Drive-thru windows are as American as apple pie and insider trading. And right now, the behaviors they facilitate—impatiently over-ordering, seeking instant gratification in a warm bag of fresh food, not having to get out of the car or change out of pajamas—are more relevant than ever. Today, the often-maligned restaurant drive-thru window is being recast as both a critical amenity and a basic comfort as states across the country impose new, crucial rules in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
"I appreciate the drive-thru staying open, it is nice to have a sense of normalcy in these unusual times," a McDonald’s customer wrote in a note to the company last week.
"Let’s be real. Lattes aren’t ‘essential,’" Starbucks recently wrote in a letter to the public after closing most of its US dining areas. "But in times of crisis, the government asks convenient food and beverage outlets to remain open when possible for pickup, drive-thru, or delivery . . . [which] is especially important to serve thousands of frontline responders and health care workers."
It’s easy to imagine that drive-thrus have existed alongside cars since the beginning, but the truth is that dining culture had to evolve into drive-thru culture over the course of decades. Roughly 70 percent of sales at most fast-food spots now take place through the window, according to a 2018 study published by QSR magazine. And, while other states lay claim to the invention, we have California to thank for the innovation’s widespread adoption.
"Before World War II, the old nickel-hamburger chains . . . had offered drive-up window service as an adjunct to regular counter service at some of their units," Philip Langdon wrote in Orange Roofs, Golden Arches. "Not until 1951, however, when Robert O. Peterson started Jack in the Box in San Diego, did a sizable chain make drive-thru windows the keynote of its operation." (In fact, one of the chain’s original menu boards is part of a collection at the National Museum of American History as an artifact of postwar driving culture in Southern California.)
Fast-food restaurants were innovating throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but In-N-Out pushed the drive-thru genre further. As Ben Bower noted in a micro-history of the company for Gear Patrol, In-N-Out’s cofounder "Harry Snyder was the first to recognize the potential of a restaurant that allowed drivers to make orders over a two-way intercom system." That innovation still typifies the drive-thru experience today.
But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the drive-thru became a mainstream feature, especially as drive-in restaurants started to decline. "I thought, ‘Where is all this business going from the drive-in [restaurant] business?’" Robert Emerson quoted Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas as saying in The New Economics of Fast Food. "The drive-in used to be real popular, and there are more cars on the roads but there are less drive-ins." It was this revelation that inspired Thomas to add a service window to his original Wendy’s store—fittingly, a former automotive showroom—and every store the company opened going forward. By 1975, McDonald’s and Burger King had followed suit.
Shifts in how American society was growing and eating were behind this transition. In the 1970s, dual-income households were on their way to becoming the norm, and the US divorce rate reached its peak, making culinary convenience a priority for busy working families. Suburban sprawl gave rise to long commutes, and the average household was spending more on dining out than ever before—up to 40 percent of all food dollars were spent on meals eaten away from home in 1984, according to data from the National Restaurant Association that was shared with the New York Times.
By the late 1980s, around the same time it was capturing around 25 percent of all breakfasts eaten outside the home in America, McDonald’s first made a majority of its sales through the drive-thru window, John Jakle and Keith Sculle noted in their book Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. In the following years, it became increasingly common to see cars lined up at drive-thru pharmacies and banks, drive-thru dry cleaners, drive-thru photo processors (remember those?), and, more disconcertingly yet, drive-thru liquor stores.
The drive-thru came to embody modern American life—innovation-obsessed, hyperefficient, stressed, and eternally pressed for time. That drive-thrus are an upshot of car culture, which is itself an expression of rugged American individualism, helps explain why they are also polarizing.
In recent years, disparate communities from coast to coast have sought to ban or limit the growth of drive-thru businesses. These efforts, couched in arguments about traffic, obesity, pollution, or aesthetics, have always really been about something else: class. "Increasingly, we hear that residents just don’t want that type of development in their neighborhoods," Lisa Bender, president of the Minneapolis City Council, told a local news station in 2019 before her city became the largest to ban the construction of new drive-thrus.
But like bonus French fries at the bottom of the bag, extra meaning occasionally spills out of the container for which it was meant. In the time of coronavirus, the drive-thru has taken on a new commission. A low-brow symbol for haste and the impersonal distance of commercialism, the drive-thru window is now on its way to becoming a symbol of American ingenuity and resilience. As panic spreads and dining options become increasingly limited, restaurants of all kinds are pivoting to feed health care workers across the country. And for doctors, nurses, home health aides, and other medical professionals looking to grab a bite before going home for the night, the drive-thru lane is open. For many, there's nothing more reminiscent of normal life than picking up breakfast, lunch, or dinner through a drive-thru window.
With new regulations in place, nearly all restaurants, fast or otherwise, now essentially function as drive-thrus. But this dynamic extends far beyond food. As social-distancing mandates remain intact, drive-thru systems are being added to a number of services, from food pantries and donation centers to schools and medical supply distributors. Even more critically, drive-thru COVID-19 testing centers have opened in over a dozen states so far.
It’s important to note that many workers, including those at restaurants, are putting themselves at risk to make, serve, and deliver food to communities across the country—overwhelmingly with few benefits or protections. But for those in need, the drive-thru window might be one of the safest ways to obtain food. Despite the deep uncertainty that lies on the road ahead, it’s clear that this sometimes controversial and seemingly tacky token of Americana may actually help us through—and be ready and waiting when we make it to the other side.