There’s nothing better than the delicious smell of french fries filling your car as you speed off to enjoy your late-night feast! This is a relatable experience for most Americans, not to mention drivers all over the globe. We associate drive-thrus with greasy, delicious burgers and fries, low prices, fast service and often, 24-hour access.
These franchises have become road trip staples, as they are often located near major highways for ease of access. Plus, their quick and easy ordering processes make them ideal for brief stops. Drive-thru locations can be found in almost every corner of the globe, with some studies estimating upward of half a million locations worldwide.
The proliferation of fast food chains has also contributed to cars becoming a kind of second home for drivers, many of whom spend hundreds of hours in their cars each year. One study reports that the average driver in the U.K. will spend over 1,800 hours of their lives eating in their cars, while drivers in France will spend nearly 3,000 hours eating meals in their vehicles (though they might want to rethink that after reading this report on car cleanliness)!
A Brief History of Drive-Thrus
So, how did the modern drive-thru come to be such a staple in our lives?
From Drive-Ins to Drive-Thrus
Cars were actually being used as dining rooms before drive-thrus even existed, as the first drive-in restaurants became popularized in the early 1920s. At drive-ins, drivers were greeted in the parking lots by “carhops,” who would take their order back to the restaurant and return with trays of burgers and fries that clipped onto the car window. You may still see this practice today if the drive-thru lane is especially crowded!
Customers would then sit and eat the meal in their cars in the restaurant parking lot. From there, it was a natural evolution for drivers to pull up and order at windows, to save the carhops the time that it took to walk back and forth between the restaurant and cars.
Why Were Drive-Ins So Popular?
As cars became more affordable for families and therefore more commonplace, it was only natural that the restaurant industry would evolve to meet the increased demand for food on-the-go. The drive-in was born out of a combination of driver laziness and the desire for fast, efficient service.
Not only did the drive-in model make things easier for drivers and their families, but it also made sense from a business perspective. Restaurant owners could employ fewer waiters and servers, and instead profit off of just a few cooks in the kitchen and cheap, teenage carhops. As the demand rose for faster and faster service, the carhop position became more competitive and led to recognizable trends such as rollerskate delivery.
The First Drive-Thru Restaurants
In 1931 Los Angeles, a franchise location of the popular Pig Stand chain began allowing drivers to order through a window of the store rather than with a carhop. Other chains soon followed suit, and in 1948 the first true drive-thru went into business in Baldwin Park, California. Its name: In N Out Burger. Complete with a state-of-the-art intercom and a lack of seating, In N Out Burger delivered on its name, and customers were in and out in record time.
Today’s drive-thrus are held to high standards, as the wide variety of options forces franchises to strive for greater levels of customer satisfaction. There are many factors that affect drive-thru success, and they all have to do with the convenience of the experience.
What Do Drivers Want?
As mentioned above, the whole point of drive-thrus is to make dining in the car as convenient as possible. This means fast and reliable service, easy ordering, and the most bang for your buck. In order to keep up with this increasing demand, drive-thrus are innovating in a variety of ways.
One of the most recognizable changes in drive-thrus is the size and color of the menu. In the past, menus were simple black text on a white background, and consisted of five to six options. Drive-thru menus today are huge, brightly-lit and multi-colored, presenting the most popular orders on the largest panels in order to help customers decide quickly and easily.
Drive-thrus are also changing their packaging and recipes in order to accommodate drivers eating on-the-go. No driver is going to want to order a big, messy meal that’s going to be difficult to eat while driving. For example, despite its name, Taco Bell continues to focus on burrito-type menu items, as the sticky meat and cheese will easily stay in a tortilla and can be eaten with one hand while driving.
An even more efficient example is KFC, who several years ago came out with the Go Cup. The Go Cup can hold several chicken tenders and fries in a cup that perfectly fits in most cup holders. The Go Cup really is the ideal car dining meal!
In addition to these examples, below are a few more drive-thru aspects that are important to customers.
We all know the feeling of opening up the big paper bag of fast food and realizing that it’s not what you ordered, or that a key element is missing (like the dipping sauce for your chicken tenders). One time might be excusable, but it only takes a couple more for a customer to swear off a franchise location forever, or even the whole chain!
According to a 2018 study from QSR Magazine, Arby’s topped the charts with order accuracy last year, with 95.2 percent orders correctly delivered. The lowest was KFC, with just 69.9 percent orders delivered correctly!
If the drive-thru lane isn’t easy to access, customers will easily skip that restaurant in favor of a more appealing venue. This can include factors like maneuverability from the parking lot entrance, a drive-thru lane that is clean and uncrowded, and the overall respectability of the appearance of the restaurant.
In 2018, Chick-Fil-A ranked a perfect 100 percent in drive-thru appearance, and Hardee’s brought up the rear with a still-respectable 92 percent. However, Chick-Fil-A was bottom of the barrel in ease of drive-thru entry with just 58.9 percent. Carl’s Jr. was found to have the easiest drive-thru lanes to access, as 87.7 percent of restaurants were reported to be easily accessible to drivers.
Speed of Service
True to its roots, drive-thru speed is still important to customers today. Drivers tend to become irate if their order takes longer than five minutes from start to finish, which makes sense considering drive-thrus usually take an average of three and half to four minutes for an order to be completed.
Burger King had by far the fastest service in 2018, with the average order taking just 193.31 seconds, or 3.2 minutes, to complete. McDonald’s had the slowest average order completion, with 273.29 seconds or 4.6 minutes to completion.
5 Surprising Drive-Thru Facts
Now that you know a little bit more about where drive-thrus came from and what they typically look like today, here are some interesting tidbits that you might not have heard before.
2. In the U.S., the estimated amount of gas wasted each year from cars idling in the drive-thru lanes is over 4 million gallons! Scientists are continuing to study how to make drive-thru lanes more fuel-efficient.
3. The average American will spend over $1,200 each year on drive-thru food.
4. Though we normally think of drive-thrus in terms of food, there are plenty of other services you can benefit from in the comfort of your car! Some of these include a prayer booth, a liquor store and a wedding chapel.
5. The early afternoon is the best time to go for good service because things have calmed down between the lunch and dinner rush.
Drive-Thrus of the Future
Drive-thrus are an iconic piece of American culture — is there a more recognizable logo than the Golden Arches? Born from the ever-so-American desire to achieve the highest level of convenience, drive-thrus have already made cars into dining rooms for many around the world.
Some riders are even taking this to the next level by having rideshare drivers take them through drive-thrus. Plus, ease of eating while driving will really change if self-driving cars become popular! So what’s next for the drive-thru? Will cars become bars, hair salons or remote offices?
History | QSR Magazine | Auto Express | Fact Retriever | Eat This | Fast Food Menu Prices | VICE | Reference | Food Beast| Tastemade | Huffington Post | Journal of Civil & Environmental Engineering | Fast Company