The Murky Origins Of The Restaurant Drive-Thru

If Americans thought food couldn't be handed over any swifter than at a fast food counter, quick service restaurants proved otherwise by eliminating the need to get out of the car altogether. Drive-thru windows can be a saving grace for road trip enthusiasts, the chronically late, and anyone who's simply had a long, exhausting day. In addition to being a convenient way for folks to grab a quick pick-me-up, drive-thru services might help boost sales significantly. There might be a long queue of drivers waiting to grab their McDonald's hash browns before work, but at least hungry early birds can twiddle their thumbs in comfort with control over their car speakers.

Today, it might seem like a given that fast food joints have a window to drive up to, but motorists weren't always so lucky. It's tough to confidently credit one savvy restaurant owner for the drive-thru concept, as a handful started popping up around the country in the late '40s according to The Tribune-Democrat. Between Red's Giant Hamburg on Route 66 in Springfield and the now popular West Coast burger chain In-N-Out, the origin is hazy. Before the drive-thru window was popularized, many restaurateurs picked up on America's interest in comfortable convenience with carhop dining (via History), but then food service engineers stepped it up a notch.

Multiple eateries stake a claim to creating the first drive-thru restaurant

Sheldon "Red" Chaney opened Red's Giant Hamburg in 1947 with hopes of appealing to peckish passersby during busy hours, and it was a great success, claims Delighted Cooking. The burger joint's service window helped lower costs by doing away with carhops. Plus, the fact that drivers no longer needed to park their cars probably made ordering a breeze by comparison. History states that the cult-craved In-N-Out opened in 1948 but "was likely the first to offer the complete drive-thru package," including a streamlined intercom system and nonexistent indoor dining. The original In-N-Out was a small Californian burger bungalow in Baldwin Park that was only powered by five cooks. These burger dives were way ahead of their time, as McDonald's didn't even open its first drive-thru until 1975.

But it turns out that credit for the first drive-thru probably doesn't even go to a restaurant. Before those in the food industry adopted the drive-thru design, that comfortable service was offered by banks. According to Wells Fargo, drive-thru banks came on the scene in the 1930s meaning they pre-date restaurant drive-thru windows and may have even inspired other establishments. The origin of this appetizing amenity may be opaque, but America certainly deserves applause for normalizing such a highway staple.