How Drive-Thru Dining Changed Fast Food

How Drive-Thru Dining Changed Fast Food

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Dining out got a new look in 1948, thanks to a 100-square foot burger shack perched next to a circular Baldwin Park, California, driveway. There, five cooks worked behind glass walls assembling take-out meals for motorists, lured by the a sign assuring “NO DELAY” and a restaurant name that promised exactly what it delivered: In-N-Out.

There are a few claimants for the first fast food eatery to feature a true drive-thru, but In-N-Out Burger’s first restaurant, with its intercom ordering system and its lack of both inside seating and outside parking was likely the first to offer the complete drive-thru package.

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Where Did Drive-Thru Dining Begin?

Before the drive-thru, though, came the drive-in, a type of restaurant where customers ate their meals on the premises without leaving their cars. The drive-in concept was first popularized by a Texas chain of eateries called the Pig Stand, whose first drive-in opened on a highway connecting Dallas and Fort Worth in 1921. Customers would pull in to the parking lot and be immediately greeted by carhops, combination waiter-busboys who served burgers and fries on trays that clipped on to the car’s window. In 1931 a Los Angeles franchisee of the chain, Pig Stand Number 21, began to allow car owners to order and receive bagged meals from a single window (it’s not clear whether they had to get out of their cars).

The drive-in was less a pure novelty than an expression of great American passions that go hand in hand: speed, efficiency and, sometimes, laziness. By indulging their patrons’ desire not to leave their cars, restaurateurs could operate with fewer employees, letting prices fall while profits rose. But the car-bound diners wanted quick service, prompting an arms race among the carhops to take orders and shuttle food as quickly as possible (hence the roller-skating carhops featured at many drive-ins). By mid-century drive-in owners were experimenting with systems like Aut-O-Hop, Dine-a-Mike, Electro-Hop, Fon-A-Chef and Ordaphone, all allowing parked customers to call in their orders.

READ MORE: How McDonald's Beat Its Early Competition and Became an Icon of Fast Food

Drive-Thrus Eventually Become Popular

Despite In-N-Out’s success with a drive-thru-centric business plan, the largest national chains were slow to adopt the model. The first McDonald’s burger stands opened in 1948, serving 10-cent burgers from walk-up windows (the pedestrian equivalent of the drive-thru) but it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the first McDonald’s drive-thru opened up. However, smaller chains, like Jack-in-the-Box (founded in 1950) and Wendy’s (1969), adopted the drive-thru early on and by the mid-1960s the Wienerschnitzel chain was opening A-frame restaurants with a car-sized hole that ran straight through the building.

Drive-thrus changed the types of food that quick-service restaurants offered, ensuring the supremacy of the hamburger while spurring the invention of drip-free tacos and boneless morsels of fried chicken. The drive-thru changed cars as well. Cup holders were once a rarity in auto interior design, but by the late 1980s it was common for cars to feature more cup holders than passengers.

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Are Drive-Thru-Only Restaurants the Future of Fast Food?

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Wendy's (NASDAQ:WEN) couldn't have picked a worse time to roll out a new breakfast menu than last February: The pandemic closed down businesses and eliminated the need for anyone to stop in on their way to work.

Yet with the economy reopening and people reestablishing their morning routines, the breakfast daypart helped the fast-food chain notch the highest global same-restaurant sales growth in over 15 years.

So successful is the menu that Wendy's is developing an all-new type of restaurant that will help drive expansion, one that could point to the direction the rest of the industry should take.

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.

A Brief History of the Fast Food Industry

While the concept of eating outside of the home has been around for centuries, the fast food industry as we know it didn’t get its start until the post-WWII American economic boom. Americans began to spend more and buy more as the economy boomed and a culture of consumerism bloomed. As a result of this new desire to have it all, coupled with the strides made by women while the men were away, both members of the household began to work outside the home. Eating out, which had previously been considered a luxury, became a common occurrence and then a necessity. Workers, and working families, needed quick service and inexpensive food for both lunch and dinner. This need is what drove the phenomenal success of the early fast food giants, which catered to the family on the go.

The most familiar of the fast food options is the hamburger. While it is unclear when (and who) invented the hamburger – with a contested birth-date ranging from the late nineteenth century to the early 20th century – the first important date for the burger was 1921. 1921 was the year the first White Castle opened in Wichita Kansas and the beginning of the popularization and commercialization of the hamburger. Hamburger joints popped up all over the United States, including a family owned restaurant in San Bernardino, California, Opened in 1948 by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald, the name and its method of operations were bought out by Ray Kroc who opened his first McDonalds in Des Plaines Illinois in 1955. By 1958 McDonalds had sold 100 million burgers across the country and changed how Americans ate. Following McDonalds’ success other self service fast food restaurants joined the market, some regional and some national. While a large number also sold burgers and fries some restaurants distinguished themselves by serving more exotic fare, such as Taco Bell and their Americanized Mexican food.

As the fast food industry continued to expand and the first of the Baby Boomers entered the job market fast food restaurants began utilizing teenagers as part-time employees. By 1978 59% of teens were somehow involved in the workforce – many in a food industry setting. As young people began to earn more they also began to spend more which in turn strengthened the trend of spending more time outside the home including for meals. It also propelled the food industry into being one of the largest employers in the US economy. A staggering 1 out of 8 US workers has, at one point, been employed by McDonalds.

In the mid-1970s as the food industry expanded it became more competitive triggering the “Burger Wars” of the 80s and 90s. The increased choices for consumers led restaurants to refurbish and to emphasize their brand’s particular environment. Fast food restaurants added seating inside as well as the now iconic drive-thru. To appeal to families restaurants started creating meals as well as specific areas for kids. Healthier options and expanded menus helped differentiate one chain from another.

At the beginning of the 21st century the market experienced another seismic shift as coffee chains and fast causal restaurants emerged as serious competitors to larger fast food chains. Brands like Starbucks, Panera and Chipotle emphasize the quality of their products and strive for an environment that promotes lingering, as opposed to the quick turnaround of fast food restaurants. Both are self-service but fast casual typically lack the drive-thrus that make fast food restaurants so accessible. This shift is inspired by the new driving force in the economy, Millennials. Just as the Baby Boomers wanted something fast and easy, the Millennials want something more sustainable and in a place where they can use their various electronic devices. As more Baby Boomers retire and the generation born in the 21st century enters the workforce we can expect another change, a new type of restaurant that carries on the food service industry.

A Crispy, Salty, American History of Fast Food

A food fight broke out on Twitter in the middle of February. It wasn’t over the sandwichiness of a hot dog or the right way to eat a slice of pizza, but instead was spurred on by a tweet from the Los Angeles Times’ Food section.

The paper had just released its “official fast food French fry rankings” and the food columnist, Lucas Kwan Peterson, dared to list In-N-Out, the beloved chain founded in the 1940s in Baldwin Park, east of L.A., at the absolute bottom.

One of Peterson’s colleagues registered her discontent tweeting sardonically, “hello i am the social media intern and have to share this but i totally dont [sic] agree with it.” In-N-Out fans, fuming that one longstanding Southern California institution would betray another, made their fury known across the social media platform and in the Times’ comments sections.

Preferences (and pride) may vary among regional chains—whether it’s In-N-Out in the West, Culver’s in the Midwest or Chick-Fil-A in the South—but U.S. consumers remain fast food fanatics. A Gallup survey showed 80 percent of Americans eat at fast food chains at least once a month.

The passion Americans feel about fast food is at the heart of journalist Adam Chandler’s new book, Drive-Thru Dreams. “There are no inherited rites in America, but if one were to come close, it would involve mainlining sodium beneath the comforting fluorescence of an anonymous fast food dining room or beneath the dome light of a car,” he writes in the introduction. Chandler spoke with Smithsonian about the intersection between American history and fast food, its enduring popularity and how chains are changing to keep up with consumers.

Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America's Fast-Food Kingdom

Drive-Thru Dreams by Adam Chandler tells an intimate and contemporary story of America―its humble beginning, its innovations and failures, its international charisma, and its regional identities―through its beloved roadside fare.

Why did you want to write this book?

I grew up in Texas where it’s not polarizing to eat fast food. It’s not divisive at all. Now I live in Brooklyn, New York, where it is. I think traveling between those two places a lot made me realize there’s a really interesting divide about this and made me want to explore it more.

What do you think makes fast food so quintessentially American? What does its history reveal about American history?

Fast food [took off] in large part because of the highway system that we built in the 1950s and the1960s. America started driving more than ever before and we rearranged our cities based on car travel, for better or worse. And it was a natural business response to the American on-the-go kind of lifestyle.

The founders of all these fast food chains are [part of] what we would call the quintessential American Dream. They were, by and large, from humble beginnings. They often grew up poor, didn’t achieve success until late in their life, and had all these setbacks. Colonel Sanders is a key example of somebody who struggled his entire life and then struck it rich with a chicken recipe he perfected while working at a gas station in southeastern Kentucky. There are all of these really impressive stories that I think, in another era, we would hold up as the ideal of American success.

And then there’s the food. The food is terrible, and it’s delicious, and it’s completely ridiculous and we love it. I mean, not everybody loves it, but it has this element of hucksterism to it, these insane ideas that get made. It’s a very American idea to just have the biggest, craziest burger or the wildest thing.

You can go into a McDonald’s, you can go into a Taco Bell, and you will see literally every demographic grouping there. Old, young, all races, all ages, all economic backgrounds kind of sharing a meal. There’re not a lot of places that offer that.

White Castle was the country’s first fast food chain when it opened in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas. What made it so appealing to Americans?

It fit the tech fascinations of the 󈧘s. There was a real assembly-line fervor that was raging across America. White Castle adopted this model—they had food that was prepared quickly in a very highly mechanized, highly systematized way. Every inch of the grill was dedicated for either the bread or the beef in small, square patties.

[White Castle] had these efficiencies built into it that really spoke to the fascinations of the era. And now it would sound weird, the idea that your experience there should be the same every single time and that every customer gets the exact same food over and over again. Something that’s very familiar is kind of seen as a negative now, but back then it absolutely was a cherished part of the experience.

An employee makes notes at the counter in McDonald's, Southfield, Michigan, USA, July 1978. (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

For a long time, fast food was tied to suburban life, but in the late 1960s, companies made an effort to open franchises in urban areas. Can you talk about the dynamics at play there?

It’s a political third rail in a lot of ways because where fast food has ended up is, often times, a food desert in various communities. It is a place that people go to, along with corner stores, that don’t have a lot of nutritious and nutrient-dense foods. It definitely holds itself inadvertently as this sort of emblem of privation for certain communities.

Fast food moved into the urban centers late in the late 1960s and part of this was a result of the fact that they had saturated the suburbs and needed to expand. And this had a lot to do with the Civil Rights era, which is a fascinating sort of intersection in the story. Black-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses, were hoping to create economic bases in city centers where white flight and a lot of other social factors, like the building of the highways, had divided communities. Fast food was seen by activists and by the government—which would ultimately issue loans to help small businesses open fast food chains—as a solution to the problem.

The actual benefit or attraction of opening a fast food restaurant is self-evident. It’s familiar, it’s easily reproduced, and it’s popular and relatively cheap. Its profit margins are higher than a lot of other businesses, particularly grocery stores. So, this created kind of a perfect soup of all of these competing factors that united to spread fast food within urban centers and that’s where they took off.

How has the fast-food industry shaped other industries? And how did other industries shape it?

A lot of people credit, and critique, fast food with offering this kind of franchise model that you see all over the United States and all over the world, whether it’s haircuts or mattresses or gyms. Any kind of service [where] you see a franchise for a lot of people traces back to the roots of McDonald’s being a truly national brand.

What was interesting to me about fast food and its relationship with other businesses is, first of all, all kinds of weird, strange businesses feed into the fast food empire—whether it's creating packaging, or building equipment, or coming up with spices or flavors. Whenever McDonald’s creates a new product that requires a new piece of equipment to prepare it, they have to create an entire company to build that one product because that product is going to [be replicated] 30,000 times.

Fast food is more reactive, in a way, to the pushes and pulls of the American economy and that has to do with business trends. It has to do with how people are shopping and eating and consuming these days. So, as much as the drive-through has been and remains such a dominating force in the United States, we’re seeing Uber Eats, Seamless, DoorDash and all of these new companies involve themselves in fast food in a totally unexpected way. I personally can’t think of anything that sounds less appealing to me than having a burger you’re probably supposed to eat within 5 or 10 minutes delivered to your door in 20 or 30, but it’s proven to be extremely popular.

After the release of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Supersize Me and the publication of Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation, there was a push in the 2000s for people to eat healthier and cut out fast food. How effective was that effort? Why didn’t we see a real change in fast food dining habits?

There have been efforts across the decades to push fast food to change. In the 1990s Kentucky Fried Chicken actually shortened its name to KFC, because “fried” was actually [considered] such a bad word.

In the book, I talk with [journalist] Michael Pollan about him having conversations with some of his acolytes and his followers, basically asking them, “How would you feel, if one day, you woke up and McDonald’s was all organic, no GMO, no high fructose corn syrup?” And the people responded [that they would be] disappointed. So, there’s an emotional component to it which is that we like fast food to be an indulgence, a treat, a kind of unhealthy, guilty pleasure.

A lot of people just don’t want the food to change. It’s not something that the core fast food consumer is really sweating in a way that you maybe hear about more on the coasts or in certain enclaves where the focus is more on changing dietary habits and improving the food systems.

A Kentucky Fried Chicken stall with an effigy of Colonel Sanders the founder of the company. (Photo by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images)

Your book is full of entertaining anecdotes, like KFC Christmas in Japan. Do you have a favorite story from the book?

The creation of Doritos Locos Tacos is my favorite story in the book. Mostly because it involves a really terrific person who, in the most relatable way, was sitting on his couch eating Taco Bell and saw a Doritos commercial and thought, “This is exactly what I want to have—a Doritos-flavored taco shell.” He lobbied Frito-Lay to create the shells, and they said, “No, we can’t do that.”

So he started a Facebook group where he used his Photoshop skills to kind of put together these tableaus of famous pictures with Doritos Locos Taco shells in them. A lot of people started paying attention to it. And Taco Bell, which had actually created the idea 20 years before, and had shelved it because of corporate in-fighting, was planning to release the product and brought this guy along for the journey. It was a really, really fascinating, beautiful story. He lives to see the creation of the product, but dies very shortly thereafter. And his family and friends gather, and they all go out to Taco Bell after the funeral, and they eat their Doritos Locos Tacos.

Since you finished writing your book, Burger King introduced the plant-based Impossible Burger in many of its stores. Is this just the latest example of what industry insiders call “stealth health”? Do you think it’ll catch on?

Burger King was the first national chain to have a veggie burger on their menu and it’s had one since 󈧆 or 󈧇. What’s interesting about the Impossible Burger is that it fulfills criteria for people who want a more ecologically progressive burger as opposed to one that’s actually healthier for you. The Impossible Burger has GMOs, it’s highly processed, and it has about as many calories in many instances as a normal beef burger does especially once you build on the bread and the toppings and everything else. So, in a lot of ways, while it is impressive and while it does have its merits, from a health standpoint it’s more smoke-and-mirrors than anything. And so, if we’re talking about improving American diets, the Impossible Burger is probably not the answer.

I guess to add onto that there are some other interesting, incremental things that happened last year. Sonic, which is America's fourth-biggest burger chain, introduced burgers that they call the Blended Burgers and they have 70 or 75 percent meat and 25 percent mushroom, sort of a similar idea. And those have many fewer calories and actually taste pretty good. It’s a more incremental version of change to the burger process, it's “Try this out, it's a little healthier” and I think you can mentally make that adjustment a little bit easier than to something that is grown in a lab and has its own baggage. There’s a lot of tinkering going on and we're going to see what really sticks in the next coming years.

To write the book, you ate at fast-food chains all over the country. What’s your favorite one? Did that change from when you started?

Well, I have a nostalgic, historic connection to Whataburger, which is a Texas-born chain, because it was where I went as a kid and where my friends and I went in high school. I think I would be betraying my sweet Texas roots if I didn’t say it remains my favorite. I think they would ban me from going to the Alamo or something if I said it was something different.

[But] I always had a dangerous love affair with Taco Bell. That only increased during my time on the road because the way that people feel about Taco Bell is different than people feel about a lot of chains, at least national chains. Taco Bell is something special because everyone that loves Taco Bell, really loves Taco Bell. And everybody else thinks it’s the worst thing in the world. When I find a fellow Taco Bell traveler on the road, I immediately feel closer to that person.

About Anna Diamond

Anna Diamond is the former assistant editor for Smithsonian magazine.

How Covid-19 saved the fast food drive-thru

In 2019, cities across the U.S. started banning construction of new restaurant drive-thrus. The pandemic turned this trend upside down.

As recently as last winter, the drive-thru restaurant’s future seemed shaky.

A host of forces were responsible, led by an increasingly urgent environmentalism and reconsideration of what healthy communities look like. By the end of 2019, cities that had banned the construction of new restaurant drive-thrus included Minneapolis Fair Haven, N.J. Creve Coeur, Mo. and Orchard Park, New York. An additional 27 municipalities banned drive-thrus in Canada.

Then last year, as independent restaurants struggled to adapt to new Covid-19 safety protocols, dine-in and counter service fell immediately out of favor, while pick-up and home delivery thrived. In other words: The more impersonal the restaurant experience, the better. And so, the drive-thru made a comeback.

“Obviously, it’s guided by Covid: The technology, the innovation of it, which made buying food quick and detached, is attractive.”

According to a survey by Bluedot, a mobile marketing company, 74 percent of Americans have used a drive-thru since Covid-19 hit the continental U.S., representing a 43 percent spike since April 2020. Meanwhile, 90 percent of customers surveyed by the National Restaurant Association would prefer curbside pickup to entering a physical restaurant to collect their food. The car, in other words, is once again—and somewhat suddenly—big business for restaurants, and it’s getting bigger.

“We’re seeing brands that would never in a million years embrace the drive-thru, embracing the drive-thru,” said Adam Chandler, author of the 2019 book Drive-Thru Dreams. Chandler believes that there is some nostalgia for the fast food rituals of yesteryear in a time of strife. Still: “Obviously, it’s guided by Covid: The technology, the innovation of it, which made buying food quick and detached, is attractive.”

You’ve likely read about—and seen—how many restaurants converted their parking lots into outdoor dining spaces, to stay afloat in the face of indoor dining restrictions. Less discussed, however, is the reverse trend of making more space for cars and less space for diners—a trend that exists almost exclusively among quick-service restaurants, or QSRs. Throughout 2020, Burger King, McDonald’s, and many of our other biggest fast-food chains revealed design plans for new, Covid-friendly restaurants where the vehicle is king. In any other year, developing new restaurant concepts would be a multi-year process for most chains, but in 2020, restaurants had a prescribed guiding star: Keep people outside as much as possible. Parking lots take the place of dining tables, while multiple drive-thru lanes accommodate both individual customers and courier services like UberEats and Seamless.

Taco Bell’s new restaurant design is a completely digital experience with multiple drive-thru lanes and curbside pickup.

Take, for instance, Taco Bell’s new restaurant design, called Taco Bell Go Mobile, a “completely synchronized digital experience” involving multiple drive-thru lanes, curbside pickup, and “bellhops” who take orders via tablets. Or McDonald’s, which recently unveiled new restaurant designs at its first investor update in three years, showcasing dedicated parking lots for pickup orders, drive-thrus where orders are delivered via conveyor, and a planned concept restaurant with multiple drive-thru lanes and no indoor dining whatsoever. Some of these concepts were in the works pre-Covid, as restaurant trends were already skewing towards mobile ordering and contactless pickup the pandemic rapidly accelerated them.

But the shift towards car-focused quick-serve restaurant models is perhaps best exemplified by Burger King. That chain unveiled a new restaurant concept last summer, which will begin construction in 2021 among its key features are shaded parking spots for food ordering and in-car dining, multiple drive-thru lanes, and a T-shaped physical restaurant with top-floor dining, allowing a smaller physical footprint to accommodate—you guessed it—more cars. In a move pulled directly out of a 1950s playbook, Burger King is calling its new restaurant concept The Restaurant of Tomorrow.

But these restaurants aren’t popping up everywhere. Across the board, this drive-thru pivot exists almost exclusively in suburbs and small cities, where their locations had a larger footprint anyway at the same time, fast-food chains are shuttering their metropolitan locations, where a drop in foot traffic has caused bottom lines to plummet.

Starbucks, for instance, plans to close 400 stores by the end of this year, largely in cities, while expanding its drive-thru and pickup options in suburban locales. Subway, which currently does not offer drive-thru at any of its locations in the U.S., shuttered 1,000 stores across the country in 2020, as drive-thru friendly fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell reported healthier bottom lines than ever. Sweetgreen announced plans to open its first suburban location, in Highland Ranch, Colorado—complete with the chain’s first-ever drive-thru. Shake Shack will be doing the same, planning to open its first drive-thru location just outside of Orlando later this year. Wawa, the east-coast convenience store/fast food chain, opened its first standalone drive-thru location last month.

“Small cities were already designed for cars, not for people,” said Madeline Brozen, Deputy Director, of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA. “Right now, any city that wants to try to orient their design guidelines towards long-term choices relating to climate change and land use and human-centred design are typically surrounded by suburban locations that don’t typically have these restrictions. And that’s where these fast-food restaurants are going to set up.”

“Small cities were already designed for cars, not for people.”

Brozen says that the shift towards car-centric dining is in line with current zoning requirements in most U.S. cities, which typically indicate that dining establishments of a certain size need to have spaces for car parking. But, she says, “there is a move within the [quick serve restaurant] space to differently allocate their car space,” Brozen says, citing multi-lane drive-thrus—which allow several cars to pull up and be served at once, at separate ordering kiosks—over old-fashioned parking spaces. “But this is still in line with the underused, oversupplied car space that municipalities typically already require of these businesses.”

What Brozen means by this is that suburban fast-food chains have always allocated a significant chunk of their overall footprint to cars now, they’re just planning to do it differently. It’s evident in their new designs: looking at artists’ renderings of these new concepts, it’s almost difficult to imagine where these restaurants will put their kitchens, so small are the actual buildings themselves. Meanwhile, parking lots—the erstwhile “underused, oversupplied car space”—will be supplanted by side-by-side drive-thru lanes.

While chains such as McDonald’s and Starbucks currently have the ability to capitalize on a growing trend towards vehicle-focused infrastructure, small restaurants can’t necessarily compete on the same terms. Mom-and-pop shops in suburban strip malls may be able to provide curbside service to one or two cars in a shared parking lot, but many independent standalone diners and cafes simply can’t retrofit their existing structures—or expand their footprint—to accommodate a drive-thru window. And offering delivery only, via services like UberEats and DoorDash, results in restaurants taking a substantial financial hit that fast-food establishments can compensate for with pick-up and drive-thru options.

While chains such as McDonald’s and Starbucks currently have the ability to capitalize on a growing trend towards vehicle-focused infrastructure, small restaurants can’t necessarily compete on the same terms.

Some independent restaurateurs have been forced to get creative. Katryn Malen, who owns Graham’s Coffee Parlor in Niskayuna, New York, has a parking lot that can only accommodate seven cars. Her business is largely dependent on walk-ins: Pre-Covid, she could seat up to 30 people inside at a time. But when the virus hit New York, Malen found herself struggling to provide a sustainable level of service to customers who would often come inside without masks on, jeopardizing the health and safety of herself and her staff.

Graham’s had a sliding window a few feet from where staff accept and take orders, which Malen converted into a walk-up takeout window. Cars pull up, park, and their drivers walk up a small ramp to order and collect their food. Malen will also pop outside to place orders on top of customers’ cars, if they call ahead to request it. The window was open all summer, and after about a month of keeping it closed Malen has decided to bring it back, to keep things safe—and running—throughout the winter. To accommodate customers who are not willing to wait out in the cold, she’s also now allowing three customers at a time into the store, and will run orders out to customers’ cars if they order in advance.

Other businesses with no drive-thru capacity are, like quick-service restaurants, taking a tip from the 1950s, bringing back car-hop service, where wait staff will courier—on foot or on roller skates—orders to diners’ cars. One such restaurant, the Broadway Diner in Baraboo, Wisconsin, introduced car-hop in May of this year, and even now, as temperatures are dipping, continues to bring food to diners parked in any of their 15 parking spots. “You pull into a spot, you call us, and we’ll come out and serve you,” said Vonnie Castree, Broadview’s co-owner. “Most of the time, we only have one or two people doing carhop, but it’s just another way for us to ensure our customers can get served. We wanted to do roller skates, but we were worried about liability.” Castree said Broadway plans to continue carhop service indefinitely.

“My concern is that this is going to further inequality. As we design, zone, and plan for the future, car ownership should not be taken for granted.”

It may be heartening to know that some small businesses could survive a newly car-focused restaurant ecosystem. But Brozen worries that the emphasis on car-only dining options—like Burger King’s Restaurant of Tomorrow—presents an issue of accessibility, in that such establishments completely shut out individuals who don’t have a car.

She noted that the drive-thru-only restaurant of the future may set small cities back: More than 10 million American households don’t have cars. These people could now be looking at a restaurant future from which they’re barred access. It’s a tradeoff: Car ownership is increasing among low-income individuals, but at the expense of the disposable income that could be used for take-out food.

“There has been a trend in land use design for the last two decades to proactively design spaces to be more oriented around people, and not cars,” Brozen said, adding that a pivot towards drive-thru-only is a reversal of that trend. “My concern is that this is going to further inequality. As we design, zone, and plan for the future, car ownership should not be taken for granted.”

Last year, Chandler, who was previously based in Brooklyn, and his fiancée—a born-and-raised New Yorker—relocated to the suburbs. One of the biggest adjustments, he said, has been seeing his fiancée become a car person. “When you’re in the city, you just get used to walking to the corner, walking down the block,” said Chandler. “But once you realize how conveniently you can get anything from the driver’s seat, it’s hard to resist.”

Some fast-food restaurants without drive-thrus could close permanently.

According to the New York Times, drive-thrus have become a "lifeline" for fast-food chains during the pandemic. As the coronavirus pandemic forced many restaurants to shift to a strictly drive-thru or curbside pickup model, other stores without drive-thrus were forced to close.

According to a previous article by Business Insider, some chain restaurants, most of which do not have drive-thru models, have permanently closed over 1,500 locations so far as a result of the pandemic.

It’s Made Its Way Around the World

America has been exporting fast food around the world since the 1970s, and it no longer seems so novel to hear about a McDonald’s in Moscow or a Taco Bell in Tokyo. McDonald’s operates about 14,000 restaurants in the U.S. and 22,000 abroad, and there are 15,000 KFC restaurants operating internationally and only about 4,000 within the U.S. But, of course, the menu options tend to differ slightly at some of the international locations.

Founded in 1953 as the Top Hat Drive-In restaurant, Sonic has since expanded into America's largest chain of drive-in fast-food restaurants, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

At the time of writing, the company has 3,613 locations across 45 states in the US.

The fast-food joint has retained its original concept, created by founder Troy Smith, in which carhops on roller skates deliver food to diners in their cars. Today, however, many Sonic locations also offer drive-through service.

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“They’re locked up in their house, and so when they come out, and they go to a drive-through, they want to buy more,” Mr. Grams said.

To accommodate those new ordering habits, the company has moved its drive-through workers from the window to the now-vacant dine-in area, opening up space for cooks to assemble larger, more complicated orders in the kitchen.

But not every major chain has been able to come up with pandemic workarounds. Even before the coronavirus, chains like Ruby Tuesday and TGI Fridays, with large dining rooms designed for leisurely meals, had been struggling, closing locations as once-loyal patrons defected to faster, trendier options like Chipotle.

Without drive-throughs, these kinds of dine-in restaurants — many of which have taken on significant debt since the 2008 financial crisis — may struggle.

“We’ll see some large dining chains go under,” said Aaron Allen, a restaurant consultant. “It’ll finally be the death knell for them.”

Over the next year, food critics and industry experts say, the closures of large dine-in chains, mom-and-pop restaurants and fine-dining establishments could transform the restaurant industry, creating a more uniform, less vibrant landscape. The pandemic has exposed the gulf between the haves and have-nots, accelerating the demise of beloved but cash-strapped restaurants as the major fast-food chains continue to bring in revenue. Historically, recessions have benefited chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, which typically see higher sales when people are cutting back on spending.

Still, the pandemic has caused plenty of financial pain even for companies whose drive-throughs are humming. The chief executive of McDonald’s, Chris Kempczinski, has taken a 50 percent pay cut. After reporting a decline in sales on Thursday, Mr. Kempczinski warned that “the exact trajectory of our recovery is highly uncertain.”

And individual franchisees may also struggle, especially in the short term. In April, the National Owners Association — an advocacy group that represents some McDonald’s franchisees — clashed with the company over rent payments and other issues.

Over all, however, the corporate muscle of the big fast-food companies puts franchisees in an enviable position compared to most small businesses, especially independent restaurants. At Burger King and Popeyes, individual store owners have gotten help from corporate “franchisee liquidity teams” in applying for the loans under the government’s small-business relief program.

A provision in that program also allowed big chains like Shake Shack to secure loans, even as smaller restaurants with less experience handling complicated paperwork missed out on funds.

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