History Stories

Dining out got a new look in 1948, thanks to a 100-square foot burger shack perched next to a circular Baldwin Park, California, driveway. There, five cooks worked behind glass walls assembling take-out meals for motorists, lured by the a sign assuring “NO DELAY” and a restaurant name that promised exactly what it delivered: In-N-Out.

There are a few claimants for the first fast food eatery to feature a true drive-thru, but In-N-Out Burger’s first restaurant, with its intercom ordering system and its lack of both inside seating and outside parking was likely the first to offer the complete drive-thru package. 

WATCH: Season 1 of The Food That Built America without signing in now.

Where Did Drive-Thru Dining Begin?

Pig Stands, Inc. Dining Room And Curb Service

A menu for Pig Stands, Inc., c. 1938.

Before the drive-thru, though, came the drive-in, a type of restaurant where customers ate their meals on the premises without leaving their cars. The drive-in concept was first popularized by a Texas chain of eateries called the Pig Stand, whose first drive-in opened on a highway connecting Dallas and Fort Worth in 1921. Customers would pull in to the parking lot and be immediately greeted by carhops, combination waiter-busboys who served burgers and fries on trays that clipped on to the car’s window. In 1931 a Los Angeles franchisee of the chain, Pig Stand Number 21, began to allow car owners to order and receive bagged meals from a single window (it’s not clear whether they had to get out of their cars).

The drive-in was less a pure novelty than an expression of great American passions that go hand in hand: speed, efficiency and, sometimes, laziness. By indulging their patrons’ desire not to leave their cars, restaurateurs could operate with fewer employees, letting prices fall while profits rose. But the car-bound diners wanted quick service, prompting an arms race among the carhops to take orders and shuttle food as quickly as possible (hence the roller-skating carhops featured at many drive-ins). By mid-century drive-in owners were experimenting with systems like Aut-O-Hop, Dine-a-Mike, Electro-Hop, Fon-A-Chef and Ordaphone, all allowing parked customers to call in their orders.

READ MORE: How McDonald's Beat Its Early Competition and Became an Icon of Fast Food

McDonalds

The oldest operating McDonald's restaurant in the world is a drive-up hamburger stand in Downey, California, USA. It was the third McDonald's restaurant, and opened on August 18, 1953.

Drive-Thrus Eventually Become Popular

Despite In-N-Out’s success with a drive-thru-centric business plan, the largest national chains were slow to adopt the model. The first McDonald’s burger stands opened in 1948, serving 10-cent burgers from walk-up windows (the pedestrian equivalent of the drive-thru) but it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the first McDonald’s drive-thru opened up. However, smaller chains, like Jack-in-the-Box (founded in 1950) and Wendy’s (1969), adopted the drive-thru early on and by the mid-1960s the Wienerschnitzel chain was opening A-frame restaurants with a car-sized hole that ran straight through the building.

Drive-thrus changed the types of food that quick-service restaurants offered, ensuring the supremacy of the hamburger while spurring the invention of drip-free tacos and boneless morsels of fried chicken. The drive-thru changed cars as well. Cup holders were once a rarity in auto interior design, but by the late 1980s it was common for cars to feature more cup holders than passengers.

WATCH: A sneak preview of The Food That Built America Season 2 premieres Tuesday, February 9 at 10PM ET/PT before moving to its regular time slot on Sundays at 9PM ET/PT. Watch a teaser now.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

RELATED CONTENT