Burger King is a fast-food restaurant franchise that, along with McDonald's, has come to typify the U.S. "hamburger chain" concept that saw thousands of identical outlets spring up along the nation's highways after World War II and, later, in cities and towns from coast to coast and around the world. With its orange-and-white signs, Burger King, the "Home of the Whopper," was founded in Miami in 1954 by James McLamore and David Edgerton. Its first hamburgers were sold for 18 cents, and its flagship burger, the Whopper, was introduced in 1957 for 37 cents. Opened a year before rival McDonald's was franchised, Burger King was the first among the fast food drive-ins to offer indoor dining. By 1967, when the Pillsbury Corporation bought the company, there were 274 Burger King restaurants nationwide, employing more than 8,000 people. As of the end of 1998, there were 7,872 restaurants in the United States and 2,316 in more than 60 countries selling 1.6 billion Whopper sandwiches each year. Despite complaints from nutritionists about the fatty content of fast-food meals, many time-pressed consumers prefer them for their convenience and economy.
Burger King carved out its own niche in fast-food merchandising by means of several factors: its distinctive Whopper product, a cooking method that relies on flame-broiling instead of frying, and the company's aggressive and creative advertising campaigns. Even so, Burger King remains a distant second to its chief competitor, holding only 19 percent of the market compared to McDonald's 42 percent. The two fast-food giants have long had an ongoing rivalry, each claiming superior products, and even marketing competitive versions of each others' sandwiches. One of Burger King's most successful advertising campaigns in the 1970s mocked the uniformity and inflexibility of its rival's fast-food production with the slogan, "Have it Your Way," implying that customized orders were more easily available at Burger King than at McDonald's.
In 1989, Pillsbury was bought by a British firm, Grand Metropolitan (now Diagio), which acquired Burger King in the bargain. Knowing little about the American tradition of fast food, the British corporation tried to "improve" on the burger/fries menu by offering sit-down dinners with waiters and "dinner baskets" offering a variety of choices. This well-intentioned idea sent profits plummeting, and Burger King did not truly recover for nearly a decade. Also in the late 1990s, Burger King, in cooperation with government attempts at welfare reform, joined an effort to offer employment to former welfare clients. Critics pointed out that fast-food restaurant jobs in general are so low-paid and offer such little chance of advancement that their usefulness to individual workers is limited. Occasionally the defendant in racial discrimination suits, the corporation that owns Burger King was taken to task in 1997 by the Congressional Black Caucus for discriminatory practices against minority franchise owners. The company has increased its investments in African-American banks and its support for efforts of the fledgling Diversity Foods in Virginia in its efforts to become one of the largest black-owned businesses in the United States.
Despite Burger King's second position after McDonald's, the market for fast food is large. Perhaps one of Burger King's own past slogans sums up the outlook of the franchise best, "America loves burgers, and we're America's Burger King."
McLamore, James W. The Burger King: Jim McLamore and the Building of an Empire. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1998.