In 1957 Frank Porter Thomas, an uncle of famed musician and Peru, Indiana, native, Cole Porter, opened a pilot restaurant at Little America Amusement Center to promote and sell the automated hamburger grill he had invented. Failing to sell the grill but successfully marketing his 15-cent hamburgers, Thomas instead opened the first Burger Chef in spring 1958 at 1300 West 16th Street, along with his partner Bob Wildman who was vice president of Sani Serve Company and also was instrumental in Ponderosa and Rax Restaurant operations. Thomas reportedly chose the name to create a more “highbrow version” of the fast-food burger.

A tall, narrow building that looks like the entrance to a funhouse stands between traditional-looking buildings. The flat, stone face has diamond motifs and the roof eave is banded by two rows of diamond shapes. The glass entrance has triangular arch supported by two beams set at angles.
In September 1965, Burger Chef opened its first downtown location at 6 E. Washington Street, Indianapolis. Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

By 1959 there were eight Burger Chefs in Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri. The national headquarters was located in Indianapolis adjacent to the West 16th Street restaurant. Burger Chef created the concept of the burger-fries-and-drink combo. The company called it the “Triple Threat.” In the early 1960s, Thomas sold hundreds of Burger Chef franchises to owner-operators. The average return on an owner’s $129,000 investment (over $1.5 million in 2020) was 50 percent per year. The potential for profit and a training program for operators, developed by Indiana Central College (University Of Indianapolis), proved so popular that by 1966 there were 500 Burger Chefs in the Midwest. At this time, Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s, David Edgerton’s Burger King, and Thomas and Wildman’s Burger Chef dominated the fast-food market. In 1967, Burger Chef was the second-largest restaurant chain in the United States.

In 1968 Thomas sold his rights to the restaurant chain to General Foods Corporation for $16.5 million. By the end of the 1970s, the Burger Chef system had 40 outlets in Marion County and over 650 nationwide. In 1978, the murder of four employees in a Speedway Burger Chef brought unwanted notoriety to the restaurant (see Burger chef murders). Competition from other fast-food chains, most notably McDonald’s, caused a decline in Burger Chef profits. In 1981, General Foods sold Burger Chef to the Hardee’s restaurant chain for $44 million. After the sale, the Burger Chefs quickly converted into Hardee’s restaurants, gaining business but losing their Burger Chef menu and distinctive building facades. 

Black and white drawing shows a one-story brick building that looks like a ranch-style house. There is a covered drive-through widow on the left side, and a sign for "Burger Chef" out front.
Architectural drawing of Burger Chef Restaurants in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

In the popular TV series Mad Men, which appeared on the AMC cable network (2007-2015), the main character targeted  Burger Chef as a client for the Madison Avenue advertising agency featured in the show.

Revised February 2021

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