While fast-food restaurants had been around since the 1920s, drive-thru dining came of age in car-crazy California in the 1950s. By the 1970s, major fast-food franchises nationwide began to install drive-thru windows. With increases in single-parent households, after-school activities, and commute times, fast food that you could order and eat without leaving your car became commonplace. By 2014, one study estimated that 20 percent of all meals in the United States were eaten in a car.
At the first In-N-Out Burger drive-thru, which opened in California in 1948, customers received sheets of butcher paper to protect their laps while eating in their cars. Soon, printed “lap mats” were a regular feature of the chain.
Jack in the Box restaurants, opened in 1951, had no inside seating. Customers in their cars ordered using a two-way speaker. The concept was so new that customers had to be warned that a disembodied voice would speak to them.
Speed Behind the Counter
In the 1980s, many fast-food chains began reporting that 50 percent of their daily business was conducted through drive-thru windows, which increased profit margins. Restaurants perfected and minimized steps in the ordering and assembly processes to serve as many drive-thru customers as possible, especially during the lunch rush. Fast-food companies formulated foods that could be held in one hand and easily chewed while driving. By 2017, the top fifteen fast-food chains averaged between around two minutes and four minutes to complete an order.
Specialized tools were designed to speed up the food-preparation process, eliminating deviation from established portion standards.