Unlike today’s retro-themed, Elvis-playing juke joints that rely on novelty and nostalgia, fifty years ago, the old-fashioned American diner was still the culinary standard for motorists looking for a convenient place to belly up to a pie-stocked counter and slurp down a milkshake. Across the country, these small mom-and-pop-owned venues — once called “coffee shops” but resembling nothing like today’s havens for laptop-lugging hipsters — provided an assortment of popular cuisine, including breakfast foods, sandwiches, local favorites like grits or clam chowder, which varied by region, and their best-selling item by far, the hamburger.
Creating a menu that catered to as many people as possible seemed like a sound strategy, but according to Jack Trout and Al Ries, authors of the book Marketing Warfare, this approach left the family-owned diner vulnerable to a new type of restaurant that focused on a one-size-fits-all meal plan. When a pair of restaurant-owning brothers in California realized that if they only served hamburgers and fries they could cut down on cooking time, the two men pioneered the nation’s first fast food system by organizing their kitchen like a Henry Ford-style assembly line. In 1948, the brothers opened their new San Bernardino burger spot and named the eatery after themselves — McDonald’s.
After the brothers sold the company in 1961 to Al Croc, the man originally hired to handle their franchise expansion, new McDonald’s locations sprouted up throughout the United States, and the brand’s now iconic golden arches became synonymous with hamburgers that were cooked fast, tasted consistent, and costed less. The small stand-alone diners, lacking coast-to-coast name recognition and plagued by slower cooking times due to their diversified offerings, struggled to survive as other nation-wide fast food franchises like Burger King and Wendy’s rose up to challenge McDonald’s at its own game.
Faced with increased competition, as well as the construction of the national highway system that bypassed the small towns beside Route 66, the American diners of yesteryear largely disappeared. Only a few isolated holdouts remain along with the self-consciously styled ’50s throwbacks that were built more recently. Ironically, modern McDonald’s establishments, with their expanded menus and longer wait times, have become more akin to the antiquated diners they replaced, while upstart chains like Raising Cane’s — which sells only chicken, fries, and coleslaw — have found success by limiting consumer choices the same way McDonald’s once did.