The old A&W building design was notable for a dramatic orange roof that sloped into sort of a spire at the top. The buildings were otherwise brown with large single-pane windows. Many had rock slab siding. A&W restaurants often had drive-in canopies as well as indoor dining service that featured the same call-box menu at the tables that was used in the drive-in parking spots. You may see these drive-in stores converted into seasonal-use ice cream shops or Christmas tree stands!
An old-fashioned Arby’s is an ugly sight to behold: a cement covered-wagon-shaped smear on the landscape with strangely placed patio tables out front. (Did they really have patio tables on the frontier?) Modern Arby’s stores are unemarkable, but both should bear the crowning glory that is Arby’s — the ten-gallon-hat sign. Occasionally you may see one of these signs actually converted, and that, dear ranger, is the holy grail of bad conversion spotting.
The lantern-shaped signpost is a dead giveaway in a converted Arthur Treacher’s — and if you’re lucky, it’s still spinning. Look for an ornamented veranda styled front, with stubby sloped roof on a squarish store.
Burger Chef had three basic architectures over the years with a myriad of logos. The first design featured an all-glass front in the shape of a kite with white lighted borders with red diamonds set in. Some were just walk-ups, later ones had indoor dining. A couple of rare ones had drive-in canopies extending from the building’s front. Another obvious standout of the original design was the huge Burger Chef sign, which included the kite arches, a big chef sitting on top, the “Burger Chef” oval, and a big neon “HAMBURGERS” rectangle about center. Very common in the Midwest is Burger Chef’s “Cosmo II” design. The building’s front comes in a variation on the original kite design. This same kite might be mounted on the roof as a stand for the oval-shaped Burger Chef signage From the counter space back is what almost looks like an attached building that is unremarkable box with a short (shorter than McDonald’s or Burger King) slanted cut roof. A number of these buildings also had the original Burger Chef signage. Later Burger Chefs aren’t terribly distinguishable from a 70’s McDonald’s or Burger King aside from the slope of the roof, which was at a sharper angle with a lower profile, and typically had a flat railroad-tie-like crown. Many of these were converted to Hardee’s and may still be.
Oh, inscrutable, ugly, Burger King. Older stores are more generic, older-McDonald’s styled low-flat-roofed affairs, while from the 80s onward you’ll see a bizarre geometric barf of elongated store with glass windows and unnecessarily slanty roof patterns.
You’ll know the DQ by the trapezoidal motif: most stores have a sign (short top, slanty sides, long bottom) whose angles are echoed in the roof, usually two red shingled sides rising above the top of the white cement rectangle that is the standard DQ store. The pointy-oval trademark sign on the front of the store (oft flanked by two more bits of red roof slants) is also a giveaway — and sometimes leaves a telltale mark on particularly bad conversions.
More and more Denny’s are falling by the wayside (presumably due to more stringent smoking laws North America-wide) and as a result these elongated ranch-style sloping roofed restaurants are leaving carcasses throughout the landscape. Look for a forward facing obtuse angled roof with a sideways-facing roof abutting it. The facade may be made of cobblestone. The awkward hexagonal sign is always your dead giveaway.
This unremarkable ice cream store chain is identifiable by its quaint-cottage stylings and rectangular cupola-vent thing attached to the top. Like Long John’s, look for shutters and the rooftop signifier.
Golden Corral has always used a ranch house design. Stores built before the 1990’s are smaller buildings with a windbreak at front and center with entrances on either side. These buildings often also have a solarium greenhouse with a big red awning on one side of the building. From the 90’s and beyond, Golden Corral’s building design was known internally as “Metro”. The building grew radically in size with big bay single-pane windows across the entire front of the building and false gable windows set into the roof. Metro has a covered porch front with direct front access designated on one side as the entrance, on the other as an exit. The latest “Strata” models have covered entries on the side of the windbreaker and multi-sectioned windows. The fake gable windows have closed shutters where the Metro had windows. The most common use of Golden Corral buildings today seems to be Chinese buffets.
Once two separate restaurants, now a confusing mishmash of ideals and menu boards, both Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. have recently borne the “smiley star” logo which leaves a hell of an identifying shape on the front of their very generic white brick and smoked glass restaurants.
A drive-thru only chain of burger restaurants, Hot’N’Now’s peculiar carcasses continue to litter the Midwest and Great Lakes Region with their strange white cement husks and unnecessarily high red slanty roofs. They look like something you would have built out of lego. Restaurants often feature a central building with an attached rectangular drive-thru “arch”, sometimes there are drive-thrus on both sides of the central building.
You’ve gotta be blind to miss an IHOP—these ginormous A-Frame restaurants make excellent conversions into all kinds of strange things, from car dealerships to supermarkets. Uncreative types will have left the roof painted a bright blue, while others may opt for a new look. Doors are on the long side of the building facing parking area.
A true bad conversion charm, Long John’s are easy to spot due to their “nautical cottage” motif complete with shutters and the requisite cupola. Entrance and exit are separate doors on the right hand side of the building. Stores that aren’t repainted will retain their original ocean blue roofs, and even the best-converted Long John’s often retain the charming dockside pillar-and-rope landscaping around the perimeter of the store.
Despite being one of the globe’s most prevalent fast food chains, McDonald’s stores themselves are often entirely unremarkable. Older and thus more likely to be converted McDonald’s often have a brown sloped roof usually set atop brown bricks. Converted McDonald’s may often be hard to identify, largely due to the fact that the chain would never just leave a pair of golden arches lying around for just anybody to have their way with. McDonald’s also typically removes their trademark two-angle slope from their buildings as they leave them, as well as the light struts. The common giveaway on these buildings is the panels below the windows. They won’t have the golden arch laid in anymore, but it’s still a standout sign.
Pizza Hut conversions are conspicuously shaped like huts. This will be your biggest clue. Another tip, in case the new owners have managed to somehow un-huttify the roof, are keystone-shaped trapezoidal windows along all sides of the (generally brown brick) building. Clever converters may employ shutters to mask the unique appearance of these windows, but a close inspection will tell for sure.
These lie abandoned throughout the city as well as the open range. Look for a high, vertical beige wooden-front facade with the famous “clipped corners” motif, which is echoed in the sign as well as on other elements of the building. Ponderosas, like Golden Corrals, are often found converted into Chinese buffets.
These cartoonish burger stands (once separate entities, now the same) are known for their garish double-drive-through structures and children’s-toy-esque outdoor patio tables and permanent umbrellas. The central building is blocky and an unnecessarily tall round-rect sign usually marks the property.
Sonics are pretty obvious once you know what to look for. The building is a rectangle with a small box jutting out from the front of the building and a cover extending out for the picnic benches, and drive-in canopies varying from a single side of the building to both sides with parallel canopies on the outside of the property, on either one or both sides. Sonic’s canopy layout varies according to space. Many have a total of three canopies with the open spot being the left side of the building, left open for the drive-thru. There are windows on the very front of the building as well as the front sides, with employee-only doors at the drive-thru extension facing sideways at the window, and the side of the front extension for the carhops. Nearly all Sonics have added two red funnels jutting out of the front table canopy. The building siding may be slats, may be brick, or may be cement block.
One of the most popular bad conversions of all time is the bad Taco Bell conversion. What you’re looking for here is a low-slung mission-style deal with three rounded windows in front and sometimes a cinderblock-lined “patio” up front. Especially bad conversions will not have figured out what to do with the arch where the bell used to go (back when they had actual, if mute, bells) on top of the restaurant.
The classic bad Wendy’s conversion is among the easiest to spot due to the chain’s signature “greenhouse” windows. Former Wendy’s will have rounded, smoked-glass front windows and are made of beige brick with airlock entrances on the right-hand side. Look for a small bump on the front facade where Wendy’s head should have been.
Though there are a lot of white, castle-shaped burger joints throughout the land, a White Castle’s specialness can usually be found in white-and-blue flags (plastic or fabric) and distinctive lanterns set into the white “brick”. Most White Castles built between the 30’s and 80’s were not brick at all, but completely steel buildings, much like old gas stations. White Castle subsidiary PCB (Porcelain Steel Buildings) built basically whole stores and trucked the parts to sites for assembly. Look for the telltale white steel structure complemented by turrets and lantern detail.
There are two easily recognizable Wienerschnitzel designs. The first is the traditional Wienerschnitzel A-Frame with the hole in the middle for the drive-thru. These locations generally had only walk-up service beyond the drive-thru (there are some exceptions). A large sign about a third of the length of the building might rest atop the structure. But the most common design to see converted to another purpose is a more standard fast food design with stucco walls and a sloped tiled roof that sort of looks like it was chopped off halfway to the arch. Part of the front entry is covered by backing the front wall up under the roof overhead, with the door at an angle to meet the flat front with the covered front. The front of the building around both sides back to the side entrance are big single-pane square panels of glass. New locations are usually a tall box with the logo on top and the dining area on what looks like an extension awning to the front and side. Sister chain Hamburger Stand uses the same building design.
Once a discount Mexican chain famous for their 99c menu, Zantigo was eventually absorbed almost entirely by Taco Bell. Their very strange buildings look a little like the deranged bastard offspring of a Pizza Hut and a Taco Bell: slanty (stucco?) roof atop a square brick building (that sometimes comes to a hut-type head). The identifying feature of a Zantigo is the large wedge-shaped cement protrusion that often doubles as a doorway. This wedge will be taller than the roof and will be straight on the side embedded into the building, and sloped on the side that protrudes outside. Zantigo conversions are common in the midwest.