Yes, my friends, there really was such a thing as a “Kmart Chef”. After five years of outstanding growth, Kresge began to explore ways to leverage the success of Kmart. Though virtually all Kmarts had in-store snack bars and/or concession stands, Kresge figured that a free-standing fast food restaurant, complete with the Kmart brand name and located next to the main store, would be an effective way to snare those customers who managed to escape the store with their lunch or dinner dollars still in pocket. It was also assumed that the highly visible locations of the Kmarts – typically on high-traffic streets or adjacent to highways - would draw an ample number of customers as well. The first Kmart Chef, pictured above, was opened in October, 1967 next to the Pontiac, Michigan Kmart. Plans were announced for 10 more to open in 1968.
The stores were somewhat of a hybrid between a McDonald’s-type fast food restaurant and a cafeteria. Customers walked up to a counter (ala McDonald’s) but were given a tray to push along a stainless-steel cafeteria line. The Kmart Chefs did have interior seating, something that McDonald’s was in the process of a frenetic transition to as they replaced their famous red and white-striped walk-up drive-ins with sit-down restaurants. The initial “limited, high-turnover menu”, as Kresge described it, consisted of “hamburgers, cheeseburgers, frankfurters, fish sandwiches (gotta be ready for Lent), French fried potatoes, fried apple turnovers, assorted carbonated and fruit drinks, coffee, hot chocolate and milk”. As the outdoor sign said, hamburgers were initially 18 cents. That same year, in a controversial but fiscally necessary move, McDonald’s finally raised the price of their burgers from their traditional 15 cents to 18 cents as well.
As it turned out, only a small number of Kmart Chefs were ever opened, with the 10th store, an Albuquerque, New Mexico unit, not even opening until 1971. At that time, there were Kmart Chefs in Pontiac, Clemens and Warren MI, Erie PA, Moline IL, Wichita KS, Kansas City MO, Houston and Lubbock, TX. It was truly a random strategy, to put it charitably. The Kmart Chefs were closed down in 1974.
More successful in the long run were the Kmart gas stations. Many Kmarts had auto centers, generally free-standing units, and the addition of a Kmart-branded gas station was first tried in April, 1967 in the parking lot of an Atlanta Kmart. Pictured above is the original gas station (Check out the 100 octane gas - that stuff would probably be eight bucks a gallon now!). Two more Kmart gas stations were opened in the Metro Atlanta area the following January, beginning a strategy that Kmart has employed on and off ever since.