As a kid growing up in the 1970s and 80s in Ohio, there was no greater fast food treat than Burger Chef. I hadn’t really thought about it in some time, but have come to realized that Burger Chef was one of those fond childhood memories that I had pretty much forgotten – that is, until a couple of years ago we first started contemplating this idea for American Roadtrip. I’m pretty sure the food was good, although to be honest with you, that’s not what I remember. What I remember is how much fun the Burger Chef experience was. How they completely catered to kids, and might have very well been the first major fast food chain to do so. The key item from a kid’s perspective was the Burger Chef Funmeal. While “Happy Meals” or “Kids Meals” may seem commonplace today, they weren’t in the early 1970s – until Burger Chef created and launched the idea in 1972 (five years before McDonald’s did the same). The Funmeal included a small burger, fries, drink, and a desert, and came in a Funmeal box. Sometimes the box came with a toy, but sometimes the box itself was a toy. Sounds basic, I know, but back then it was something special and unique. Burger Chef was also one of the first chains to create characters, and to build stories and content around the characters. At first it was Burger Chef and Jeff, who were two “human” characters. Then, sometime in the mid-1970s, Burger Chef got into the “monsters” theme and added the Fangburger family to the mix – a family of burger loving vampires. Genius!
One of the ways that Burger Chef brought its characters to life was through audio. A routine component of the Funmeal was a flimsy, plastic record. Take it home, throw it on your Fisher Price record player, and you could listen to tales of adventures of Burger Chef and Jeff and the Fangburger family. (Note: for those of you not familiar with the reference to a “record,” think “vinyl” – only in this case, plastic vinyl. Kind of have to see it, and hear it, to believe it.)
The most memorable aspect of Burger Chef’s marketing to kids was its partnership with Star Wars. As the Star Wars movies first launched in 1977, Burger Chef was one of the studio’s primary marketing partners. It started with a collectible Star Wars poster series, free with the purchase of a Coke, and spread to Star Wars-specific Funmeal boxes, collectors’ glasses, and other items. There’s even a classic TV commercial of C-3PO and R2-D2 visiting a Burger Chef to collect the posters, only to be joined by Storm Troopers, Darth Vader, and others. To put this in perspective, while today there is Star Wars product everywhere you turn, the consumer product licensing engine of the movie studios was not nearly that evolved in the late 1970s. While the growing legions of Star Wars fanatics could buy action figures in 1977, the selections were limited. The chance to get posters and other movie themed items was not a chance this kid – or many – were going to pass up.
Burger Chef peaked in 1971 with 1,200 stores across more than 40 states. At the time it was the second largest fast food chain in the country, behind only McDonald’s (and it wasn’t all that far behind McDonald’s either). Unfortunately, rapid expansion and an owner (General Foods) more committed to other business units caught up with Burger Chef. In 1982, General Foods sold its Burger Chef unit to Hardee’s, after which most Burger Chefs were either converted to Hardee’s, sold to other operators, or closed. The last Burger Chef, a holdout franchisee that refused to change its branding, closed its doors in 1996.
Fast forward to early 2012, and a brain storming session around this idea to create a collection of apparel graphics that would celebrate iconic, classic, and sometimes forgotten gas, food, and lodging (roadtrip) brands. Those of us involved in the brainstorming instinctively went back to our own childhoods, to our own hometowns and our own family roadtrips… and when you do that, its pretty interesting what you find. What I found, among many other relics buried in my memories, was Burger Chef. Almost as soon as we’d come up with the American Roadtrip concept, I knew Burger Chef had to be part of it. Looking back through emails and correspondence, I see that I first reached out to Hardee’s, who is still the current owner of the Burger Chef trademark, in February of 2012. As the question of gaining rights to use Burger Chef on a T-shirt was probably one no one really knew how to answer, it took some time and follow-up to even get the first conversation. About a year later, in January of 2013, we had that first conversation, and then another year later, in early 2014, we executed a license agreement. While that process was a bit of its own “roadtrip,” it was well worth it…. And we are extremely proud to have launched what I consider to be the first officially licensed Burger Chef T-shirts in our American Roadtrip collection!!
And then, lo and behold, a couple Sunday nights ago I’m taking a look at my Twitter feed, and for some reason people are talking about Burger Chef. Strange. I dig a little further and find out it has to do with Mad Men, the popular AMC network TV show featuring a 1960s era advertising agency. Turns out, part of the new story line this season is that the agency has an opportunity to win the Burger Chef account. I have to admit that I’ve never watched an episode of Mad Men, but this Burger Chef plot has me curious, so I’ll at least be watching a few episodes to see how the story plays out. It is certainly interesting to see a number of blogs, tweets, and articles in the past few days explaining that Burger Chef was actually real! I guess many agency clients featured on Mad Men must have been fictional. But no, Burger Chef was very much real…. And wouldn’t it be fun if it found itself in a little bit of a revival, fueled not only by this newfound pop culture Mad Men reference, but also by some really cool T-shirts!