Incrediburgable – Burger Chef (1950s-90s)

If I asked you to name a burger restaurant established in the 1950s with a patented cooking method, a signature burger with the word “Big” in the title, a packaged meal themed just for kids, and a roster of make-believe characters, what name would you guess? You’d say Burger Chef, right?

(courtesy Burger Chef Memories)

In many ways the Burger Chef story seems like a Mandela Effect version of the McDonald’s story. The two companies were actually somewhat neck-and-neck by the 1970s in terms of number of establishments nationwide, but McDonald’s competitive edge and a questionable sale in the ’80s led to the demise of the Burger Chef brand and, eventually, chain.

Burger Chef had a few unique things going for it, though. Founded by the creators of the flame broiler machine, the chain boasted their signature two-patty “Big Shef” burger AND a massive three-patty “Super Shef”.  Talk about indulgent! They also introduced a Fuddrucker’s-like “Works Bar” where customers could trick out their naked burgers exactly the way they liked.

Their focus, though, was kids.  The chain’s mascot was actually a duo – the titular Burger Chef, (voiced by Paul Winchell, who also provided voices for Tigger, Dick Dastardly, Gargamel, and that owl in the Tootsie Pops commercial) and a kid sidekick named Jeff. Burger Chef and Jeff were accompanied by a rotating cast of supporting characters, including Burgerini the Magician, Count Fangburger the vampire (and his fang-punned family), Cackleburger the witch, Bugerilla the ape, and more.  These guys showed up as puzzles, mazes and other activities in the Fun Meal, a brightly illustrated box with kid-sized portions and a prize.  Sound familiar?

This was five years before the Happy Meal.

The focus on kids extended to promotions like this Halloween one…

…and this amazing Star Wars poster promotion.

So what happened? Well, basically, McDonald’s did it better. McDonaldland and the Happy Meal were much bigger swings than Burger Chef’s attempts, and bigger successes.  The chain tried to sue McDonald’s over the Happy Meal thing, but they lost.  Combine that with a sale in 1982 to Imasco, owner of Hardee’s, that converted many of Burger Chef’s locations into Hardee’s restaurants and the writing was on the wall.  The final Burger Chef location closed in 1996.

Rest in Peace, Chef and Jeff.  Here are some fantastic commercials for the chain.

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