Though McDonald’s is widely considered the reigning king of fast-food burgers, Burger King has always been a perennial contender for the throne. Founded in 1954, the home of the flame-broiled Whopper serves 11 million customers daily. For more on the franchise’s history, its royal mascot, and how it dragged Sarah Michelle Gellar into litigation, keep reading.
The success of McDonald’s was not lost on entrepreneurs Keith J. Kramer and Matthew Burns, who decided to enter the market after they spotted a new cooking device dubbed the Insta-Burger Broiler. The contraption moved burgers along a conveyor belt powered by a chain and could prepare 400 burgers per hour. The duo decided to build their fast-food restaurant concept, which they named Insta-Burger King, around the device. The first restaurant was founded in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1953 and expanded from there.
The following year, Miami franchisees James McLamore and David Edgerton got so frustrated with the Insta-Broiler (which often malfunctioned) that Edgerton took a hatchet to it. The two modified the design so it cooked burgers over an open flame instead of the heated griddles used by competitors. Renaming it Burger King, McLamore and Edgerton took over the entire operation. They eventually sold it to Pillsbury in 1967. (It’s currently owned by 3G Capital.)
The Whopper, which was first introduced in 1957, was a quarter-pound, oversized burger on a vast five-inch bun that cost a reasonable 29 cents. While that may seem cheap, it was twice as much as the 15-cent burgers peddled by competitors. But McLamore had seen a Florida burger joint succeed with a big burger and believed consumers would flock to a heftier sandwich. He dubbed it the Whopper to denote it was something much more imposing than the standard fast-food fare. (McDonald’s wouldn’t enter the beefy burger market until the early ’70s, when they introduced the Quarter Pounder.)
Though most people are familiar with Burger King’s bizarre and expressionless King mascot, the company once made use of a king character that was significantly less creepy. In the 1970s, Burger King restaurants stationed performers dressed as royalty outside of their restaurants to do magic tricks. Tanks of helium were also outfitted with a plastic king head so kids could fill up balloons. In 2004, an ad executive came across one of the helium heads on eBay, which inspired him to pursue the surrealistic King character of recent years.
While people appear to love the King, Burger King’s other major attempt at a spokesperson didn’t go over so well. In 1985, the company introduced Herb, a hapless consumer (played by actor Jon Menick) who professed to have never eaten a Whopper. Menick even made surprise in-store appearances that would net a witness $5000 for spotting him. Burger King assumed people would be intrigued, but the gastronomic curiosity of Herb failed to interest anyone. Despite stints as an MTV VJ and as a timekeeper during WrestleMania II, Herb was quickly dropped.
While Twitter disses between fast food companies are common today, that wasn’t the case back in 1982, when Burger King launched a television spot assailing McDonald’s and Wendy’s for having lower-quality burgers. (The Golden Arches used 20 percent less meat, or so the spot claimed, and didn’t flame-broil their food.) A 5-year-old Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) appeared in the ad complaining about the smaller burgers. McDonald’s and Wendy’s soon sued Burger King over their allegations; Gellar was named in the lawsuit and actually had to testify.
Gellar later said that she wasn’t allowed to eat at McDonald’s because of the suit, which caused a problem when it came to birthday parties. “It was tough because, when you’re a little kid, McDonald’s is where all your friends have their birthday parties, so I missed out on a lot of apple pies,” Gellar said. (The case was eventually settled out of court and Burger King soon pulled the ads.)
The NBC sitcom ALF (1986-1990) featured puppeteer Paul Fusco as an alien from the planet Melmac who hides out with the help of a suburban family. The show’s popularity led Burger King to introduce an ALF promotional campaign in 1988. Kids ordering a Melmac Meal pack got an ALF toy; later, they could have their parents buy an ALF puppet for $2.99. The 12-inch item had four different costumes (including Chef ALF and Rock Star ALF) and reportedly sold very well. “The only plush alternative to the puppet we are offering is a $35 ALF toy available at retail,” a Burger King ad rep told the Sun-Sentinel. “This offers people an ALF at an incredibly reasonable price.”
In 1998, Burger King announced a special Whopper for their left-handed customers. The condiments, the company stated, had been rotated 180 degrees to accommodate left-hand-dominant consumers. People showed up to locations requesting the burger, not realizing that they can orient the burger any way they please—or that the offer happened to debut on April 1, a.k.a. April Fools’ Day.
For a few lucky people, eating at Burger King comes at no expense. The chain has issued roughly 12 Crown Cards (not to be confused with their gift cards) that entitle the user to free food. The company has given them out to notable figures who have some connection to the chain, including George Lucas (who partnered with Burger King for an early Star Wars drinking glass promotion), Jennifer Hudson (who used to work there), and Hugh Laurie of House fame. Actor Paul Giamatti once requested the card after doing a voiceover for a Burger King spot. When he received a FedEx envelope, he was disappointed to see BK had only sent him a $100 gift card.