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Fast Food Drive-Thru: A Product of the Car Culture

Historical Facts | September 24, 2018

Drivers wait in the drive-thru line at an In-N-Out Burger restaurant in Alhambra, California. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

In the years following World War II, the automobile became more affordable. Most American families owned at least one. With car ownership came the rise in car culture … the freedom of mobility that enticed many people to go on road trips and experience the wonders of travel. The nation’s new highway system made it even easier to hit the open road. Of course, traveling makes one hungry, but families wanted a quick bite to eat so they could jump back on the road and get to their destination quicker. Enter the fast food restaurant…with their limited menus and assembly-line approach to meal preparation. Fast food was fast…but sometimes, it wasn’t fast enough. The fast-food drive-thru was created to get hot food into the customer's hands faster and more conveniently, without the need to even get out of the car. Drive-thru's changed the American lifestyle. 

The First Drive-Thru was on Route 66

Route 66, America’s highway, became an iconic symbol of the new-found mobility of the American people. Route 66, also called the Will Rogers Highway, starts in Chicago and ends in Los Angeles. In between, the highway ran through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and finally, California, ending right by the Santa Monica Pier. The road was made even more popular by the 1946 Nat King Cole song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” and by the hit television series, “Route 66”, which aired from 1960 to 1964. Of course, while getting your kicks on Route 66, you may get hungry and want something to eat…

From Fast Food to Even Faster Food

With so many people traveling along Route 66, enterprising business owners near the highway capitalized on the influx of visitors by building restaurants aplenty. Then came the gimmicks to try to lure patrons to choose to dine at one restaurant over another. Among the gimmicks was the promise of fast food that will get the travelers back on the road as quickly as possible. But the fast food wasn’t fast enough for the Americans romanced by the car culture. They wanted good, hot food delivered right to their car window without having to get out of the car. In 1947, Sheldon “Red” Chaney, owner of Red’s Giant Hamburg, a fast food joint along Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri, opened the first drive-thru window to serve his customers even faster. Red’s Giant Hamburg kept that drive-thru open until the restaurant finally went out of business in 1984. 

In-N-Out Burger Opened as a Burger Joint

The fast food restaurant chain with the longest operating drive-thru service is In-N-Out Burger. This west coast fast food chain first opened in 1948 in Los Angeles as a burger stand and soon started catering to motorists looking for a quick meal. In-N-Out Burger wowed its customers with a unique, high-tech, two-way speaker so customers could place their order before they even got to the drive-thru window. 

Jack in the Box Was the First Drive-Thru Only Restaurant

Although many Jack in the Box restaurants now have a dining room, when the California-based chain first opened in 1951, it was a drive-thru only fast food stand. The very first Jack in the Box, located in San Diego, sold a burger for 18-cents each and delivered the hot and ready burgers right to motorists car windows. Jack in the Box remains focused on its drive-thru service and claims that about 85% of its business is conducted through their drive-thru windows. 

Jack in the Box Even Created a Fake Holiday to Honor the Drive-Thru

As a unique marketing ploy, executives at Jack in the box even created a fake holiday to pay homage to the drive-thru dining experience. According to the company, National Drive-Thru Day should be celebrated every July 24…but you won’t find it highlighted on most calendars. 

McDonald’s was Late to the Drive-Thru Game

Believe it or not, McDonald’s, the biggest fast-food chain, didn’t offer a drive-thru window until 1975. McDonald’s, which began in 1955 in Des Plaines, Illinois, had grown to more than 3,000 restaurants across the country and even had several international locations, long before it decided to introduce a drive-thru window. The first McDonald’s restaurant with a drive-thru window was in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Soon, drive-thru service became a staple at almost all McDonald’s locations and accounts for more than half of the sales. 

Burger King Joined McDonald’s, But Taco Bell and Wendy’s Already Beat Them With Their Own Drive-Thru's

Not to be outdone by McDonald’s, rival Burger King also opened its first drive-thru windows in 1975. But these two fast-food giants were latecomers to the drive-thru experience. Wendy’s, which was founded in 1969, opened its first drive-thru window in 1971. Taco Bell opened theirs in 1967. 

Are Drive-Thru's a Thing of the Past?

Although nearly every fast food and semi-fast food chain, including Steak ‘n Shake, White Castle, Panera, Portillo’s, Carl, Jr. and Dairy Queen, have drive-thru windows, there are some holdouts. Chipotle, for example, claims they will never offer a drive-thru option. And only a few Subway restaurants…less than 10%...have drive-thru windows. Recently Taco Bell, which claims to do between 55 and 70% of their business via the drive-thru window, stated that many of the new restaurants the franchise is slated to build will not have a drive-thru window. Instead, the company wants to create a cantina feel that shies away from the preconceived ideas of fast food. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.