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Food Service Industry Updates

Throwback Thursday: Hamburgs Maid-Rite Daily for Your In-N-Out Convenience

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In more innocent, predictable times — also known as “before March” — the National Restaurant Association (NRA) released its list of the top restaurant trends to watch in 2020. The organization put eco-friendly packaging and plant-based proteins at the top of its list. Reasonable assumptions, both.

As for the No. 3 trend, well, the NRA folks and the more than 600 chefs they surveyed had no idea how spot on they were. “Off-premises dining [including drive-thru, takeout and curbside pickup] is projected to account for more than 60% of restaurant traffic this year,” NRA said. “As time-pressed consumers spend more time on the road and at work, [restaurateurs should] prepare to satisfy busy diners with easy-to-eat, on-the-go meals that maintain quality in transit.”

And how! 60% turned out to be a low estimate. For many weeks, as the world adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic, off-premises dining accounted for 100% of traffic for many restaurants, and will probably continue to stay well north of 60% until a vaccine is available.

And it hasn’t been only the usual suspects. Sure, drive-thru orders accounted for about 66% of sales at McDonald’s in a typical year. By May, that figure had reached 90%. But many other, non-fast-food establishments were also embracing off-premises options for the first time, with curbside pickup a popular solution. Some formerly table-dining-only restaurants also were thinking of punching holes in their walls — not out of frustration, but as a convenient way to serve customers in their cars.

Already ubiquitous in America, the drive-thru experience is going to get even more common, including for diners who hadn’t typically been asked if they “want fries with that” when ordering a meal. This got the Throwback Team thinking: When did the first restaurant install a drive-thru option for its patrons?

McDonald’s is probably many people’s guess. But, in fact, the Golden Arches was relatively late to the car parade, and didn’t install its first drive-thru until the mid-1970s.

Actually, several different restaurants are credited with opening the first drive-thru. Not surprisingly, these origin stories date as far back as the 1920s, when the restaurant industry experienced much change and an increasingly mobile public could travel further for its meals.

Get ready to order, because here are some of our specials today:

  • Maid-Rite sandwich shop, 1920, Springfield, Ill. — There are still approximately 30 of these shops in operation in several Midwestern states. True to its small-town, 1920s charm, the menu boasts that some of its selections will “knock the knickers off your grandpa — in a good way.” I guess that’s all the more reason to stay in the car, especially if you’re taking grandpa to lunch.
  • The Pig Stand, 1921, Dallas/Fort Worth — Technically, this was a “drive-in,” where carhops would bring you your meal on a tray, so you could enjoy it among the fumes from all the other idling Model Ts. In 1931, the growing Pig Stand empire opened its first drive-thru window in that most car-focused of American cities, Los Angeles.

Of course, the drive-thru (or drive-up) window really came into its own after the Second World War, when babies boomed and suburbs sprawled. Some of the pioneers in this era were:

  • Red’s Giant Hamburg, 1947, Springfield, Mo. — Towns named Springfield loom large in drive-thru lore. That’s because both on this list were located along Route 66, America’s first motor highway designed for interstate transport and cranky family vacations in un-airconditioned cars. The unusual name for this establishment was due to a measuring error on the business’ original sign.
  • In-N-Out Burger, 1948, Baldwin Park, Calif. — This chain grew from a 10-square-foot stand to a half-billion-dollar business by staying true to its name, which is sort of a mission statement for the drive-thru experience.

As can be said of many other things in 2020, we’ll see where this drive-thru trend takes us. One persistent knock against drive-thrus is that they create unneeded air pollution as our cars idle in line. How this plays out in light of modern concerns about climate change is anybody’s guess. Anyway, here is an item written to make you feel guilty as you wait for your order. (You’re welcome, and have a nice day!)

Interestingly, our drive-thru and curbside-craving culture might hasten the demise of another retail institution. “This trend is unfortunately another hit to the already struggling shopping mall industry,” reported FoodTruckEmpire.com. “Restaurants and coffee shops will be moving away from these locations because many don’t offer drive-thru options.”

Editor’s note: Although it would break our grade school teachers’ hearts, “drive-thru” (not “drive-through”) is the accepted spelling, per the Associated Press Stylebook, the bible of such matters for word nerds.

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