What ever happened to the Burger Chef chain?

The fast-food giant went from industry pioneer to Hardee's fodder.

In 1978, one fast food chain secured the licensing deal of the decade. The popular restaurant teamed with Star Wars to create seven different kids meals. Children could punch out cardboard part an assemble a "Droid Puppet" from the container of the C-3PO meal. The golden robot and his buddy R2-D2 even appeared in the TV commercial.

This chain was no stranger to the kiddie meal. In fact, the company invented the concept, back in 1973, bundling burgers with dessert, toys, puzzles and colorful characters. This chain was Burger Chef. Its "Funmeal" came with a cute kids mascot, Jeff, and cartoon characters like Burgerini (a magician) and Count Fangburger (a vampire). Half a decade later, McDonald's would copy the Funmeal with its Happy Meal. Burger Chef sued, to no avail.

A few years later, the Burger Chef chain was no more. 

There is no single reason. The cause of the sudden demise was a cocktail of overambitious expansion, a sudden spike in competition and a dash of crime. Over the course of a quarter century, Burger Chef sizzled and fizzled, shriveling from being an industry pioneer to being gobbled up like a friend's cold leftover fries.

If younger generations recognize the brand Burger Chef, it is perhaps due to Mad Men. In the final season, Sterling Cooper & Partners land the fast-food giant as a client. At the time, the early 1970s, that would have been a very big deal. The Indianapolis-born and -based chain had been sold to the General Foods Corporation in 1968 for $16.5 million, who quickly doubled the number of locations from 600 to more than a thousand in four short years. That number was second only to McDonald's, who dotted the American map with about 1,600 locations in 1972.

Burger Chef had grown its brand by selling franchises for $129,000, and owner-operators were seeing 50% returns on their investment per year. Money was good.

Because before and after its acquisition, Burger Chef innovated. Founders Frank and Donald Thomas patented the flame broiler. Their conveyor broiler could crank out 800 burgers per hour, outpacing McDonald's. In addition to the Funmeal, Burger Chef introduced ideas like the Works Bar, a toppings station where customers could pile pickles, relish, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, tartar sauce (yes, tartar sauce), mayo, ketchup and mustard on their patties. As far back as 1973, Burger Chef was offering a Salad Bar in its restaurants, well ahead of the health-conscious craze.

Image: Burger ChefEve Plumb says cheese in a 1977 Burger Chef commercial.


In addition to Star Wars droids, Burger Chef booked former Brady kids in its commercials. (Was that Don Draper's idea?) Eve Plumb, best known as Jan Brady, sported the brown-orange-yellow uniforms to tout the taste of the Big Shef. "You're gonna love our burgers!" she proclaimed.

At the same time, the competition was getting fierce. Wendy's, a 1969 upstart from neighboring Ohio, exploded over the course of the 1970s from a regional joint to an international chain with 1,000 locations. 

A dark cloud descended over the chain on November 18, 1978, when an employee at the Speedway, Indiana, location discovered the back door hanging open and the staff missing. Four young workers were missing and $500 had been taken from the restaurant. A day later, the bodies were discovered in nearby woods, victims of a brutal crime. Burger Chef offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. The Burger Chef Murders were never solved. As recently as last year, a detective was still assigned to the cold case. It stands to reason that the media coverage likely hurt business.

In 1981, Hardee's snatched up Burger Chef for $44 million. Burger Chef outlets were quickly made-over into Hardee's. Some of the converted spots continued to sell the Big Shef in the Midwest. But it could never be the same without Jeff and Count Fangburger.

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