Fast Food; Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age

Fast Food; Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age by John Jakle & Keith Sculle, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, paper.


The authors explore how corporate America has created various formulas for the businesses that dominate the American roadside. They call the formula ‘place – product – packaging.’ Fast-food restaurants with multiple locations, the subject of this book, are the result of an integration of programmatic architecture, interior decorating, the standardized products and services for sale, and their regimented operating procedures.


‘Place – product – packaging’ is a manifestation of the American consumer’s dependence on branded products. But it needs to be noted that the expansion of the interstate system after the Federal Highway Act of 1956 both nourished our automobile age and created a new opportunity for American restaurant entrepreneurs.


The present-day roadside quick-eating restaurants, John Jakle and Keith Schlle suggest, had precedents, which many of us are old enough to remember. Most originated in America’s ‘downtowns.’ Soda fountains, luncheonettes, lunchrooms, cafeterias, and diners have mostly disappeared along with those downtowns.  When young I can remember tearooms usually in private homes along highways. High school in the early 1950s would not have been the same without carhops and drive-ins to feed hungry teen-agers after a movie at the drive-in theater.


The authors describe how these types of eateries metamorphosed into fast-food chains. White Castle diners were one of the earliest. Their smallish, rather greasy hamburgers were eventually replaced by a better product dished up by MacDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Hardee’s, Checker’s, Krystal Restaurants, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, Chick-fil-A, Sonic Drive-In, Whataburger, and others. Mexican, I give up! Pizza, I give up!


Two of them, Sonic Drive-In and Whataburger closed within a year of their opening in Gainesville and sat for a long time forlorn and empty. That brings up a problem which the authors don’t mention: These themed buildings and their chain-specific interior décor do not recycle well.


It takes three chapters of Jakle and Sculle’s book to get through the progress of the hamburger. There follow chapters on sandwich, ice cream, breakfast, chicken, seafood, pizza, and taco shops, with lots said about singularities, but also their similarities.


The authors trace ice cream parlors back to portable stands that would motor over to factory gates at lunchtime, schools letting out, and football fans returning from a sunny stadium. Those portable stands led to Diary Queens. The old Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream and Coffee Shop, found at one time along many a ‘blue highway,’ had “28 flavors” of ice cream. The Howard Johnson’s have been replaced by Häagen Das, Ben & Jerry’s, Baskin Robins, and TCBY. And competing with all of them in Gainesville, thank you, is our own Sweet Dreams.


One similarity amongst these different eateries is the use of franchising. Though initially mostly ownership chains, the rapid expansion of roadside fast-food was facilitated by local investors. There was a range of services and obligations demanded of both sides to a franchise agreement. The chain would obtain both a source of venture capital and a local owner-manager. The franchisee would secure a known branded product and a good start in the fast-food business. He was often required to obtain his supplies from the chain’s commissary.


Not all roadside restaurants were about quick service. Some have gone upscale to create the “destination restaurant.” Like their fast-food neighbors, they are ‘casual’ or ‘family oriented’ but they offer a more varied and expensive menu. The largest destination restaurants in terms of units as of the late 1990s were Applebee’s T.G.I. Friday’s, Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday, and Hooters.


Several of these were once in our Oaks Mall. Is the Oaks Mall to be considered a road-side place or a transplanted downtown? In terms of their suite of restaurants, I would say the former.


Fast Food was published in 2002, and some quick food places that cater to Americans-on-the-go are not included. Sports bars are not mentioned, which are common along airport concourses, a more recent version of the American roadside. There is overlap between roadsides and concourses. Vending machines are appearing in airport concourses, an interesting throwback to the automats of bygone years.


The authors contend that the roadside is a place. They have provided the reader with an interesting tour of its precincts.


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