A short time ago I read a Serious Eats article about how drive-through fast-food restaurants are filling a gap during the coronavirus epidemic because they make it possible for customers to get ready-to-eat food without getting too close to others. It also gave a brief history of drive-up windows.
Reading it reminded me that I had put this topic on my to-do list a while back (along with ideas for about 500 other future posts!). Now’s the time.
Over the years, drive-throughs have come in for criticism for environmental issues around idling car engines. I think there is a genuine problem with idling vehicles, but often critiques come with an unfair amount of negative judgement about the people who use them. I reflected on this a few years ago when a journalist asked me about why Americans are so fond of using drive-ups.
Customers of drive-ups are assumed to be too lazy to get out of their cars and/or blithely unconcerned about air pollution. But it occurred to me that there are some good reasons for getting a meal this way. Certainly it’s worth considering those who are physically disabled, dead tired from a hard day’s work, dressed in dirty work clothes, accompanied by crabby small children, don’t speak the language, or are self-conscious for whatever reason.
Yet clearly most of the enormous number of people who use drive-ups do not fall into these categories. In 1998 when many communities were trying to keep out new drive-throughs, a McDonald’s company spokesperson said outlets with drive-ups made up about half of sales that way.
Fast food restaurants claim, probably accurately, that doing business from windows while providing limited or no indoor seating reduces operating costs and allows them to offer lower menu prices. That may be true, but it’s also true that environmental costs tend to be invisible.
Initially, drive-ups appeared in warm climates in the 1930s. One reason drive-up windows did not come into use earlier was that prior to the Depression many restaurant-goers still ate hot meat and potato dinner-type meals on a plate, even at noon. So drive-ups could not be a service option until restaurants had whittled themselves down into fast-food providers. They needed a small menu of simple hand-held items that could be prepared in a flash and would not turn into a mass of cold mush within minutes.
Drive-up restaurants became more common in the 1950s and 1960s, at the same time drive-up banking did. Jack in the Box, Wendy’s, and Der Wienerschnitzel were early adopters. At Der Wienerschnitzel drive-up customers passed right through their A-frame buildings, somewhat similar to a 1964 patent that shows a giant M with two lanes running through it [shown below]. In the 1970s and 1980s, as chains spread across the country, drive-up windows became commonplace.
Early drive-up windows were often intended to serve customers who had phoned in their orders. Soon some restaurants began to use push-button intercoms, making phone-ahead ordering unnecessary. In the mid-1980s a wireless ordering system became available that permitted the worker to talk to the customer without pushing a button each time, enabling her/him to move around to fill the order while communicating at the same time.
Another innovation was the drive-through with no indoor seating at all. This was the ultimate in paring down the restaurant experience, to the point of non-existence. But this approach did not reach predominance, possibly because the major chains believed that customers wanted the option of going inside.
In 1989 California adopted a plan to reduce emissions by limiting car idling at drive-throughs. Municipalities throughout the country — often those with higher-income residents – attempted to stop the construction of new drive-through businesses in the 1990s and continuing into the present. Beyond addressing environmental concerns, the movement to restrict drive-up windows may be inspired equally by a wish to keep fast-food restaurants out of the neighborhood entirely.
Despite the strong reasons that some customers have for using drive-throughs, especially now, I tend to side with the opposition. Yet, if viral epidemics become more common as some have predicted, we may see a proliferation of this type of food service.
© Jan Whitaker, 2020