The Founder—a film about Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald’s McDonald’s—depicts the first time Kroc ever ate at the restaurant that would become his kingdom. He had driven to the chain’s first location in San Bernadino after the original owners, brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald, ordered eight milkshake mixers from him (at the time he was an appliance salesman) and is shocked at how efficient the operation is. Unlike other proto-fast-food restaurants, there is no carside service. You park, you order from the limited menu, and in less than a minute you have your food.
Efficiency has always been the name of the game in fast food, and the drive-thru is an extension of that. Red’s Giant Hamburg is said to be the first drive-thru restaurant in the country, opening it in 1947. In 1948, In-N-Out burger added their drive-thru, taking orders through an intercom. In 1975, the first McDonald’s drive-thru opened in Arizona, to serve members of a local military base who weren’t allowed to get out of their cars wearing their uniforms. The idea of a drive-in had already found success, but if Americans were going to live in their cars, then fast food wasn’t even going to make them turn off the engine, much less get out to order. A drive-thru seemed perfectly in line with the ethea of efficiency and convenience.
But think of the last time you went to a drive-thru. The menu probably took a good few minutes to read, if you didn’t pull it up on your phone first. There are lanes that circle a parking lot upwards of three times, with options to order through an app, from a server snaking through the lot with an iPad, or at the intercom. The wait was probably long enough that you might have saved time by parking and ordering inside. The drive-thru is no longer the efficient choice—it’s as complicated as a restaurant now.
According to QSR’s annual drive-thru study, drive-thru service has been declining for some time. Speed-of-service is at 234 seconds, up from 190 in 2003. Part of that is that fast-food menus have gotten more complicated. When Kroc visited McDonald’s in 1954 there were nine things on the menu—hamburger, cheeseburger, fries, shakes, and a couple of other drinks. Now, there is all-day breakfast, combo meals, kids meals, salads, and at least nine types of burgers.
There’s also the ouroboros of customers coming to expect the quickness of the drive-thru, meaning more people choose it to fit their busy schedule, which means waits getting longer. And in the quest for efficiency combined with customer service, there are a lot more options. Whereas it used to be a matter of waiting in your car, speaking your order, and picking it up at the window, now apps let you skip the line and order ahead. But according to the study, pre-sell options often take longer than the alternative. Add to that the increasingly pressing issue of pollution. Minneapolis’ city council recently voted to ban the construction of any new drive-thrus in order to decrease emissions from idling cars, and to keep pedestrians safe.
Still, chains are reportedly working on ways to make drive-thru service faster, adding mobile-only lanes and figuring out how to handle increases in items per order. Gary Stibel, CEO of the New England Consulting Group even suggested car-scanning technology that recognizes the car and suggests the driver order the same thing they got last time. And in 2016, Chick-fil-a tested out not just servers taking orders through the line, but also servers bringing orders directly to the cars—which sounds a lot like a drive-in, which is just a sit-down restaurant where the seat is your car.
At this point, it’s hard to argue that the drive-thru provides many conveniences over parking your car and going inside different from a restaurant the restaurant. The only difference is it comes in a bag, and there’s less pressure to tip your servers. But the desire to not get out of the car is strong, no matter how much leaving it might actually be the faster (or at least less involved) option. We may be doomed to idle no matter what.