When Did Fast Food Become Popular

Fast food– A cheap, easily accessible, and delectable snack loved by many.

While you indulge in juicy, tender chicken, or a side of curly fries dipped in McDonald’s renowned garlic chili sauce, have you ever wondered how and when your food became what it is today? Where did it originate from? Who started the business? Why are there fast food restaurants all over the country, the continent, and the world? 

Read on, and you will know everything you need to know. 

When Was Fast Food Deemed to be ‘Popular’?

So what exactly is ‘popular’? The word is often interpreted as "liked by the majority" or ‘prevalent in local culture’. This fast food prevalence differed greatly in magnitude and time across various countries, but in the United States of America (USA), fast food chains were particularly sought after in the 1950s and 60s. In fact, Merriam Webster, the oldest dictionary publisher in the USA, officially recognized ‘fast food’ as a proper term in 1951. 

The rise of the fast-food industry in this period was because McDonald’s pioneered new food manufacturing processes that sped up the preparation, cooking, and serving procedures of the fast food business, essentially becoming the epitome of fast food outlets in those times.

  • By 1958, McDonald’s had sold its 100 millionth hamburger (Kasperkevic, 2017), and new fast-food chains, including Dunkin’ Doughnuts, Taco Bell, and Dominoes’ Pizza, were following in its footsteps by popping up all over the country.
  • By the 1970s, fast food chains had taken advantage of the fact that many families and teens needed affordable meals and had to eat quickly, making this decade the "decade of the fast-food business", as proclaimed by John C. Maxwell, a food industry analyst. 

In that very same decade, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food (Jung CW, 2002), when there were already 16 fast-food chains in the country, and well-loved restaurants such as Taco Bell were selling food at enticingly low prices, such as a taco for 59 cents, a Supreme taco for 79 cents, and a Big Beef taco for 99 cents (as compared to USD 1.59 today). 

Trends in Other Parts of the World 

It is only natural that American fast food has spread to other parts of the world. Other countries faced similar phenomena in the sense that working individuals were getting more disposable income amid their changing lifestyles, and needed more affordable food faster. In almost the same way, fast food chains grabbed the opportunity to adapt to the unique cultures and tastes of their host countries well, populating societies that thronged with the hungry lower-to-middle income class.

One such example was Domino’s Pizza– curry pizza in India, teriyaki chicken pizza in Japan, and chili crab pizza in Singapore. The cherry on top was how the availability of these choices complemented the fundamental American flavors and toppings, raking in loyal consumers who reveled in the familiarity of home yet the novelty of foreign food, all the while meeting their need for cheap, quick meals. 

In 1987, 951 (about 10 percent) of the 9911 McDonald’s fast-food chains were in Asia. In 2002, the number grew to 23 percent. This process was also sped up by globalization and urbanization when many Asian diets diversified and started to include livestock, dairy products, fats, and oils (Pingali, n.d.). 

The same trend was spotted in Africa. In fact, locals were already creating their own knockoff versions of American fast food brands before the first outlet was opened. Ashok Mohinani, a businessman in Ghana, saw the potential of a foreign fast food outlet in his country and opened the first of many KFC franchises in Africa in 2012.

What accelerated the subsequent craze for fast food was the availability of the internet, which publicized everyone’s preference for newly-found authentic, foreign fast food, begging more to have a try. KFC is now the leading fast-food chain in the entire continent having over 1,000 outlets as of 2016 (Nurse, 2016).

  • In Oceania, specifically Australia and New Zealand, American fast food was first introduced in the late 1960s. The typical big brands made their way successfully into the Australian market: McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut, while Burger King was faced with an amusing obstacle. There was already an Australian Burger King outlet in Adelaide which was opened six years ago in 1962 by an American, Don Dervan, which forced the incoming American Burger King to be renamed Hungry Jack. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut moved in in the 1970s, while Burger King and Domino’s business only ensued two decades later.
  • In Europe however, two countries stick out like sore thumbs– the United Kingdom (UK) or Great Britain, and France. The former is known for its national favorite Fish and Chips dish which has an even richer history than American fast food. The only question is whether Fish and Chips can be considered fast food, and this will be elaborated on at the end of the article. The latter is currently the country that consumes the most American fast food in Europe. Interestingly, the popularity of fast food in France only started in the 21st century when office workers turned to la malbouffe (junk food) for a quick meal. As of 2017, France had 32,000 fast food outlets in total which churned out more than 51 billion euros (13 percent more than four years prior) (Fleming, 2018). In the short span of another four years, the number of fast-food outlets in France had doubled. Burgers have become commonplace, with one-third of all burgers produced being sold in fast food outlets, and the rest distributed to traditional sit-down restaurants (Thomson, 2014).
  • The humble American fast-food chains have evolved into staggering multi-million dollar businesses in a billion-dollar industry. They continuously chase after consumer preferences, analyze consumer lifestyles and pump their finances into all sorts of aggressive advertising, producing demand for the range of products that we all love. Subway itself has 38 million total combinations available on the menu. In 2001, Pizza Hut made a delivery to the International Space Station (ISS). Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is the go-to meal for Christmas in Japan. These fast-food chains have done many bizarre things to appeal to their consumers and have undoubtedly permeated society in countless ways. 

The Origins of Fast Food

The First American Fast-food Outlet/ Restaurant and What Happened to It 

If we were to go back to the beginning of how fast food originated, it would start with White Castle being founded in 1921. White Castle was the first fast-food outlet and was located in Wichita, Kansas. As McDonald’s predecessor, they pioneered the concept of a multi-state hamburger restaurant chain and standardized everything about fast food restaurants– their looks, how they operate, and how they are constructed. By leveraging technology to create rapid, organized assembly production lines, they appealed to the nascent fascination with technology in America. Unfortunately, White Castle resisted franchising its business as it treasured the ability to retain ownership over its operations. This is why it has lagged behind many other fast-food chains, despite being the oldest of them all. 

The Origin of Commonly Known Fast-food Outlets

Around two decades after the founding of White Castle, Richard and Maurice McDonald ran a barbecue drive-in in San Bernardino, California. Upon the discovery that burgers contributed to the majority of their sales profits, they revised their menu in 1948 and came up with a much simpler combination of hamburgers, fries, and drinks. While selling their hamburgers at half the price of a typical diner, they invested in equipment that was specialized in the production of hamburgers and fries, creating a swift production system of their own. This was termed the Speedee Service System, which mirrored the practices that White Castle introduced between 1923 and 1932. 

In 1954, Prince Castle, a machinery industry company that serves restaurant brands, was receiving twelve times more than the normal demand for its milkshake blending machines from the McDonald’s brothers. A salesman in the company, Ray Kroc, was intrigued by their absurd purchases and made a trip to California to investigate. Blown away by the success that the brothers enjoyed, he signed a franchise agreement with them and set up a few outlets in Illinois. In 1961, Kroc bought them out to form the McDonald’s Corporation. Interestingly, not only was McDonald’s success back then attributed to the attractiveness of the Speedee Service System, but it was also due to the consistent advertising of clean dining environments. By cleaning up the storefronts, and adding transparency (literally) to the food preparation process with glass panels for customers to peer into, Kroc helped the McDonald’s corporation rise above all the other fast-food chains as the sparkling clean, shining star of the industry. 

Similar to McDonald’s, Burger King started as a modest family restaurant. However, its founders, Keith Kramer and Matthew Burns, got their idea for such a restaurant from McDonald’s. They set up their first outlet in 1953 and bought the rights to a grilling machine called an Insta-broiler, hence leading to their restaurant being named ‘Insta-Burger King’. Two Cornell University classmates, James McLamore and David Edgerton, saw the potential that Insta-Burger King had in the fast-food burger market, and bought one of the Insta-Burger King franchises in 1954. However, due to some faults with the Insta-broiler, they switched it out for a gas grill (also known as a flame broiler). With the Insta-broiler gone, Insta-Burger King was renamed Burger King. Five years later, the rest of the Insta-Burger King chain was finding it difficult to pay its bills, so McLamore and Edgerton purchased all its franchises to revitalize the company. This proved to be effective with the Whopper becoming a household name in the 1960s. In 1967, the Pillsbury company bought over the Burger King corporation for $18 million. With the already booming success of Burger King and the solid reputation of the baking company, Burger King eventually climbed to be Top 2 in many Americans’ hearts.  

The Popularity of Fish and Chips in the UK and if it even is “fast food”

Although the first brands to come to mind are all American, many countries have had their own versions of fast food, be it in night markets or small takeaway businesses by the roadside. One outstanding dish which is still relatively well-known today is Britain’s fish and chips. According to a survey by UK Fisheries, 80 percent of English people visit fish and chip shops at least once a year and consume 382 million meals from these shops in a year. That’s as much as every person in Britain eating five meals per annum. 

Fish and chips have been around since the 1860s (way before the fast-food boom in America), and it seems to check off all the requirements to be considered “fast food”: 

  • Associated with a certain degree of unhealthiness. 

A single portion of fish and chips stores around 800 calories, which is almost double the amount for a regular hamburger-and-fries combo (Purdie & Armstrong, 2019). 

  • Served at a cheaper price than traditional sit-down restaurants.

Although there are outlets in London, Essex, and Bristol which are known for their expensive fish and chips, the average price in other parts of the country is between five to seven Euros (which is roughly USD 5.5 to USD 8) (Seafish, n.d.). 

  • Has the main audience of lower-to-middle income working class. 

Besides the fact that fish and chips are the more affordable option to fill one’s stomach, the dish actually became a staple for the working class during World War II when it was one of the only foods not subject to rationing in the UK.

The government believed that allowing the people to enjoy such a widely-loved comfort food could boost morale during the dreary times of war, and the dish was famously coined as ‘the good companions’ by former British prime minister Winston Churchill. This love for fish and chips, seasoned with its rich history and long-withstanding nostalgia, continued for decades to come.

However, the one puzzling fact is that there are no fish and chips fast-food chains as large as those in the USA. One of the arguably more well-known brands would be Long John Silvers, which is still only the top 106th fast-food chain in the US by its annual sales (Restaurant Business Magazine, n.d.).

Some speculate that this is because fish are expensive in the UK and are hard to keep. But the truth is, fish and chips were never meant to be a fast-food meal. The UK has been so populated with fish and chips outlets that a fast-food chain would never survive– too many similar shops with their own loyal consumer bases would render any new firm as helpless as a small fish in a big pond. The same applies in the US, where McDonald’s, Chipotle, Taco Bell, Burger King, and more already dominate the fast-food market. 

Efforts have been made to get the information as accurate and updated as possible. If you found any incorrect information with credible source, please send it via the contact us form
Author: Rae-anne Leong
Rae-anne is a freelance writer born in Singapore. She has done research on and covered various topics, such as physical and mental health, and food. As someone who prefers the indoors to the outdoors, research and writing have become one of her most loved pastimes, and she believes in bringing, consolidating, and sharing knowledge with the world.
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