Viewers of a certain age may recall Burger Chef and his animated side-kick Jeff hawking “Incrediburgible” sandwiches on TV. What may not be as clear, however, is that the now-defunct Burger Chef fast-food restaurant chain had its start in Indiana. The origins of the onetime burger empire go back to 1929, when inventor Frank P. Thomas founded the Indianapolis-based General Equipment Company to market and distribute his creations. Among them were the first patented soft-serve ice cream machine–the Sani-Serve–and a hamburger grill that flame-broiled the patties. The fast-food concept started to flourish in the car-crazed 50s–Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald’s in 1955 in Des Plaines, Illinois. Around the same time in Jacksonville, Florida, entrepreneurs James W. McLaramore and Dave Edgerton were setting up their own burger chain, and turned to Indianapolis inventor Thomas for his flame-broiling grill. With Thomas’s prototype the partners turned Burger King into gold; but the inventor himself had his own designs on the fast-food industry. After setting up a hamburger stand to test the equipment and the market response, Frank and his brother Donald opened the first Burger Chef restaurant in 1958, at 1300 West 16th Street in Indianapolis. By the end of 1958, there were eight Burger Chef outlets in three states, offering diners the uniquely flavored char-broiled burgers for 15 cents. Fries and a soft drink were offered at the same price, with a shake thrown in for a nickel.
Thomas retooled his grill to increase its capacity from cooking one to two-thousand burgers an hour, and business grew exponentially. When the 450 th store opened at Six East Washington Street in Indianapolis in 1965, Burger Chef boasted locations in 34 states. Three years later, Burger Chef had doubled its number of stores to almost 900, second only to McDonald’s, operating 1000 locations at the time. In late 1968, the Thomas brothers sold the business to General Foods for twenty million dollars, and the corporation continued to add locations. With 1200 stores in operation at its peak in 1971, the burger chain started to falter, however, and became a write-off for General Foods until its sale to the owner of Hardees in 1982. The last known Burger Chef closed its doors in Cookville, Tennessee in 1996. Don Thomas, Jr. still runs the Sani-Serv soft-ice-cream machine manufacturer in Mooresville.
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