9/26/2012 09:45:00 AM

A Brief History on the Midwestern Origins of Fast Food

Image via Flickr/sgt fun
They say the Midwest is the country's breadbasket - but it's also the country's fast food incubator. For an area that produces such a large portion of the country’s quality crops, it's also the home base of the fast food industry.

It all started in the 1940s when the first McDonald’s opened, then spread to locations all over the country (the second one ever opening in Des Plaines, IL in 1955). Fast food boomed, expanding its reach and customers’ waistlines all over the country. One of the first Midwest-grown ones was Maid-Rite, which was shelling out loose-meat ground beef burgers before McDonald’s existed, let alone was a household name. Fred Angell began his business in 1926 in Muscatine, Iowa, grinding beef daily and making their own ice cream, practices they still maintain today. It now has over 70 locations, and soon Chicagoans will be able to get what might be the oldest Midwestern fast food. A location on Lincoln Ave. just north of Fullerton is set to open in the near future. Non-Midwesterners can order their sandwiches online, frozen and delivered. Not fast, but still impressive.

Next came another burger-focused fast food joint, but this time it was a “steakburger.” Steak n’ Shake opened in 1934 in Normal, Illinois, home of Illinois State University. Hand-dipped milkshakes, the skinniest fries anywhere and steak sandwiches like their popular patty melt made them popular. So popular that their reach now extends to about 500 locations in 22 states, one of their newest one being the location on Broadway in New York City, which opened in January. If you were one of the first 150 people in line for that event and have been getting free burgers all year, we’re eternally jealous.

While most fast food eateries serve burgers in some form, others started to become known for their frozen treats instead. Dairy Queen, boasting the slogan "Hot Eats, Cool Treats," began in Joliet, Illinois in 1940. It’s safe to say that a large majority of Dairy Queen patrons have never even dipped into the “hot eats” portion of the menu, but instead go straight for the Blizzards, dipped cones and Dilly Bars that brought DQ to fame. Blizzards are so beloved that the largest one ever was created in Springfield, Massachusetts, weighing in at 8,224.85 pounds and standing 22-feet tall. Talk about super-sizing.

Culver’s also got into the game with burgers and other traditional fast food, but their frozen custard is the star of the show. The first one opened long after the fast food boom in Sauk City, Wisconsin in 1984. As if it wasn’t already clear grease was involved, they titled their signature sandwich the “Butterburger.” George Culver transformed an A&W into his namesake restaurant, which now has about 500 locations throughout the country.

Dick Portillo started his fast food company in a similar manner, converting a trailer into a hot dog stand in 1963, creating the first Portillo’s Hot Dogs on North Avenue in Villa Park, Illinois. Italian beef, hot dogs and ribs with classic Chicago flavors has made Portillo’s a ubiquitous presence in Chicago. They even have a small presence where it all began with McDonald’s birth in southern California.

There is one Midwestern fast food chain that isn’t all about greasy meats and ice cream dishes. Potbelly opened in Chicago in 1996 on Lincoln Ave when a couple who owned an antique shop started serving lunch to their customers. Its popularity grew quickly and they added live music to make this lunch spot even more unique. While they focus on sandwiches with fast service, they still embody a bit of the fast food industry: their signature sandwich is called a “Wreck,” with four meats (salami, roast beef, turkey and ham) piled on it, and they’ve got milkshakes and the best, soft oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. Today Potbelly has opened all over the U.S., and opened two franchised locations in Dubai in 2011. From Chicago to Dubai in about 15 years? Midwestern work ethic even extends to fast food.

Let us know your thoughts on Fast Food Week on social media with hashtag #fastfoodweek.

1 comment :

  1. Fast food is a convenient and a very popular on these days. We can see some fast food items in a McDonald’s restaurants. I like to eat fast food items because it is easily available, and it saves our valuable time.
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