The Wackiness of Jack in the Box: The Tumultuous History of America’s Weirdest Fast Food Chain

Tucker Anderson, Staff Writer

Since its first opening in 1951, Jack in the Box has made its name in strangeness.
I mean, the company’s mascot is not just a clown, and not just a bobblehead, but a clown’s face on a bobblehead. It’s really incredible – whoever pitched the idea for Jack walked a fine line between brilliance and corporate insanity.
And yet, seventy one years later, Jack in the Box is an almost two billion dollar franchise with more than 2,200 locations serving around 500 million customers a year. It offers burgers and tacos and pancakes and shakes – often sold together. In a really pretty brilliant advertising move, the company broke the Guinness world record for the largest coupon ever – measuring eighty by twenty five feet – for a buy one get one free Buttery Jack burger, a coupon then redeemed by none other than the clown-faced Jack himself. And let’s be honest – any company that can be listed in the same breath as McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s is a company that’s doing exceptionally well.
But how much do you really know about Jack in the Box? It’s been a wild ride for this now well-known business, and it certainly wasn’t always pretty.
Jack in the Box’s first incarnation was Topsy’s Drive-In, a small start-up food chain founded by a certain Robert O. Peterson in 1941. Topsy’s did fairly well for itself, but only once Peterson decided to rename the chain Oscar’s (his middle name) did sales really take off. Under this moniker Peterson unleashed the drive-through concept on the world, an idea that would revolutionize the fast-food industry forever. So next time you spend five minutes at a fast food joint without stepping foot into the business, you’ve got Robert O. Peterson and his Oscar’s chain to thank.
Gradually, all Oscar’s locations developed a carnival atmosphere, with bright striped colors and depictions of a bobblehead clown. Peterson decided to run with the theme, renaming all of the companies after the mascot – Jack in the Box – in the year 1951. Thus, the clown and its company officially came to be.
From the beginning, Peterson’s brainchild boasted a little more uniqueness than your average fast food place. The newly-minted drive through, for example, looked very different than it does today. Customers drove up and spoke into a small clown head connected to an intercom, and upon the completion of their order a huge clown head atop the building boomed out their completed orders. Regardless of – or more accurately, because of – the uniqueness, Jack in the Box proved to be immensely successful. It took off vertically in the 1950s to the 1970s, going from a local fast food chain to a legitimate competitor to large, established corporations like McDonald’s. And, of course, Jack in the Box did it with style and its own unique flare. In keeping with Peterson’s tradition of being the forefront of fast food evolution, Jack in the Box became the first restaurant to debut a breakfast sandwich, introduced their signature Jumbo Jack (which was considered among the largest burgers you could order anywhere at the time), and even served a special fish sandwich called the Moby Jack, all in under twenty years. Peterson, having watched the rise of his company with some delight, bid the chain a fond adieu when he sold it to the Ralston-Purina food company in the year 1967, near the end of one of the company’s most prosperous periods.
When progress began to falter in the latter half of the nineteen seventies, Ralston-Purina decided to take the company in a new direction. Jack in the Box aired commercials in which they literally blew up the clown-faced Jack and announced that they would no longer be competing for the business of young families with small children, who mostly preferred McDonald’s anyways, but would now aim for “yuppies” – a title belonging to young college-educated city-residing adults employed in comfortable occupations. The tactic worked like a charm – sales rose, business boomed, and the company’s outlook was excellent.
But then the year 1993 rolled around, and in undoubtedly the worst tragedy of Jack in the Box’s storied history, the company suffered an E-coli outbreak originating in under cooked Jack in the Box burgers. Of the 732 people infected, 171 were hospitalized and four died. Almost overnight, Jack in the Box became the most infamous fast food business in America, and the loss of trust showed in the financial reports. Imminent bankruptcy lay on the horizon for the once-prosperous food chain.
Desperate to return to their wacky but profitable ways, Jack in the Box released what would be the beginning of the aforementioned longest running ad campaign ever. It consisted of Jack, having miraculously returned from a fiery demise back in the late nineteen seventies, talking to the camera as he walks through Jack in the Box headquarters. He asserts that he’s back to claim his rightful place as the CEO and head of the company. Upon arriving at the boardroom, Jack looks up at the sign, pulls out a trigger, and blows up the boardroom. Classic Jack in the Box weirdness.
And yet, in spite of – or more likely because of – the goofiness, the ad campaign was a resounding success. After taking a terrible 69 million dollar loss, Jack in the Box returned to the winning category with a 20 million dollar profit margin after spending a fair 35 million dollars on remodeling all of the Jack in the Box businesses. Since then, Jack in the Box has repaired its image and returned to its rightful place as a big-money competitor with the likes of McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s.
Still, Jack in the Box continues to move comfortably in the realm of the experimental. Despite being a burger place, their most popular item is their two-for-one dollar tacos; in fact, Wall Street Journal posted an article on the phenomenon that attempted, unsuccessfully, to explain the reason behind America’s obsession with the greasy feast. At one time, Jack in the Box actually had a boy band, dubbed The Meaty Cheesy Boys. And before you write them off too quickly, this Jack in the Box music group got invited to the 1999 Billboard Music Awards, where they performed their most famous (and only) tune – “Ultimate Cheeseburger”. For a short while, Jack in the Box tried its hand at fast casual (think Panda Express or Chipotle, where you order more upscale food along a counter and build your own meal) in the form of a corporate spin off called JBX grill. It was a laudable effort, but ultimately a complete and utter failure, and JBX grills were soon transformed back into regular Jack in the Box businesses. And if that’s not enough, Jack the mascot has a whole background – a driver’s license (where he’s listed at the height of 6’8, 195 pounds), a family (a wife named Cricket Box and a son named Jack Box Jr.), and even a birth date – May 16th.
So next time you drive by your local Jack in the Box, perhaps stop by, buy a taco, and toast the brilliance of Peterson. Spend a little time appreciating one of the most famous and recognizable mascots of all time. Or maybe just go for the sake of getting something a little out of the ordinary – at Jack in the Box, there’s plenty to go around.