. 3309 N. Ashland was the one I remember. My Aunt would take me there after shopping at Wieboldt's & Goldblats.


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