Touring LA’s Fast Food History

The standard joke is that all Californians are health food nuts. I remember reading the Baby Sitter’s Club when I was a kid and finding out my favorite character, Dawn, never ate junk food. All the other babysitters figured it was because she was from California where everyone ate like that. Huh? I lived in California and I never even heard of half the stuff she ate. Happy meals and Baskin-Robbins clown cones were my jam.

Of course they were. After all, Southern California is home base for several famous fast food chains. Maybe it’s also home to several health food trends but in mid-century SoCal comfort food ruled the land. Del Taco, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Wienerschnitzel, In-N-Out and more were started in my very own back yard.

This made me curious. Where exactly did each chain start? Did the original location still exist? If not, were there any historic locations still around? I began to research and found five chains that still had existing historic locations – In-N-Out, McDonald’s, Baskin Robbins, Foster Freeze and Wienerschnitzel. So one bright Saturday I grabbed my best buds and we headed out on a fast food adventure.

In N Out

In-N-Out began in 1948 in Baldwin Hills and fast became one of Southern California’s favorite hamburger stands. Although the original structure was demolished some time ago an exact replica was recently built. Non-operational, it serves as a museum of In-N-Out history. We arrived around 10:30 am only to find out it doesn’t open until 11. Needing to kill time we headed across the 10 freeway to the In-N-Out store. Did you know they have a store? Inside you’ll find tons of logo’d merchandise from Ugg boots to bikinis.

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I even managed to pick up a drink cup onesie for a newly arriving family member.

Soon enough it was 11 and we headed back to the replica. Wow. When they stated it was an exact replica they weren’t kidding. Not only was the building an exact model but it was filled with authentic artifacts. Potato washers, fry makers, coffee pots, even a cigarette machine were all on display in their original locations.

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And check out those prices!

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You may not be able to order food here but you can play the role of an old fashioned burger flipper.

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May I take your order please?

While In-N-Out is a beloved local institution McDonald’s is found the world over. Started in San Bernardino in 1940 its original store is, sadly, long gone. On the bright side, Southern California is the home to the oldest operating McDonald’s. Founded in 1953 it’s located on the corner of Lakewood and Florence in the city of Downey.

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In the early days of my blog I wrote about a visit to this very store. As it’s been some time a return visit was long overdue.

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This McDonald’s has two unique features. For one, there’s no drive-thru and no interior seating. If you want to eat here you’re going to need to walk up to the window and sit al fresco. Second, it’s home to an adjacent museum of McDonald’s history. Sadly, the museum is a bit neglected but you can still find some fun items on display.

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McDonald’s styrofoam! I remember it well.

As McDonald’s is named after the McDonald brothers Baskin-Robbins is also named after its founders – Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins. The company can be traced back to 1945 with the opening of Snowbird Ice Cream in Glendale. Over the years Baskin-Robbins stores have had various architectural incarnations but non so distinct as their mid-century A-frame structures. Most have long ago been torn down or converted into independent food outlets but a few remain. The most authentic is located in Gardena.

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Found on a mostly industrial stretch of Crenshaw Blvd. it’s a surprising location for an ice cream shop. The interior is modernized but the exterior looks very much like it’s original incarnation.

Baskin Robbins

Love those polka dots!

While Messrs. Baskin and Robbins were starting out in Glendale George Foster was developing the first Foster’s Freeze. It opened in 1946 in Inglewood and the company’s been serving soft serve ever since. Nearby, in Torrance you can still find an original structure from the early days of the chain.

Foster's Freeze

Like the oldest McDonald’s this one’s walk up only. It was a hot day when we visited and the place was jumping. Despite this the threat of closure looms overhead. This shop is located on prime real estate and there are those that think an ice cream shop isn’t the best use of the property.

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Seriously? This is Southern California and the sun shines bright here. What could be better than an ice cream shop? Hopefully, the crowds will continue to come and this shop will be here for a long time.

IMG_7668 (600x800)Hamburger and ice cream, what could be more classic? How about the hot dog? In 1961 the first Wienerschnitzel opened in Wilmington. Amazingly, that very location is in operation to this day.

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Surprisingly nondescript I would not have know this is where the whole chain started.

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Boom! If only other chains would treasure their history like this. When a company grows from one location to several – whether it be statewide, nationwide or worldwide – they shouldn’t forget their roots. Once upon a time their founders were just like every other eager entrepreneur and somehow due to hard work or a twist of fate they succeeded. Their humble beginnings should be celebrated not forgotten.  If they think nobody cares, they’re wrong. I care. I want to know how they became the giants that they are. I’m sure others do too.

*If you’re looking for a good source of classic roadside architecture check out RoadsideArchitecture.com. It was indispensable in helping me scout out these properties.

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