Johnny Carson was the definitive talk show host of the 20th century, hosting The Tonight Show for three decades at a time when it was the undisputed king of late night television. Carson started his career as a professional broadcaster in Omaha, a fact that is fondly remembered.
Carson started at WOW-TV in Omaha in the 1950s, and he remained friendly with many of his coworkers there long after he became a national celebrity. Carson was also an amateur magician and performed locally, a fact that appears now and then in local stories about the man.
A now-defunct local business was associated with Carson’s name, too. But this endeavor has received less attention, as it didn’t go all that well.
The idea was not Carson’s. It was that of Gilbert “Gibby” Swanson Jr., one of the scions of the Swanson company that introduced TV dinners to the American public. Gibby was the third generation of Swansons to run the company, despite his background, which had mostly been in various elements of security and law enforcement (which supposedly remained an obsession of his).
Swanson approached Carson with the idea of a restaurant chain bearing Johnny Carson’s name. It would serve typical American food with a Johnny Carson touch, such as the “Carnac Burger,” a sandwich named after one of Carson’s signature characters, an all-seeing seer in a feathered turban.
Carson lent his name to the project, but, he later claimed, little else—he was neither the owner of the business nor a stakeholder. He was, instead, board chairman, a job that was “mostly for publicity purposes,” according to the World-Herald. This would prove important later.
There was initially much excitement about the opening of the chain, which debuted in Omaha on 72nd Street in 1969. Carson himself came out to promote the opening, taking a tour of his old haunts and charming the press. A second restaurant opened on Saddle Creek, but only lasted a few years.
Meanwhile, Here’s Johnny’s restaurants began to spring up across America—a reported 302 franchises were purchased in the U.S. and Canada. Of those that opened, most were short-lived, and in 1979 the company went bankrupt. The World-Herald reported that the Swanson family took a bath on the enterprise, with Gibby losing $1.77 million of his own money; Gibby owed another $1.2 million to other Swanson companies and his brother, Jay.
Several franchise owners filed lawsuits against the company, claiming disastrous rollout, including kitchen equipment that “disintegrated,” as well as claims that franchisees were told Carson himself had invested in the company, only to later learn that this wasn’t true. In September 1976, the first Here’s Johnny’s restaurant on 72nd closed, bringing an end to the business.
This wasn’t Gibby’s only failed franchise, but there is a happier ending to another story: Gibby hoped to start a franchise of fried chicken restaurants targeted at inner-city business owners, and partnered with sports stars Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer to achieve this goal. While the business never developed into a true franchise, it did manage to open one restaurant: Time Out Foods, which is still a beloved institution in North Omaha.
Visit timeoutfoods.com for more information.