filed under Burgers, Fast Food

The Burger and the Drive-Thru

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Photo by Marc Subido

In 20th Century North America, the car ruled all. Most communities were developed to facilitate the use of the almighty vehicle. And at the same time, fast food and burgers shot into the spotlight. The union between the two would become not only reality, but an integral part of the daily lives of millions.

If we stop to think about it, nearly anything can be done without getting out of the car. While the hamburger is credited with launching the drive-thru system, you can now get your coffee, grab your groceries, and settle your bank issues all in a drive-thru.

To trace back the beginnings of the drive-thru, one cannot ignore where fast food started: in 1921, when Walter Anderson and Bill Ingram planted the seed known as White Castle. The concept of small, easily transportable hamburgers would serve as a model that any drive-thru would soon go hand-in-hand with.

About 25 years later on a very famous route in Missouri, a man named Sheldon Chaney, more affectionately known as Red, opened what he claimed as the world’s first ever drive-thru, Red’s Giant Hamburg. Akin to eating at a picnic, Red’s was an institution on Route 66 until Chaney’s retirement in 1984.

When we think of the drive-thru, there are many famous names that crowd the list, but there are still a few smaller operations that apply the drive-thru in their business models. These are my top five:

1. Beef N’ Bun Whistle Stop – El Cajon, California

When the food is made simple and without much fuss, you just have to know that the people will come. When you show up to this establishment behind the wheel of your car, you’ll be taken back in time. The burgers served at this drive-thru are reminiscent of the ones that were present before the era of the global fast food chains. When you add a peanut butter milkshake, you can’t go wrong.

2. Yellow Basket – California

While most common drive-thru juggernauts have literally thousands of locations across the globe, smaller, more modest chains also employ them. The Yellow Basket has three California locations to its name and a large variety of burgers to boast.

Talking about the drive-thru, we cannot go without mentioning three of the bigger names in the art of serving burgers on the go.

3. In-N-Out Burger – West Coast

In 1948, In-N-Out Burger was introduced to America by the Snyder couple in Baldwin Park, California. Outside its notable place in society because of its signature stacking of burger patties, the west coast chain is also known for a drive-thru innovation: the first drive-thru intercoms were used here. That put a whole lot of bellhops out of business and lessened the burden on roller skates.

4. A&W

North of the border, Canada has its own fast food drive-thru tradition. Beginning in 1956, originally under the guise of a drive-in, A&W started putting its mark on the psyche of all burger-loving Canadians. When you roll up to an A&W, you can select from the family of burgers, like the Papa or the Uncle burger. Even if you have an unruly adolescent, there is also a Teen burger to please their fickle tastes.

5. McDonald’s

While many of us have a twisted relationship with the fast food giant, no one can deny that the golden arches are kings of the drive-thru. While McDonald’s may have been late to the game, only coming to the table in 1975, the drive-thru now accounts for most of its sales. Some locations are so busy, that a second lane had to be added to speed things up.

Not all people are so happy about the success of the drive-thru. On any given day, the congestion caused by these lanes can get in the way of the normal flow of traffic. On top of that, it takes away from the sit-down restaurant experience. The city of Saskatoon, located in Canada’s Prairies, is one of many cities thinking of banning the drive-thru. Waiting cars are just sitting in these lanes with their exhaust going up to the atmosphere. In 2012, our environmental concerns have become so paramount that even chains like In-N-Out are considering enacting a moratorium on new constructions.


Mr. Lew is a high school teacher from Montreal, Quebec. In 2009, after trying Montreal's supposed best burger, he decided to see what else was out there. So, every week, a new burger was added to the Great Burger Search. Since then, Mr. Lew has tried more than 100 burgers in cities across Canada, and hopes to one day expand to the rest of North America. Since Mr. Lew is part Chinese, the search isn't limited only to great burgers, but to other types of cuisine that makes Montreal one of the greatest culinary cities in the world.