To most, when one sees an abandoned Biff-Burger Drive-In location along the side of the road, whether it is still used by another business or not, and whether or not the viewer knows what he or she is actually looking at, .... it becomes quite apparent what the former establishment originally was due to its unique architectural characteristics and various design elements that were incorporated into the building design.
This page is an attempt to point out and discuss the major architectural elements used by the National Biff-Burger System in its various styles of buildings and road signs used at its drive-in locations as it evolved from its original inception in 1956 by Bruce and Earl Brane.
Many of these buildings and road signs continue to exist today, beating the odds of demolition, forces of weather, and time itself. These roadside icons represent a historical era of a former drive-in burger chain called Biff-Burger.
Early Box Style (1st Generation)
During the early years of Biff-Burger, between 1956 and the early 1960's, and prior to the creation of the prefabricated "Port-A-Unit" building, many Biff-Burger locations where square or "box-style" buildings, many similar in design to that used by ice cream stands with side canopies. Considering that the Biff-Burger System and its Drive-Ins were founded within Clearwater-Largo area of Florida, it is not suprising that many of the early buildings located here were of this type of design until the "Port-A-Unit" building was created and fabricated later in the early 1960's .
Due to the age of these earlier locations, many of the buildings from the early Drive-In locations are not around any more as continued commercial development has demolished most of them or have been structurally modified. The former Biff-Burger, located at 102 N. Missouri Ave. in Largo, FL, near Largo High School, opened in 1957, and was Bruce and Earl Brane's second Biff-Burger location. It is believed that this location is an existing example of the original box style building used for the early Biff-Burgers. It is noted that this location originally had only 1 roof canopy on its left side in which customers could be seated at tables. The current building has seen a few modifications over the years and is currently used by Largo Subs.
Another fine example of this early type of Biff-Burger building can be seen on this vintage postcard, which portrays the former building at 2208 S. Dale Mabry in Tampa, FL, commonly referred to as the "Clearview Biff-Burger" and is located adjacent to the Plant High School. It is believed that this is Tampa's 1st Biff-Burger location, opened in 1957, and is noted for having 2 roof canopies, one on each side of the building for covered seating.
Despite being simplistic in design, the structure is quite common for hamburger drive-ins during the 1950's with walk-up ordering windows at the front of the structure and attached roof canopies located along the side of the building which covered the customer seating area(s). Once the fast food hamburger race began in the 1960's with various large and small hamburger drive-in chains, each hamburger company sought after a creative and eye-catching design for their buildings to bring-in customers.... hence the "Port-A-Unit" building was created!
Port-A-Unit (2nd Generation)
Biff-Burger's second generation of building style and the most recognizable is the "Port-A-Unit". The Port-A-Unit was a pre-fabricated structure which could be fabricated at Biff-Burger's fabrication facility, offered to any potential franchise owner, and be transported and set-up at one's location with ease. The Port-A-Unit concept was an ingenious masterpiece which launched the National Biff-Burger System to stay competitive with other growing hamburger chains at the time by allowing it to franchise its drive-in restaurants with a 'standard' structure and accomplished corporate uniformity with all of its franchised drive-in locations. With the use of trendy architectural details, such as up-swept roofs, bright colors, and space-age influenced satellite balls atop its road signs and buildings, the Port-A-Unit quickly became a familiar icon along many roads within the southeastern states of the United States.
In order to truly appreciate the architectural details and elements used for the Port-A-Unit building and its accompanying road sign, one must understand the social and economic issues during the 1950's and early 1960's, which greatly influenced the styles and architecture of new construction. Many buildings at the time have been coined the term as being part of "Googie Architecture" which is credited to have been started in Southern California during the early 1950's. Googie architecture is a style of architecture which was used to create commercial structures, shopping centers, and other roadside locations to be more attractive while incorporating current culture trends, many being space-age, industrial, and futuristic in design. An excellent website on the introduction of Googie and its various building elements can be seen at the Googie Architecture Online at spaceagecity.com. According to the list of "googie" elements listed by Googie Architecture Online, many of these design elements can be seen in Biff-Burger's "Port-A-Unit" including Upswept Roofs, Exposed Steel Beams, and Starbursts (lighted star ball).
Other design elements used for the "Port-A-Unit" fabricated structures also included, and described in further detail below, are: the Walk-Up Counter with Windows, Stripped Roof w/ Upswept Canopies ("W"-Shaped beams), use of Colored Insignia Diamonds, Diamond Pattern Gable, Outside Seating Area w/ Concrete Picnic Tables and Colorful Umbrellas, the Lighted "Star" or "Satellite" Ball used on the top of many buildings and road signs, and the Road Sign.
Below is an image of an original framed print of an artist conceptual sketch of the proposed Port-A-Unit structure and site layout of the drive-in, provided by the late Doug Brane, son of co-founder Bruce Brane.
It is believed that the National Biff-Burger System (NBBS) proposed this building design during the early 1960's and began fabricating and offering them to potential franchisees around 1962, based on reliable information sources. This artist rendition is a unique item exhibiting all of the design elements listed above as proposed and used during fabrication of the prefabricated facilities.
There are 2 items worth mentioning about the artist concept pictured above. The first, is that one will note that the roof structure with side canopies is supported by only 2 steel columns and cantilevered beams on each side where as most former Biff-Burger Drive-Ins, if not all of them, had three columns and cantilevered beams per side. Second, the proposed road sign is different in design from that most commonly used at the majority of former Biff-Burger Drive-In locations. This difference between the "conceptual" design and the most common "Diamond" version of the road sign is discussed below under the section titled, "Road Signs".
"A-Wedge / A-Frame" Shaped
Another style of building that Biff-Burger used, which is not considered a generation style of building after the "Port-A-Unit", but rather a variation influenced by geographical region, is the "A-Wedge" or "A-Frame" shaped type of building that was used by many former Biff-Burger locations within Greensboro, North Carolina and within Virginia during the early 1960's (1960-1962?).
Like many new buildings constructed during the early 1960's, this style of building used many "googie" design elements listed by Googie Architecture Online. Many of these design elements included: Boomerang or Arrow Shaped Building, Upswept Roof, Exposed Steel Beams, and Large Sheet Glass Windows.
This type of construction came to be through a entrepreneur named William Kenney. William Kenney, referred by many as Bill Kenney, owned several franchised Biff-Burger locations within Virginia during the early years of Biff-Burger, believed to be between 1958 and 1961. During the early years, the National Biff-Burger System had not yet developed the familiar "Port-A-Unit" prefabricated building, as described above, and wasn't able to offer their perspective franchisees a building that would later be the "standard" and used at the majority of Biff-Burger locations. So, Mr. Kenney hired an architect to create the building with its familiar pointy roof and large frontal windows to be used at his various drive-in locations within Virginia. Many of Mr. Kenney's Biff-Burger Drive-Ins (prior to October 1962) and early Kenney's Drive-In locations (post October 1962) were of this type of construction. (see notes on Kenney's Drive-Ins)
Today, several former locations within Virginia still exists as either Kenney's Restaurants or other businesses. Such locations include: Lexington, Lynchburg (1962), and Martinsville (1961), Virginia.
Bill Kenney also shared his architect's plans for the proposed building to an individual named Fish Miller, who was also interested in franchising Biff-Burger within the Greensboro North Carolina area and later owned several Biff-Burger locations within the city. Today two locations of Mr. Miller's former Biff-Burger Drive-Ins are known to still exist. The best preserved example and most recognized, is located at 1040 West Lee Street (1961) and remains open to this date as Beef Burger, also referred to as Beef Burger No. 2, thanks to the dedication of owner Ralph Havis. (see Beef Burger notes) Ralph has truly keep the Biff-Burger dream alive by renaming his location to Beef Burger after the National Biff-Burger System went under. The other existing building in Greensboro is located at 2311 E. Bessemer Ave. (1960), formerly referred to as Biff-Burger No. 1, and has had numerous businesses since this Biff-Burger location closed. It is believed that the third former Biff-Burger location in Greensboro, historically referred to as Biff Burger No. 3, located at 2625 Battleground Avenue was similar in construction as the other two even though today the original building is gone.
This building style was also used by many locations of Ray's Kingburger drive-ins scattered through out North Carolina and Southern Virginia (see notes on Ray's Kingburger). It is not known if the original architect hired by Bill Kenney, who shared his building plans to Fish Miller, also shared his plans with the founding owners of Ray's Kingburgers. It is reasonable to believe, based on visual appearences, that the type of building used for Ray's Kingburger locations is identical to that used by early Kenney's and Biff-Burgers in the region.
Today, many of these former Rays' Kingburger locations within North Carolina and Virginia still exists as other businesses. Such locations include: Mt. Airy and Kingston in North Carolina, and Blacksburg, Virginia.
Other Building Styles
Another potential variation of a Biff-Burger building used that may be geographically influenced, are the buildings used for the Biff-Burger Drive-In locations in Canada.
At this time, there is no documented source that supports that any of the known Biff-burger Drive-In locations in Canada, or even within the United States, resemble the style of building depicted on the matchbook cover. However, it is reasonable to assume that locations in Canada could be different than the standard "Port-A-Unit" style of building used throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states of the United States due to the very lengthy mileage and increased costs associated with transporting a pre-fabricated building from Florida (where they were fabricated) to Canada.
Accordion Roof Design
Another version of the Biff-Burger building is more of a different type or design of roof rather than the actual building. The noticeable roof resembles much like an accordion. To date, only 2 former Biff-Burger locations are known to have a building with an accordion roof and both are still existing. An excellent example is located at 817 Southern Blvd. in West Palm Beach Florida, note the concrete picnic tables, and the other example is located at 2315 East Morgan Ave. Evansville, Indiana, formerly Al's Biff-Burger Drive-In.
Both locations are categorized together due to their architectural similarity, even though the Evansville, Indiana location has 7-folds in its roof and the West Palm Beach, Florida location has 6-folds.
Downward Arrow Semi-Ameba Style (1st Generation)
At first glance, when one looks at the first generation of road sign that Biff-Burger used during its early years, one may suggest that it is similar in design to that of a classic Holiday Inn "Great" sign, designed by the Cummings Company of Nashville TN, used during the same time period of the 1950's and 1960's. The first generation of Biff-Burger road signs are best described as being 'semi-ameba' in shape with a 'Vegas-style' downward pointed lighted arrow.
The first generation style of Biff-Burger road signs can be seen in many early photos of various Biff-Burger locations, early advertisements, various food packaging, and promotional material, up to about 1962 or so, when the second generation of road sign was thought to be available and began to be widely used. This style of road sign gets its name from the 'eye-catching' yellow colored 'Vegas-style' downward pointed arrow that borders the edge of the sign. The green colored sign depicts the flowing words of "Biff-Burger" within a red rectangle over the price of a biffburger within a red semi-oval shape and phrases of, "Broiled Burgers", and "Thick Shakes" within the green colored background of the sign. The semi-ameba shaped green, red, and yellow colored sign was than erected over a small marquee board used to post specials and other information to its customers.
This exact same style of road sign was also used at most, if not all, early Kenney's Drive-In locations within Virginia. Even during Kenney's predecessor days as a Biff-Burger Drive-In and long afterwards as a Kenney's Drive-In, once the name was changed (see notes on Kenney's), this style of sign was prevalent.
Diamond Style (2nd Generation)
As noted above, the "conceptual design" road sign is different in appearance than that which can be still seen today at either, the existing Biff-Burger at 3939 49th Street in St. Petersburg, many abandoned former locations, and/or former locations which are occupied by other businesses that use the original structures. However, the design is grouped with the "Diamond" style road sign as it is similar in nature and is considered the first version of the second generation of sign.
In the conceptual road sign design, the "Biff-Burger" name is exhibited in a slightly slanted or skewed rectangle with three large colored diamonds directly below it stating, "Broiled Burgers", "15 cents", and "Thick Shakes", followed by the marquee board below. This "conceptual" style of second generation Biff-Burger road sign is noted to have been actually fabricated and used at a few Biff-Burgers. One such former drive-in location, located at 2292 N. Church Street, Burlington, NC in the Cum-Park Plaza Shopping center, was opened in October 1963 and had this unique style of road sign.
However, the most common and familiar style of Biff-Burger road sign is a slight variation of the "conceptual" design road sign, which is considered the second version of the second generation. This second version depicts the flowing name "Biff-Burger" in a square rectangle, usually colored yellow, with an intermediate piece below the name that was semi "shield-shaped", usually colored blue with the words, "Roto-Broiled" and flames. This intermediate piece was then followed by a large diamond on its side which indicated the price of a biffburger at the time. When Biff-Burger originally opened up, the price of the hamburger was 19 cents, as commonly seen on the first generation of road signs. However, a few years later with increased competition with other hamburger fast food chains, the price was lowered and reflected 15 cents. Below the large yellow colored diamond, followed the marquee for posting specials and/or other information to the customers, and the three colored diamonds, but of a smaller scale than the conceptual design. Above the Biff-Burger name was a small peaked roof that mimic the "W-style" roof on the actual Port-A-Unit structures. Many of the road signs had the familiar lighted "Satellite" or "Star" ball located on its top, at the roof peak, and some did not.
With this new style of road sign and its use of geometric shapes and bright contrasting colors, the Biff-Burger was quite noticeable! Finally, the National Biff-Burger System had a package that consisted of a prefabricated, easy to transport and assemble building, which became the "standard", along with a colorful eye-catching road sign that was available and could be offered to franchisees. Up until the final death of the National Biff-Burger System in 1976, the Biff-Burger Drive-In never changed its style of building or road sign again after the "Port-A-Unit" and its accompanying road sign.