Fun with Chef and Jeff

Remembering Hagerstown's early days in the fast-food revolution

Remembering Hagerstown's early days in the fast-food revolution

September 14, 2008|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

When the fast-food restaurant Burger Chef came to Hagerstown in the late 1950s, there wasn't a pair of yellow arches in sight.

McDonald's didn't arrive in Hagerstown until 1967. By that time, Burger Chef had already become a fast- food fixture for Hagerstonians with two franchises.

When Smedley Lynn and his wife, Elvira, moved from Boston to Hagerstown to take over the Washington County stores in 1970, fast food wasn't the norm. This was in the time before drive-throughs, square burger patties, "Have it Your Way" and the Dollar Menu.

"I had never even been in a fast-food restaurant to eat," Elvira says. "... I came from a big Italian family with big meals. It just wasn't my lifestyle."


The Lynns, both Philadelphia natives, hadn't had any experience in flipping burgers, either.

The couple previously worked at Aetna Life and Casualty Insurance Co., before they decided that running the franchise units would be a new experience as a young family with a child.

"We were just climbing the corporate ladder in the 1960s and saw (Burger Chef) as an opportunity," Smedley says.

The history

Jack Gray and his wife owned the first Burger Chef in Hagerstown, No. 14 in the franchise, which opened its doors in 1960. That store was on Pennsylvania Avenue, where Caf Italia now stands. The second store in Hagerstown, No. 767, was opened in 1967 at the corner of Virginia Avenue and Halfway Boulevard, where today Advance Auto Parts is located.

Founded in Indianapolis in 1958 by brothers Donald and Frank Thomas, Burger Chef was opened to compete with a fledging hamburger joint started by Ray Kroc.

In 1955, the first McDonald's opened in Des Plaines, Ill., and introduced America to fast food. During that time, Frank Thomas, according to, was helping to improve the flame-broil technique for grilling hamburgers for another up-and-coming fast-food stand, Burger King.

Frank tinkered more with his chain-driven flame broiler and increased burger production to 2,000 burgers per hour. With this new advancement, he and his brother, Donald, decided to open up their own fast-food restaurant. The result was Burger Chef.

While Kroc was in California, Burger Chef decided to spread east from the Midwest. The No. 14 unit in Hagerstown was one of the first East Coast locations, according to Smedley.

At the height of its popularity, in the late 1970s, Burger Chef was a fierce competitor in the fast-food nation.

"It had more than 1,200 units and it was second only to McDonald's," Smedley says.

Cooking burgers

When his young family arrived in Hagerstown, Smedley says he and Elvira were jumping into a brand new career. "We were clueless," he admits with a laugh.

After agreeing to purchase both Hagerstown Burger Chefs and a home across from the Pennsylvania Avenue unit, the Lynns thought they were ready to go. However, they prematurely quit their jobs in January 1970, and didn't officially take over the units until June 1, 1970.

"We were basically unemployed," he says.

Burger Chef franchise owners had to complete a three-week training at the company's headquarters in Indianapolis. Smedley went for training in April 1970. But their best training happened during their first three months on the job.

"I'd sit there and watch what the young people did," Elvira says. "That's how I learned."

Working with their teenaged staff, Elvira says, was one of the things she enjoyed the most. She says she always enjoyed working with the group of hard-working teens.

The Lynns decided to split up managing the units. Smedley ran the Virginia Avenue unit, which had a full dining room. Elvira ran the Pennsylvania Avenue unit, where at first customers walked up to a window and placed their orders because there was no dining room. A year later, a dining room was added.

Having the restaurant so near to their home easily allowed the Lynns to run the Burger Chefs as well as raise their family, especially when a second child was born. Elvira says she had "a lot of baby sitters." She'd often put the crib in the store while she worked.

"Somehow we managed to balance raising children with the two stores," Smedley says.

And running the business as a team strengthened their marriage early in their nearly 42 years together. "We made it work," Smedley says.

Back then, Burger Chefs were open every day and late at night. Sunday through Thursday the units were open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday evenings the units stayed open until midnight or 1 a.m.

Elvira says late hours worked well at the Pennsylvania Avenue unit. When sports games and other events let out at North Hagerstown High School, many came to Burger Chef to eat.

In early 1972, ground was broken for Valley Mall, giving a new opportunity to the Lynns at their Virginia Avenue unit because the construction crews needed to be fed.

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