Weird History
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What 'Fast Food' Looked Like In Every Decade Since The Turn Of The 20th Century

March 23, 2020 7.7k views12 items

In the 1950s, fast food was all the rage. McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell dished up food across the country, and fast food restaurants in the 1960s expanded into delivery service. 1970s fast food restaurants served up the first fast food breakfast menus, including the world's first Egg McMuffin.

But what was fast food like in the other decades since 1900? Early 20th century fast food seems almost unrecognizable today. In Manhattan, hungry tourists and workers could pop into a store to buy meatloaf and mashed potatoes from a giant vending machine. In the 1940s, In-N-Out created the first modern drive-thru. And in the 1990s, fast food restaurants pioneered value menus to attract more customers. 

Even since the 1990s, fast food restaurants have changed their look and menus. But how else has fast food changed since 1900? 

  • 1940s: The Modern Day Drive-Thru Was Started By In-N-Out

    In 1948, Harry and Esther Snyder popularized a new idea: drive-thru fast food.

    That year, they opened the first In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park, CA. The model built on earlier drive-in businesses was one in which carhops took orders through car windows. At In-N-Out, cars drove up to a window in the store to place their orders. Customers used an intercom to relay their order, and then they received the food without leaving their car. 

    The idea quickly caught on, transforming fast food. 

  • 1950s: Dunkin' Donuts, Baskin-Robbins, And Taco Bell Are Founded

    The 1950s marked a new era in fast food history. Multiple brands that dominate the industry today trace their roots to the 1950s, including McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, Baskin-Robbins, and Taco Bell.

    In 1954, a milkshake salesman named Ray Kroc visited a drive-up restaurant owned by Dick and Mac McDonald. Kroc instantly invested in the business and transformed McDonald's into a giant in the fast food industry. 

    That same year, Jim McLamore and Dave Edgerton opened Burger King, while Glenn Bell founded Taco Bell. 

    Streamlined assembly methods distinguished 1950s fast food. At McDonald's, line cooks using the "Speedee Service System" could make burgers in half the time, allowing McDonald's to charge just 15 cents a burger, or half the cost of a sit-down restaurant. 

  • Photo: Pizza Hut / Flickr

    1960s: Fast Pizza Takes Over The Quick Dining Market

    In 1961, McDonald's opened Hamburger University in Illinois to train employees. By 1963, the company had already sold its 1 billionth hamburger.

    But burgers weren't the only option when it came to fast food. In the 1960s, pizza became a staple in the industry as modern pizza delivery joints took over. 

    Pizza Hut, founded in 1958, dominated the pizza business in the 1960s thanks to a strong marketing campaign. By 1966, the number of franchise units had already grown to 145.

  • 1970s: Breakfast Items Were Introduced To Fast Food Menus

    Chains like Dominos, Wendy's, and Jack in the Box focused on lunch and dinner menus until the 1970s, when many fast food chains expanded into breakfast.

    In fact, Jack in the Box introduced the first breakfast sandwich in 1969, but it was McDonald's that revolutionized fast food breakfast. 

    In 1972, McDonald's created the first Egg McMuffin. Herb Peterson, a franchise owner, came up with the idea, which he shared with Ray Kroc. Peterson loved eggs benedict and wanted to expand the idea to fast food. 

    By 1977, McDonald's restaurants across the country were serving up Egg McMuffins and a complete breakfast menu, including hotcakes, sausage, and hash browns.