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A Brief History of Fast Food in America

Let’s be honest: There are very few smells, tastes, and textures as saliva-inducing as a batch of fast-food french fries straight from the fryer. The hot, crisp, salty potato elicits memories that date back to childhood. when going to the drive-thru was a dinnertime treat.

But America didn't always embrace fast food. In the first half of the 20th century, people rarely ate meals outside their homes, even as fast food was growing in popularity. Fast-food franchises really took off after World War II, spurred along by the growing interstate highway system. The types of fast food multiplied, as did the accessibility of drive-thru windows. Here's a brief history of America’s ever-growing fast-food industry.

Automats: One of the First Fast-Food “Restaurants”

Automat cafeteria vending machine windows containing cake and pie slices.
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Automats are now a thing of the past, but they have a place in fast-food history. They first arrived in the United States in the late 19th century. Horn & Hardart, a famous chain of automats, started in Philadelphia in 1902 and expanded to New York City in 1912.

Automats sold pre-prepared items from sandwiches and salads to desserts. The different dishes were locked inside glass compartments, and customers would insert coins to unlock glass partitions to get their meals. Though automats didn't have classic fast food, they introduced customers to the concept of getting their food right away and serving themselves. Automats were popular for years until a new kind of fast food took over the convenience food industry.

White Castle: A Breakthrough in Burgers

Exterior of a White Castle restaurant.
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Today hamburgers are a fast-food staple. Yet in the early 20th century, many people were reluctant to eat burgers. Consumers suspected ground meat was low quality, thanks in part to the gruesome depictions of the meatpacking industry that Upton Sinclair had created in The Jungle (1906).

Even in this atmosphere, White Castle started successfully selling hamburgers in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921. Co-founder Walt Anderson had already developed a method to quickly cook delicious sliders, and to make people more comfortable with the idea of eating burgers, White Castle emphasized the cleanliness of their restaurants. White Castle also arranged for a study in which a college student ate solely White Castle burgers for 13 weeks. When the subject made it through in "top physical health," the restaurant promoted how healthy their hamburgers were.

As the chain grew and opened new restaurants across the country, White Castle enticed customers with coupons and urged patrons to take burgers home to their families. The company's growth was limited by the fact that co-founder Billy Ingram, who eventually bought out Anderson, decided against a franchise system in order to have more control and ownership over the restaurants. Even so, in 1961, White Castle became the first restaurant chain to sell 1 billion burgers.

McDonald’s and Other Burger Franchises Join the Club

McDonald's golden arches logo with "open 24 hours" on a sign below it.
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Brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened a restaurant called McDonald's Bar-B-Que in 1940. In 1948, the brothers instituted changes that turned their restaurant into a true “fast-food” joint: The restaurant's name was shortened to McDonald's; the menu was pared down to the most popular items; plates were dropped in favor of paper wrappings; a machine crafted uniform hamburger patties; and a craftsman helped create a dispenser to place the appropriate dollops of ketchup and mustard on each burger.

In 1954, milkshake-mixer salesman Ray Kroc visited McDonald's and was impressed with their "Speedee Service System." The brothers served food at a rapid pace and with low prices, to boot. Kroc became a franchisee, then bought out the brothers in 1961. As Kroc took charge, he opened "Hamburger University" to ensure each new franchisee would adhere to the same standards in everything from food prep to cleanliness. McDonald's was on its way to nationwide, and eventually international, prominence.

The 1950s saw other burger joints join McDonald's in the fast-food universe. Whataburger launched in Texas in 1950, while the company that became Burger King started in 1953.

Fast-Food Menus Go Beyond Burgers

Fried chicken spilling out of a fryer basket on to a cutting board.
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In 1940, Dairy Queen started selling soft-serve ice cream. It concentrated on frozen delights, including malts and milkshakes, for years. This strategy worked; after World War II, the number of Dairy Queen outlets climbed to 2,500 by 1948. Other dessert chains, such as Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, also franchised in the 1950s.

Colonel Harland Sanders, the man behind Kentucky Fried Chicken, really did create his own blend of spices and herbs. He also found a way to speed up cooking time by tinkering with the valves of a pressure cooker. After closing his own restaurant in the mid-1950s, he put his energy behind establishing franchises. Kentucky Fried Chicken had more than 600 franchises by the early 1960s.

Taco Bell joined the fast-food lineup in 1962, when its first store opened in Downey, California. For faster service, founder Glen Bell used preformed fried taco shells.

In the early 1960s, a McDonald's franchisee whose restaurant was located in a predominantly Catholic area came up with the idea for the Filet-O-Fish sandwich, to guard against sales dips on Fridays (when devout Catholics don't consume meat, such as hamburgers). Kroc was initially hesitant but allowed the sandwich to launch in 1964. This was the first non-burger sandwich served by McDonald's. It was followed by the Egg McMuffin in 1972 and Chicken McNuggets in 1983.

Drive-Thrus Elevate Accessibility and Sales

Drive-thru sign on the top of a building with an arrow pointing to the left.
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The history of fast food is intertwined with the history of cars. As the interstate highway system took shape in the 1950s and '60s, fast food restaurants sprang up near every off-ramp

The origins of drive-thru windows date back to 1947 and Red's Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri. The California chain In-N-Out Burger set up its first drive-thru window in 1948, and Jack-in-the-Box was a drive-thru chain when it opened in California in 1951. Wendy's, which started in 1969, also successfully used drive-thru windows. McDonald's didn't have any drive-thru windows until 1975, but it was quick to catch up: In 1988, more than 50% of McDonald's sales were via drive-thru.

As drive-thru windows and fast food became more popular, so did the concept of having cupholders in cars. Chrysler's 1984 Plymouth Voyager minivan was one of the first vehicles with cupholders, though they were standard in cars by the 1990s.
And since then, the industry has continued to thrive. As of 2021, there are close to 200,000 fast-food restaurants in the country,