Franchising: Heap Big Beef

The 1960s was the decade when franchising frenzy began. Franchising was hailed as a chance to be your own boss and make a comfortable income with a moderate investment.

Fast food drive-ins and other low-priced eateries with limited menus were in the forefront of the franchised businesses springing up everywhere. As is typical with franchised restaurants, owners needed no particular experience, or even interest, in food or food preparation. Because, in a sense, someone might just as well choose a franchise in wigs or roto-rooters as chicken or hamburgers.

One of the interesting franchising business careers was that of the originator of Bonanza and Heap Big Beef. The principal creator of both was an ambitious man named Don Pruess. He was a true believer in a franchising formula that paired a celebrity name with a chain of small businesses run by people who put up the capital. In 1956 he signed up Esther Williams to lend her fame as a movie star and champion swimmer to the sale of backyard in-ground, vinyl-lined pools. However, as has often been true of businesses with celebrity figureheads, the company was soon in bankruptcy.

A few years later, in 1963, Pruess began licensing local distributors to sell franchises for Bonanza Sirloin Pit Steak Houses. An advertisement for franchise applicants proclaimed, “It’s America’s hottest food franchise,” saying net profits ranged from $2,500 up to $7,000 a month with a $20,000 cash investment. The following year the first restaurant in the chain opened in Westport CT with Dan Blocker, who played ‘Hoss’ Cartwright on the TV show Bonanza, enlisted as the chain’s celebrity mascot.

As it developed, Preuss’ business was more than simply a franchisor of restaurants. As a 1973 law brief put it, his corporation, Franchises International (F. I.), “was the ultimate in franchising” because it “franchised the right to sell franchises.”

Serious expansion of the Bonanza chain actually did not happen until its acquisition by a Texas company in 1965. The following year F. I. began seeking franchisors and franchisees for Heap Big Beef. The first units in the HBB chain opened in 1967, with a menu of “giant” beef sandwiches for 59 and 99 cents.

In addition to franchising for Heap Big Beef, F. I. did the same for a beauty salon chain named Edie Adams’ Cut & Curl and Mary’s Drive-Thru Dairies. At one point F. I. revealed plans to move into franchising for more than 50 other types of businesses including nursing homes and diet centers.

At the same time, F. I. was seeking capital from a large investing company called City Investing Co. Starting in 1967, Heap Big Beef franchising advertisements identified F. I. as a subsidiary of City Investing. But the relationship was fraught from day one. The president of City Investing did not approve of F. I.’s sales tactics, including misrepresenting how many units had been opened. For example, City Investing objected to the false implications of F. I.’s claim that Heap Big Beef #32 had opened, suggesting that the number was not in fact a tally of how many had been opened. City’s subsequent failure to supply F. I. with enough capital led to the resignation of Pruess and the other officers of his corporation.

Beginning in 1969 there was a die-off of Heap Big Beef outlets. Though it had been advertised as the hottest thing going, it turned out the chain had never exceeded 60 units nationwide. The latest date I could find one in operation was 1971.

Maybe there are fans out there that still sorely miss Heap Big Beef, but I doubt it. Given its theme, it was a chain that could not exist today. The American Indian theme had no relevance, having been adopted solely because of the popularity of western TV shows at the time. The A-frame buildings were meant to suggest tepees, although they were used by other chains, including Der Wienerschnitzel. There was little about the menu that differed from 19th-century lunchroom fare except for the paucity of items and the offensive “Hollywood Injun English” used. Consider: “You’ll let out a war whoop” when you eat a Heap Big Beef (or Ham, Fish, or Corned Beef) sandwich. How about a Warrior Burger, a Shawnee Shake, or a Pawnee Pie?

File Heap Big Beef under failed restaurant chains.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019


Filed under chain restaurants, menus, proprietors & careers, roadside restaurants

8 responses to “Franchising: Heap Big Beef

  1. Harry Hoover

    The Heap Big Beef in Terre Haute, Indiana lasted at least until 1974 as I worked there. You say there was nothing unique about the food but everyone to this day talks about the wonderful french fries that I have not seen anywhere else.

  2. Pingback: Franchising: Heap Big Beef — Restaurant-ing through history – Success Franchise Advisors

  3. Stephen Z.

    The Heap Big Beef restaurant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota survived until February 1982.

  4. OK Jim

    We had a Heap Big Beef in nearby Wooddale, Illinois. My older brother and I got beef sandwiches to go several times beginning in about 1970; then it suddenly closed in ’71 or ’72. The beef used seemed of a higher quality than Arby’s- as I recall there was no chopped and formed beef mixed in, as with Arby’s. The prices were higher, though.

  5. This is a really fascinating post.
    Here in the UK (and maybe in the USA for all I know) many restaurants have been opened by some of the biggest name chefs who sport Michelin stars (eg Gordon Ramsay) in more than one hotel and other prime locations. These are high-end restaurants with prices to match. The thing is, these chefs cannot be cooking at all the restaurants which feature their names, it is not physically possible.They will have designed the menu, the ‘look’ of the restaurant, and provided a template and the recipes for the ‘signature’ dishes, but a team of experienced but unknown chefs will be doing the cooking and delivering the goods. I presume the restaurants are visited regularly by the celeb chef whose name adorns the menu, the adverts etc, just to check all is going to plan.
    To my mind, that is a form of franchising, but nobody refers to it as such. Does this happen in New York/Washington/San Fran/LA etc? and what are your thoughts?

    • Yes, it does happen in the big cities here. I just read something in a paper (prob NYT) that had a chef saying he cannot make any money in NYC unless he has more than one restaurant. And you are right that the situation in which a chef has multiple restaurants somewhat resembles a franchise situation even though there is no franchisee. It’s not the “big name” out there in the kitchen bending low to tweeze micro greens onto the plates. (Don’t mean to insult chefs but this is the image that is so often used to signify what goes on in a premier restaurant kitchen.)

    • ADalton

      It definitely happens in LA. Wolfgang Puck has at least a couple of restaurants, and Gelson’s grocery stores sell licensed Wolfgang Puck pizza slices in the deli.

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