In the past 10 years, some of America's biggest food chains have seen their sales cut by more than half.
Former American staples such as Big Boy, Ponderosa and Bennigan's have been unable to keep luring in customers, and they've closed hundreds of locations nationwide.
Blame stale brands or menus that desperately need updating. Blame a focus on cuisines that have lost their luster. (Sorry Damon's and Tony Roma's, barbecue just isn't hot anymore.) Blame disruptive newcomers bringing more excitement to old ideas. (Goodbye, TCBY; hello Pinkberry!)
Of the 10 large restaurant chains that suffered the biggest declines between 2001 and 2011, eight have filed for bankruptcy. Those chains were then either purchased or resumed operations only once they had emerged from bankruptcy. But reinvigorating any of these brands will be an uphill battle.
Here they are: America's 10 biggest disappearing restaurant chains.
America's Disappearing Restaurant Chains
Check, Please! 10 Big Restaurant Chains That Are Falling Off the Menu
Percentage of stores closed: 60.1% Total stores (2011): 739 Stores closed: 1,114 2011 sales: $115.3 million Percentage decline in sales: 60.4%
Blimpie first opened in Hoboken, N.J., in 1964 as the nation’s first sub sandwich chain. Although it remains the nation’s third largest such chain, Blimpie has been struggling. In 2011, Blimpie had just 739 stores and $115 million in sales, down from 1,853 stores and nearly $300 million in sales in 2001. Blimpie was purchased by Kahala, a franchising company that also bought Cold Stone Creamery in 2007.
Percentage of stores closed: 63.5% Total stores (2011):175 Stores closed: 305 2011 sales: $241 million Percentage decline in sales: 61.7%
Ponderosa and Bonanza are steakhouses that offer "the spirit of the Old West … and honest-to-goodness value." The recession took a heavy toll on steakhouses' bottom line -- even more than it did on other types of casual dining franchises.
In 2008, parent company Metromedia Steakhouses filed for bankruptcy. Although the company, now called Homestyle Dining, exited bankruptcy in October 2009, the chain has been decimated. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of Ponderosa and Bonanza restaurants fell by nearly two-thirds.
Percentage of stores closed: 65.4% Total stores (2011): 140 Stores closed: 265 2011 sales: $183.4 million Percentage decline in sales: 68.4%
Big Boy, known for its double-decker hamburgers and overall-wearing mascot, was opened in Glendale, Calif., in 1936. The company has struggled since its former franchiser, Elias Brothers Corp., filed for bankruptcy in 2000. The year after the bankruptcy, there were 405 Big Boy restaurants nationwide. By 2011, there were just 140 left. In that time, annual sales at the chain have fallen by almost $400 million.
Percentage of stores closed: 71% Total stores (2011): 38 Stores closed: 93 2011 sales: $81.6 million Percentage decline in sales: 69.6%
Don Pablo’s describes itself as "Big Tex Bold Mex." Avado Brands, the company that owned Don Pablo’s, went bankrupt twice in the last decade, first in 2004 and again in 2007. In 2008, the chain was sold to a restaurant group started by Avado’s bankruptcy lender. According to Darren Tristano, executive vice president of food industry consulting and research firm Technomic, full-service Mexican restaurants like Don Pablo’s have struggled as fast-casual competitors such as Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), have become America’s preferred choice for Mexican cuisine.
Percentage of stores closed: 71.6% Total stores (2011): 46 Stores closed: 116 2011 sales: $93 million Percentage decline in sales: 70.8%
Tony Roma’s was founded in 1972 and claims to be "the largest casual theme restaurant chain specializing in ribs in the world." But between 2001 and 2011, Tony Roma’s cratered domestically. According to Tristano, the chain is struggling partly because "barbecue is not an everyday food," and partly because the cuisine tends to appeal only to guys. In 2005, the restaurant’s parent company, Romacorp, filed for bankruptcy. Although it is disappearing from the United States, Tony Roma’s is still active internationally with restaurants in over 30 countries.
Percentage of stores closed: 77.2% Total stores (2011): 405 Stores closed: 1,372 2011 sales: $98 million Percentage decline in sales: 60.4%
TCBY started in 1981 in Arkansas as "the country’s first frozen yogurt shop." The chain was purchased by Mrs. Fields Holdings in 2000. At the time, the Chicago Tribune noted that "both TCBY and Mrs. Fields have considerable [brand] equity among consumers," and that "in the still-escalating fast-service wars, it makes sense for operators to offer more than one product in order to create more traffic."
That optimistic assessment proved unfounded, though, and the combined company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008, and required another restructuring deal to avoid bankruptcy last year.
Percentage of stores closed: 78.1% Total stores (2011): 30 Stores closed: 107 2011 sales: $70 million Percentage decline in sales: 75.4%
Damon’s was founded in 1979 and is currently based in Columbus, Ohio. It is "a leading full-service, casual dining restaurant concept" with locations in the Midwest and Southeast, as well as in the United Kingdom. The chain, which is part of the struggling full-service barbecue restaurant segment, filed for bankruptcy in 2009. According to Tristano, other restaurant chains have increasingly begun offering many of the items found on Damon’s menu, making it hard for the specialist to compete.
Percentage of stores closed: 79.1% Total stores (2011): 52 Stores closed: 197 2011 sales: $44 million Percentage decline in sales: 82.4%
Country Kitchen was started in 1939 as a hamburger stand in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has been a national chain since 1958. Currently, however, it is concentrated in the Midwest and Plains states. In recent years, the chain has struggled to continue attracting customers. According to Technomic’s Tristano, the restaurant exists in the highly competitive mid-scale family-style market, which has been crowded out by the fast-casual dining segment.
Percentage of stores closed: 80.9% Total stores (2011): 25 Stores closed: 106 2011 sales: $37.5 million Percentage decline in sales: 83.4%
Ground Round is a family-style dining chain, founded in 1969 to provide a " 'neighborhood pub' experience where everyone, including couples and families, felt comfortable." Like a number of other chains on this list, Ground Round declared bankruptcy. However, unlike other disappearing restaurants, after its bankruptcy in 2004, the chain was bought by its former franchisees. Despite the change in ownership, the chain has struggled to survive, maintaining just 25 restaurants in 2011.
Percentage of stores closed: 88.2% Total stores (2011): 33 Stores closed: 247 2011 sales: $62 million Percentage decline in sales: 89.0%
In the past decade, no major restaurant has lost as much of its business as Bennigan’s. The Irish themed restaurant and bar’s parent company, Metromedia Restaurant Group, filed for bankruptcy in 2008, then abruptly shut almost all of its Bennigan’s franchises. As of last year, there were just 33 Bennigan’s restaurants and the chain’s sales for the year totaled just $62 million -- more than half a billion dollars less than the chain’s 2001 sales. Despite these events, there is some hope for Bennigan’s -- and perhaps some of the other chains on this list: A group of investors purchased the company and plans to open new locations. Technomic described one of the group’s new locations in Appleton, Wis., as taking "all the best features of the casual dining restaurant today."
Methodology: Based on sales data provided by Technomic, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 10 restaurant chains that had 60% or greater declines in the number of actual store locations operating from 2001 to 2011. In order to identify the chains that were once the biggest, restaurants had to have sales of at least $225 million in 2001 and experience 50% or greater declines in sales over the same period.