As the late chef Anthony Bourdain once said, “If anything is good for pounding humility into you permanently, it’s the restaurant business.”
It’s tough to see the chains you grew up with fighting for their lives. Many have tried and failed to reinvent themselves. Others are just like you remember them, but you now wonder why you ever liked them in the first place.
Since 80% of restaurants close before their fifth anniversary according to an Ohio State University study, it's no surprise these 18 chains have been struggling despite their remarkable staying power.
Can they hang on through 2020?
1. Steak ’n Shake
Founder Gus Belt was so proud of his prime steak burgers that he wheeled in sirloins and T-bones and ground them in full view of his customers.
Now, his 85-year-old chain just can’t seem to shake whatever’s ailing it. A letter to shareholders in February of 2019 blamed poor kitchen design and outdated equipment for a $2.6 million loss the previous year.
“The effect has been high-cost, labor-intensive, slow service. We failed customers by not being fast and friendly,” the letter stated. More than 100 locations have temporarily closed as the company looks for franchisees to take them over.
If you want one of those nifty paper chef hats, you’d better hurry.
2. Perkins Restaurant & Bakery
Brothers Matt and Ivan Perkins went for the gold, quite literally, in Alaska in the 1950s. They were disappointed.
However, the bakery they opened did well. The first Perkins Pancake House, featuring a top-secret buttermilk recipe, opened in Cincinnati in 1958. The menu expanded along with the chain, which was rather awkwardly named Perkins Cake and Steak for a time.
Perkins now has 242 restaurants, but it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2019. Huddle House bought it in September for $51.5 million.
It’s all about convenience these days, and legacy family dining chains struggle to appease impatient consumers.
3. Marie Callender’s
Marie Callender could make a heck of a pie. She started delivering to restaurants in the early 1940s. Just a few years later, after investing in a truck and a mixer, she was turning out 200 pies a day.
Marie Callender’s Restaurant & Bakery, formerly a sister chain of Perkins, was not included in the Huddle House purchase. Nineteen locations closed as part of the bankruptcy restructuring.
The hope is that a baked goods company will buy the remaining 30 restaurants and the franchise rights to 20 or so more, to keep the chain alive. One of the closed locations has reopened under a new franchise owner.
So, you may not need to kiss your pie goodbye — at least not yet.
4. Howard Johnson’s
You can almost hear a chain's death rattle when the last location standing is erroneously reported as having closed. That happened two years ago.
If Yelp reviewers are to be believed, the Lake George, New York, restaurant is still clinging to life support.
HoJo’s iconic orange roof, weather vane, fried clams and 28 flavors of ice cream appealed to travelers. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were more than 1,000 roadside locations.
Howard Deering Johnson founded the former dynasty in 1925 when he opened a small pharmacy. Since the bulk of his business was in the soda fountain, he developed a richer ice cream that was exceedingly high in butterfat. Americans ate it up.
In 1972, the co-founders bought a former Kansas City haberdashery called Tom Houlihan’s Men’s Wear. The architect of the remodel named his project “Houlihan’s Old Place.” The name stuck.
Fans around the country have recently been dismayed to find their go-to happy hour spot abruptly shuttered.
With scratch-made menu items and competitive drink prices, Houlihan’s seems to be doing everything right. It even added a millennial-friendly “Veggie Good” section in 2019. Nonetheless, it is $50 million in debt.
CEO Mike Archer was noticeably terse after the Arlington, Texas, location closed in 2018, saying only that many factors were considered in the decision.
6. Baja Fresh Mexican Grill
This fast-casual chain known for its burritos, taquitos and self-serve salsa bar opened in 1990. When it was acquired by Wendy’s in 2002, there were close to 300 units in 21 states. The chain has steadily declined since locations began closing in 2004.
Baja Fresh often skips town suddenly and unceremoniously. No notice was posted of a recent closing in Arlington, Virginia, and a local reporter’s calls went unanswered.
The Baja Fresh website promotes eating well as “a way of life and a state of mind.” Apparently, there’s not a microwave, freezer or can opener in sight at any location.
7. Ground Round
“The place for families, friends and sports fans” was created as a Howard Johnson’s offshoot in 1969. Interestingly, Ground Round’s website makes no mention of HoJo’s.
There were more than 100 locations when the chain filed for bankruptcy in 2004, and almost half abruptly locked their doors.
A group of optimistic franchisees pooled their resources to try to make Ground Round great again, but stores continue to close without warning. Only 17 remain open today.
Ground Round chefs are wildly inventive. Curious menu choices include Reuben Egg Rolls and Bacon Chicken Mac & Cheese. Also, in this calorie-conscientious day and age, Ground Round still touts its generous portion sizes.
8. Tim Hortons
The chain co-founded by four-time Stanley Cup-winner Tim Horton opened in 1964. The original shop, formerly an old Esso location in Ontario, featured just two donut choices: Apple Fritter or Dutchie.
Waning popularity in the U.S. has led to a 17% decline in sales over the last four years. However, around 80% of Canadians eat at their beloved chain at least once a month.
That’s why almost half of Tim Hortons’ U.S. locations are within a stone’s throw of Canada. As expansion heads south from there, though, so do sales. More and more locations outside Detroit and Buffalo are closing.
9. HomeTown Buffet
A HomeTown Buffet by any other name is called Old Country Buffet, Country Buffet or Ryan’s Buffet. In any case, all three brands are disappearing faster than you can say all-you-can-eat.
The number of locations, once in the hundreds, has dwindled to 65. The chain filed for its third bankruptcy in 2016 after closing dozens of units.
Food Management Partners, the parent company, has been criticized for hanging its employees out to dry with surprise closings.
For example, the general manager of a 50-year-old location in Medford, Oregon, got a 7 a.m. text on the day her location was shuttered. It was her job to inform employees.
The trendy yogurt shop opened in tony West Hollywood in 2005. It became the spot to see and be seen by the likes of Charlize Theron, Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities. The yogurt was good, but that wasn’t the point.
Pinkberry eventually expanded to 21 countries, but only 139 U.S. locations remained in 2015. The company had high hopes for Las Vegas, but the chain never got off the ground there.
Pinkberry recently launched a special promotion to celebrate the third season of NBC’s popular series “The Good Place.” Frozen yogurt is prominent on the show. Whether that will revive the chain remains to be seen.
11. Ruby Tuesday
You’d hate to see this gem of a neighborhood hangout disappear. Ruby Tuesday was one of the first chains to freshen up the offerings and feature craft cocktails.
Nevertheless, its official location count of 460 units is down from almost 950 a decade ago.
Ruby Tuesday officials insist that the closings are part of a long-term growth strategy.
Susan Beth, chief operating officer of parent company NRD Capital, said recently, “We have a very strong belief that brand love and devotion is strong enough that if we can deliver on the basics — hot food hot, cold food cold, clean bathrooms and service with a smile — we can get them to love it again.”
Fans will have to hope she’s right.
12. Friendly’s Ice Cream & Restaurant
Over a single weekend in the spring of 2019, it was lights out for 23 Friendly’s locations. This is becoming a pattern. The declining chain has shuttered about a fourth of its restaurants over the last two years.
Friendly’s rebounded from a 2011 bankruptcy, but 2018 sales declined by more than 11%. A big part of the problem is that demographics have changed dramatically since Friendly’s first expanded to certain areas.
Time may be running out for a mouthwatering SuperMelt, but Friendly’s is to be commended for relocating its employees, offering severance pay or assisting them through the transition in some other way.
13. Checkers and Rally’s
Speaking of identity problems, these two are really the same drive-in chain. They have attracted a cult following, especially among low-income consumers, since the mid-'80s. Even so, more than a dozen units closed in spring of 2019.
Neither brand is expected to overcome sorry sales, rising rents, skyrocketing labor costs, heavy debt, disputes with franchisees or electronic data breaches.
Moreover, even decent burgers and rock-bottom prices don’t make up for health code violations. Several units have been closed temporarily or permanently for infractions.
A particularly horrific report on a Palm Bay, Florida, restaurant in May of 2019 is not for the faint of heart.
Nashville-based O’Charley’s isn’t divulging details, but it has closed at least 20 restaurants — including eight in one day — since 2016. Like other full-service bar and grill chains, it is struggling to generate traffic and sales.
The warm familiarity that O’Charley’s was founded on may be its undoing. Its classic American fare doesn’t have much to distinguish it from competitors, and millennials prefer trying a different indie restaurant or specialty cuisine every night.
Even more, they want to order food from their cellphones and have it delivered.
Also, neighborhood chains have traditionally depended on their proximity to malls, and e-commerce hasn’t done the malls any favors.
15. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews
Declining sales and rising labor costs are giving Red Robin fits as it continues to quietly shutter stores. Ten mall locations called it quits in 2019, and all five restaurants in Alberta, Canada, will close by year’s end.
The chain opened in the 1940s, and there’s still a lot to like about it. Get a Red Robin burger before it’s too late; the signature sandwich was a Zagat winner four years in a row.
The chain is famous for bottomless fries, but there are bottomless salads and veggies as well.
To its credit, Red Robin is an industry leader in green initiatives.
16. Tad’s Steaks
These were already rare, and they’re about to get rarer. Times Square will get a little darker when Tad’s garish neon sign is taken down in January 2020.
In its heyday, Tad’s had 28 locations in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Detroit and San Francisco. The cafeteria-style, meat-and-potatoes eatery has kept prices low since 1957, but the faux Tiffany lamps and red wallpaper are showing their age.
The West Coast location will be the last remaining.
Founder Donald Townsend described the flaming, hissing broiler visible through his front window as a “steak show", according to his 2000 obituary.
17. Del Frisco's Grille
Landry’s Inc. will wrap up acquisition of the chain, along with the higher-end Double Eagle Steakhouse, by October’s end 2019. At least four of the Grille’s locations will close shop in the meantime, leaving it with 16 units for now.
However, Tilman Fertitta of Landry’s typically keeps only the most robust locations open when he buys chains.
The Grille had an identity problem from the get-go. Customers didn’t realize that it was much more casual and competitively priced than Double Eagle. Signature steaks share a menu with burgers and flatbreads.
Apparently, that’s embarrassing to some first-timers who are trying to impress a date or make a 50th anniversary special.
18. Golden Corral
Golden Corral opened in 1973 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and had 500 restaurants by 1987. You can’t say it hasn’t tried to evolve with the times.
Concerns about red meat consumption prompted the company to sacrifice seating for salad bars. In the mid-2000s, it added “cooking theaters” so that guests could watch their food being prepared. A more contemporary design was launched in 2018.
A salmonella outbreak, a norovirus epidemic, and allegations of improper food storage have hurt Golden Corral in recent years.
Still, it has demonstrated greater resilience than many competitors. CEO Lance Trenary has instituted a 100-year plan — despite widespread closings.