A scene from Mad Men, set in the now-defunct Burger Chef (Photo: AMC)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: List of defunct fast-food restaurant chains

What it’s about: The past 50 years saw relentless expansion by fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and the like. But that success came at a price—at least for the competition. For every fast-food chain that became an American institution, there’s one that didn’t last. Wikipedia remembers.

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The not-at-all-creepy Doggie Diner sign

Strangest fact: There were multiple canine-themed burger chains. While Doggie Diner sounds like a place overindulgent pet owners would take their mutts for some gluten-free kibble, it was a hot dog and hamburger chain in the Bay Area. The chain couldn’t compete with McDonald’s and Burger King and folded in 1986, but a few of their signs, which featured the giant fiberglass head of a grinning dachshund, are still San Francisco landmarks.

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Southern California had its own dog-themed chain, Pup ’N’ Taco, whose menu was an odd combination of hot dogs, tacos, and pastrami sandwiches. In 1984, Taco Bell bought out the chain, absorbing 99 locations. Three remained, and two of them continued to operate as Pop ’N’ Tacos until 2011.

Biggest controversy: A few of these defunct chains lost skirmishes over names. Burger Queen had no connection to Burger King and lost its crown not in deadly palace intrigue but when the chain changed its name to Druther’s. Burger Queen did have a connection to Dairy Queen—the first BQ location was across the street from a DQ—but Wikipedia doesn’t make it clear whether one chain spun off from the other. One chain did absorb the other, however, as Dairy Queen consolidated her hold on the throne by absorbing the Druther’s chain in the late ’80s.

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Argentinian chain Pumper Nic ripped off Burger King’s logo and paid the price. When the American chain moved into the Argentinian market, it sued, Pumper Nic changed its logo, began losing money to the new competition, and folded.

White Castle also had a competitor in White Tower, which opened its first location in Milwaukee in 1926 and expanded to 230 locations, selling regular-sized hamburgers. In this case, there was a lawsuit, when White Castle moved into Michigan, which had previously been Tower territory. A judge ruled that Tower had copied the better-known chain and had to pay a royalty fee for new locations, though they were able to keep the name. They also changed their look to avoid confusion, and the two chains stayed out of each other’s territory. By the ’70s, the chain was failing, as its locations were mostly in cities and were hurt when white flight emptied out their markets. (There was also a Royal Castle, which sold White Castle-esque miniature hamburgers throughout the South, but they were done in by a new parent company that mismanaged the chain.)

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Thing we were happiest to learn: At least one of these defunct chains is making a comeback. Naugles was a fast-food Mexican chain in Southern California, founded by a former Del Taco executive. The chain built up to 225 locations, when both Naugles and Del Taco were bought by the same investor, who merged them back into the original chain in 1986. (Del Taco absorbed a few Naugles menu items, and their Taco Sandwich, also called a “bun taco,” is a secret menu item.)

Twenty years later, a blogger named Christian Ziebarth wrote a piece remembering Naugles and expressing the hope that Del Taco would bring back more of Naugles’ much-loved menu items. Surprised by the wave of Naugles nostalgia, Ziebarth looked into resurrecting the chain himself and discovered that Del Taco had let the Naugles trademark lapse. After researching and re-creating the original menu items and setting up a few pop-up locations to test the waters, in 2015 Ziebarth and investors opened a test kitchen in Huntington Beach, California, which experienced such a large turnout that the owners had to shut down and regroup. They reopened weekends only, and as of press time, it remains to be seen whether the demand will mean a permanent Naugles revival or simply a quick burst of nostalgia.

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Thing we were unhappiest to learn: There was no room in the fast-food landscape for healthy options. D’Lites was a Georgia-based chain that aspired to be a nutritious alternative to other burger outlets. The restaurant used lean beef and high-fiber buns, and the menu featured vegetarian options, which were largely unheard of in fast food when the chain launched in 1978. They expanded to more than 100 locations, but by the mid-’80s, McDonald’s and Wendy’s had bowed to public pressure and began offering salads and other healthier options, which cut into D’Lites’ business. The chain went bankrupt in 1986, and the following year it was absorbed by the decidedly less health-conscious Hardee’s.

Also noteworthy: Sometimes when two chains do battle, the loser writes the history books. ShowBiz Pizza Place was founded by a former Chuck E. Cheese’s franchisee and featured a similar mix of pizza, arcade games, and animatronics. While the two rival chains both thrived during the arcade boom of the late ’70s, Chuck E. Cheese’s filed for bankruptcy in 1984 and was bought up by its competitor. However, deciding a mouse was a better public face than its hillbilly bear mascot, ShowBiz renamed its own franchises, and Chuck E. Cheese’s continues to this day.

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Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Key Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce account Burger Chef was at one point the #2 fast-food chain in America, with 1,200 locations to McDonald’s 1,600. They sued (and lost) when McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal, an imitation of BC’s Funmeal. But the chain was an American institution from the first restaurant’s opening in 1957, until the chain was sold to Hardee’s in 1982. A gruesome footnote to the chain’s existence are the Burger Chef murders, in which four employees of the Speedway, Indiana location went missing, as did the money in the registers. Initially, police thought the employees themselves robbed the restaurant, but their bodies were found a few days later—they had been kidnapped by the thieves and murdered. The crime remains unsolved; while the investigators were able to identify suspects, without any physical evidence, they were unable to prosecute anyone for the crimes.

Further down the wormhole: Chuck E. Cheese’s was founded by Nolan Bushnell, who also founded Atari. The pizza chain represented his attempt to combine his own video game empire with the feel of a Walt Disney theme park. While Disney now owns Marvel Studios and is responsible for the bulk of the current superhero movie glut, Disney made an earlier foray into superheroes in the early ’90s with Darkwing Duck, a DuckTales spinoff about a crime-fighting, talking duck. Darkwing is just one on a long list of anthropomorphic animal superheroes, which we’ll peruse next week as The A.V. Club observes Comics Week.

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