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Like McDonald’s Drive Thru? Thank the U.S. Military

by | November 10, 2023

The first McDonald’s with a drive thru.

Given their service in defense of our country, we owe much to our military. But the next time you pop through a McDonald’s drive-thru, you might want to thank them for that as well.

McDonald’s now numbers more than 40,200 restaurants in more than 100-plus countries. It’s among the world’s most well-known restaurant. And until 1975, diners had to park their cars and go into the restaurant to get their food, even if they were taking their meals with them.

The first drive-thru

The PIg Stand, creator of the Drive Thru.

That wasn’t true with drive-thru restaurants. The concept is said to have originated at The Pig Stand, founded by Jesse G. Kirby in Dallas, Texas in 1921. The Pig Stand’s specialty was the pig sandwich, consisting of smoked pork with relish and barbecue sauce on a bun. The Pig Stand’s success led to its concept spreading to competitors.

But it wasn’t until 1948 for the first drive-thru innovation to arrive, when In-N-Out Burger opened their first drive-thru in Southern California. Like today, customers placed their order through a speaker box. Food was then delivered to their car.

Yet it wasn’t until 1969 that modern drive-thru was perfected at Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio. There, company founder Dave Thomas installed a speaker for customers to place orders. But he also added a pickup window so that drivers didn’t have to get out of their cars, or park and wait.

The first In-N-Out Burger had a speaker to speed its drive-thru orders.

That said, despite McDonald’s having perfected the Speedee Service System in 1948, the Golden Arches lacked drive-thru service of any kind.

This proved to be a problem for the McDonald’s restaurant franchise David Rich. His restaurant was near the Fort Huachuca Army base, about 20 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in Sierra Vista, Arizona. You’d think being close to a military base would be good for business. But that wasn’t true, and sales were dropping.

Managers soon realized why.

Rules are rules

Period photo of the first McDonald’s drive-thru.

In 1975, uniform regulations stated that American soldiers were prohibited from wearing their olive-drab OG-107 uniforms in public locations like McDonald’s. And troops wearing OGs did, in fact, follow that rule. So, before placing an order for a Big Mac and fries, soldiers had to go home and change into civilian clothing.

Rich had to figure out a way that allowed soldiers to buy meals without getting out of their cars.

Inspired by competing fast food restaurants, Rich decided to install a sliding window in the wall of his restaurant where customers could place and receive their food orders without having to leave the car. For soldiers, this meant they could drive up to his restaurant in their fatigues and buy a meal. Technically, they wouldn’t be seen in public as they didn’t leave their car.

A happy accident

McDonald’s franchisee David Rich advertises his innovation.

It was a huge success.

Soon thereafter, a second franchisee added a drive thru. By 1979, more than half of McDonald’s 5,000 locations had them. Today, drive thru meals account for roughly 70% of McDonald’s U.S. business. And it all started with a U.S. Army regulation.

To all those who serve or served, Happy Veteran’s Day. We salute you ­– albeit with a McDonald’s chocolate shake.


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