Fashion and Style

Drive-Throughs in America Are Thriving

Faith Enokian loves a drive-through. The senior at the University of South Alabama loves them so much she pulls into one at least eight times a week.

Sometimes it’s just to pick up food. Other times she asks an often-baffled Starbucks barista to make “whatever your favorite drink is” and posts the interaction on TikTok.

“Maybe I’m lazy,” she said, “but it’s something about the car.”

Getting a meal through a car window began to define the nation’s food culture the moment the founders of In-N-Out Burger set up a two-way speaker in 1948. But the drive-through has never been as integral to how America eats as it is now.

The pandemic sent people into the comforting isolation of their cars to get tested for Covid, celebrate birthdays and even vote. And now, it seems, they don’t want to get out. At least to eat.

Drive-through traffic rose 30 percent from 2019 to 2022, according to a report from the food service research firm Technomic. Meanwhile, the number of people eating inside fast-food restaurants in the first half of 2023 fell by 47 percent from the same period in 2019. Drive-throughs now account for two-thirds of all fast-food purchases, according to a September report by Revenue Management Solutions.

“Fellow shoppers are disgruntled. Staff are equally unhappy and difficult to be around,” she said. “There are times when it’s just not worth it.”

Ronald Gross, a retiree with three grandchildren who lives in Brooklyn Park, just north of Minneapolis, sat in his car in a Taco Bell parking lot on a recent sunny afternoon eating a chicken chipotle melt.

Across the street was a Starbucks drive-through. Behind him was a bank with two lanes for customers in cars. Next to that was an oil-change station with a banner promising that customers would never have to leave their cars. And towering above them, trimmed in purple neon, was the futuristic, two-story Taco Bell where Mr. Gross bought his lunch.

The company opened it last year and called it Defy, an innovation that aims to redefine the drive-through for the digital age. It has no dining room. The kitchen is on the second floor. Below, three of its four drive-through lanes are reserved for delivery drivers and people who order through an app. Bags of food zip from the kitchen to the customer on a round tray a little smaller than manhole cover that travel up and down a system of plastic tubes.

The technology didn’t strike Mr. Gross as a big deal. Having a moment to himself in the car did.

Before the pandemic, he would go inside restaurants like McDonald’s to eat. Now he sticks to the drive-through. “I got out of the habit,” he said. “I think I’m like a lot of people who just don’t necessarily like being social that much anymore.”

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