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5 Outdated Burger Chains Attempting to Make a Comeback

But can they really win us over again?
FACT CHECKED BY Mura Dominko

While the burger itself has remained fairly consistent throughout its lifetime, the chains that serve the ubiquitous staple have had to evolve to keep customers satisfied. Innovation and change are never easy, and the pandemic has taught restaurants that they need to roll with the punches if they're going to survive. 

These former burger barons have shown us that stagnation can happen to even the biggest chains if they fail to keep up with changing customer attitudes and environments. Fortunately for them, a comeback may still be on the horizon. 

But will these former fast-food giants be able to recover from their current lull into mediocrity? Here are some of the once-popular burger destinations that have had a hard time keeping up with the ever-shifting restaurant industry.

And don't miss This Once Bankrupt Brand of Grill Restaurants Is Making a Huge Comeback.

1

Friendly's

friendlys
Shutterstock

Friendly's was founded in 1935 in Springfield, Mass. Specializing in mostly burgers and shakes, the chain embraced the pre-war neighborhood diner atmosphere and was a beloved nostalgia-inducing American institution.

Unfortunately, Friendly's clung to a dated design without plans for improvement. It struggled during the pandemic without delivery or curbside options. Prior to that, it also faced trouble during the economic recession, high ice cream prices, and customer complaints regarding food consistency.

After several challenging years, Friendly's finally declared bankruptcy in 2020. However, the company managed to keep the doors open at all 130 locations thanks to a buyout from Amici Partners Group, which operates Red Mango, Smoothie Factory, and several other chains.

In 2021, Friendly's started plotting its comeback by revitalizing the menu with new burgers and trending salad options. It even co-branded several locations with Smoothie Factory—the restaurants now offer both brands in one place.

Currently, Friendly's is still working toward reinvigorating the brand. The efforts will include a new advertising campaign, frequent menu innovation, and a new offshoot called Friendly's Cafe, which will serve the chain's beloved items in a more modern fast-casual environment.

2

Krystal

krystal
Shutterstock

Southern fast-food giant Krystal fell on hard times in 2020, causing it to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Due to the pandemic, the slider chain's sales are down 11% since 2019.

"The actions we are taking are intended to enable Krystal to establish a stronger business for the future and to achieve a restructuring in a fast and efficient manner," the company said about the bankruptcy.

Having served the same small square hamburgers since the depression, it became clear the chain could use some revitalizing. Krystal has been attempting to update its image with upgrades to the menu, by launching chicken sandwich upgrades, new breakfast items, and new and improved fries.

The company has also modernized its operations with a smaller, more efficient restaurant design and improved its drive-thru functionality. 

3

Steak 'n Shake

steak-n-shake storefront
Shutterstock

Ninety-year-old Steak 'n Shake has been struggling with stiff burger competition for decades. Last year, the chain was inching closer to bankruptcy before suddenly paying off its loan just weeks before it was due. Directly after, the chain sued its lender, Fortress Investment Group, claiming the company schemed to gain control of its assets during that time.

Steak 'n Shake's outlook was bleak leading up to its legal woes. According to Restaurant Dive, CEO Sardar Biglari admitted in an annual shareholder letter in 2019 that "there are no assurances that Steak 'n Shake will be able to restore profitability."

Grim as the burger chain's future was at the time, there were many problems piling up outside of its outstanding loans.

Customers cited a decline in the quality of service and food, starting as far back in 2008 when management changed. Long wait times were also causing issues for the company, which was suffering from an identity crisis on whether it even wanted to be a fast-food establishment. The chain still offered table service and was starting to fail on both fronts, according to diners.

To fix these issues, the company recently started on a path of "radical transformation," according to chairman Sardar Biglari. The chain upgraded its restaurants to an advanced self-service model, doing away with servers and installing order kiosks

In addition, the chain cut superfluous elements from the menu, like breakfast items and chicken sandwiches to further streamline service. While keeping its traditional menu staples cheap (an original double Steakburger with cheese and fries still costs $3.99 as it did in 1997) and paying employees more, Steak 'n Shake hopes to refresh its image with the best of both worlds. 

4

Fuddruckers

fuddruckers
Jason R. / Yelp

For a moment, it seemed like even the "World's Greatest Hamburgers" weren't enough to save Fuddruckers from extinction.

The chain's parent company Luby's was hit hard during the pandemic. The Texas-based cafeteria chain was in the middle of its liquidation proceedings when Black Titan Franchise Systems swooped in and bought Fuddruckers right before the ship went down. Thanks to the buyout, Fuddruckers lived to see another day.

The chain has been focusing on revitalizing its footprint. This year it announced plans to expand in ten new shopping malls nationwide, including a location in Fresno, with a ghost kitchen intended to capture more delivery and to-go orders.

It has also undergone some menu changes, introducing new plant-based offerings. While the chain is still working to get its legs under it, the comeback is underway.

5

A&W

a&w
Ken Wolter / Shutterstock

In the early 1970s, A&W had more locations than McDonald's. The all-American fast-food chain was known for serving customers with frosty mugs of A&W Root Beer and possibly the first bacon cheeseburgers in the industry.

The company changed faces many times over the years. Going from a beverage stand to a family restaurant, to finally being acquired by major fast-food player Yum! Brands in 2002. During its tenure with Yum! it was co-branded with KFC, Long John Silver's, and Taco Bell fast-food locations, which, along with growing competition in the burger arena, caused it to lose its identity.

Coupled with some poor marketing decisions (including selling third-pound burgers to customers who may have been less mathematically savvy than expected) the brand began to struggle.

However, when Yum! Brands finally decided to sell off both A&W and Long John Silver's in 2011 due to poor sales, the chain started to improve sales as franchisees took back control.

In 2013, A&W began innovating the menu again and also started hand-breading its chicken tenders and improving quality across the board. The chain's same-store sales have steadily increased, with a 9.2% growth in 2020, and 70 new restaurants opened in the ten years since, according to QSR Magazine

Kevin Klein, chairman of the National A&W Franchisee Association, told QSR the brand got "kind of lost there" operating under YUM! Brands and dealing with co-brands splitting locations. "We were kind of second fiddle in those things and lost some control," he said.

Amber Lake
Amber Lake is a staff writer at Eat This, Not That! and has a degree in journalism from UNF in Jacksonville, Florida. Read more