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Americans in the 1950’s may have been even more obsessed with their cars than they are today. America’s economy took off after World War II, and this along with cheaper and more readily available cars, allowed many more Americans to afford cars than ever before. As more and more Americans could get around by car, the government got to work building highways that crisscrossed the nation, connecting cities and states. More and more people were traveling by cars, and many Americans wanted a way to eat quickly while they were on the go. This is where the Drive-In and later Drive-Thru restaurants came in.

Rise of the Drive-In Restaurant

A tray of food on a car at a drive-in restaurant

While Drive-In restaurants took off in the 1950’s, they had been around even before that. It is thought that the first Drive-In restaurant was The Pig Stand, a barbecue restaurant that opened on the highway between Dallas and Ft. Worth, Texas in 1921. Customers would pull up to the parking lot of the Pig Stand, where they were greeted by Car Hops, who were a combination of waiter and busser. The Car Hops would take the customer’s order, go back to the building to deliver the order to the kitchen, and then return with the customer’s order a few minutes later. This allowed the customer to place their order without ever having to leave the comfort of their car.

In 1931, a branch location of the Pig Stand that was located in Los Angeles came up with the idea of a window where customers could go to place and then receive their orders in person. It is not exactly clear if customers had to leave their cars in order to make their orders.

Competition Among Drive-Ins Spurs Invention

A Car Hop talks to a customer at a drive-in diner

By this time, the Drive-In restaurant was spreading across the country. Drive-Restaurant owners could operate with fewer employees, and thus could offer their customers lower prices along with fast service. As the Drive-In became more popular, the race among restaurants to offer faster service heated up. Restaurants began to offer customers the choice of ordering by phone, with services that had titles like “Aut-O-Hop,” “Dine-A-Mike,” “Electro-Hop,” “Fon-A-Chef,” and “Ordaphone.” Car Hops began to use roller skates in an effort to move back and forth from customers to the restaurant more quickly.

In 1948, a California-based chain of burger restaurants called In-N-Out Burgers helped to revolutionize the Drive-Thru restaurant. The first In-N-Out was located in Baldwin Park, California and featured a sign out front promising “NO DELAY” and five cooks behind a glass window. Customers would drive up, order by intercom and soon have their orders. In-N-Out was perhaps the closest thing to a true drive thru restaurant at the time, as there was little in the way of indoor seating and not much outside parking to speak of either.

Drive-Thru in the Modern Day

Although drive-thru restaurants like In-N-Out were becoming more popular, some of the larger fast food chains were slow to adopt the drive-thru business model. While the first McDonalds opened in 1948, offering 10 cent burgers from walk up windows, the first drive thru McDonalds did not open up until the 1970’s. There were smaller fast food chains, like Jack-in-The-Box (founded in 1950) and Wendy’s (1969) that opened drive-thru restaurants in the 1960’s.

Although drive-thru restaurants are more common than the Drive-In restaurants that were popular in the 1950’s, there are still drive-in restaurants across the U.S. where you can order from and eat in your car. From BBQ to Burgers to Lobster, America has no shortage of variety in its drive-in restaurants.

Drive-In Restaurant Fun Facts

  • Drive-Thru restaurants are busiest in the mid-afternoon.
  • The first drive-through-focused restaurant chain was Jack-In-The-Box.
  • According to a 2012 study, Wendy’s had the quickest drive-thru service, while Chi-fil-A was the most accurate
  • 70% of fast food business is done in the drive thru.