Why This Little Southern Burger Chain Just Couldn't Make It
Back in the mid-1970s, a businessman named John Brown had an idea. He had tried a burger in a Miami restaurant and was so struck by the spice-filled patty, he wanted to build a national chain around it. The restaurant wasn’t going to be your typical burger joint, though. Brown wanted the fast-food outlets to serve up their burgers, hot dogs, fries, and milkshakes in tiny replicas of old-fashioned streetcars. Brown envisioned one of these tiny streetcar restaurants in every city in America, which would be a challenge for even the most stalwart businessman
If anyone could do it, though, it was probably Brown. Not only was he the former governor of Kentucky, but he had purchased the rights to turn Kentucky Fried Chicken into a national chain from Colonel Harland Sanders himself. According to Memphis Magazine, he also started the successful Lum's chain of restaurants, used to own the Boston Celtics basketball team, and married a Miss America (Phyllis George). That’s all to say, Brown was a man who was capable of making big dreams come true.
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Brown came upon the burger that spawned a restaurant chain at Ollie's Sandwich Shop, a North Miami Beach spot where the notoriously grumpy and charismatic Oliver Gleichenhaus had been serving up his secret recipe for hamburgers since the mid-1930s. In 1971, Brown bought Gleichenhaus's recipe for $1 million finally learning the 26 (or maybe 32?) herbs and spices that went into the mix. He told Gleichenhaus that he wanted to make him “bigger than the Colonel” putting his burger on plates everywhere.
He then set about introducing the Ollieburger to the world, first through his Lum’s restaurant chain. He then made the burger the star of the show in his new streetcar-themed-chain called Ollie's Trolleys, where “the world’s best hamburger” was served up in bright yellow and red replicas of old- fashioned streetcars. While burgers were the star, Ollie’s Trolleys also offered traditional diner fare like hotdogs, chicken sandwiches, milkshakes, and Ollie's equally spice-filled fries.
The first Ollie's Trolley opened in Louisville in the mid-1970s, and the company quickly expanded across the South, including locations in Memphis, Nashville, and Atlanta. According to the Bitter Southerner’s comprehensive history of the chain, by 1976, there were almost 100 Ollie’s Trolleys nationwide. Some of those iconic red trolleys were parked in actual parking lots, too. According to the owner of the Ollie’s Trolley outpost in Washington, D.C. Brown the locations started as “a gimmick to pay less rent” because he could “rent four parking spots and have a nice hamburger place."
Unfortunately, Ollie’s Trolleys was not going to match the success that Brown found with Kentucky Fried Chicken. According to the Bitter Southerner, the spice-filled burger was too much for customers used to the simple beef patty. The Ollieburger was too spicy and too salty and were very much a matter of taste. Adding to the Ollie’s Trolleys headache, the drive-through restaurant was becoming increasingly popular and it was getting harder to lure people out of cars and into replica streetcars too small to eat in.
In 1978, Brown sold Lum’s to a Swiss company and pulled the plug on Ollie’s, too. It was a rare business failure for Brown, who despite owning sports franchises and running the state of Kentucky, couldn’t shake the restaurant bug. He went on to open Kenny Rogers Roasters and Roadhouse Grill.
A few Ollie's Trolleys still survive, though, including outposts in Louisville, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C., where you can still try the spice-filled burger today.