Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The amazing history of Burger Chef Restaurants, which many of their locations were in Illinois.

Frank P. Thomas Sr. founded the General Equipment Company in Indianapolis in 1930 to manufacture his new invention, which he named the Nu-Way frozen custard machine. In 1951, Thomas Sr. retired at 75 years old and gave his company stock to his two sons, Frank P. Thomas Jr. and Donald J. Thomas, and his son-in-law Robert Wildman.
A photograph of the EZE-Way frozen custard machine at a trade show around 1950. Frank P. Thomas Sr. eliminated the principle of using chipped ice and salt for freezing frozen custard in his Nu-Way machines when he installed compressors and changed the name to EZE-Way because the machines were easier to use.
With the introduction of the Sani-Shake machine and the Sani-Broiler around 1956, General Equipment Company was manufacturing most ot the basic machines necessary for operating a drive-in resturant.
With the introduction of the Sani-Shake machine and the Sani-Broiler around 1956, General Equipment Company was manufacturing most ot the basic machines necessary for operating a drive-in resturant.
The very first Burger Chef restaurant opened in May of 1957 and was located in the Little America Amusement Park in Indianapolis. Frank P. Thomas Jr. built this demonstration store to showcase his restaurant equipment in actual operation, and there were no plans to franchise the concept at this point.

In late 1957, Frank P. Thomas Jr., Donald J. Thomas, and Robert Wildman made plans were made to create a new division of the General Equipment Company called Burger Chef.
Artists' rendition of a Burger Chef location like this one was often included in franchise materials sent out to attract potential restaurant owners.
The chain featured several signature items such as the Big Shef and Super Shef hamburgers. Their first hamburgers sold for 15¢.
In the late 1950s, they created the first "value combo" as a 15¢ hamburger, 15¢ fries, and 15¢ vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry milkshake. It was known as the "Triple Treat." Free Triple Treat coupons were often given as promotional items.
The Pied Piper was an experimental food truck.
Pied Piper was an experimental atttempt by Burger Chef in 1962 to expand its fast-food concept into other areas. Restaurant machines by the General Equipment Company were installed in Volkswagen vans like this one. Food was then prepared in the vans and sold door-to-door to local businesses. It was the same year that McDonald's also had experimented with a food truck.
General Foods purchased the chain in 1968 and added menu items such as the Top Shef (bacon/cheeseburger) and a chicken club sandwich (with bacon). The Works Bar allowed customers to purchase a plain burger and pile it high with the toppings of their choice. 
The chain had two mascots: Burger Chef (voiced by Paul Winchell) and Jeff (the chef's juvenile sidekick).

In 1971, Burger Chef was poised to surpass McDonald’s as the largest hamburger chain in the U.S., with 1200 locations nationwide. Not too bad for a restaurant that was created as an afterthought to showcase the General Restaurant Equipment Company’s new flame broiler. In addition to their Big Shef (double burger) and Super Shef (quarter pound burger), the company introduced a Fun Meal, which included a burger, fries, drink, dessert, and a toy for the kids. 

The chain expanded throughout the United States, and at its peak, in 1973 with 1,050 locations, was second only to McDonald's in the number of locations nationwide. 

Burger Chef sued McDonald’s in 1979 when that company introduced their Happy Meal but ultimately lost.
                                   1973                                                                    1978
1966 Downtown Burger Chef in St. Louis, Missouri.
But in 1982 General Foods decided to get out of the burger business and sold the chain to Imasco Ltd., the parent company of Hardee’s for $44 million. Hardee's let franchises and locations near existing Hardee's locations convert to other brands. Remaining restaurants that did not convert to Hardee's or new names and branding were simply closed.
College students enjoying lunch at a Burger Chef restaurant.
Hardee's brought back the Big Shef hamburger for a limited time in 2001, 2007, and 2014 at some Midwestern locations.

Advertising Slogans
1970–1971 – "There's more to like at Burger Chef."
                         "Burger Chef goes all out to please your family."
1971–1976 – "You get more to like at Burger Chef."
1976–1980 – "We really give you the works."
                         "Open wide America, you never can forget."
                          "You get more to like at Burger Chef."
1980–1996 – "Nowhere else but Burger Chef."
The Complete Collection of Burger Chef TV Commercials

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. Lived on Big Shefs in '68 - '69 while in school in Terre Haute, Indiana. They were the best. Sad Hardee's thought they had a better sandwich and let it die. (They don't.) Great article Neil.

  2. I remember the W. Phoenix location at N.35th avenue & W. Roosevelt. It was the hangout for Carl Hayden High School teens, for lunch or after school. It was my first job in 1966 as a cashier/server.


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