The untold truth of Shoney's

Almost everyone who grew up in America in the '80s and '90s recognizes Shoney's distinctive red signs and remembers eating at this family road trip staple. But before Shoney's became a famous family restaurant empire that operated over 1,800 restaurants in 36 states across the country by 1994, per the Los Angeles Times, it started out with just one single location in Charleston, West Virginia.

According to The Journal, Shoney's founder Alex Schoenbaum was known for playing tackle at Ohio State University as a young man. He was named to the AP All-Western Conference second team two years in a row, as well as a two-time recipient of the Grantland Rice All-American honorable mention and a member of the 1939 annual College All-Star game team. After completing his Bachelor of Science at Ohio State in 1939, he was selected as a 55th draft pick to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers National Football League team. But as he reached his thirties, Schoenbaum knew it was time to pursue other ventures.

How Shoney's got its name

Schoenbaum's father had owned and operated a series of bowling alleys in the Charleston and Huntington regions of West Virginia, and Schoenbaum had grown up helping his father run the businesses. So it made sense that his next career move would be in the hospitality industry. In 1947, he opened his first restaurant, the Parkette Drive-In, in Charleston, right next door to one of his father's bowling alleys. 

Business went well, and just a few years later, Schoenbaum decided to partner with another restaurant owner, Bob Wian, the founder of the popular Big Boy franchise. Schoenbaum joined the franchise, expanding his business to multiple locations and renaming the restaurants the Parkette Big Boy Shoppes. However, Schoenbaum was not completely satisfied with the new name. In May of 1954, he held the "Name the Parkette Big Boy Contest," offering customers up to $6,500 in prizes and a brand new Lincoln to the winner for coming up with a new restaurant name, per Charleston Daily Mail. The name "Shoney's," derived from Schoenbaum's last name, was declared the contest winner.

Shoney's expands throughout the U.S.

The Shoney's franchise continued to grow, expanding outside West Virginia to the entire southeastern United States throughout the next decade. In 1971, Shoney's rebranded again as Shoney's Big Boy Enterprises, following a merger with the Nashville-based company, Danner Foods, per the Los Angeles Times. By the mid-1970s, they dropped the Big Boy logo entirely and became simply Shoney's Inc.

After Shoney's went public, Schoenbaum, as the Chairman of the Board of Directors, was forced to close the restaurant that started it all, per Charleston Daily Mail. In 1975, the original Parkette Drive-in shut its doors, but the franchise it helped start continued to become a huge success. It reached its zenith in the 80s and 90s. Schoenbaum passed away in 1996, and the company fell on hard times. In 2000, the Shoney's franchise was forced to declare bankruptcy, according to FSR Magazine, and in 2007, the chain was sold to David Davoudpour, the owner of the Church's Chicken franchise. Davoudpour began a push to rebrand Shoney's, modernizing the design, updating the menu items, and even adding alcoholic drinks to the restaurant's offerings. Today, the redesigned Shoney's restaurants can be found in 17 states, per Franchising.com.