Mega drive-throughs cater for teens with no taste for conversation
Young Americans’ dislike of human interaction is inspiring outlets that can serve 75 cars at a time
!19th November is National Fast Food Day!
When Harry Snyder opened the first In-N-Out hamburger stand close to Route 66 in 1948, he helped to consummate the love affair between two of America’s favourite things — the car and fast food. A year earlier, Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri, had become the first restaurant to feature a drive-up window where customers could order without leaving their vehicles. But Snyder took the concept further, promising food with “no delay” at his restaurant in Baldwin Park, California, thanks to an innovative two-way speaker that he built in his garage.
It was the right vision for the right moment: soon, in the postwar glow of 1950s America, leather jacket-clad teenagers would be rolling up to food stands in gleaming Cadillacs, placing orders over the crackle of transistor radios playing a new genre of music called rock’n’roll. Then in the 1970s Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King brought drive through culture to the American masses, leading eventually to a backlash in the early part of this century.
Today, 75 years after Snyder had his visionary idea, the popularity of the drive-through has surged to record levels, fuelled by younger consumers’ habits, new technology and a preference for less human interaction following the pandemic. Fast-food chains including McDonald’s and Taco Bell are building ever larger drive-throughs to accommodate the growing demand.
The biggest, a Chick-fil-A due to open next year in Atlanta, Georgia, will be able to handle 75 cars at a time across four lanes. Artificial intelligence chatbots are tak ing orders at American chains including White Castle, Carl’s Jr, Hardee’s and Del Taco. New technology can identify customers by their cars and display offers based on previous purchases. The innovations are delivering growing profits for the $113 billion-a-year fast-food industry.
Drive-throughs account for two-thirds of all US fast-food purchases, according to a report by Revenue Management Solutions, and traffic rose 30 per cent from 2019 to last year. The In-N-Out chain, which has a fiercely committed fanbase in California and a presence in six other western states, is still owned by the Snyder family and has been valued at $3 billion by Forbes, the wealth publication.
Meanwhile the number of customers sitting down to eat at a fast-food restaurant in the first half of the year fell by 47 per cent compared with the same period in 2019. Teenagers and young adults are a large part of the shift. Jay Bandy, president of the Goliath Consulting Group, which offers strategic advice to restaurant chains, said it was unsurprising they preferred to eat on the move.
“Those kids grew up in drive throughs — drive-throughs have always been prevalent for them,” he said. “It’s kind of like how they grew up with cellphones. They would prefer to deal with people in a less direct way, they prefer to be on social media, or on Zoom calls, as opposed to being face-to face with somebody.” The pandemic hastened the decline of indoor dining Many restaurants were closed for extended periods, which broke the consumer’s habit of sitting at a table to eat, Bandy said.
The drive-through was ready and waiting for them. The first restaurants arrived roughly a decade after the end of the Great Depression, when many Americans were still scarred by the deprivation of the 1930s. A cost-effective treat proved irresistible. “The drive-through was a way for food to be more affordable than the drive-in [restaurants],” according to Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom.
“The old drive-ins had wait staff, they had bigger real estate, they had plates and cups and utensils and things that cost money. You had to hire a dishwasher. “What the drive-through model did was basically eliminate all of that and just give you your food through a window, wrapped in paper with no plates and no staff to wash up. “They passed the savings on to the customer and made it accessible to a new group of people who were dining out.”
Cheaper cars and urban sprawl also fed demand. “Once the suburbs were built, commuters wanted places to stop for dinner on the way home,” he said. “Southern California is where the drive-through really became part of the American experience in terms of dining and it’s where the car culture became iconic.
“The drive-through facilitated that way of being in American life that happened after World War Two.” In recent decades some American cities have attempted to curb their proliferation, citing concerns about congestion and obesity as well as long-held complaints that America is too car-centric. Drivers, however, seem to be winning.
The next generation drive-through restaurants cropping up across the US are a sharp contrast to the humble kitchen that launched the concept. In classic Los Angeles style, the original In-N-Out was demolished to make space for a freeway, but a replica was then built about 75 yards down the road. Manned by Kenny, an employee dressed in the same pristine white uniform that those who helped Snyder flip burgers in the 1950s wore, the restaurant takes up barely ten square feet.
It does, however, contain an original Coca-Cola-branded fridge. Nearby there is a retro cigarette machine offering a single Lucky Strike smoke for a penny and a packet for 20 cents. A price board offers another stark reminder of how times have changed. In the 1950s an In-N-Out burger cost 25 cents, a cheeseburger 30 cents and French fries 15 cents (today those prices are $3.15, $3.50 and $2.15).
Despite the stand’s obviously retro look, it still confuses the odd passerby. One day last week a car pulled up and its driver approached the counter slowly with a slightly quizzical look on his face. He glanced at the price board, then at the cigarette machine, and asked: “Are you open?” Kenny directed him around the corner to the modern-day In-N-Out. “I get that a lot,” he said with a smile.