Who Invented the Drive-Thru Window?

Ask around and most people will tell you McDonald’s did. They are wrong. McDonald’s saw no reason to have a drive-thru (the spelling favored by the industry because it’s a shorter word and saves money on signs) until 1975, the same year Burger King decided drive-thru might be a good idea.

Wendy’s added drive-thru windows in 1970. Founder Dave Thomas’ daughter said in an interview that because customers were unfamiliar with the process and had trouble understanding cashiers over the speakers, she often had to run outside and take orders with a pad and pen.

In 1951, the Original Jack in the Box in San Diego was drive-thru only. They didn’t invent drive-thru either, but they were the first to use an intercom.

In Baldwin Park, California in 1948, the first In-N-Out Burger had a drive-thru window out of necessity – it had no indoor seating and no parking lot .

One year earlier, Sheldon “Red” Chaney added a drive-in window to his Red’s Giant Hamburg on Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri. 

Before the drive-through was the drive-in, and the same man invented both.

In 1921 the original Pig Stand restaurant opened on the highway between Dallas and Fort Worth. It had no dining room at all. The idea was that you would stay in your car as carhops came to you. Their slogan was “A delightful meal, served at your wheel.” 

The founder, Jesse Kirby, told investors “People in their cars are so lazy that they don’t want to get out of them to eat!” Frustrated by not being able to serve any more customers than the parking lot could hold, he came up with the idea for the drive-thru window. 

Eight-eight years later, that simple window is the dominant method of food ordering, accounting for two-thirds of fast food sales.

But in spite of adding windows and lanes to process customers more quickly, drive-thru wait times are steadily increasing. This congestion is one big reason why drive-thru volume dropped by 128 million orders last year. 

The other is delivery, the restaurant business bandwagon that everybody is jumping on. And more specifically, digital ordering for delivery, favored by two out of three over ordering by phone.

Digital ordering is better – when it works. 

And it needs to work really well, because when customers have negative experiences with apps and websites, two out of three abandon their orders and buy from the competition instead.

The top reasons customers give for dropping out and going elsewhere are:

  • The site/app wasn’t working properly (28%). 
  • The orders turned out to be too complicated for the system to handle (22%). 
  • The system didn’t allow users to customize their orders (21%). 
  • The site/app didn’t have answers to users’ menu questions (20%).

Those details are interesting to food industry people and statisticians, but the bigger picture is that all four of the complaint categories above are part of a single issue – those who designed the sites didn’t do a very good job.

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