Chuck E. Cheese. Panda Express. Cheesecake Factory. Yum Yum Donuts. Where Did These Restaurant Chains Start?

George Geary, Made in California Vol. 2

“I was teaching at Purdue in Indiana, and I see the offramp sign that had 12 or 14 locations to eat at the next exit and I realized 90% of them were all created in California. That’s what started the whole thing,” shares award-winning chef, best-selling author and restaurant historian George Geary. “I wanted to know what the very first location of each place was. Is it still there?”

His latest venture has him expanding upon his 2021 original book Made in California (1915-1966) with Made In California, Volume 2. Here, George puts the focus on the years 1951 to 2010, highlighting over 50 more food startups that began in California before capturing the nation’s appetites, including Panda Express, Famous Amos Cookies, The Cheesecake Factory, Chuck E. Cheese, Mrs. Fields’ Chocolate Chippery, Ruby’s and plenty more. The stories and photos are gloriously retro.

“I like getting into the restaurants or the chains and learning about the business aspect of how they started, how they keep going,” George shares. “For instance, like Johnny Rockets, the owner sold the company and then he died almost a couple of years right after, and the company knew nothing about their history. I would be doing research and I would think, who can I find that knows about them? I finally found the founder’s daughter through an op-ed that she did about 10 years ago in the LA Times. I was able to get together for lunch [with her] and she brought a whole stack of family pictures. … I like to talk to the founders if I can, or the kids of the founders.”

Johnny Rockets is one of the restaurants featured in George Geary's Made in California, Vol 2

Credit: George Geary

With such encyclopedic knowledge of the culinary world, it’s surprising to learn that George really didn’t spend much time eating out with his family when he was growing up.

“I remember the first restaurant I went to that had a tablecloth, I was only about seven,” George tells. “We went and visited some friends that were staying at a hotel close to the LA airport, and I was so impressed with the tablecloth, but also that a chilled fork came with our salad. The waiter asked, ‘Would you like a fork?’ And I thought, ‘Well, how else am I going to eat my salad if I don’t have a fork?’ And then when I touched it, it was ice cold and I thought, okay, this is fancy.”

And fancy he would go on to become in the food and culinary world. (BTW, George created all the cheesecakes for Blanche, Rose, Dorothy and Sophia on The Golden Girls!)

Really, you name it, and George has probably done it.

Rudy's Restaurant in California is featured in George Geary's Made in California Vol 2

Credit: George Geary

For 30 years he has been sharing food, tips and advice on morning television, along with serving as a casting judge for popular shows and writing a slew of mouth-watering and entertaining cookbooks and books.

The esteemed author and pastry-chef extraordinaire has worked at Walt Disney (the best place), has traveled the globe (he’s visited 119 countries to date, but who’s counting!), but California has a special place in his heart.

Take for example, Hof’s Hut (original location on 2nd Street in Long Beach), which opens Volume 2, where George shares the story of the Hofman Family, who took a beach hut selling 15-cent hamburgers and hot dogs in the 1950s and turned it into a popular diner that expanded to 13 locations, three of which are still in operation today.

“Like many restaurants of the day, hiring female pie bakers was the best way to get these homemade-looking pies. Marie Callender worked for the Hofman family, making pies and baked goods before venturing out on her own and creating the Marie Callender Pie Shops,” George writes.

After a stint in the military, Wally Amos got a job as a mailroom clerk at the William Morris Agency in New York City and quickly rose through the ranks to become the first African American talent agent, and would represent some of the most prominent talent coming up the ranks ,including Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, George shares in his write-up on Famous Amos Cookies. Wally, of course, would go on to become the founder of those delicious Famous Amos Cookies, opening his first store on March 10, 1975, on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.

While George’s book is filled with hundreds of stories like those, he also shares fascinating factoids like the history of ownership, various locations, recipes, top items and more.

George’s passion for learning and keeping the history of these establishments alive is one to savor. His other books (he’s got 16) LA’s Legendary Restaurants and LA’s Landmark Restaurants, are a testament to that as well.

“I was sick and tired of seeing restaurants being bulldozed or closed and hearing about these places that are gone,” he tells. “My first book on restaurants was going to be focused on the restaurants of the Golden Age of movie stars in Hollywood because I wanted everyone back East to realize these places, too.”

A frontal view of Dive!, a Los Angeles theme restaurant co-owned by film director Steven Spielberg, was built to resemble a submarine both inside and out April 21, 2000 in Century City, Ca. The restaurant has been closed since late 1999 due to financial troubles and will soon face demolition. (Photo by Jason Kirk/Online USA/Getty Images)

Dive! was a Los Angeles restaurant co-owned by film director Steven Spielberg, built to resemble a submarine both inside and out when it opened in 1994. The restaurant closed in 1999. Photo: Jason Kirk/Online USA/Getty Images

When he started researching some of the hot spots, some were already gone, but the ones still in existence were steeped in stories, some dating back over 110 years. Through interviews they shared their history and recipes, and his resumé of books grew.

“My first pastry job out of culinary school was a pastry shop that provided pastries for most of these old restaurants, so I got to know the owners and the management teams. I thought this [would be] a great book to put together when I did it.”

And he was delightfully right!