Who Invented the First Drive-Thru?

Who Invented the First Drive-Thru STREAM

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Welcome to the captivating quest to uncover the mastermind behind the first-ever drive-thru! In today’s whirlwind of convenience, where speed is king, the drive-thru stands tall as a beacon of on-the-go service. But who deserves the crown for igniting this revolution? Strap in as we embark on a thrilling journey through time.


Early Innovations: The Drive-In Phenomenon

Ah, the golden age of cinema! Drive-in theaters, with their flickering screens and starlit skies, became a hotspot for moviegoers seeking entertainment without ever leaving the comfort of their trusty automobiles. Sensing an opportunity, savvy entrepreneurs began offering concessions and snacks straight to patrons’ car windows, paving the way for what would soon become a cultural phenomenon—the drive-thru.

First Drive-Thru STREAM Drive-In
First Drive-Thru STREAM Drive-In

But the drive-in fever didn’t stop at the movie theater gates. Before the emergence of the drive-thru, the drive-in restaurant laid the groundwork for dining convenience directly from one’s car. This concept took off with the establishment of the Pig Stand chain in Texas, marking its debut along the highway between Dallas and Fort Worth in 1921. Patrons could drive in and park, where they’d be promptly met by carhops — a blend of waiter and busboy — who delivered meals to the car on trays that attached to the vehicle’s window. In a pioneering move in 1931, Pig Stand Number 21 in Los Angeles introduced a system allowing customers to pick up bagged orders from a single window, though it’s uncertain if this required leaving the car.


Pig Stand #2 after a 1928 reconstruction: texasmonthly.com

The drive-in phenomenon reflected deeply held American values of speed, efficiency, and convenience. Catering to customers’ preference to remain in their cars, these establishments were able to streamline operations and reduce staffing needs, thus lowering costs and boosting profits. The demand for swift service led to competitive innovations among carhops, including the introduction of roller-skating staff, to expedite order delivery and food service. By the mid-20th century, drive-in operators were exploring various technologies like Aut-O-Hop, Dine-a-Mike, Electro-Hop, Fon-A-Chef, and Ordaphone, enabling customers to place their orders without leaving their parked cars.

The Transition to Drive-Thrus: Pioneers and Innovators

While In-N-Out was pioneering its drive-thru-centric strategy, it’s interesting to note that the concept of the drive-thru has roots dating back to the 1940s. Among the various establishments vying for the title of the first drive-thru, Red’s Giant Hamburg on Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri, is often credited with initiating the trend in 1947.

Reds Giant Hamburg 1947 STREAM 2
Reds Giant Hamburg 1947 STREAM

Red’s Giant Hamburg 1947

In-N-Out Burger: The Drive-Thru Innovator

However, the drive-thru as we know it today—complete with an intercom system for ordering—was officially launched in 1948 by In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park, California. The very first In-N-Out was a modest setup, barely 100 square feet, providing just enough space for the kitchen staff. Harry Snyder, the owner, had a visionary idea: a service that would allow customers to order and receive their food without ever having to step out of their cars. Toiling away in his garage during the late nights, Snyder engineered a two-way speaker box, bringing his vision to life.

First Drive-Thru In and Out Drive-Thru 2 STREAM
In and Out Drive-Thru STREAM

This innovative model quickly proved its worth. By 1958, In-N-Out expanded to five locations within the Los Angeles area, demonstrating the viability and appeal of the drive-thru. Smaller chains, recognizing the potential, such as Jack-in-the-Box and Wendy’s, were quick to embrace this model as well.

In and Out Snyders STREAM

Jack-in-the-Box and the Expansion of the Drive-Thru Concept

Shortly after, other American fast food chains began to embrace the drive-thru buzz. Jack-in-the-Box, established in 1951 in San Diego, incorporated the drive-thru feature from its inception. An image from the 1960s captures one of its locations in its prime. Mirroring In-N-Out, Jack-in-the-Box introduced a two-way speaker system right off the bat. The chain’s iconic mascot, a large, cheerful clown named Jack, was perched on the intercom box, welcoming customers with the promise, “Jack will speak to you,” as they pulled up.

Jack in the Box 1951 STREAM
Girl Ordering Jack in the box 1951 STREAM

Adhering to the essence of the drive-thru, the menu at Jack-in-the-Box was tailored for quick preparation and ease of consumption on the move. Offerings included hamburgers, boneless chicken, French fries, and apple turnovers for a sweet finale. Indeed, the drive-thru model brought about a transformative shift in the quick-service restaurant sector. It marked the end of the era of cumbersome pies and chili dishes that were staples at drive-ins, paving the way for foods that were convenient to eat while on the move, thereby cementing the hamburger’s dominance in the fast-food realm.

First Drive-Thru Jack-in-the-box STREAM

Wienerschnitzel: A Hot Dog Haven Joins the Drive-Thru Movement

Joining the drive-thru movement was Wienerschnitzel, a fast food chain specializing in hot dogs, launched in 1961 by John Galardi, who previously worked at Taco Bell. Its debut location in Southern California was notable for its distinctive A-frame design, a feature that became synonymous with the brand. Today, Wienerschnitzel boasts locations across the United States.

Wienerschnitzel First Drive-Thru STREAM

Wendy's and the Modern-Day Pick-Up Window

As the wheels of progress turned, drive-thru lanes began popping up everywhere, from burger joints to banks. Another key player that emerged was Wendy’s, established in 1969 by Dave Thomas. The inaugural store opened in Columbus, Ohio, and notably included a drive-thru window, a novelty the brand claims as “the first modern-day pick-up window.”

Wendy's Dave Thomas First Drive Thru Stream

From the outset, Wendy’s offered a menu of hamburgers and thick milkshakes. The success of the first restaurant in Columbus led to the opening of a second location, and the brand rapidly expanded nationwide and internationally over the years. The drive-thru continues to be a cornerstone of Wendy’s business model.

Wendy's First Pick-Up Window STREAM

Burger King and McDonald's: Embracing the Drive-Thru

While these smaller chains were quick to adopt the drive-thru concept, some of the larger fast food giants were more hesitant. For instance, Burger King didn’t introduce a drive-thru window until 1975, initially focusing on a self-service approach powered by an efficient cooking device known as “the Insta-Broiler.”

Burger King Drive-In STREAM

Similarly, McDonald’s took its time to embrace the drive-thru. In the late 1940s and 50s, the company pioneered the “Speedee Service System,” emphasizing a streamlined menu and fast preparation, served through walk-up windows rather than drive-thrus.

McDonalds Dine-In STREAM

Despite the absence of a drive-thru, McDonald’s enjoyed immense popularity in the 1950s and 60s, thanks to its quick service and tasty hamburgers. The sight of cars crowding around its locations in the 1950s hinted at a growing demand for drive-thru convenience.

McDonald’s and Burger King both entered the drive-thru arena in 1975, decades after the concept’s initial introduction by Red’s Giant Hamburg. McDonald’s chose Sierra Vista, Arizona, for its first drive-thru, proudly heralding the location as a pioneering site.

First Drive-Thru McDonalds STREAM

The Drive-Thru Evolution: Impact on Dining and Automobile Design

The advent of drive-thrus significantly shaped the offerings of quick-service restaurants, establishing hamburgers as a mainstay and inspiring the creation of menu items designed for easy consumption on the move, like drip-free tacos and boneless fried chicken. This innovation even influenced automobile design, with cup holders becoming a common feature by the late 1980s.

Conclusion: The Legacy of the First Drive-Thru

Given our discussions at STREAM, it’s clear that In-N-Out Drive-Thru should be heralded as the trailblazer of the drive-thru phenomenon. Their ingenuity laid the groundwork for a revolution in convenience, forever altering how we dine on the go.

As we traverse this historical landscape, we uncover a tapestry of innovation and determination. The drive-thru is more than a window—it’s a symbol of progress, a testament to the relentless pursuit of efficiency and customer satisfaction.

So, who installed the first drive-thru? The evidence points to a collective evolution rather than a single inventor. From the Pig Stand’s early window service to In-N-Out’s pioneering intercom system, the drive-thru emerged from a melting pot of ideas, each contributing to the convenience culture that defines American fast food today.

In closing, the journey to uncover the origins of the drive-thru reminds us of the power of innovation and adaptation. As we look ahead, the drive-thru continues to evolve, embracing new technologies and serving as a cornerstone of convenience in our fast-paced world. Here’s to the past, present, and future of drive-thru dining—may it continue to serve us well on the road ahead.

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