FOOD: Transforming the American Table

Drive-thru

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.

 

Lap mat, 1976

Gift of In-N-Out Burger

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Lap mat, 1988

Gift of In-N-Out Burger

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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.

Speaker-box panel, early 1960s

Gift of Brian A. Luscomb

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Menu board, early 1960s

Gift of Brian A. Luscomb

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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.

Drive thru, about 1960

Drive thru, about 1960

Courtesy of Jack in the Box

A giant clown and signage directed customers to the two-way speaker where they placed their orders at a Jack in the Box in Southern California.

Drive thru and walk up, about 1970

Drive thru and walk up, about 1970

Courtesy of Jack in the Box

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.

Register overlay, 1989

Gift of McDonald’s Regional Training Center

Cash register buttons programmed to specific products and options helped speed the ordering process by directly communicating orders to the people filling them. In the 1990s, computer touch screens replaced register overlays at most fast-food restaurants.

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On-the-go packaging, pre-1990s

Gift of Peter M. Warner

Clamshell packaging made handling food products convenient and sanitary. In the late 1980s, McDonald’s and other franchises began wrapping their sandwiches in coated paper instead, after customers complained about the environmental hazards of polystyrene foam containers.

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McDonald’s drive-thru, about 2000

McDonald’s drive-thru, about 2000

Courtesy of Corbis

Sauce dispenser, 1990s

Gift of McDonald’s Regional Training Center

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Fry scoop, 1990s

Gift of McDonald’s Regional Training Center

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Specialized tools were designed to speed up the food-preparation process, eliminating deviation from established portion standards.