Think you know the stories behind your favorite chain restaurant names? Think again! While some of the names may seem obvious, the stories behind those famous chains—like Shake Shack and Pizza Hut—aren’t exactly what you think they are. We decided to dive deep into the hidden messages behind famous chain restaurant names and found a few charming stories to share.
Typically the best cut of the beef is called the fillet, right? Well, that’s at least what Truett Cathy thought when she was thinking up a name when inventing a chicken sandwich at the Dwarf Grill (now the Dwarf House) in Hapeville, Georgia. After realizing she could make a chicken sandwich using a pressure-fryer in the same amount of time you can cook a fast-food hamburger, a light bulb went off. She registered the name “Chick-fil-A” immediately after because according to Cathy, the breast is the best part—the “fillet”—of the chicken.
Before your favorite neighborhood grill was simply known as Applebee’s, in 1980 the founders Bill and T.J. Palmer opened up T.J. Applebee’s RX for Edible and Elixirs in Atlanta, GA. The long name remained until 1986 when it was renamed to Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar. The term “Applebee’s” was actually a backup name, after T.J. Palmer found out his original idea “Appleby’s” was already registered.
The name actually has nothing to do with those creamy milkshakes. In an interview with Fortune Magazine in 2012, Shake Shack’s founder Danny Meyer admitted that the name actually came after watching Grease so many times. The amusement park attraction called Shake Shack was famous in the “You’re The One That I Want” dance finale. So it was never about the shakes, or even the burgers! Meyer actually was part of an effort to rebuild Madison Square Park in New York City in the early 2000’s, and opened up a hot dog cart that was run by the kitchen at Eleven Madison. It wasn’t until 2004 when the first Shake Shack kiosk-style restaurant opened up that the restaurant’s main attraction (the burgers) started to shift. The original Shake Shack location is still in Madison Square Park to this day.
In-N-Out Founders Harry and Esther Snyder knew that the world was busy, so they shaped a restaurant around that. In-N-Out’s first location opened in Baldwin Park in 1948 and was the first drive-thru hamburger stand in California meant to get customers “in and out” with their burgers in a flash.
Familiar with the song “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones? So were the founders of Ruby Tuesday’s, who named their famous chain restaurant during the peak of this song’s popularity in 1972. Sandy Beall opened the first Ruby Tuesday’s near the University of Tennessee hoping to lure in a crowd that loved the band—and good food.
There are a lot of burger chains out there, but did you know White Castle claims to be one of the first? Billy Ingram, the founder of White Castle, was born in 1880 and opened up the first White Castle location in 1921. Why the name? Because the burgers were sold in a tiny white castle. At the time, those famous small, square burgers were only sold at 5 cents apiece.
While many would associate the name Popeye with the famous cartoon, this beloved fried-chicken chain wasn’t named after the buff sailor who loves spinach. It was actually named after Popeye Doyle of The French Connection. This was after the founder Alvin C. Copeland Sr.’s not-so-successful attempt at opening the Southern-fried chicken spot “Chicken on the Run” in a New Orleans suburb.
Who is the queen of dairy? It’s not a person. It’s actually the cows! J.F. McCullough, the founder of the first Dairy Queen store in Joliet, Illinois in 1940, would commonly refer to the cow as “the queen of the dairy business.”
Taco Bell was originally created by a man named Glen Bell who created Bell’s Drive-In and Taco Tia in San Bernardino, California in 1954. The name switched to “Taco Bell” in 1962, and the first bell appeared on the Taco Bell logo in 1985. Since then, Taco Bell’s logo has made quite a few transformations, but having a bell on the logo has always remained.
Before this fast-food burger chain donned those famous golden arches all across the world, two brothers—Richard and Maurice McDonald—founded the burger restaurant “Speedee Service System” in San Bernardino, CA in 1940. However, the restaurant didn’t turn into the McDonald’s we know—it simply served as inspiration for the real thing! The founder Ray Kroc opened up his first restaurant called McDonald’s in Illinois in 1955 to pay tribute to the McDonald brothers’ restaurant.
Ever wonder why the Wendy’s logo dons a cute red-headed girl in pigtails? That’s because the image accurately depicts Melinda “Wendy” Thomas, the daughter of the chain’s founder, Dave Thomas. The first Wendy’s restaurant opened up in Columbus, Ohio in 1969. However, after many years of having his daughter be the face of the brand, the owner revealed his regrets for naming the chain after her, because it added a lot of “pressure” to her life.
The name “Starbucks” was chosen when the founders were advised by an advertising specialist that a company starting with the letters “st” would be powerful. When they landed with “Starbo,” one founder thought of the old town in Moby Dick. It then spiraled into a company named “Starbucks” that had hints of maritime in their marketing—like using a siren (female mermaid) in the logo to attract customers to buying coffee and pastries.
Formerly known as Dunkin’ Donuts, this coffee chain is a staple all around America and is particularly popular in the Boston area. Before getting the famous Dunkin’ Donuts name, the first-ever shop was actually named “Open Kettle” and opened by William Rosenberg in 1948, located in Quincy, MA. However, after discussions with company executives, Rosenberg decided to change the name to Dunkin’ Donuts after noticing the popularity of the two items together when selling food in factories and construction sites. In 2019 the company shortened the name to Dunkin’ in order to rebrand as a “beverage-led company.”
It’s probably assumed that the origin of the Pizza Hut name came from a small hut that owned pizza. Yet while that is slightly accurate (the original location in Wichita, Kansas was quite small), the name was chosen because of the small sign. In June 1958 when two Wichita State University students—Dan and Frank Carney—opened their shop, they were only able to fit 8 letters on their sign. Pizza Hut fit it perfectly.
Domino’s started out like any restaurant would—with one location and humble beginnings. But the name was slightly different. In 1960 when it first opened, the famous pizza shop was actually called DomiNick’s before it was purchased by two brothers for just $500. Five years later, the shop was renamed Domino’s. The reason behind their logo? The intention was to add a new dot each time Domino’s added a new location, but as this famous chain quickly grew, Domino’s decided to keep the original three. Just imagine what the logo would look like if it had dots for all of their locations now!
The subway is meant to be a speedy place for commuters, which was the heart behind Subway‘s original name. In 1965 Fred DeLuca opened up a sandwich shop in Bridgeport Connecticut called Pete’s Super Submarines, but quickly changed the name to Subway in 1968 to mirror the sandwich chain’s speedy service.
After taking a trip to Denali National Park in Alaska, founders John and Kim Puckett decided to ditch their jobs and open up a coffee company in Minnesota. The name “Caribou Coffee” was inspired by the wild caribou they experienced on their journey, and is an ode to the amazing Northern wildlife.
Did Panera Bread expand from a small bakery into a huge chain cafe? Actually, no! Panera Bread was originally birthed from a small 400-square-foot cookie shop located in Boston. The founder, Ron Shaich, partnered with a small French bakery chain called Au Bon Pain, and in 1993, Au Bon Pain acquired the St. Louis Bread Company. After a few years, the company was renamed to Panera, because it combines the Italian words for bread (pane) and time (era).
The famous pizza chain, found in shopping centers and service areas littered around the country, was actually named after two Italian immigrants—Gennaro and Carmela Sbarro—who came to America with their three sons from Naples, Italy in 1956. They originally opened a salumeria (an Italian grocery store) in Brooklyn before extending to other parts of New York City. Although the original Sbarro Salumeria location no longer exists, Sbarro can be found in spots all over the country.
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