The idea of drive-through restaurants has its roots in the creation of fast-food, the hamburger, and the automobile. Through the nineteenth century, restaurants represented a luxury experience that few Americans were able to afford, and were often reserved for last-resort circumstances. One of those last-resort circumstances was during cross-country travel, though the menus of these early restaurants were often limited. One of the first entrepreneurs to capitalize on the restaurant market for travelers was Frederick Henry Harvey, who opened a chain of cafés, later dubbed ‘Harvey Houses,’ along railway routes in the late 1800’s. Trains would make a stop and passengers could disembark and be treated to a sit-down meal. Eventually, these cafes were subsidized by railway companies, so the meals were far cheaper than other restaurants of the time. Placing an affordable café along a major commuter route brought the customers straight to the restaurant rather than the other way around, and Harvey Houses would later serve as the business model for other fast-food restaurants.
Drive-through restaurants and drive-in restaurants both share a common ancestor in the idea of making it convenient for drivers to get their food as fast as possible. As cars became more numerous, people were able to move out of big cities and live in suburban neighborhoods, away from the bustle of city life. As an example, the predecessor of the White Castle franchise began as a humble stand in 1921, in Wichita, Kansas, called “Hamburgers 5¢”. After the resturant boomed in Wichita, and it soon expanded to El Dorado, Omaha, Kansas City, and more than eight other major metropolitan centers by 1930. After World War II, White Castle migrated to the suburbs, following the newly mobile middle-class, providing fast food for those who could now drive a few minutes to the restaurant.
White Castle is the oldest fast-food franchise in America, and built its reputation on friendly service, immaculate buildings, and, of course, fast food. Walt Anderson, creator of the franchise, and Billy Ingram, his business partner, developed dozens of standards that each restaurant would follow in order to maintain clean establishments, recognizable buildings, and familiar foods offered at each location. One major roadblock in their business was to overcome the perception that hamburger beef was ground in order to hide spoiled or inferior meat. Anderson and Ingram had to work to change this idea through advertising, using only high-quality meats, and stressing the sanitary environments in which the hamburgers were cooked and served. Eventually, the hamburger became a staple of fast food restaurants.
As a business model, White Castle was quickly imitated by many competitors. McDonald’s, Burger King, and other fast-food giants all were influenced by White Castle. Many franchises branched out into specialized foods, such as KFC selling mainly fried chicken, so as to set themselves apart in a saturated market. Additionally, fast-food restaurants standardized their menus and placed locations along interstate highways, so that weary travelers would have quick access to familiar food. The idea of the restaurant not as a dining experience, but as a temporary fuel stop for people, is pervasive even today. Their convenience is one of the main factors in their success.
Despite the convenience of cheap, quickly served food, fast food restaurants are not completely positive. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser exposes some of the caveats the McDonald’s franchise, including the fatty, salty ingredients of most of the food served by McDonald’s, as well as the negative effects that the demand for their food has had on the environment. Additionally, lawsuits have been waged against the corporation, attesting that the food causes obesity. Fast food restaurants have countered by offering healthier alternatives, such as salad, fresh fruit, and yogurt. The new mindset for the on-the-go individual has shifted to a more health-conscious ideal, even when he or she is on the go. Fast food remains an American innovation, inextricably tied with the rise of automobiles and highways, as well as the American dream of a lifestyle made-to-order as fast as possible.