With more than 211,000 drive-thru restaurants in America, the fast-food window is about as American as apple pie (which, by the way, you can order at your local McDonald's). It's so common, in fact, that America honors its deep-fried, heavily salted craving once a year on July 24, otherwise known as National Drive-Thru Day.
The U.S. Census explained on its website that fast-food giant Jack-in-the-Box founded the first drive-thru joint in San Diego back in 1951, but some food historians disagree about the origin of the quick-service window meal.
According to Michael Karl Witzel, author of The American Drive-In, the first drive-thru came from an entirely different idea by two Texan men named Jessie G. Kirby, a candy and tobacco retailer, and Rueben Jackson, a physician.
In the midst of the roaring '20s, Kirby approached Jackson about opening a new type of eatery - namely, one where patrons drive up and employees serve them in their cars. Before Jackson would agree, though, Kirby had to convince him.
"People in their cars are so lazy that they don't want to get out of them to eat," Kirby reportedly told Jackson. And so The Texas Pig Stand was born, eventually evolving from carhops at drive-ins into intercoms at drive-thrus.
As drive-thru restaurants gained more popularity in a nation that was quickly becoming busier and faster, other chains ran with the idea while still putting their own spin on it. According to Witzel, the Sonic burger chain got its name after it combined the best of both drive-ins (the quality of a smiling carhop) and drive-thrus (the quickness of an intercom system).
"They claimed it was so fast that they came up with the name 'Sonic' [because] it was served basically at the speed of sound," said Witzel.
Nearly 90 years later, history has shown that not much has changed since Kirby recognized America's fondness for eating in cars. With more than $151 billion in sales each year according to the U.S. Census, the fast food industry is thriving, especially with the help of new technology. In addition to making the process quicker and simpler with LED panels that display the order and payment owed, Witzel believes ordering and paying with smart phones will soon be a regular occurrence at the drive-thru window.
Despite the industry's financial success, many critics condemn the high fat and sodium content that typically drench drive-thru food, which some healthcare professionals say can lead to diabetes and obesity. Witzel says it's all fine in moderation, though.
"You shouldn't be eating it every night, but there's nothing wrong with having a good burger every once in a while," said Witzel, himself partial to the sourdough burgers at Wichita-based Spangles. He also expressed his frustration with cities like New York, which is attempting to ban large, sugary sodas over 16 ounces.
"What's next? Pretty soon, everything will be regulated and all we can eat is tofu and salads. [And] that's not gonna be any fun," he added.