Fast Food Names: Where Did They Come From?

Y’all know that I love tracing the etymology of words, phrases, nicknames, and much more. For today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, we’re going to take a look at 10 top fast food restaurants (in the top 15 most popular according to Business Insider*) and how they got their names.

Arby’s. The Raffel Brothers, Forrest and Leroy, got the notion for a roast beef sandwich as fast-food fare after a trip to a Boston sandwich shop. They wanted to use the name “Big Tex,” but yeah, that was already taken. So they came up with the word Arby’s–a play on R.B. for Raffel Brothers. They also admitted that some might think it stands for Roast Beef. Source: Arby’s

Burger King. In 1954, the 22-year-old David Edgerton wanted to open a Dairy Queen. Instead, he bought the rights to open an “Insta Burger” restaurant that centered around a mechanical burger-cooking machine. Edgerton added the word “King” (Inspired by Dairy “Queen,” I guess) and a picture to go with it. The restaurant opened in Miami in 1954 as “Insta Burger King.” Three months later, business was slow and the machine was breaking down. A college friend, Jim McLamore, became a co-owner. The two designed their own cooking machine and dropped “Insta” from its name. Since that time, we’ve had “Burger King.” By the way, back in 1958 the fire-grilled hamburgers and milkshakes sold for 18 cents each. Sources: The Huffington Post – Burger King: A Short History; NNBD; Burger King

Chick-fil-A. In 1963 Truett Cathy invented the first fast-food chicken sandwich. That’s not all he invented. He made up the name “Chick-fil-A” playing on the words “chicken fillet” and putting the “A” on the end to mean top quality. Source: Cathy Family website

Jack in the Box. Why? Why? I don’t know. Robert Oscar Peterson opened a hamburger restaurant in San Diego in 1951. The building had a large Jack-in-the-Box clown on top of it. Why a clown? Sources don’t say. Perhaps it was just a cheery mascot and fun name. Peterson is credited with developing the drive-through speaker system, although he did not invent it. Source: Jack in the Box

KFC. In 1930 Harland Sanders operated a service station and decided to open up a restaurant in his front room for travelers. He served fried chicken, but it took up to 30 minutes to ready the “Sunday dinner” he provided to customers. Over the next decade, Sanders was given the title “Kentucky Colonel” by the governor for his contribution to the state’s cuisine, the pressure cooker was invented and Sanders discovered that it quickened his frying time substantially, and the Colonel perfected his secret recipe. His own restaurant was called Sanders Court & Cafe, but in 1952 he offered his brand of fried chicken as a franchise. The first taker was Pete Harman of Salt Lake City, and that first franchise was known as Kentucky Fried Chicken–since that’s where the Colonel originated his famous recipe. These days, the restaurant is simply known as KFC. Source: KFC

McDonald’s. All of my life, I’ve been told that Ray Kroc started McDonald’s. Not so, friends. Dick and Mac McDonald opened the first restaurant, which was actually called “McDonald’s Bar-B-Q,” in San Bernardino, California in 1940. It closed for renovations in 1948 and reopened as a hamburger restaurant simply called “McDonald’s” with a menu of 15-cent burgers, soft drinks, pie, and more. Ray Kroc discovered the brothers’ hamburger spot in 1954 and sold the idea of franchising to them. In 1960 he purchased exclusive rights to the name. Kudos to Ray for not renaming the restaurant “Kroc’s,” which would have been confusing with the shoes, right? Source: McDonald’s

SONIC. Troy Smith opened his first hamburger joint in Shawnee, Oklahoma in 1953. It was called Top Hat Drive-In. While traveling in Louisiana, he saw homemade intercoms at a hamburger stand there. He grabbed the concept, tweaked it, and introduced the model of ordering through speakers. Charlie Pappe joined him, and they expanded to four restaurants. Then lawyers informed them that “Top Hat” was copyrighted. They had to change the name! Since their slogan was “Service with the Speed of Sound,” they chose the word SONIC–meaning the “speed of sound.” Source: Sonic; Sonic-South Carolina

Subway. Fred DeLuca wanted to be a medical doctor. So of course, he did the logical thing and opened a submarine sandwich shop. Actually, the sub shop was the money-making idea of family friend Dr. Peter Buck, a nuclear physicist, who loaned Fred the money and became a partner in the business. The first sandwich shop, called Pete’s Super Submarines, opened in 1965 in Bridgeport, Connecticut (when DeLuca was only 17 years old!). Within 9 years, they had 16 sub shops in the state. An unofficial report online said that Pete’s Submarines sounded too much like “pizza marines” on the radio, so the restaurants became known as Pete’s Subs. It does not appear the word SUBWAY came into use until franchising began in 1974, and the name has nothing whatsoever to do with the New York City subway system. Sources: Subway; Subway Student Guide; Subway Development Group

Taco Bell. Glen W. Bell, Jr. first owned Bell’s Hamburgers and Hot Dogs in 1948 in San Bernardino, only a few miles from the original McDonald’s. He got the notion that selling tacos would be a good idea and added them to the menu in 1951. In 1954 he opened a Mexican-food only restaurant called Taco Tia with a partner (“Tia” means “aunt” in Spanish). Then he opened another chain called El Taco (“The Taco” in Spanish) with three partners. However, in 1962 he opened his own Mexican fast-food restaurant and called it Taco Bell in Downey, California. The name obviously indicates the type of food (taco) and the fact that this restaurant was his baby (Bell). Sources: New York Times; Baltimore Sun

Wendy’s. Before opening up his first restaurant in 1969, Dave Thomas operated Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, turning four franchises around and making them profitable. He made quite a few pennies from this endeavor and used the money to open his own hamburger place with a square piece of meat hanging outside the bun. He named it “Wendy’s” after his youngest daughter Melinda Thomas, who was nicknamed “Wendy” by her brothers and sisters. Sources: Wendy’s; RoadsideAmerica.com

So which ones did you know? (I really thought that Taco Bell had something to do with its dinner bell on the logo!) What other fast food names are you familiar with? Do you know the origins of restaurants’ names?

*I choose to ignore the pizza places, breakfast and beverage spots, and Panera Bread (because that’s not very fast-foody).

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13 thoughts on “Fast Food Names: Where Did They Come From?

  1. Even though I rarely eat anything at a fast food restaurant (except for Wendy’s almond/chicken salad in the summertime), you’ve made me hungry! I knew the McDonald’s and KFC stories, but the others were new to me. Thanks for the research. 🙂

  2. I had never heard any of this. Cool info! I’ve got a question you may not know the answer to. I got into a conversation with someone who lives in the northern part of the US, and they had never heard of Sonic. Is Sonic mostly a southern or southwest franchise? I know that Whataburger is either a southern franchise or maybe just a Texas one. But it surprised me that this person had never heard of Sonic.

    1. SONIC started in Oklahoma. It is now in most of the states; however, it has only recently added franchises in the upper northern U.S. (See their Market Map: http://www.sonicdrivein.com/business/franchise/marketMap.jsp.) They still don’t have places in parts of New England. Even so, they make the Top 10 among fast-food restaurants.

      As to Whataburger, I know this one!!! Whataburger began and has its headquarters in my hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. Whataburger is only in the lower Southern States (like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, New Mexico) and has the vast majority of its restaurants in Texas. If you’re ever in Corpus Christi, there’s a great two-story Whataburger by the Sea out on Shoreline Blvd (aka Ocean Drive).

  3. Amazing. I really didn’t know the history behind any of them. Oh wait. Maybe KFC and Wendy’s but the rest were all new to me. Amazing. I love stuff like this and can’t believe how long some of these places have been around. Great post Julie!

  4. I knew Wendy’s, but that’s about it. Chick-fil-A makes a ton of sense… and I really enjoyed the story behind Burger King. 🙂

    I don’t know how you come up with this stuff, but it’s always so fun and informative!!

  5. Thank God some people love to do research. I don’t, but I appreciate results like this post. Only ones I knew were KFC & McDonalds. I met the Colonel at a political gathering in Washington in 1963. He looked just like the pictures.

  6. I knew about Wendy’s and Sonic (a fellow writer bragged about that one to me, she’s from Oklahoma). My first job was at a Burger King, fun job, not 🙂 but there really is a short rolling grill with a flame.

  7. Thanks to three children I eat WAY too much at fast food places, so this was a fun post for me. I did know Wendy’s (after his daughter – it used to say that in one of their ads), but that was the only one. Thanks for the fun!

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