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Whatever Happened to Mr. Swiss? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Lackmeyer   
Saturday, 02 January 2010 01:04

Former Mr. Swiss restaurant at 2423 SW 59

The folks at Rainbow Chinese Restaurant seem nice enough. But this story isn’t about Rainbow Chinese Restaurant – it’s about a mystery and the restaurant’s building at SW 59 and Villa is where we start our investigation.

The architecture of the building is unmistakably a reminder of what was once a national fast food chain based right here in Oklahoma City. Buildings consisting of a box built in front of an A-frame with the roof sloping just a foot or two off the ground can still be found all over the country.

And once upon a time, they were home to Mr. Swiss. And while a couple of these restaurants still exist in other states, the chain itself has long since disappeared.

A 2005 photo of the last known surviving Mr. Swiss restaurant sign in Cummings, Ga., before it disappeared. Photo courtesy of Nick Gray.

(Photo courtesy of Nick Gray) 

Maybe it was ahead of its time. Or maybe there is a darker side to this story. The chain was started in 1964 by L.J. Doerfler and featured a diverse menu that included 34 soft-style ice cream flavors and 11 sandwiches ranging from a 25-cent hot dog or hamburger to a 69-cent corned beef and roast beef sandwich.

Doerfler’s father, Lawrence M. Doerfler, died in 1961 at age 55. Doerfler Sr. was apparently a big shot on the southside and ran a construction company he founded in 1936 at 1111 E Commerce. And 1111 E Commerce starts to show up in classified advertisements in 1964 seeking Tastee Freeze franchisees. Just one year later 1111 E Commerce is listed as the Mr. Swiss headquarters run by L.J. Doerfler.

Thanks to an aggressive franchising strategy that included advertising in newspapers from Seattle to Florida, the Oklahoma City-based chain grew to 175 locations as of 1969.

It was that year that Newsweek singled out the company as one of seven new public issues in franchising field that more than doubled within weeks of going public. 

Advertisements were placed in newspapers across the country recruiting franchisees.

In a 1969 interview with The Oklahoman, Doerfler predicted the chain was about to grow to more than 2,200 with restaurants under contract or being built.

“When we began to plan for Mr. Swiss, we made a detailed study of existing food franchises,” Doerfler said. “We attempted to incorporate the good points of all of them and to improve all areas that were weak.”

The sales pitch to potential franchisees promised guaranteed leases and extensive support from the Oklahoma City office to ensure success. But even as the chain as clearly exploding in size, Doerfler was turning his attention to other ventures, including acquisition of Dutch Boy of American, an automatic car wash franchise operation, and even started up a banking arm.

Doerfler promised he was turning the operation over to a trusted hand, W.R. Thompson, a former executive vice president with Mr. Swiss. Thompson, however, had an odd outlook on restaurant skills needed to be a successful franchisee.

“A person with absolutely no food experience can be a successful Mr. Swiss store operator,” Thompson said. “We have taken all the guesswork out of store operations. Our training program is the best and each facet of store operation is outlined in a store owner’s manual. Every store has the full backing of the parent company and franchise holder.” 

mr swiss stock

So far, we have a pretty complete story. But here is where the mysteries begin. First, we’re given an address of 1111 E Commerce, Oklahoma City, for the Mr. Swiss corporate office. I can not find any such address. Am I missing something?

After much searching I sought out some help from some veteran southsiders at www.okctalk.com. Commerce is the well known unofficial name for SW 25 as it goes through Capitol Hill. But all agreed that wouldn't mesh at all with 1111 E Commerce. One person suggested that maybe the Commerce name once applied to SE 25 as well.

A check of County Assessor records wasn't very helpful. It indicated 1111 SE 25 is the home of a cleaners operation with buildings built in the late 1970s. So that wouldn't describe the Doerfler property, which dated back to the 1950s as the home of Doerfler Construction. Could there be a mistake? Or another explanation? A search of Oklahoman archives shows a major fire at the property in 1990. That could explain why records don't show any older buildings at the site.

My second hint, the one that clinched it, however, was a neighbor. H. Waggoner & Co. placed a classified ad in 1962 that listed their address as 1611 E Commerce. That address, like 1111 E Commerce, no longer appears to exist. So what happens if I look up 1611 SE 25 today? It belongs to Wagonner & Co., still in the pump and pipe supply business. And the photos for Wagonner show buildings that definitely have been around for a half century. So now we know where Mr. Swiss' corporate headquarters was located.

swiss advertisement

City directories and old phone books indicate the Mr. Swiss franchises didn't last long locally. In the 1969 directories we see 10 restaurants in the Oklahoma City metro: 1525 S Boulevard, Edmond, 1220 N Eastern, 3721 NW 50, 6000 NW 38, Bethany, 3014 S Pennsylvania, 7801 NW 23, 2423 SW 59, 2917 S Douglas, Midwest City, 8301 N Western, and 4117 S Robinson.The 1971 directories and phone books indicate each restaurant taking on a different owernship name "Mr. Swiss of Bethany," "Mr. Swiss of deVille," and "Mr. Swiss of Hillcrest," and so on.

And by 1973, there's no mention of Mr. Swiss restaurants operating anywhere in Oklahoma City or surrounding suburbs. Maybe bad news got to the locals first.

It appears as if something went amiss with the company’s sale to First World Corp., a New York investment firm led by Christos Netelkos. SEC records show the April 30, 1971 sale of Mr. Swiss for $3.725 million marked the end of majority control by Doerfler, though news accounts indicated he was staying on board as a marketing executive.

A year later we see an SEC investigation into securities violations by Netelkos regarding registration provisions to shareholders of Mr. Swiss. By now the franchise campaign has disappeared from newspapers and we see the first hints of financial troubles among some of the franchisees.

Over the next several years advertisements appear for Mr. Swiss restaurant sales without any franchise requirements. Court records show a legal fight breaking out between on franchisee and the franchise holder for Missouri. In 1979, we see a Connecticut advertisement for a Mr. Swiss franchise for sale.

And then nothing. Sort of. Over the next decade we see Netelkos convicted and jailed for stock swindling. News accounts show his exploits earn him notice as one of the country’s most notable “stock swindlers,” going so far as to pull one scam while on the lam.

But what happened to Mr. Swiss? By all appearances the chain faded slowly and quietly. A newspaper columnist here and there would recall how much they missed the soft-serve ice cream or the sandwiches. A 1983 newspaper listing of fall-out shelters refers to the former Mr. Swiss headquarters as the Doerfler Office Building and warehouse.

Locals commenting at www.okctalk.com recall the restaurants were among the first to provide all the toppings – tomato, onion, pickle and lettuce – on their sandwiches and the diversity of the menu. Other recollections include “Tutti-Fruiti” ice cream and buildings that were a bit “cheesy” and trimmed in blue.

Most agree they disappeared in the late 1970s. 

Some buildings have retained the roof sloping to the ground, as shown with the Rainbow Chinese restaurant at SW 59 and Villa, the Goodwill center at 8301 N Western and an abandoned building on S Robinson. Others have cut the roof off at the side wall, as shown with the fried pie store at NW 50 and Portland or the used car lot at SW 30 and Pennsylvania (not shown).

Former Mr. Swiss at 8301 N Western

Former Mr. Swiss at 3721 NW 50 

The last known surviving Mr. Swiss restaurant in Cumming, Ga.

(photo from Google maps)

But are any Mr. Swiss restaurants still open? Yes. We have the one shown above in Cumming, Ga., which had a fully intact sign shown at the start of this post. The sign has since fallen apart. But the restaurant is still open and while the roof of the box was altered, it has the distinctive marks of a Mr. Swiss restaurant, including the mosaic tile at the base.

Luenel Robbs and her late husband Charles bought the restaurant in 1971, two years after it had opened. The pair were drawn to the franchise, offered by an Atlanta-area franchise holder, because the menu had diversity including 32 flavors of ice cream, shakes, hamburgers, hot dogs and other sandwiches.

Not long after, the company, she said, seemed to disappear with the Atlanta franchise holder itself going out of business. With no franchiser to answer to, the couple kept the name and continued the Mr. Swiss operation until 1977, when McDonalds opened its first restaurant in the area.

"That's when we put in a breakfast," Luenel Robbs said. "My husband knew we couldn't compete with McDonalds with its advertising and happy meals. So we became a breakfast place with homemade biscuits."

Charles Robb died a few years ago and Luenel Robbs still operates the restaurant, 39 years after buying it, with her kids. Mr. Swiss no longer serves ice cream, burgers or hot dogs, but the name remains. The sign of the Swiss boy, however, was destroyed by a wind storm a couple years ago.

To see more images of Mr. Swiss restaurants (and an impressive collection of images of other vintage properties across the country), visit www.roadsidearchitecture.com.



Last Updated on Thursday, 07 January 2010 17:10