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Adam Richman on The Franchise Brands That Built America

The "Man vs. Food" and “Adam Eats The ‘80s” star on what he learned traveling the U.S. to experience the country's biggest, best and oldest franchise restaurants.

If there are two things Adam Richman knows, it's food and America. The veteran television personality has hosted several dining and eating-challenge programs over the years, experiencing the wide array of culinary delights (and frights) the U.S. has to offer, from reindeer sausage in Alaska and 12-egg omelets in Washington to oysters in Louisiana and stacks of pancakes in Hawaii. 

Today, Richman is the host of three shows on the HISTORY Channel — the rebooted “Modern Marvels”, “The Food That Built America” and “Adam Eats the ‘80s” — all of which see him further exploring the U.S. to showcase the food, brands and products that have come to define the country. 

As a result of these adventures, Richman is getting a first-hand look at the inner workings of some of the biggest franchise brands in the world. In “The Food That Built America”, currently in its third season, Richman has explored the history of legacy franchise brands like Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and White Castle

Photo by Maggie Shannon

In “Adam Eats the ‘80s”, which premiered on February 27th, Richman hits the road on a quest to relive his favorite decade and trace back the origins of some of today’s most dominant brands. In the first episode, Richman gets to dine on a long-forgotten Domino's delicacy from 1985 and visits the first mall location of food court staple Auntie Anne's pretzels. In episode three, Richman discovers the very first location of Panda Express and learns the secret to Cinnabon's famous cinnamon.

1851 Franchise caught up with Richman to discuss what he has learned about the franchising industry during his travels, how these brands have come to shape the American workforce and what the future holds for the restaurant industry.

1851 Franchise: Can you describe how it felt to reboot “Modern Marvels”? 

Adam Richman: As a fan of the original “Modern Marvels”, I thought it was quite an honor to be asked to host a show that has such a legacy. It is a show that everyone has enjoyed in some capacity or another, and the thought that it would ever be brought back with me as a host is kind of beyond my wildest dreams. 

Also, having the opportunity to visit these companies is kind of like being Charlie with the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory. It is all well and good to hear about how you can program this computer to cut something with a plasma knife, or how the whole room moves as a machine welds John Deere equipment, but seeing it firsthand is so special. 

And what is really cool is that when you spend so much time in these factories, you realize that automation isn’t necessarily taking jobs away from humans — we’ve found a synergy between the two. It has been such a cool opportunity to meet salt-of-the-earth Americans with incredible engineering degrees and profound technical knowledge. 

1851: You dive deep into the history of a lot of major franchise brands, like Pizza Hut and McDonald's. What have been some of the things that surprised you most about the story behind these big restaurant franchise brands? 

Richman: For “Modern Marvels”, I got to work at a White Castle location, and I have such a renewed respect for the people who work these jobs every day. You take for granted that you pull up in this semi-circular driveway, shout your order into the abyss, and suddenly the meal you ordered is ready. So many people have to do so much and so much training has to happen before you arrive. When you see a trained staff member running the floor during a busy drive-thru at the height of the pandemic, washing dishes, maintaining the registers, preparing hundreds of sliders a minute — it's clear these are incredible, unsung heroes. 

It's the little things that go very far. It's like watching the Blue Angels fly — it's the incredible precision that could turn to chaos at any moment. Being on the other side of it and seeing how many people have to do things so well, to achieve these principles that are usually associated with fine dining. It's so impressive. These franchise brands maintain integrity across so many stores.

With my new show, “Adam Eats the ‘80s”, I'm on a journey to go back in time and sample specific foods that were prominent in the ‘80s. For six months in 1985, Dominos tried a breakfast pizza initiative, where you got two breakfast pizzas, a cup of coffee and a newspaper. We went within a half-mile of their first-ever Domino’s location in Michigan and had someone from corporate come in and recreate the breakfast pizzas for us. That hasn’t been seen, made or tasted since 1985. We also went to the busiest Cinnabon in the country with the brand’s creator to see how it was founded, the first Auntie Anne’s in Pennsylvania to learn how it went from one store to this massive juggernaut and met the man who invented Orange Chicken at Panda Express. It's been the ultimate learning experience. 

Photo by Maggie Shannon

1851: How do you think these franchise brands have impacted America's restaurant industry overall? 

Richman: I believe that these franchise brands give so many people their first job and make affordable food more accessible. The people who turn their nose up at these brands often have the means to go somewhere else, but they offer people something hearty for less money. 

Another thing I have noticed is ubiquitous across all of these franchise brands — a lot of the people we think of as cornerstones of the food industry all got their start at one of these brands. Duff Goldman worked at McDonald’s, for example, and so many of my friends who are big in the restaurant industry worked at Subways and Burger Kings. You learn the core principles of the food industry. How to store things properly, clean, food safety, etc. That knowledge is key. Franchise brands also provide a bit of comfort for travelers who are leaving home and want something familiar. 

These shows also enlightened me on how much hard work went into building these brands. The guy who created Orange Chicken had countless versions before they got the recipe right. The family that built Panda Express took a huge leap of faith and it was a lot of hard work. Or with Miss Fields — no one would give this housewife a loan and she borrowed at a ridiculous interest rate and took the cookies around the block. 

Even if you may not be a fan of the big brands, the truth of the matter is that the big brands set an example for the little guys. I understand how the cost of real estate and supply chain issues can make production costs harder on the little guy, but we filmed with Jim Cooke, the guy from Sam Adams Beer, and he hand-writes every invoice and delivers every case of beer. It is important people remember how much hard work it takes to build these massive brands.

1851: As someone who has seen all corners of the food industry, how would you describe the current state of the restaurant and food industry? What are some challenges the industry still has to overcome right now following the COVID-19 pandemic?

Richman: The pandemic kneecapped the industry. Bars suddenly had to serve foods, restaurants that had beautiful interiors could not use them, no one was granting rent amnesty. Suddenly, restaurants that were not set up for take-out or delivery, or heating for outdoor seating, were falling behind. Now, restaurants have to try to accommodate and maintain the integrity of their food in a take-out and delivery setting, even though third-party delivery companies take a cut of your profits and you're also dealing with supply chain issues. Rick Ross had to pivot to chicken thighs at WingStop! 

One silver lining is that workers have more power than they have had in the past because of the worker shortage. We are seeing big brands offering educational credits and higher wages. Right now, employers are having to entice workers back instead of being laissez-faire. Now, you suddenly have management respecting the worker a bit more than they might have in the past. 

I also believe restaurants are going to become more inventive in terms of what they do to get an audience in a post-pandemic world. More and more people are also entering the food space, which means more voices are coming to the table and that is very, very special. I hope as we return to normal, we can leverage this creativity and lift the new voices to merge with an existing industry and see a brighter future.