Selling prepared food ready to be eaten off the premises, known as carry-out or take-out, is as old as the restaurant itself. In Colonial days, James Hearn of New York City advertised that “families may every day be provided with plates of any dish, that may happen to be cooked that day, by sending their servants for the same.” In addition to full meals, early “restorators” and restaurateurs were also happy to deliver oysters and sweets such as freshly made ice cream, sherbets, and pastries.
After the Civil War, advertisements appeared offering “lunches put up” for travelers and tourists. Such ads became more common as time went on, especially in the 1920s as many first-time car owners took to the roadsides for vacations and Sunday outings. With relatively few restaurants outside cities, the service was a welcome one. The ads continued into the 1950s in areas that attracted seasonal fishers and hunters.
For most customers, carry-out was an added service meant to accommodate them. Not so if the customer was Black, though. Under Jim Crow in Southern states, Black customers were unwelcome in dining rooms and at lunch counters – and could only obtain food to go (if that). In the early 1960s, Black activists fought for the right of table service in white restaurants.
The post-World War II era produced not only a baby boom but also a television boom. TV-watching suburban families with young children fueled the advance of a carry-out trend in the 1950s and 1960s. By the early 1950s the restaurant industry realized it had a “television problem” but found a way to deal with it. A restaurant consultant offered 2-day seminars detailing how smart restaurateurs were actually increasing business volume through carry-out. He explained for the slow learners that “people telephone in orders, pick up their food at a set time, then go home to eat before their television sets.”
The carry-out trend was well established by the mid-1950s, when a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association remarked, “the way the business is booming, pop not only brings home the bacon . . . he brings it home ready to eat.” A restaurant in New York’s Grand Central station offered a commuter’s dinner, while an inn in Nebraska was set up like today’s fast food restaurants with a speaker post in the driveway for dictating orders and packaged food ready to go at the check-out window farther along.
In the 1960s certain foods achieved greater popularity with diners on the dash than with sit-down restaurant customers, particularly fried chicken and pizza. Other favorites were Chinese, Mexican, and barbecue. Regular “meat and three” dinners did not fill the bill, it seemed, plus fast food chains were able to deliver the goods faster. Why take-out orders are so common in Chinese restaurants, which do offer full meals, is still something of a mystery to me.
So, little wonder that in the early 1960s before the chain added indoor seating, McDonald’s dubbed itself “McDonald’s Carry Out Restaurant.” According to a report released in 1962 one-fourth of all restaurant orders nationwide were “to go,” with drive-ins at the top and pizza parlors not far behind.
Although Chinese and fast-food have clearly dominated the take-out marketplace for some time, there has been some space for more elaborate cuisine. Take-Out Alice, opened in 1972 by Alice Brock, made famous in song and film (“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant”), may have been one of the early places supplying gourmet meals to go, such as sushi, borscht, and salmon mousse. Beginning in the 1980s there was something of a blossoming of take-out eating places with more ambitious offerings, including some with catchy names, including The Joy of Not Cooking and Good To Go.
As long as Americans want the convenience of meals prepared by someone else but are disinclined to step inside restaurants for table service, we might expect take-out to enjoy an increase in business.
© Jan Whitaker, 2015, revised 2020