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Let’s Just Run Through the Drive-Thru

How the drive-in and drive-thru transformed the fast food industry as we know today

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Growing up, we eagerly anticipated going to the drive-in: the immense open-air screen, lounging around with friends, and indulging in our favorite treats… all without leaving our car. Decades later, the drive-ins we once enjoyed are few and far between, and if your town still has one it’s a nostalgic time capsule.

Since the 1920s, Americans have loved their cars and the convenience of fast food. Over the years, “Let’s go to the Drive-in” translated to, “Let’s just run through the Drive-thru.” But before the drive-thru came the drive-in. The drive-in concept was first popularized in 1921 by a Texas chain called the Pig Stand, whose first drive-in concept opened on a highway connecting Dallas and Forth Worth. Customers would pull into the parking lot with immediate service from carhops who served burgers and fries that clipped onto the car’s window.

Other drive-ins emerged during the late 1920s and early 1930’s with infamous establishments like White Castle and A&W Root Beer. For the Kansas Citians, the first Winstead’s drive-in opened in Springfield, Illinois in 1936. Shortly after, Nellie Winstead and her husband ventured to Kansas City in 1940 to open the first Winstead’s in the metropolitan area, located just east of the Plaza on 47th Street (and is still open to this day).

By indulging in patrons’ desire to not leave their cars, fast food chains realized they could operate with fewer employees, letting prices fall while profits rose. Thus the nation’s first official drive-thru, Red’s Giant Hamburg, was introduced in 1947 in Springfield, Missouri. Several years later, In-N-Out Burger joined the trend in California.

With In-N-Out’s success, founders, Harry and Esther Snyder, are widely recognized as the first to capitalize on the two-way speaker system, which accelerated a competitive drive-thru race through the 1950s-1960s. At the time, the concept of contactless ordering was so novel customers were warned a disembodied voice would be speaking to them.

Despite In-N-Out’s vast success with their drive-thru-centric business plan, larger national chains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s were slow to adopt the model. Although the first McDonald’s burger stand opened in 1948, they didn’t open their first drive-thru until 1975; other small chains like Jack-in-the-Box (1951) and Wendy’s (1969) had adopted the drive-thru early on. By the mid-1960s the Wienerschnitzel hot dog chain was opening A-frame restaurants with a car-sized hole that ran straight through the building.

The drive-thru changed car design 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 cupholders than passengers.

Just as the explosive drive-thru model transformed the fast-food industry 50 years ago, dual, triple and quadruple drive-thru lanes, self-order kiosks, app-based loyalty programs, AI powered voice recognition, and dedicated mobile pick-up locations are setting new industry standards.

Here are some powerful statistics that illustrate where the industry is headed:

  • Drive-thru sales represent 70% of fast food sales, generating billions of dollars for the industry on a monthly basis (Quantum Real Estate Advisors).
  • Since 2014, online food ordering has grown 300% faster than dine-in with an annual growth rate of 15% -20%. For comparison, the broader restaurant industry has seen less than 4% growth rate (QSR).
  • Curbside pickup is projected to account for over $140 billion in sales in 2024, compared to $35 billion in 2019 (eMarketer).
  • Restaurants with online ordering systems can raise takeout profits by 30% more than those who do not (MadMobile).
  • Chick-fil-A is launching new restaurant concepts in 2024. One will provide multiple options: order ahead in the Chick-fil-A app and pick up in a dedicated ‘mobile thru’ lane or place orders the traditional way. The new concept boasts twice as much kitchen capacity and four lanes that can hold up to 75 cars (QSR).
  • Over the last 3 years, Chipotle has invested significant resources into their mobile loyalty program. By the end of 2022 it exceeded 30 million members with a digital business surpassing $3 billion, accounting for 39% of their sales (QSR).