In 1896, the first self-service restaurant (the "Stollwerck-Automatenrestaurant") opened in Berlin's Leipziger Straße.
Some trace the modern history of fast food in the United States to 7 July 1912, with the opening of a fast food restaurant called the Automat in New York. The Automat was a cafeteria with its prepared foods behind small glass windows and coin-operated slots. Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart had already opened the first Horn & Hardart Automat in Philadelphia in 1902, but their "Automat" at Broadway and 13th Street, in New York City, created a sensation. Numerous Automat restaurants were built around the country to deal with the demand. Automats remained extremely popular throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The company also popularized the notion of "take-out" food, with their slogan "Less work for Mother".
Most historians agree that the American company White Castle was the first fast food outlet, starting in Wichita, Kansas in 1916 with food stands and founding in 1921, selling hamburgers for five cents apiece from its inception and spawning numerous competitors and emulators. What is certain, however, is that White Castle made the first significant effort to standardize the food production in, look of, and operation of fast food hamburger restaurants. William Ingram's and Walter Anderson's White Castle System created the first fast food supply chain to provide meat, buns, paper goods, and other supplies to their restaurants, pioneered the concept of the multi-state hamburger restaurant chain, standardized the look and construction of the restaurants themselves, and even developed a construction division that manufactured and built the chain's prefabricated restaurant buildings. The McDonald's Speedee Service System and, much later, Ray Kroc's McDonald's outlets and Hamburger University all built on principles, systems and practices that White Castle had already established between 1923 and 1932.
Arguably, the first fast food restaurants originated in the United States with White Castle in 1921. Today, American-founded fast food chains such as McDonald's (est. 1940) and KFC (est. 1952) are multinational corporations with outlets across the globe.
Many fast food operations have more local and regional roots, such as White Castle in the Midwest United States, along with Hardee's (owned by CKE Restaurants, which also owns Carl's Jr., whose locations are primarily on the United States West Coast); Krystal, Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits, Cook Out, and Zaxby's restaurants in the American Southeast; Raising Cane's in Louisiana and other mostly Southern states; Hot 'n Now in Michigan and Wisconsin; In-N-Out Burger (in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Texas, with a few locations in Oregon) and Original Tommy's chains in Southern California; Dick's Drive-In in Seattle, Washington and Arctic Circle in Utah and other western states; Halo Burger around Flint, Michigan and Burgerville in the Portland, Oregon area. Also, Whataburger is a popular burger chain in the American South, and Jack in the Box is located in the West and South. Canada pizza chains Topper's Pizza and Pizza Pizza are primarily located in Ontario. Coffee chain Country Style operates only in Ontario, and competes with the famous coffee and donut chain Tim Hortons. Maid-Rite restaurant is one of the oldest chain fast food restaurants in the United States. Founded in 1926, their specialty is a loose meat hamburger. Maid-Rites can be found in the midwest - mainly Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Missouri.
The hamburger restaurant most associated by the public with the term "fast food" was created by two brothers originally from Nashua, New Hampshire. Richard and Maurice McDonald opened a barbecue drive-in in 1940 in the city of San Bernardino, California. After discovering that most of their profits came from hamburgers, the brothers closed their restaurant for three months and reopened it in 1948 as a walk-up stand offering a simple menu of hamburgers, french fries, shakes, coffee, and Coca-Cola, served in disposable paper wrapping. As a result, they could produce hamburgers and fries constantly, without waiting for customer orders, and could serve them immediately; hamburgers cost 15 cents, about half the price at a typical diner. Their streamlined production method, which they named the "Speedee Service System" was influenced by the production line innovations of Henry Ford.
A fast food restaurant, also known as a quick service restaurant (QSR) within the industry, is a specific type of restaurant that serves fast food cuisine and has minimal table service. The food served in fast food restaurants is typically part of a "meat-sweet diet", offered from a limited menu, cooked in bulk in advance and kept hot, finished and packaged to order, and usually available for take away, though seating may be provided. Fast food restaurants are typically part of a restaurant chain or franchise operation that provides standardized ingredients and/or partially prepared foods and supplies to each restaurant through controlled supply channels. The term "fast food" was recognized in a dictionary by Merriam–Webster in 1951.
At roughly the same time as Kroc was conceiving what eventually became McDonald's Corporation, two Miami, Florida businessmen, James McLamore and David Edgerton, opened a franchise of the predecessor to what is now the international fast food restaurant chain Burger King. McLamore had visited the original McDonald's hamburger stand belonging to the McDonald brothers; sensing potential in their innovative assembly line-based production system, he decided he wanted to open a similar operation of his own. The two partners eventually decided to invest their money in Jacksonville, Florida-based Insta-Burger King. Originally opened in 1953, the founders and owners of the chain, Kieth G. Kramer and his wife's uncle Matthew Burns, opened their first stores around a piece of equipment known as the Insta-Broiler. The Insta-Broiler oven proved so successful at cooking burgers, they required all of their franchises to carry the device. By 1959 McLamore and Edgarton were operating several locations within the Miami-Dade area and were growing at a fast clip. Despite the success of their operation, the partners discovered that the design of the insta-broiler made the unit's heating elements prone to degradation from the drippings of the beef patties. The pair eventually created a mechanized gas grill that avoided the problems by changing the way the meat patties were cooked in the unit. After the original company began to falter in 1959, it was purchased by McLamore and Edgerton who renamed the company Burger King.
McDonald's, a fast food supplier, opened its first franchised restaurant in the US in 1955 (1974 in the UK). It has become a phenomenally successful enterprise in terms of financial growth, brand-name recognition, and worldwide expansion. Ray Kroc, who bought the franchising license from the McDonald brothers, pioneered concepts which emphasized standardization. He introduced uniform products, identical in all respects at each outlet, to increase sales. Kroc also insisted on cutting food costs as much as possible, eventually using the McDonald's Corporation's size to force suppliers to conform to this ethos.
Australia's fast food market began in 1968, with the opening of several American franchises including McDonald's and KFC. Pizza Hut was introduced in April 1970, and Burger King followed. However, the Burger King market found that this name was already a registered trademark to a takeaway food shop in Adelaide. Thus, the Burger King Australian market was forced to pick another name, selecting the Hungry Jack's brand name. Prior to this, the Australian fast food market consisted primarily of privately owned take-away shops.
In the United States, consumers spent about US$110 billion on fast food in 2000 (which increased from $6 billion in 1970). The National Restaurant Association forecasts that fast food restaurants in the US will reach $142 billion in sales in 2006, a 5% increase over 2005. In comparison, the full-service restaurant segment of the food industry is expected to generate $173 billion in sales. Fast food has been losing market share to so-called fast casual restaurants, which offer more robust and expensive cuisines.
However, brands like Wimpy still remain, although the majority of branches became Burger King in 1989.
In September and October 2000, during the Starlink corn recalls, up to $50 million worth of corn-based foods were recalled from restaurants as well as supermarkets. The products contained Starlink genetically modified corn that was not approved for human consumption. It was the first-ever recall of a genetically modified food. The environmental group Friends of the Earth that had first detected the contaminated shells was critical of the FDA for not doing its own job.
In August 2002, a group of overweight children in New York City filed a class-action lawsuit against McDonald's Corporation seeking compensation for obesity-related health problems, improved nutritional labeling of McDonald's products, and funding for a program to educate consumers about the dangers of fast food. This provoked an intense, mostly negative response in the media with columnists calling this case a "cartoon of a lawsuit". Also suggesting the lawyers were poisoned to "get fat" off McDonald's.
In 2003, McDonald's was sued in a New York court by a family who claimed that the restaurant chain was responsible for their teenage daughter's obesity and attendant health problems. By manipulating food's taste, sugar and fat content, and directing their advertising to children, the suit argued that the company purposely misleads the public about the nutritional value of its product. A judge dismissed the case, but the fast food industry disliked the publicity of its practices, particularly the way it targets children in its advertising. Although further lawsuits have not materialized, the issue is kept alive in the media and political circles by those promoting the need for tort reform.
In response to this, the "Cheeseburger Bill" was passed by the US House of Representatives in 2004; it later stalled in the US Senate. The law was reintroduced in 2005, only to meet the same fate. This law was claimed to "[ban] frivolous lawsuits against producers and sellers of food and non-alcoholic drinks arising from obesity claims." The bill arose because of an increase in lawsuits against fast food chains by people who claimed that eating their products made them obese, disassociating themselves from any of the blame.
The fast food industry is popular in the United States, the source of most of its innovation, and many major international chains are based there. Seen as symbols of US dominance and perceived cultural imperialism, American fast food franchises have often been the target of Anti-globalization protests and demonstrations against the US government. In 2005, for example, rioters in Karachi, Pakistan, who were initially angered because of the bombing of a Shiite mosque, destroyed a KFC restaurant.
For the most part, someone visiting a McDonald's in the United States will have the same experience as someone visiting a McDonald's in Japan. The interior design, the menu, the speed of service, and the taste of the food will all be very similar. However, some differences do exist to tailor to particular cultural differences. For example, in October 2005 during a midst of plummeting sales in Japan, McDonald's added a shrimp burger to the Japanese menu. The choice to introduce a shrimp burger was no coincidence, as a 1989 study stated that world consumption of shrimp was "led by Japan."
Some of the large fast food chains are beginning to incorporate healthier alternatives in their menu, e.g., white meat, snack wraps, salads, and fresh fruit. However, some people see these moves as a tokenistic and commercial measure, rather than an appropriate reaction to ethical concerns about the world ecology and people's health. McDonald's announced that in March 2006, the chain would include nutritional information on the packaging of all of its products.
The major focus on children by the fast food industry has created controversy due to the rising issue of child obesity in America. As a result of this focus, in 2008 a coalition was created and run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus called Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative(CFBAI), to stop ads aimed at children or to promote only what the council dubs "better-for- you" products in ads directed towards children. However, it was not until 2011 that Congress requested guidelines be put in place by the CFBAI, FDA, Agriculture Department, and Centers for Disease Control. There are two basic requirements identified in the guidelines for foods that are advertised for children: (1) The food has to include healthful ingredients; (2) The food can't contain unhealthful amounts of sugar, Saturated fat, Trans fat, and salt. The guidelines are voluntary but companies experience heavy pressure to comply. Once a company complies they have 5–10 years to comply with the guidelines. Many fast food industries have started to comply with the guidelines. Although many companies have ways to go. In 2012 the fast food industry spent $4.6 billion to advertise unhealthy products to children and teens according to a report by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. There are points of progress that include healthier sides and beverages in most fast food restaurant kids' meals. The guidelines are interested in a healthier lifestyle for children and the growing problem of American obesity.
In March 2010, Taco Bell opened their first restaurant in India. Because non-consumption of beef is a cultural norm in light of India's Dharmic beliefs, Taco Bell had to tailor its menu to the dietary distinctions of Indian culture by replacing all of the beef with chicken. By the same token, completely meatless options were introduced to the menu due to the prevalence of vegetarianism throughout the country.
In addition to home-grown chains such as Supermac's, numerous American chains such as McDonald's and Burger King have also established a presence in Ireland. In 2015, a study developed by Treated.com was published in the Irish Times, which named Swords in County Dublin as Ireland's 'fast food capital'.