The Original “No Rules” Neighborhood Pub
Founded in 1969 by Howard Johnsons, The Ground Round was designed as a neighborhood pub where people of all ages and backgrounds could feel comfortable and relaxed. In the early years, the casual dining restaurant featured a limited menu with just 12 items, mainly consisting of burgers, snack foods, and beer. Patrons loved this original “No Rules” restaurant for its permissive, casual, and relaxed atmosphere.
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The Ground Round Beginnings
In 1969, in Massachusetts, nearly a decade before Chuck E. Cheese would modernize the arcade restaurant experience, The Ground Round opened its first location. It appealed to adults and children alike thanks to its carnival-like atmosphere that was intended to be fun for parents and kids.
One thing that people enjoyed was the bottomless, complimentary baskets of unshelled peanuts that were kept at each table. If you have ever visited them, then you know that the servers would encourage you to toss the shells on the floor. Not that encouragement was necessarily needed, though, because the floors were constantly littered with peanut shells.
Moreover, the restaurant would always have at least one big screen showing a slapstick silent comedy film. And since there were no rules, it wasn’t even considered rude to fix your attention on the black-and-white films if that’s what you wanted to do.
Parents widely favored Ground Round
Parents loved this place because kids’ meals were priced at mere pennies, based on their “pay what you weigh” pricing. It hosted children’s birthday parties to draw families in on the weekends, where it was common to find Bingo the Clown.
Trouble Begins to Brew
From the outside, the Ground Round appeared to have a successful business model. However, problems began to arise behind the scenes when Marriott bought Howard Johnson’s in 1979.
Over the next decade, they changed ownership four times before going public in 1991. Even though the chain owned more than 200 locations by 1993 and had public capital infused into the business, Ground Round was still struggling. Their business model, which was once considered novel, was more “passé” by this point.
In 1997, it was purchased by Massachusetts-based firm Boston Ventures at a rock-bottom price. Most people had high hopes for the company because Tom Russo, former Howard Johnson’s President, was heading up the company. In reality, though, the brand was investing little into Ground Round but still expecting franchisees to re-invest 2 percent of sales back into advertising.
Around the same time, Boston Ventures began selling off company-owned locations to try and repay over $26 million in debt. By 2004, the company owed only $3.5 million but decided to file for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. Their next move sent shockwaves across the nation as they closed every company-owned location on the Friday of Valentine’s weekend during the dinner rush.
Another Buyout & Modern Times
Following the Bankruptcy filing by Boston Ventures on February 13, 2004, a group of franchisees joined together to buy out the company. At this time, the company’s official name was The Ground Round, Inc. After its final sale, the company’s name was changed to Ground Round Independent Owners Cooperative, LLC.
Today, The Ground Round is headquartered in Freeport, Maine. The chain is still under ownership by the Independent Owners Coop, and they operate 15 locations, each with its own distinct menu, mostly in the Midwest and east. Next time you’re near one, stop in and experience the delicious food, excellent value, and friendly atmosphere that has made them a beloved dining experience for more than 50 years!
Here are The Ground Round locations still open in the USA: