Table of Contents
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) state that “Fast food is defined by a convenience food purchased in self-service or carry out eating venues without wait service.”  Fast food is easy food to pick up in a hurry, with a minimal wait time, which is why we call it “fast food.” Another term often used is “quick service restaurant” (QSR). Many people purchase fast food when they are traveling or not at home for work or pleasure purposes, but it is also common for people to purchase fast food for consumption at home to save time or energy.
Since time began, people have required sustenance and therefore need to eat. While eating home-cooked food at home has always been the better choice, there are many reasons why some choose not to eat at home. In some cases, nobody at home cooks well. In other cases, not much time is spent at home, and taking time to cook a meal is less desirable. This is especially common in larger families, for whom extracurricular activities can pull in many directions at once, making it difficult to find time at home to cook and eat food.
Restaurants have been an option that provided meals to hungry people for thousands of years, but until relatively recently, they were mostly sit-down restaurants to offer hot meals to travelers. In ancient times this food provision was usually inherent in inns or taverns, where people could get lodging and food. However, even in those times, vendors on the street had ready-to-eat options for people shopping in the market areas. This type of “fast food” has continued throughout the centuries and is still commonly found in many cities and towns as food trucks.
Eventually, the idea of a shop that is a permanent place that allows the owner always to have food ready for hungry people to eat prompted the opening of a shop selling fish and chips in Oldham, England, at Tommyfield Market. It is assumed to have been the first one of its type in the world, though there is no way to be certain of that as a fact. It was near the same time that Joseph Malin opened a shop in London on Cleveland Street, and which of these two establishments was first is the subject of some debate. Naturally, each location is sure that it was the first; it is possible that either was the first, but it could also be that both were opened simultaneously.
In the late 1800s, Germany developed automats – a vending machine restaurant. Horn and Hardart brought these to Philadelphia in 1902, becoming fairly widespread before the last one in New York closed in 1991.
The dates given for founding some of the most well-known fast food restaurants may be surprising. For example, the earliest chain on record, founded in June 1919 by Roy Allen and Frank Wright, was A&W.  While it started offering only the iconic root beer, the company expanded into food by 1923. Two years later, in 1921, White Castle opened the first restaurant offering fast food (as A&W was still only selling liquids), followed by KFC in 1930. McDonald’s was the fourth chain on the list, as it was not founded until 1940. Many different chains have been added both during that time and after, and there are now hundreds of thousands of fast-food restaurants globally.
Ancient times to 1900 
The ancient Romans had street vendors that provided food that was ready to eat with no waiting. This would probably be considered the earliest fast food, though it was not called “fast food” at the time (especially since the ancient Romans did not speak English). These foods included wine-soaked bread, stews, and cooked vegetables.
In the Middle Ages, street vendors included foods like pies and pasties (a sort of meat hand-pie), waffles and wafers, flans, pancakes, and other cooked meats and pastries. These were often purchased by those who did not have food preparation options at home; however, one might imagine that convenience may have led others to purchase them. It is likely that travelers were the primary patrons of these food sellers.
This type of street food sales continued throughout the centuries until the latter half of the 1800s and beyond; however, the arguably first shop selling ready-to-eat food opened in 1860 (the aforementioned fish and chips shop). A little over two decades later, in 1896, automats were invented in Berlin by Max Sielaff; these were vending machines providing simple foods and beverages.
1900 to 2021
1902 saw the first automat opened in Philadelphia by Joseph Horn and James Hardart. One of these machines is now owned by the National Museum of American History.  It would likely have been opened earlier had the original order of the machines not been lost in the Atlantic in a shipwreck.  The first automat in New York was originally on Fifty-Seventh Street and Sixth Avenue.  It was opened in 1912. These machines offered sandwiches, plates of food, and drinks in separate cubbies housed behind glass doors that could be opened by inserting the proper coins, much like current vending machines. These did a good business, and more were placed over the next several years, with more than 100 automats placed before they began to go out of favor in the 1970s. The last one was closed in 1991.
In 1916 on Coney Island, New York, a hot dog stand was opened by Nathan Handwerker. Though he was originally a shoemaker, his Nathan’s Famous hot dogs did, indeed, become famous and are still sold today. Before opening his stand, Nathan worked for Charles Feltman, the original hot dog hawker at Coney Island. When Nathan opened his own stand, he sold his dogs for 5 cents less than Feltman was asking, resulting in his business taking over the market. Nathan’s Famous hot dogs are now well known nationwide, and the company still has an annual hot dog eating contest at the corner of Surf and Stillwell.
Widely considered the “first fast food chain,” White Castle entered the scene in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, founded by Walter A. Anderson and Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram. The headquarters were moved to Columbus, Ohio, in 1933, where they remain. Interestingly, there is no longer a White Castle restaurant in Kansas; the last one closed in 1938. However, hundreds of restaurants owned by White Castle operate in 11 other states, and frozen burgers of the White Castle brand are available across the United States. In 1930, a student at the University of Minnesota named Bernard Flesche did a nutritional study of White Castle hamburgers by eating only them and drinking only water for 13 weeks; in the end, he was examined and found to be in top physical health. 
The ever-popular McDonald’s was founded by Richard and Maurice McDonald in 1948 but was originally a provider of Bar-B-Que sandwiches. Over time, the brothers noted that much of their business was hamburgers and chose to focus on that sandwich. They created an assembly line to provide hamburgers and French fries to customers quickly. They named it the “Speedee Service System.” Ray Kroc joined them in 1955 and bought them out in 1961.
Kentucky Fried Chicken joined the fray in 1952 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Colonel Harland Sanders sold franchises, and now there are nearly 4,000 restaurants throughout the USA and many more around the world. The two secrets of KFC chicken are the blend of herbs and spices and the use of a pressure cooker in frying the chicken.  These continue to be used more than six decades later. It was one of the first competitors offering something other than hamburgers. By 2021, KFC had over 24,000 locations around the world.
In 1954, the first Insta-Burger King restaurant was opened in Miami, Florida. A later situation resulted in the chain being purchased by James McLamore and David R. Edgerton, Jr, who renamed it to the title it currently holds: Burger King. In 2021, Burger King will serve more than 11 million people worldwide daily. The Home of the Whopper is the second largest hamburger-serving fast food chain worldwide.
John Galardi started the Der Wienerschnitzel hot dog stand in 1961 in Newport Beach, California. He was convinced to do so by the manager of El Taco, where he worked, whose name was Glen Bell. He also invested in the business. In 1977, they removed the “Der” from the stand’s name, which sold (and still sells) hot dogs, corn dogs, and chili dogs.  They also have soft serve treats called Tastee Freez.
Also, in 1961, the Monaghan brothers, Tom and James, purchased a pizza store in Ypsilanti, Michigan, known as “Dominick’s.” Tom bought out James’ share later in the year. Dominick DiVarti – the original owner – refused to allow the name to be used in new stores, so Tom needed to change the name. He chose a simple similar word: Domino’s. There are now hundreds of locations worldwide, in nearly 100 countries.
A sandwich shop opened in 1965 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, named Pete’s Super Submarines. It was founded by Fred DeLuca, who was only 17 years old. He received $1,000 in startup capital from Peter Buck. Two years later, the restaurant was renamed Subway. Their long-lasting core principles and values are: 
- Always provide exceptional service to valued guests.
- Provide the highest quality menu items at a price everyone can afford and enjoy.
- Keep operating costs low and ensure great systems are in place; never stop improving.
Subway has expanded around the globe and now has over 40,000 restaurants offering affordable, nutritious meals quickly.
Many other fast food restaurant chains, along with regional and individual restaurants, have been opened and have spread globally in the years since, as fast food has become much more common. Some of these include Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., Krystal, Bojangles, In-N-Out Burger, Whataburger, Zaxby’s, Raising Cane’s, Jack in the Box, and Little Caesar’s Pizza, Chick-fil-A, and many, many more.
Types and Variations
Types of food offered by fast food restaurants vary wildly, but some standard fare is most often provided. These include hamburgers and fries, pizza, tacos and burritos, chicken, hot dogs, breakfast items including pancakes and biscuits, and various other sandwiches, along with beverages such as soft drinks, coffee, tea, and milkshakes.
Street food, a type of fast food, is often sold from food trucks, sidewalk stands, or trolleys rather than brick and mortar stores. These include a variety of foods, from hot dogs to soups and noodles to sweets like cotton candy and funnel cakes. These are more often found in large cities than smaller towns and villages.
Fast food has become common in many nations around the globe as not only have major chains expanded, but local people see the potential and open their own establishments. Restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, Starbucks, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and Dairy Queen have locations worldwide. In many cases, the chains examine the local cuisine and adjust their menu to include local favorites separately or as a part of their regular menu.
The downside of fast food is its nutritional profile. Because it is largely made of processed foods, its ingredients and cooking methods can result in health problems in many people who make it a large part of their regular diet.
Obesity has increased dramatically over the last 50 years in America, with 71% or more of Americans meeting the criteria to be labeled overweight or obese (as compared to 66% in 2017).  This is based on a BMI (body mass index) over 25 kg/m2. A study of 200 adults (ages 18-60) implied that those who ate fast food more often ingested more empty calories and had a poorer quality diet overall, generally resulting in greater body weight.  A study of Michigan adults discovered a definite link between fast food consumption and obesity. 
Most fast foods are high in calories due to sugar and fats. They also tend to be high in sodium. Even the small combo meals often top 1500 calories when paired with a soft drink.  It is possible to make healthy choices when eating fast food, but many people do not make those choices, preferring to enjoy the standard hamburger-fries-and-drink meal.
However, because of the mostly sedentary lifestyle of many people – especially Americans – and the less-than-healthy nature of most fast food, many people who primarily subsist on fast food find themselves at higher risk of such things as heart attacks and strokes. 
This can be a big problem because of the number of people who consume it. Since over a third of American adults eat fast food daily, over 84 million adults potentially risk their health.
The data shows that the younger people are, the more likely they eat fast food. People between 20-39 eat it most often, since nearly half of them (44.9%) eat fast food almost daily. From 40-59, just over a third (37.7%) eat out daily, while of the people over 60, not even a quarter do (24.1%). 
The same data shows that fewer women than men indulge, with 38% of fast food consumers being men and only 35.4% being women.
Reasons for Eating Fast Food
- It is Cheap.
The cost is lower than fancier restaurants. Because it is less expensive than most sit-down restaurants, about a third of those who are pressed for time or are unmotivated to cook are more likely to choose fast food (about 32%). At the same time, fast food is quite a bit more costly than home cooking, so the stereotype that low-income people eat fast food because it costs less is made up rather than extrapolated from data; more people with high incomes consume food at quick service restaurants.
- It is Easy.
Over 800,000 restaurants serve fast food, making it convenient, especially for a quick lunch. In fact, of the four meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner/supper, and snack), lunch is the meal most often consumed in fast food (43.7%), followed closely by dinner/supper (42%). Breakfast and snacks are almost even, with 22.7% being breakfast meals while 22.6% are snacks.
- It is Fast.
People are busy, and there is always something going on; this means that people appreciate quick food that can be eaten on the road or without much wait time.
- It is Good Tasting.
Fast food’s fat, salt, and sugar make it taste good. It may not be the healthiest food that can be eaten, but it is delicious and satisfying.
Naturally, the main reason that fast food chains continue to work to grow their enterprises of selling food is to gain revenue. Some are more successful than others, but it is rare for a fast food company not to make a profit. The quantity of locations of a chain usually relates to its income for obvious reasons: the more locations bringing in money, the more income a company receives.
The overall revenue received by fast food restaurants is estimated to be about $570 billion worldwide, with about $200 billion being in the United States of America.
The top ten fast food chains that earned the most annually in the USA in 2019 were McDonald’s, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Taco Bell, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, Dunkin’, Domino’s, and Panera Bread, in that order.  The total revenue of these ten together equals $136.3 billion for the year.
The fast food market by type of food, or product type, shows that Asian and Latin American food tends to be the most often purchased, followed by burgers and sandwiches, then chicken, then pizza, then seafood which is pretty much tied with everything else. 
Based on the marketing, the target consumers appear to be primarily children and young adults. However, many fast food restaurants are beginning to expand their advertising toward people who desire healthier intake. Unfortunately, it has not yet made the intended difference, probably because the amount spent on marketing unhealthy choices to children still eclipses the amount spent on marketing healthier choices. 
Some fast-food companies own all of the restaurants that bear their name, but most deal in franchises. This is a situation where an individual or group leases the rights to use the name and menu, but technically owns the facility themselves. Some of the most popular restaurants that are not franchised (or are not all franchises) include Starbucks (of which about 40% are franchises), White Castle, In-N-Out Burger, and Panda Express (which has only 47 franchise stores).
As of 2018, the leading U.S.-based franchises (based on global sales) were McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Subway, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, and Dunkin’ Donuts, in that order. 
Owning a franchise is a major investment. The requirements to buy one vary among restaurants, ranging from $30,000 to more than $1 million, and most require a commitment of a certain amount of time or a certain quantity of stores. Owning a franchise also requires a lot of time. Most franchise owners spend many hours a week ensuring things are being handled properly in their new enterprise and protecting their financial investment.
Franchises are a turnkey format. This means owners can begin making a profit immediately because the layout, products, and even the prices are preset and the business can be easily set up. Marketing is usually handled largely by the parent company, making advertising virtually unnecessary for the new business. The new owner manages the location, and receives a portion of the profits, but is not required to make many big decisions that independent owners need to consider. However, at the same time, the parent company’s reputation is at stake, so there are regulations to prevent the smirching of the company’s name.
Many people begin their employment years with a job in fast food. These jobs are always available and are likely to be as long as fast food exists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2020 over 3 million American people were employed in the fast food industry with a mean hourly wage of $11.80 (actual wages range from $7.25 to $17). 
According to the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), in 1984, twice as many American females as males worked in fast food employment, and 70% of the employees were between 16-20 years old.  By 2018, the division between men and women had become smaller, with only over 51% of employees being female, with the average age at 27 years old.  Additionally, pay is equal between men and women in the fast food industry. In 2017, over 12,000,000 people were employed in fast food, globally. 
In November 2021, a group of Burgerville employees unionized, intending to form the only legally recognized fast food union in the United States.  This affects about 100 employees and five locations of the chain. The group was formed by employees who desired better wages and hours. The final vote was scheduled for December 2021.
Some restaurants use an assembly line style of service. Examples of this are Chipotle and Subway. These allow customers to directly relate their wishes to the person making their food, resulting in higher satisfaction and fewer mistakes.  When the customer is watching, the worker can be stopped before making an error by the customer, preventing food waste. This style also allows for better customization of dishes that is usually finished in a much shorter time frame than a special order when the server has to relay the order to a chef who did not hear it directly.
Growth & Changes
The global market for fast food has expanded over the last several decades. For example, in China, fast-food restaurants grew from one KFC in 1987 to over two million fast-food restaurants by 2013 and have continued to increase by about 13% per year since then. In countries other than the United States, fast food restaurants often have different fares than is offered in the USA, as they add more common food in the areas where they are located. 
For instance, India’s Taco Bell offers dishes that use paneer, the local cheese, while McDonald’s has local options in restaurants in over 100 countries around the world, including the McKroket (using a fried beef croquette instead of a hamburger) in Germany, the Le P’tit Moutarde (mustard-sauce laden small burger) in France, the Greek Mac (on pita bread) in Greece, and more. Side dishes are also customized for the market, resulting in other countries choosing fresh vegetables, roots, shoots, rice, and other ingredients to replace some of the more American side dishes. However, these restaurants still offer iconic dishes and are still very recognizable even in other locations.
This adaptation has coined a new term: “glocalization.”  The United States of America does not have one particular national cuisine; “American food” usually refers to things like hamburgers and fries, hot dogs, and other relatively generic foods. However, this means that it can better adapt to the spices and tastes of other countries where the cuisine is more specifically defined. The term began in Japan but has spread throughout the industry and into other business circles that expanded worldwide.
This idea made Western restaurants more acceptable in other countries, even initially resistant ones. France, for instance, is very concerned about food and meals are experiences. Fast food does not meet those criteria; however, McDonald’s “glocalized” and added the phrase “Born in the USA. Made in France.” This encouraged the French people to partake, after the American chain changed the interior and some of the menu to suit the tastes of the French.
Similarly, Western restaurants in China are careful to keep things clean and neat. They also marketed more to the children and their parents since the country’s one-child policy tends to focus attention on the children. KFC introduced a mascot named “Chicky” that attends birthday parties for children at their locations.
Upgraded technology such as programmable menus and drive-thru screens have improved the customer experience at many quick-service restaurants. The newest additional technological feature of self-service kiosks in many locations has met with mixed reactions from customers; however, the resulting service can be more efficient if handled properly by the employees. The kiosks also offer more information, such as nutrition facts, for people to use to aid their selections.
The businesses look at automation as a help to the bottom line. Because employee turnover is notoriously high in fast food establishments, keeping enough employees while regularly training new ones can be more expensive than a restaurant is comfortable paying. Therefore, adding automation such as kiosks can reduce the quantity of workers required to keep the restaurant working efficiently while also reducing the overhead in the realm of wages and benefits. While this does mean fewer jobs for the general public, it also means that prices stay lower while the restaurant still maintains a reasonable profit on top of operating costs. 
Other changes include portion sizes – entrees increased 124% and desserts increased 171% from 1986 to 2016 – and the addition of delivery via such companies as DoorDash, Uber Eats, and others. 
Interesting Facts About Fast Food & Fast Food Restaurants
- About a third of Americans eat fast food each day. This is mostly people between 20-39 years old, and more men than women.
- About 10% of the income of the average American household annually is spent on fast food.
- More fast food is eaten at lunchtime than other meals.
- The consumption of fast food is increasing yearly by about 2.2%.
- A fast-food combo meal averages around 1300 calories.
- There are healthy choices available at most fast food restaurants.
- Nutrition facts are available on most fast-food chains’ websites and sometimes on their menus at the restaurant.
- Fast-food meals have been increasing in calories and sodium over the years. 
- Fast food restaurants spent $5 billion on advertising in 2019. 
- Wendy’s was named for Melinda Lou Thomas, Dave Thomas’s daughter, whose nickname was “Wendy.” 
- Dairy Queen coined the term “scrumpdillyicious” to refer to their ice cream.
- Back Yard Burger was founded in 1987 by a former owner of a Burger King franchise because he felt his product would be better.
- Chick-fil-A is never open on Sunday because of the owner’s religious beliefs.
- The fast food chain whose company’s founder featured in the most TV commercials (according to the Guinness Book of World Records) was Wendy’s. Dave Thomas starred in 652 advertisements.
- KFC’s “Finger-lickin’ good” translates in Chinese to something like “Eat your fingers off.”
- McDonald’s is both the biggest and richest franchise in the world. It has more than 33,000 locations around the world. 
- Domino’s is the largest pizza franchise in the USA. It brings in over $12 billion annually. It has almost 16,000 locations around the globe.
- Buying a fast food restaurant franchise can require more than a million dollars in liquid assets. The exact amount depends on the franchise.
- 28% of Americans eat fast food at least once a week, while 16% go several times a week. 
- In 2019, America’s favorite fast food chain, based on customer satisfaction, was Chick-fil-A. 
- One woman set a McDonald’s burger and fries aside in a shoe box, and 24 years later, it looked almost exactly the same. It is unclear why it did not rot or mold. 
- Japan has a Christmas tradition of eating KFC. This began in 1974 when KFC began marketing a “Kentucky for Christmas” dinner, Party Barrel. Since then, it has been a tradition in Japan and many other places worldwide. 
- A study indicated that women who eat fast food regularly had more difficulty conceiving than those who do not. Choosing healthier choices when eating away from home can make a big difference to those who desire to conceive. 
- In other countries, knockoffs of major chains can be found, such as AFC in Africa (“Africa Fried Chicken”) and its neighbor McDrive, which sports golden arches. 
- The famous golden arches of McDonald’s were created in 1968. The original buildings were flanked by single arches; when that building architecture was retired, the double-arch M was created and has since become world-renowned. 
- In 2003, the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act was presented because of people suing fast food establishments after overeating, resulting in weight gain and health problems. 
- National Fast Food Day was declared to be November 16, 2021, on a page on census.gov posted on October 29, 2021. 
- After the covid pandemic began, fast food establishments suffered due to a loss of employees. In October 2021, there were nearly 800,000 fewer workers than in February 2020. 
- The top spot for frequent patronage of fast food belongs to Hong Kong. 
- In 2021, Arby’s branched out into a different field with the release of Curly Fry and Crinkle Fry Vodka. These flavored spirits are made from potato vodka made with high-quality real ingredients. 
- Fast food has inspired various clothing, from hoodies and tees to Christmas sweaters, pajamas, and even sneakers.  Many are seasonal; most of the seasonal options are meant for Christmas, but a couple is more suited to the summer holidays.
- Many fast food restaurants have “secret menus” – options not listed on the official menu but are asked for often enough that the employees know how to make them based on a certain title given to the dish. For example, Dairy Queen can make a Coffee Blizzard if requested, though it is not on the menu, and McDonald’s can make a grilled cheese sandwich. 
- President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, including a section requiring restaurants to provide calorie counts for menu items. This included fast food restaurants. Whether this had any appreciable effect on consumer choices is debatable.
- A study showed that collectible toys encouraged children to view the related food as more desirable than food without a toy or a toy that was not part of a set. The children chose the meal with a collectible toy even when that meal was healthy food, and the other option was standard fast food. 
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 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/02/insider/fast-food-kfc-ghana-africa.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fafrica “The Global Siren Call of Fast Food” The New York Times, October 2, 2017.
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 https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-108hhrg87814/html/CHRG-108hhrg87814.htm Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act hearing transcript, June 19, 2003.
 https://www.census.gov/newsroom/stories/fast-food-day.html “National Fast Food Day: November 16, 2021” United States Census Bureau, October 29, 2021.
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 https://people.com/food/fast-food-inspired-apparel/ “This Food-Inspired Apparel Lets Anyone Wear Their Appetite on Their Sleeve” People, November 14, 2021.
 https://www.eatthis.com/fast-food-secret-menu/ “30 Secret Menu Items at Every Fast Food Chain” Eat This, Not That! December 12, 2017.
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