As More Cities Ban Drive-Thrus, A Look at Fast Food History

minneapolis prohibits further building of drive-thru windows

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Minneapolis has banned construction of new restaurants with drive-thru windows, according to the city’s official website. Its stated goals include reducing air pollution and litter while improving pedestrian safety. The idea of fast food was popularized after World War II.

Drive Thru sign at fast food restaurant during night time
Fast food restaurants offer convenience via their drive-thru windows. Photo by PsychoFox / Shutterstock

Despite the convenience of drive-thru windows—including not having to get the kids out of the car and not eating a meal at home you had to cook—they appear to be causing more trouble than they’re worth. The obesity epidemic is often linked to sedentary lifestyle choices such as drive-thru restaurants and watching television. Then there are pre-existing problems exacerbated by drive-thru culture, many of which were mentioned in the Minneapolis ordinance—carbon emissions, air pollution, littering, and so on. With even a hint that drive-thru windows are on the decline, it prompts a look back to their initial rise in popularity.

The Road to Fast Food

Following the victory of the Allies in World War II, soldiers came home, got back to work, and enjoyed a golden age of booming economics, beginning around 1950.

“In this postwar prosperity—every single household had its own TV—it would be inevitable that food technologists would figure out a way to capitalize on young Americans’ latest addictions by creating the TV dinner,” said Dr. Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. “Given long commutes, working parents, longer hours at work, these [TV dinners] were marketed as being quick and convenient, and ready at any moment. But people were no longer cooking with their children; no longer teaching them how to cook; no longer sharing those meals; or maybe even more important, no longer getting the pride and satisfaction of producing good food for one’s family to enjoy.”

Dr. Albala said the booming economics and need for convenience were also linked to the rise of eating meals at restaurants, since nearly all Americans owned a car. More driving meant suburbs, and a desire for a taste of home wherever one went, which led to chain restaurants.

From Carhops to Drive-Thru

Chain restaurants practically burst with convenience and consistency, leading to fast food.

“The novelty was that you could either drive up and be served right in your car by carhops or you could go in and eat quickly and get right back on the road,” Dr. Albala said. “This is food that’s meant to be driven to in a car; and what makes this phenomenon unique is that the stores use the assembly line production that’s modeled on Ford, ultimately.”

Dr. Albala elaborated on that system in his Ford metaphor. “These were franchised, they’re of uniform structure and decor throughout the country, and they served a preset menu made with ingredients that were pre-prepared on on an industrial scale,” he said. “That’s to say, the French fries were precut and frozen, the hamburger patties were all pre-formed; everything could be put together by a person with practically no skills beyond pressing a button or flipping that burger over.”

He added that the generally unskilled labor is maybe the most important factor of fast food. Companies consider employees to be disposable due to the automatic nature of the food preparation process—despite who prepares the food, it will have a uniform taste from day to day.

From quickly prepared, consistently cooked, assembly-line food to the convenience of the carhop, the drive-thru window was the next natural step. However, if cities continue to follow Minneapolis’s example, we may soon burn a few more calories by walking from the parking lot to the cash register and back.

Dr. Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California

Dr. Ken Albala contributed to this article. Dr. Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, where he teaches food history and the history of early modern Europe. He earned an M.A. in History from Yale University and a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University.