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How it Happened: You can thank the military for the drive-thru window

I’m always curious (and in awe) about inventors. You know, the folks who see a problem and come up with a creative and workable solution. What amazing minds! Sometimes the most common daily convenience was born out of a real need. Take for instance the fast-food restaurant drive-thru window.

The origin of the drive-thru window

Sierra Vista, Arizona, is a town located near the military base Fort Huachuca. A McDonald’s restaurant there was popular with the military folks. (Hey, who doesn’t appreciate hot fries and a Big Mac?)

The problem

Military personnel loved to get a quick bite at the nearby McDonald’s restaurant. At the time (1975), the military had strict rules about soldiers wearing their uniforms in public. Soldiers were not allowed to wear their fatigues in public when they went off post. No soldier was going to change clothes just to get an afternoon snack or a Big Mac lunch. Getting out of their car to quickly walk into the restaurant while wearing their military clothes was a big “no-no.”

The solution

The then-owner of the Sierra Vista McDonald’s, David Rich, had an idea. He cut a hole in the side wall of his restaurant. This allowed military personnel to remain inside their cars, while still wearing their fatigues. They could adhere to the rules and get their fries, too!

The drive-thru idea caught on

It didn’t take long for Mr. Rich’s idea to spread. As it turned out, many people preferred to remain inside their cars to order and pick up their food. People still do. What’s more, the drive-thru window idea has expanded to include coffee shops, banks, and even drive-thru wedding services. That’s right! In Las Vegas (where else?) you can get married via a drive-thru. For just $79 you can drive through a wedding tunnel. In one side as a single. Out the other end, married! Today there are also drive-thru liquor stores, ice cream shops and, more recently, drive-thru COVID testing locations! I’ll bet Mr. Rich had no idea that his “invention” would have such far-reaching applications!

Related:

Stupid RVer Trick: Dairy Queen RV drive-thru disaster

#RVT1036

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TechiePhil
3 months ago

I used to live in the UK where drive-through restaurants are almost non-existent. I suppose because it’s difficult to eat and drive when you have to shift a five-speed. Automatic transmission cars are uncommon in the UK and Europe.

Dan Rasp
4 months ago

Jack in the Box at 63rd and El Cajon Blvd. In San Diego California had a drive through window in 1951.

Lil John
3 months ago
Reply to  Dan Rasp

I’m with you Dan. Lived in Spring Valley, next door to El Cajon, and we went to the drive thru at Jack in the Box in Lemon Grove when I was in High School in the sixties. Also used to visit Drive & Eat on Del Monte Blvd in Monterey in 1964 and loved their drive thru.

David Barron
4 months ago

Actually In-n-out burger which started in 1948 was the first drive thru food restaurant. The owner came up with the system of a two way speaker so patrons didn’t have to park and wait for food which was the norm back in the day. unfortunately he didn’t patent his idea and soon after other restaurants were copying him.

Steve
4 months ago

Growing up in the ’50s in a major metropolitan area no franchised eating establishments except Dairy Queens, we just ordered from a walk-up window. However, those DQs did not have meals, just ice cream and soft drinks. Every other restaurant was privately owned, including the local “drive-in” teen hangout, which had speakers at each parking space and carhops–without roller skates!

My first time at a MacDonald’s was in college in the early ’60s that also just had a walk-up window. I didn’t see a drive-thru until the late 60’s after the first Burger King opened in College Station, Texas. And I was in the Army at the time when we weren’t allowed to get out of our cars off-post in fatigues. If I needed to just get milk, I had to stand in the long check-out lines at the on-post commissary or go to my off-post apartment, change into civilian clothes, and go to the 7-11 in town. There were no drive-thru grocery stores, but there were plenty of drive-thru pawn shops!

Ival Secrest
4 months ago

First, I have lived in Sierra Vista, AZ since 1970. I have crisscrossed this country many times before becoming an RVer and after becoming an RVer. I was aware there were other drive-in restaurants across the country but none of them compared to the preponderance of Mcdonald’s across the country. Gail’s description as to why McDonald’s created the drive-thru is true. Here is a little more background as to why this local McDonald’s was compelled to do something. A new commander came to Fort Huachuca and ordered that the military would be wearing fatigues all the time even though most of them were working in an office environment. Thus, the local McDonald’s military business dried up overnight. As a side note, Soon thereafter the other fast food franchises created a drive-thru and the main east-west thoroughfare was known to the local high schoolers as French Fry Boulevard when the actual name is Fry Boulevard. In my opinion, this one led to all the others having a drive-thru.

Impavid
4 months ago

In Prince Albert, Saskatchewan a local fast food place called the Burger Baron had drive-thru in 1960. At the time their biggest burger, the Baron Burger, cost 50 cents.

Donn
4 months ago

I have to disagree. Jack in the box drive through far preceded 1975. I spent many times in their drive through for mystery meat tacos and shakes in my 1972 LUV truck

DPHooper
4 months ago

Interesting anecdote.
I was born at Sierra Vista while my dad was stationed at Ft Huachuca in 1957.

tom
4 months ago

Went to Ft. H first time in 1966. Sleepy little town with one red light and an A&W. Look at it now.

Jeff Evans
4 months ago

Interesting article as always, Gail. However, the first drive-thru opened nearly thirty years earlier, in 1947.  Red’s Giant Hamburg on Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri was the first – long before McDonalds. This was followed shortly afterward by In-n-Out Burger in 1948 who also pioneered the two-way speaker box that allowed drivers to order dinner without leaving their car. It’s tipped as the first fast food set-up of its kind and it paved the way for the modern drive-thru.

Gail
4 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Evans

I’ll definitely research further, Jeff. I’d love for my current state of residence to hold the honor of being first! Thanks!

dolfroelofsen
4 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Evans

Lots of drive in movie theaters had drive thru admission entrances before the restaurants caught on to that novelty.