Mister Boomer isn’t a regular viewer of the TV show, Mad Men. This season, however, the fictional ad agency on the show is pitching a company that spiked Mister B’s nostalgia meter; the agency is pitching an ad campaign to Burger Chef. This was brought to Mister B’s attention by a co-worker who is a fan of the show. Knowing Mister B is from the Midwest, he asked him if he had ever heard of Burger Chef. “Yes,” said Mister B, “I used to work for them.”
Burger Chef was an early competitor of McDonald’s. The company opened its first restaurant in Indianapolis in 1958. By contrast, McDonald’s opened in 1955 in Des Plaines, Illinois. Unlike McDonald’s, Burger Chef advertised “flame broiled burgers.” Burger Chef burgers were cooked over an open flame and not on a grill top, which became central to their early marketing.
The flame broiled burger was made by a device that was patented in 1954 by a different company. It consisted of an oven with a conveyor system that propelled hamburgers through the oven over a gas-fired flame. The grill looked like the combination of bicycle chain endcaps with a barbecue grill fastened between them. It ran as a continuous loop, so when burgers (and buns) were placed on the grill that protruded from the left side of the oven, completely cooked burgers dropped off the conveyor system at the extension on the right side of the oven. The chain speed was controlled by a dial that was preset via instructions from the home office. If a customer desired a more well-done burger, workers could flip the switch that would stop the conveyor at the mid-point to allow for an extra fifteen seconds of cooking, before turning it back on to complete the process.
Burger Chef grew almost as rapidly as McDonald’s. There were 73 Burger Chef locations in 1960, and by 1968 that number grew to 800 restaurants in 39 states. The company opened its 1,000 restaurant in 1973. McDonald’s had reached that milestone in 1968.
They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, and Burger Chef matched McDonald’s burger for burger: there was a hamburger and cheeseburger, of course, but also a Big Shef that was their version of a Big Mac; a Super Shef was a flatter and wider version of MacDonald’s Quarter Pounder. Then there was a fish sandwich, apple turnover and vanilla, chocolate or strawberry milkshakes.
Aside from the flame broiler, however, Burger Chef was also the innovator for a number of things that were later copied by competitors. They were the first to introduce a kid-centric meal with a toy. Called the Funmeal, it appeared at Burger Chef in 1973, and consisted of a burger, fries, a drink and a toy. McDonald’s introduced their Happy Meal in 1979. Burger Chef was the first to offer a Works Bar in the late 1970s, where a customer could add the elements they wanted — pickles, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, special sauce, onions, tomatoes and lettuce, in the quantities they wanted — for a personalized experience, plus get a salad to go with their burger. Wendy’s Fixin’s Bar and several others followed suit.
The company stressed family wholesomeness on the order of what Disney had done for amusement parks. Employees were required to keep a strict dress code, which included shorter hair lengths and sideburns, limited moustaches and no beards for males, and mandated skirt lengths and “appropriate” hairstyles for females. As the sixties progressed and into the ’70s, this was enough to keep some prospective employees and managers away.
Mister Boomer’s experience with the company first came via his brother, who worked at a Burger Chef location about eight blocks from their home. Mister B would ride his bike over to watch Brother Boomer behind the kitchen glass window, making french fries. There, a hand-operated lever was attached to a white-enameled wall. By lifting the lever, his brother could place a peeled potato vertically in the holder. When the lever was pushed down like pumping a water well, the potato was pushed through blades that cut it into perfect fries, which fell into a waiting bucket. Whether it was because of the freshness of the product or the frying method, their fries were absolutely delicious. The restaurant sold fries by the bagful as well as individual portions. Since every meal in Mister Boomer’s household had to have a starch along with a protein and a vegetable, on occasion Mister B’s mom would give him the money to go and get a sack of fries for the family. By the end of the sixties, fresh french fries were replaced by the more cost-efficient frozen variety.
The next experience Mister Boomer had with Burger Chef was as a high school student in 1970. Mister B found his first job at a Burger Chef that was situated across the street from a major area shopping center. He worked mainly evenings and weekends, but did have some daytime hours over the summer months. He made minimum wage, which at the time was $1.25 per hour in his state.
Workers were pretty much the jack-of-all-trades. Each was trained on the cooking devices as well as preparation and closing procedures, not to mention cleaning. Whenever an employee wasn’t busy, he or she was expected to be cleaning something. Mister B spent many an hour on a ladder spraying Windex onto the storefront’s expanse of windows, picking up debris from the parking lot, wiping tables and mopping floors.
To make matters worse, the assistant manager was an ex-Navy man who had kitchen experience. When it came time to clean the cooking area after closing, he would examine the freshly-cleaned counters with a white glove. If he found a single grain of salt, he made Mister B and his co-workers repeat the cleaning process again.
The flame broil oven needed its own cleaning regimen once a week. First, the chain grill from the previous week had to be cleaned. The previous week’s grill had sat rolled up in a bucket of lye mixture. Now a worker, wearing gloves, removed the grill in the sink and, with a stiff brush, scraped any remaining residue from the grill. While the worker scrubbed and thoroughly rinsed the grill, two other workers dismantled the shut-down oven and dislodged the bolts that held the chain grill. They removed the grill, rolled it on itself and placed into a bucket that contained water, lye and whatever else there might have been in there that has escaped Mister B’s memory. An examination of the burners and cleaning of the inside of the oven would ensue. Once everything was satisfactorily cleaned, the fresh chain grill was attached and ready for the following week’s work.
Likewise Mister B and his co-workers made buckets full of special sauce — which, like McDonald’s, was a Thousand Island dressing recipe that consisted of exacting ratios of mayonnaise, ketchup and pickle relish. He also had his turn at making the tartar sauce for the fish sandwiches. One of the most skillful of the jobs entailed making french fries. There was no tell-tale timer that beeped when the fries were perfectly golden brown. The expertise of the operator meant that at any given time fries could be a bit under or a bit over, based on when they were removed from the fryer. Mister B strived for the golden crisp exterior and slightly soft interior that he enjoyed, and figured other people did too.
After one summer, Mister B had had enough of the burger business. Burger Chef continued on, but lost ground among the growing field of competitors. By 1982, only 800 restaurants remained, and the company was sold to Hardee’s.
Did you eat — or work — at a Burger Chef in your boomer days?