McDonald’s is such a fast-food icon that we tend to assume that most innovations in the fast-food industry must have started there. For example, it is usually assumed that McDonald’s invented the ‘kids meal.’
Ironically, although McDonald’s started life as a ‘Drive-In’ restaurant, they were not the first major chain to see the value in a pick-up window. In fact, Wendey’s, founded by Dave Thomas in 1969, began using drive-thru windows in 1971, while McDonald’s did not start experimenting with the concept until 1975. Wendy’s, thus, is often erroneously given credit as being the first fast-food chain to use drive-thrus.
Wendy’s grew very quickly, and the use of drive-through windows is often assumed to be the reason this fledgling chain was so tremendously successful. In only 10 years, Wendy’s had built over 1800 stores, most of them in the last five years of its first decade. The company was the first fast-food chain to use drive-through windows in all its restaurants.
Don’t get the wrong idea, though. McDonald’s and other chains realized the potential very quickly and found that pick-up windows increased sells. They were being widely used by 1976. By the early 1980’s, over half of McDonald’s sales were done at the drive through!
The first drive-thrus did not have menu boards and speakers. You ordered at the window.
Who Really Built the First Drive-Thru?
Although Dave Thomas and Wendy’s deserves credit for seeing the value of the drive-thru, they did not invent the concept. Although it is difficult to be certain, the first drive-thru ever was probably built by The Pig Stand restaurant.
The Pig Stand had begun life in 1923 as a drive-in (sometimes said to be the first drive-in) in Texas. Famous for their “pig sandwich” the restaurants had three openings where food could be passed out to carhops, who would take the orders at the windows of the cars and then bring the orders to the customers. The Pig Stand spread quickly from Texas to Southern states, and to California. Each store was numbered.
It was in 1931 at Pig Stand No. 21, in San Diego, California, that the chain experimented with their first window, announced by a sign next to the main sign reading “Drive-Thru.” The food would be brought out to the customers by the cook, however, instead of being passed through a window.
The Pig Stand is credited with a lot of ‘firsts.’ For example, it is claimed they were the first to use florescent lighting, air conditioning, and to have invented the thick-sliced toast known as Texas Toast. It is even claimed that fried onion rings were invented at a Pig Stand restaurant. They are not the only contender for the earliest drive-thru window, though. Some say that the very first drive-thru was built by Roy Allen of A&W Root Beer, in 1921.
Regardless of who invented the first window, the concept had already been used well before Wendy’s began using it. And, since we think of the modern drive-thru window in conjunction with large menu-board signs and a two-way speaker as the first stop, it is worth noting where the first of these ‘modern’ drive-thrus were installed. This was as early as 1948 at the In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park, California. These became standard for all In-N-Out Burger restaurants.
Two other major chains, Jack in the Box and Burger King, experimented with drive-thrus in the 1950s but were unsuccessful and stopped using the concept. It is hard to imagine a drive-thru being unsuccessful since we now consider them to be standard equipment for any good fast food restaurant, and will often bypass those located in places where drive-thru windows cannot be incorporated.
Now, drive-thrus are popping up everywhere, including drug stores. They have long been a part of the liquor store industry, including some actual drive-thru buildings, a concept that was also tried by some restaurants. And while other types of retail business are experimenting with windows, the fast-food drive-thru is evolving. Now, chains are beginning to use mobile Point-of-Sale (POS) systems or hand-held communicators.
When lines get too long, employees can go outside and approach the cars waiting in line, using a mobile POS device to take their orders right on the spot, or a communicator to call their order in to the restaurant. In some locations, In-N-Out is replacing the speaker/intercom system entirely with outside employees and mobile POS systems during peak business hours. Ironically, the drive-thru is becoming a hybrid drive-in. The only difference is that in the drive-in you park and eat in your car instead of “driving through” to take your food elsewhere to eat.