What happens when a nation needs to social distance, restaurants close indoor dining and people head out for summer road trips? Drive-thrus boom across America!
The pandemic has changed many things about day to day life, including a shift to primarily, if not exclusively, pickup and delivery for food. In cities and towns across the country, many fast food and fast casual locations have scrambled to transition to drive-thru and/or carry-out only, rather than shut down in accordance with local indoor dining restrictions or varying degrees of safety precautions.
Fast food mainstays like McDonald’s, Chick-Fil-A, Wendy's and Taco Bell pivoted easily to focus on drive-thrus, with many shutting down sit-down options temporarily or still today. Fast casual favorites like Chipotle that have long invested in technology solutions doubled down on construction that caters to digital orders, now set to build dedicated Chipotlanes for pickup at 70% of new stores by next year. Shake Shack is opening similarly-focused Shake Tracks, Panera drive thru sales have doubled, Starbucks is getting out of malls to focus on locations with drive-thru access and easy mobile pickup, and even Wawa is opening its first drive-thru only shop.
Of course, the drive thru is nothing new.
Want Cuban food in Miami? Sergio’s has been offering more flavor than one would think possible through a tiny window since 1975. Craving a pastry and coffee in Southern California? The Donut Hole is kitschy enough to please without compromising the menu at this 1968 landmark. Dancing hot dogs have been luring in hungry drivers at Chicago’s Superdawg since the fifties, retro lights have upped the curb appeal of Boise, Idaho’s Westwide Drive In since 1967, and the same root beer recipe has been filling cupholders of those visiting Mugs-Up Root Beer in Missouri since 1956. There are also new drive-thrus opening constantly, including distinctly 2020 versions with organic ingredients, plant-based menus, healthy grab-and-go and zero waste packaging, like the newly-opened fully-vegetarian Amy’s Drive Thru in Northern California.
America’s first drive-in opened in 1921 in Dallas, Texas; Kirby’s Pig Stand went on to revolutionize dining, wherein food was brought to people in their cars with increasing speed (think: rollerskates). In and Out was one of, if not the first full drive-thru in California in 1948, and promised what its name suggests with intercom ordering and no seating or parking. People wanted to spend time in their cars, a newly affordable purchase for many suburban residents, which led to car-forward design, urban planning and architecture, including round drive-ins with car hops to cater to customers and designated drive-thru lanes.
McDonald’s first drive-thru window in 1975 changed the game and led to mass popularization. Today, 95% of McDonald’s have them, accounting for two-thirds of sales in normal times and over 90% amid the pandemic.
Drive-thrus made sense decades ago and they still make sense today. Despite wild advances in technology and shifts in society, a simple bag of food passed through a window of a brick-and-mortar building into an idling vehicle is a time-tested winner: convenient, efficient, well-priced, and safe. What began as a leisure activity and became a beloved all-American staple is now a necessity in which people can feed themselves and their families from the comfort of their own vehicle without having to interact with others and face potential Covid risk. It’s a premium for which Americans are willing to wait in longer-than-usual lines.
The future of restaurants is uncertain, but designs centered around drive-thru, pickup and delivery are clearly paramount. Closed dining rooms mean empty parking lots, now converted into extra lane space for drive-thrus, a lifeline for sales in this present moment. Contactless payment, ever-improving online ordering and dynamic outdoor menu boards make the process not only feasible, but enjoyable.
Drive-ins never disappeared and while they may not be as quick as a drive-thru, the classic Americana spots are making a comeback amid this strange social and culinary landscape. Whether an iconic institution like Mel’s Drive In in San Francisco or Johnnie’s Drive-In in Mississippi, or even one of the dozens of Sonic or A+W locations that still feature car hops, anyone of any age can get a quick, Covid-safe burger and fries with a hefty side of nostalgia. It may just be time to hit the road with our masks, hand sanitizer, maps set to a historic or modern drive-thru, and very hungry bellies.