Drive-Through Services Proliferate Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The drive-through concept of quick service began with drive-in restaurants and spread to banks, newsstands, and various types of retail stores.

Summary of Event

A gradual buildup of several factors contributed to the drive-through phenomenon that occurred in the United States in the 1970’s. After World War II, gasoline rationing disappeared, allowing increased use of automobiles. People began to move to the suburbs but continued to work in the cities. Highway construction gradually increased to accommodate the commuter traffic from the suburbs, and freeways were built. Because they had longer commutes, people had to start earlier to get to work on time and spent larger parts of the day in their cars. Enterprising people with an eye for business saw a niche for drive-in service. Drive-through services[Drive through services] Drive-in restaurants[Drive in restaurants] Retailing;drive-through services[drive through services] [kw]Drive-Through Services Proliferate (1970’s) [kw]Services Proliferate, Drive-Through (1970’s) [kw]Proliferate, Drive-Through Services (1970’s) Drive-through services[Drive through services] Drive-in restaurants[Drive in restaurants] Retailing;drive-through services[drive through services] [g]North America;1970’s: Drive-Through Services Proliferate[00010] [g]United States;1970’s: Drive-Through Services Proliferate[00010] [c]Marketing and advertising;1970’s: Drive-Through Services Proliferate[00010] [c]Trade and commerce;1970’s: Drive-Through Services Proliferate[00010] Kroc, Ray McDonald, Richard McDonald, Maurice Sanders, Harland

The first businesses to offer drive-in service were restaurants, which accommodated customers either by having carhops go to the cars to take the customers’ orders and deliver their food or by having customers place their orders at a walk-up window, without going inside. Customers would eat in their cars or take the food with them.

Ray Kroc, a salesman for Mult-A-Mixer Mult-A-Mixer[Multamixer] milkshake machines, discovered that a small self-service restaurant in San Bernardino, California, was using eight Mult-A-Mixers at once, every day. He drove to San Bernardino to see the owners of the restaurant, brothers Richard McDonald and Maurice McDonald, at work and studied their operation for a few days. Kroc saw the details that made the little restaurant so successful: It was clean and well organized, and it offered food at reasonable prices. Customers kept coming back. The restaurant had eliminated carhops, instead having customers step up to a counter to place orders. Kroc later instituted drive-through service.

In 1954, Kroc signed an agreement with the McDonald brothers to sell franchises of McDonald’s restaurants McDonald’s restaurants[Macdonalds restaurants] and at the same time install his Mult-A-Mixers in each new McDonald’s. Twenty-two years later, in 1976, McDonald’s sales hit the $1 billion mark. Such growth was phenomenal; International Business Machines (IBM) took forty-six years to achieve the $1 billion mark, and Xerox took sixty-three years. Other restaurant chains began to franchise, Franchising Retailing;franchising and the drive-through idea developed with these fast-food franchises. Fast-food industry[Fast food industry] Although McDonald’s restaurants were not the first to offer drive-in or drive-through service, their great success prompted imitation. Customers found it very convenient to stay in their cars and order through a loudspeaker, drive up to a window, pay for and receive their orders, and drive off.

Drive-through services soon proliferated beyond fast-food franchises. Press Box News of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, set up drive-through newsstands in such high-traffic locations as shopping center parking lots and highway intersections in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Drivers could pull up to the window, pay for a newspaper or magazine, and drive off. The newsstands also offered coffee, cigarettes, photographic film, and soft drinks. Other companies offered film processing through drive-up service: Attendants in tiny booths accepted rolls of film and sent them to processors; customers returned several days later to pay and pick up their prints.

Banks soon added drive-through tellers; customers could do their banking from their cars through the use of tubes at drive-up windows that allowed checks and cash to pass from customer to teller and vice versa. Banks then became twenty-four-hour institutions with the introduction of automated teller machines (ATM). Both walk-up and drive-up ATMs made banking much more convenient for customers. The drive-through service concept eventually caught on in many other product and service lines as well, from dry cleaners to pharmacies to wedding chapels.

Successful drive-through operations of all kinds tend to share some characteristics. First, their locations must be conveniently accessible by car. Second, they offer a limited inventory or even a single product or service, reducing the space required and catering to people with a known single shopping need that they want to satisfy quickly.

The third McDonald’s fast-food restaurant, shown here in an August, 1970, photograph, was built by Richard and Maurice McDonald and was designated a national landmark on its fiftieth anniversary in 2003, in Downey, California.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Before they met Ray Kroc, the McDonald brothers had an earlier operation with twenty-five menu items, a fry cook who produced greasy food, carhops, silverware that could be stolen, and breakable dishes. They reduced their menu choices to nine, got rid of the carhops, and made cleanliness a priority. The plan worked, and that was when Kroc came along. The McDonald’s transformation exemplifies how American business changed to accommodate drive-through service.


The American idea of drive-throughs caught on in Canada and overseas between 1970 and 1979. In that time frame, McDonald’s alone established outlets in Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Costa Rica, the Virgin Islands, and Panama. As drive-through services spread, entrepreneurs had many new ideas for services that would appeal to commuters and anyone else in a hurry.

Certain locations are favorable for drive-through services because of the volume of commuter traffic they draw. Many of these locations in turn sprout small communities of businesses, each offering drive-through or quick service. Given this development, environmental concerns entered the picture. A California Restaurant Association study on the possible pollution caused by cars waiting in restaurant drive-through lanes resulted in proof that cars parked and later restarted cause more pollution than those in idle. California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District had proposed a ban on drive-throughs but withdrew it in August, 1990. The California Restaurant Association and nine fast-food chains spent $125,000 on their study because they believed that the ban might again be proposed.

Eventually, drive-through services began to face heavy competition, especially in the fast-food category. The good idea of drive-through had caught on, and businesses now had to implement it well to survive. The results of competition included increases in purchases of equipment and more efficient planning of traffic surrounding the businesses.

The American lifestyle has speeded up since the very early drive-throughs of the 1950’s attempted to meet the accelerated pace of commuters. The effects of the increase in drive-through services that boomed in the 1970’s can be traced forward to effects on suppliers and their products. When many American women began working outside the home in the 1960’s, for example, the demand for quick-service food increased. The hamburger became king, and consumption of ground beef increased in the United States by 50 percent from 1965 to 1975, according to the Institute of Policy Planning at Pennsylvania State University. Certainly much of the meat was consumed at home, but fast-food restaurants accounted for much of it also.

The growth of drive-through services was accompanied by growth in franchising. Establishments tended to be small, with limited services and products, and therefore were easy and inexpensive to duplicate. Chains of identical outlets thus spread across the United States and, in some cases, around the world. The familiarity of these outlets made customers comfortable, as they believed they knew what they could expect to find there. For example, the success of drive-through restaurants was aided by the fact that no matter what community a hungry customer enters, he or she can almost count on finding familiar food. Drive-through services[Drive through services] Drive-in restaurants[Drive in restaurants] Retailing;drive-through services[drive through services]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alpert, Mark. “Extra! Extra!” Fortune, January 1, 1990, 14. Describes how a high-traffic location and commuters in a hurry led to success for Press Box News, a chain of newsstands offering newspapers and magazines as well as coffee, film, and other products.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kroc, Ray, with Robert Anderson. Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1977. Begins with Kroc’s visit to the McDonald brothers in 1954, when he discovered their efficient operation, and traces the development of the McDonald’s chain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Love, John F. McDonald’s: Behind the Arches. Rev. ed. New York: Bantam Books, 1995. Provides much information on the origins of McDonald’s. Relatively unbiased despite the fact that the book was written in cooperation with the company.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Michman, Ronald D., and Alan J. Greco. Retailing Triumphs and Blunders: Victims of Competition in the New Age of Marketing Management. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 1995. Describes how retailers of various kinds have responded to changes in American society and the marketplace. Includes discussion of the innovations of fast-food retailers such as McDonald’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“No Waiting.” U.S. News & World Report, November 26, 1990, 20. Describes innovations in quick delivery of products and services, including a service offered by two California hospitals: drive-through flu shots.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whittemore, Meg. “Advice for the Entrepreneur Who Sees Franchising as the Best Route to ’Being My Own Boss.’” Nation’s Business 78 (February, 1990): 70. Describes features that make franchises successful, using several enterprises as examples, including Pharmacy 1 Express. Details what these businesses have in common, including good locations, simplicity of products and services, and efficiency.

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