In May, business owner Daniel Dai took over a long-standing Wienerschniztel at 7434 Garvey Avenue in Rosemead and converted it into his third Bánh Mì Mỹ Tho location; he runs two other shops in Rosemead and Alhambra. “It was a good fit for us,” Dai says. He notes that though the space is small, only 432 square feet, it was the perfect size for his low-key sandwich operation with sufficient storage and refrigeration. Plus, it was sold to him at a good price.
Not having to make many structural changes to the building — just a coat of fresh white paint atop the ketchup- and mustard-hued rooftop and installing the shop’s logo featuring crisscrossed baguettes — Dai was able to open his restaurant within a month of signing the lease.
Some architectural designs of fast-food giants are unforgettable, like the towering bucket with Colonel Sanders’ face at Kentucky Fried Chicken or the large cube hovering over Jack in the Box. It’s this highly visual appeal that makes it so noticeable when new restaurant owners take over fast-food joints and transform them into different restaurants while keeping the iconic structures intact. Although restaurateurs have to consider how to redesign these archetypal buildings into something of their own, there are many perks to opening in a fast-food restaurant shell: built-in drive-thrus, cheaper leasing costs, prime street-facing locations, and parking lots.
Wienerschniztel’s iconic A-frame structure became a fixture in Southern California when the design debuted at its third location in Compton over 60 years ago. Architect Robert McKay, who also was the mastermind behind Taco Bell’s hacienda-style stores, designed the hot dog chain’s Alpine-style buildings. Outside the restaurant realm, the pitched-rooftop design element surged in popularity between the 1950s to 1970s, as it was a relatively inexpensive and turnkey design for people building vacation homes with increased disposable incomes at the time. Wienerschniztel phased out the A-frame design in the mid-1970s as it went out of vogue.
Just like Wienerschnitzel, other fast-food joints have changed their architectural designs over the years to stay relevant — and the relics of what remains are being reused by new business owners. Since KFC’s start in the 1950s, most of the fried chicken chain’s locations had a similar look: a mansard roof with a large bucket pitched on a metal pole as its signage. But in 1989, KFC franchisee Jack Wilkee commissioned architect Jeffrey Daniels (a Frank Gehry protege) to update the look of his location at Western and Oakwood avenues in East Hollywood. The result was a two-story Deconstructivist design that played with Googie architecture. Los Angeles Times reported that it was the “first architecturally avant-garde Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in the United States, and the famous franchiser’s first break with its own rigid formal tradition.”
The popularity of futuristic Googie architecture from 1945 to the early 1970s also played a role in the introduction of Jack in the Box’s cube signage. San Diego architect and artist Russell Forester, who designed the chain’s locations in the 1950s, put the geometric box on a tall metal pole as a way to attract motorists to Jack in the Box’s drive-thrus. Pioneer Chicken, another nostalgic favorite, first opened in Echo Park in 1961 with its unmissable sign featuring its mascot Pioneer Pete holding a whole chicken while riding a chuck wagon. The fried chicken chain once had 270 locations but has dwindled down to just two. Many of its old outposts had been converted into Popeyes; in essence, it was one chicken chain taking over another.
While times and tastes may change, these eye-catching fast-food structures have proven to have staying power — sometimes being replaced by multiple businesses over the years. From former Wienerschnitzels to KFC and Jack in the Box locations, here’s how local business owners are transforming these bygone buildings into something uniquely their own.
626 Hawaiian BBQ & Boba
Only slight physical changes have been made to this former Wienerschnitzel location, namely a blue awning and towering sign emblazoned with the business’s name. The menu delivers on the sign’s promise with kalua pork, Spam musubi, and boba drinks. Prior to 626 Hawaiian BBQ & Boba opening in 2014, the restaurant was home to at least three Mexican restaurants. 4386 Maine Avenue, Baldwin Park, CA 91706.
Tierra Mia Coffee
Specialty coffee shop Tierra Mia Coffee has nearly 20 locations throughout California, but the Pico Rivera outlet may be the most memorable. Taking over a now-closed KFC, the exterior bucket is fashioned to look like a coffee mug plastered with Tierra Mia’s logo. 9220 Slauson Avenue, Pico Rivera, CA 90660.
Brazilian Plate House
At Brazilian Plate House, the former Wienerschnitzel shell has been lacquered in a vibrant green and white. Since its opening in 2016, hot dogs have been replaced by more upscale fare, from grilled picanha steaks and skewered shrimp. 4509 Torrance Boulevard, Torrance, CA 90503.
Shawn Tang took over this Pioneer Chicken outpost in 1991 for its prime location and transformed it into a fast-food restaurant serving chow mein and fried rice combination meals with broccoli and beef, and orange chicken. At the time, city building codes prohibited Tang from altering the restaurant’s original sign, so he got creative and painted it yellow with “China King” emblazoned across it in red wonton font. “People mostly think it’s a map of China, but it’s really funny because it’s not,” says Tang. “I get that quite a bit.” Squint hard enough at the current signage and you can still make out the shape of the former Pioneer Chicken wagon. 3456 W. Lincoln Avenue, Anaheim, CA 92801.
Original Tommy’s World Famous Hamburgers
Chili is still being served at this former Wienerschnitzel location in Eagle Rock, but it’s now smothered over burgers, hot dogs, and tamales under a different fast-food chain name: Original Tommy’s World Famous Hamburgers. The brand, operating for more than 75 years, is still utilizing the iconic drive-thru that goes through the now red-and-white-colored A-frame. This isn’t the only Wienerschnitzel-turned-Tommy’s — another one is located in Burbank. As with Pioneer Chicken, this is another example of an iconic restaurant taking over another iconic restaurant’s location. 1717 Colorado Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90041.
Boy’s Hamburgers #5 and Don Carlos #6
On West Lincoln Avenue in Anaheim, the former Pioneer Chicken sign still holds the same shape but has been replaced with two restaurant names. The top half reads “Boy’s Hamburgers #5” with a logo of a boy in a baseball cap holding a burger, while the bottom half says “Don Carlos #6” with a picture of a cactus and the words “authentic Mexican food”. 2601 W. Lincoln Avenue, Anaheim, CA 92801.
Sr. Alberto Mexican Food
When Sr. Alberto Mexican Food replaced a former Jack in the Box in the 2000s, the owners redesigned the towering box structure signage with their own branding featuring the restaurant’s name written in cursive with a sombrero atop the letter A. The burrito and taco spot, which serves diners 24 hours a day, continues to use the fast-food chain’s drive-thru. 905 N. Azusa Avenue #2643, Covina, CA 91722.
Mexicali Taco & Co.
Chef Esdras Ochoa and his partner Paul Yoo took over a former Wienerschnitznel in San Gabriel to open a follow-up to their Chinatown Mexicali Taco & Co. location in 2020. “When I saw this location, it appealed to me because it was a unique space that was freestanding, not in a strip mall, and had 14 parking spaces,” Yoo said.
Before Mexicali moved in, the space was painted orange and served Chinese jianbing. Yoo and Ochoa painted the A-frame a fiery red, a nod to their original location’s color. Instead of corn dogs, this spot is now home to Ochoa’s style of Northern Baja dishes including vampiro quesadillas and Cantonese-style al pastor. Note: Mexicali Taco & Co. closed for business this month. 1811 S. San Gabriel Boulevard, San Gabriel, CA 91776.