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culture

Vintage Toronto Ads: Burger Chef’s Monstrous Opening

The second-largest American burger chain sets its sights on Toronto.

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As the 1960s drew to a close, Canada was ripe for an American fast food invasion. Even if demand for cheap burgers and fries had temporarily peaked, the Great White North offered plenty of territory for chains like McDonald’s and Burger King to expand. Among the invaders was Burger Chef, which seemed to have two ingredients of success: plenty of locations (over 1,000, putting it in second place behind the Golden Arches), and strong corporate backing from General Foods.

Burger Chef’s origins lay with General Restaurant Equipment, a milkshake machine manufacturer that Burger King approached to build one of its early broilers. Management saw potential in running their own fast food chain and launched Burger Chef in Indianapolis, in 1958. The chain attempted to break into the Toronto market with a Scarborough location on Eglinton Avenue in the early 1960s, but it appears to have vanished by the time new owner General Foods made a new push in early 1969. At that time, local advertising heavyweight McCann-Erickson was hired to promote Burger Chef, whose new locations were described as being “of the neighbourhood type.”

Company officials made no pretense that Burger Chef was going to revolutionize the local fast food landscape. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” vice-president C.C. Skinner told the Globe and Mail in 1970. “If there is something that other people can help us with, we will use it.” One possible source of help was the homegrown Harvey’s chain, which had considered the possibility of being taken over by General Foods earlier that year. After General Foods decided Harvey’s hamburgers were not a beautiful thing, Harvey’s management accused the food giant of dealing in bad faith and promptly cancelled a contract to buy General Foods–supplied coffee.

After an initial advertising blitz in 1970 (which offered dubiously-named giveaways like “Skin-Pix”), Burger Chef adopted a lower profile. After a large loss, expansion halted the following year. McDonald’s Canada president George Cohon admitted his chain had crippled Burger Chef’s sales. By the end of the 1970s, remaining Canadian Burger Chef locations were being converted into Crock ‘N Block restaurants. Stateside, the chain didn’t last much longer: after its purchase by Canadian tobacco giant Imasco in 1982, most remaining locations were converted into Hardee’s outlets.

Additional material from the February 26, 1969 and August 6, 1970 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the October 16, 1970 and May 24, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star.

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