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- Founded in 1921, the Pig Stand in Dallas, Texas, was the first restaurant that was specifically designed to serve people in their cars.
- The subsequent rise of drive-in dining in the late 1920s and early 1930s paved the way for drive-thru restaurants to take off in 1950s.
- Red’s Giant Hamburg, which opened in 1947, was among the first restaurants in the US to have a drive-thru window.
- By the 1970s, many of today’s major fast-food chains began installing drive-thru windows.
- Today, drive-thru service is more efficient than ever before.
Today, it’s hard to imagine a world without drive-thru restaurants. But people weren’t always able to grab a quick meal without leaving their cars.
Since drive-thru service first emerged in the 1930s, the convenient innovation has become more ubiquitous and efficient than ever.
Below, see the evolution of drive-thru windows throughout American history in 14 fascinating photos.
In 1921, entrepreneurs Jessie G. Kirby and Reuben Jackson opened the first restaurant that was specifically designed to serve people in their cars.
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At the original Pig Stand in Dallas, Texas, carhops would take motorists’ orders as they pulled up in their automobiles, allowing drivers to grab a quick meal without leaving their cars, according to the Texas Observer.
Kirby and Jackson’s restaurant was an instant hit, according to Oak Cliff Advocate magazine, and quickly expanded into dozens of locations in several states.
Soon after, drive-in chains like Maid-Rite and Carpenter’s Sandwiches began popping up all across the US, forever changing the way Americans eat.
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The popularity of drive-in dining in the late 1920s and early 1930s paved the way for drive-thru restaurants to catch on in the mid-20th century.
While drive-in eateries are less common now, some have stuck around.
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.
The introduction of motor banks in the 1930s preceded the rise of drive-thru restaurants.
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These banks featured windows with tellers, so customers could conduct transactions from the comfort of their cars.
According to Wells Fargo historian Alyssa Bentz, drive-thru banks were not only convenient, but they also offered security during a time of rising gang violence.
“People planning to make big deposits wanted an alternative to walking on the street and waiting in lines and crowds,” Bentz wrote in a 2018 article for Wells Fargo Stories. “The motor bank offered them the quick, safe service they needed.”
Today, electronic ATMs have eliminated the need for tellers to sit at drive-thru windows.
Many modern banks have drive-thru lanes that allow customers to make withdrawals or deposits without leaving their cars.
Red’s Giant Hamburg, which opened in 1947, was among the first restaurants in the US to have a drive-thru window.
- P51d007/Wikimedia Commons
Located along US Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri, the burger joint operated for 47 years before it was closed in 1984.
Red’s Giant Hamburg is often credited as the first restaurant in America to have a drive-thru window, according to Route 66 News and Springfield Business Journal, but several other eateries have laid claim to the same title.
For example, in a 1994 interview with “CBS This Morning,” Richard Bailey, then the owner of the last remaining Pig Stand location in San Antonio, Texas, said the drive-in chain was home to the world’s first drive-thru window.
In 1948, Harry and Esther Snyder opened the first In-N-Out Burger, which had a novel two-way speaker system that let drivers order food without leaving their cars.
The small drive-thru hamburger stand, located in Baldwin Park, California, was “barely” 10 square feet, according to In-N-Out’s website.
Today, drive-thru service is more efficient than ever before.
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Not only are intercom systems commonplace, but most drive-thrus also feature large menus that customers can quickly scan before they order.
And some restaurants even have two drive-thrus lanes.
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McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and Kansas-based chain Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers all have locations with two-lane drive-thrus, according to The Wichita Eagle.
Drive-thru dining took off in the 1950s as the automotive industry reached new heights.
During this decade, drive-thru dining was particularly popular in California, where the flourishing local car culture shaped the way people ate, according to the National Museum of American History and Los Angeles Conservancy.
Before long, fast-food drive-thrus were everywhere.
According to the National Museum of American History, as the divorce rate rose, single-parent households and after-school activities became commonplace, and more women joined the workforce, fast-food drive-thrus stood out as a convenient and affordable dining option.
By the 1970s, many of today’s major fast-food chains began installing drive-thru windows.
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In November 1970, the founder of Wendy’s, the late Dave Thomas, opened a second location in Columbus, Ohio, that featured a pick-up window with a separate grill – an innovative feature in the fast-food restaurant industry at the time.
According to the company’s website, the drive-thru window was the “catalyst that propelled Wendy’s from a four-store Columbus chain into a food-service phenomenon.”
In the ’80s, some McDonald’s locations used conveyor belts to transport food to the drive-thru window.
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During this decade, the fast-food chain also expanded its drive-thru service to include locations abroad. In 1986, for example, the company installed its first drive-thru window in the UK, according to the BBC.
Today, it’s common to see multiple employees working near the drive-thru window.
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While some of the chain’s drive-thrus still use conveyor belts, others simply place cooking equipment close to the window, so employees can quickly consolidate orders.