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Remember when? Burger Chef fed Fresno fans for 10 years | Fig Garden fire district

By 1972 there were about 1,200 Burger Chef franchises across the country, second only to McDonald’s, with about 1,600 stores at the time. One of the Burger Chefs was on Cedar Avenue just south of Shields Avenue in Fresno; it closed around 1974 or 1975.
By 1972 there were about 1,200 Burger Chef franchises across the country, second only to McDonald’s, with about 1,600 stores at the time. One of the Burger Chefs was on Cedar Avenue just south of Shields Avenue in Fresno; it closed around 1974 or 1975. flickr.com

Q: I worked at Burger Chef, on the east side of Cedar just north of Fountain Way, in 1965. They made flame-grilled burgers. Can you tell us about its history and what happened to it?

Fred Smith, Clovis

A: The Burger Chef at 3422 N. Cedar Ave. opened in October 1964, according to a photo and an advertisement in The Bee.

Fresno’s Burger Chef franchise was owned by James C. Ranells. There were 14 employees and seating for 40 customers. The caption under a photo of the new store said Burger Chef “specializes in broiled hamburgers and dispenses the food automatically.”

An advertisement for the restaurant’s grand opening a few weeks later said “open flame broiling makes the delicious difference.”

burger chef menu

Burger Chef sold hamburgers, milkshakes, French fries and hot chocolate for 15 cents each. Cheeseburgers were 20 cents but the real splurge was the fish sandwich for 25 cents. Coffee was 10 cents. The two sizes of orange drink, root beer and cola were 10 cents and 20 cents. During the grand opening Oct. 23-24, 1964, customers could get a free drink with their food purchase, the advertisement announced.

The flame broiler the restaurant chain used was patented in 1954 by Frank and Donald Thomas, owners of General Equipment Co. They opened the first Burger Chef in Indianapolis in 1957.

In 1968 Burger Chef was acquired by General Foods Corp, which continued the chain’s rapid growth. By 1972 there were about 1,200 Burger Chef franchises across the country, second only to McDonald’s, with about 1,600 stores at the time.

In 1970, Ranells sued General Foods Corp. and its subsidiary, Burger Chef Systems, claiming the potential for profit was overstated when he bought the franchise. Fresno’s Burger Chef restaurant closed between 1974 and 1975, according to Fresno city directories.

Burger Chef had two mascots: Burger Chef and his sidekick Jeff. The chain added a Funburger and Funmeal to the menu for children.

The Funmeal came with a small toy, riddles, puzzles and stories about Burger Chef, Jeff and their friends: a magician, Burgerini; a vampire, Count Fangburger; a talking ape, Burgerilla; and a witch, Cackleburger.

The Burger Chef chain sued McDonald’s when the competitor began selling its Happy Meal in 1979, but lost the suit.

General Foods sold the Burger Chef chain in 1982 to Imasco, a Canadian company that also owned Hardee’s. According to author Al Hunter, the last Burger Chef in Danville, Illinois, closed in 2014.

Q: I worked at the Fig Garden Fire Station in the late 1990s. After retirement I was a commission for the Fig Garden Fire District. I’m a history buff and curator of the CalFire museum. I have a copy of the first ballot to form the Fig Garden Fire District. I’m curious about the three commissioners who signed the letter sent out with the ballot.

Jim Reid, Fresno

A: The letter went to Fig Garden area residents to encourage them to approve forming, and paying for, a fire department to serve their neighborhood. It’s interesting that the letter, dated May 11, 1942, during World War II, says, “Remember that a house destroyed by fire today is impossible to replace tomorrow under present war building restrictions.”

The letter is signed by the three-member board of the Fig Garden Fire Protection District: O.J. Woodward, E.M. Prescott and Roderick Lynch.

Woodward, chairman, was O.J. Woodward II, grandson of Fresno pioneer O.J. Woodward. After the elder O.J. Woodward died in 1935 his grandson may have dropped “the second” from his name.

Edwin M. (Ned) Prescott came to Fresno as a 1-year-old infant with his parents in 1883.

His father, F.K. Prescott, and his brother-in-law, C.S. Pierce, opened Prescott & Pierce Lumber Co. at Mono and H streets, one of the first lumber yards in Fresno. They dissolved their partnership in 1888 and opened their own lumber companies.

Ned Prescott went into the family business, Valley Lumber Co. The name was later changed to Prescott Lumber Co. He was president of the family business until shortly before his death in 1966 at age 83.

He served as president of the Fresno County and City Chamber of Commerce, the Sequoia Boy Scout Council of America and Fresno Rotary Club. He was active in the First Congregational Church.

“In a story he told before the Fresno County Historical Society (in 1965), Prescott said the family had intended to settle in Fowler,” according to his Fresno Bee obituary.

“But their train arrived in the middle of the night and since Fowler had no hotel, the conductor refused to put them off there, saying he was going to take them ‘10 miles farther to Fresno where there at least is a hotel.’”

Roderick Lynch lived in Statham in San Joaquin County before coming to Fresno by 1935. He was an engineer and worked for Baird’s Sheet Metal Works from about 1940 to 1943.

Lynch resigned from the Fig Garden Fire Protection District in October 1943 and moved to San Francisco. He died in Los Angeles County in 1993.

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to askpaulalloyd@yahoo.com or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name, city of residence and a phone number.

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