Old Army Uniform Regs Gave the World the First McDonald's Drive-Thru

A McDonald's employee gives a customer food at the drive-thru window at a McDonald's restaurant in San Francisco
A McDonald's employee gives a customer food at the drive-thru window at a McDonald's restaurant in San Francisco, Tuesday, April 22, 2008. (Jeff Chiu/AP Photo)

McDonald's doesn't actually cater to American troops -- at least, not exclusively to American troops. Back in the mid-1970s, one McDonald's restaurant did a solid for soldiers at a local Army base. It was so popular, it became a mainstay at McDonald's restaurants across the country: They added a drive-thru.

It might seem like an obvious addition to any fast-food joint, but before the '70s, not many restaurants had them. It's not that Americans actually wanted to get out of their cars for food before 1970, not at all. Before the drive-thru restaurant, we had the drive-in, where servers (called "carhops") delivered food to the car.

But even eating in the car wasn't quick enough for some Americans. Ours was a country on the grow, and we couldn't be bothered with things like plates, glasses or anything else that required a busboy before we could get on with our lives. Then, in 1948, a Southern California burger chain delivered on the promise of its name: In-N-Out Burger.

The first In-N-Out was as close to the fast-food drive-thru of today as it got in 1948. Drivers ordered through a speaker box, and their food was delivered to their car. Other chains followed suit, but growth was slow.

In 1969, Dave Thomas added a speaker box to his Wendy's restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, but drivers there pulled up to a pickup window to get food. The drive-thru was finally perfected -- all the food, without actually getting up for it.

The Arch Deluxe. This has nothing to do with the story, I just want McDonald's to bring it back and I feel like they might see this.

The McDonald's of 1948 was using its engineered "Speedee Service System" to make food preparation more efficient, but as fast as they were, they didn't have a drive-thru. In fact, it wasn't until 1974 that McDonald's even thought about adding a drive-thru. People still had to get out of their cars and make the trek to the Golden Arches, and owners were practically begging for that to change.

McDonald's actually delayed opening its first drive-thru until a McDonald's owner in Sierra Vista, Arizona, noticed the store's sales were dwindling. He realized the soldiers at nearby Fort Huachuca couldn't get out of their cars to go into the restaurant, and it was because of their uniforms.

In 1975, the U.S. military's working uniform was the olive-drab OG-107 uniform (yes, it was really called the "OG"). Uniform regs prevented U.S. troops from going into public places like McDonald's while wearing it. Veterans who wore battle dress uniforms (BDUs) in their career might be shocked to find out the OG-wearing troops actually obeyed that regulation.

And we all know what happens when a guy wearing OGs can't get something to eat. (Orion Pictures)

When the owner of that Arizona restaurant realized what was happening, he couldn't put a drive-thru window in fast enough. Army and Air Force Exchanges may be bending the knee to a certain hamburger monarch these days, but nothing says "I Love America" more than knocking a hole in your own wall so you can accommodate the troops.

McDonald's was one of the most popular and fastest-growing chains in America at the time, so the countrywide addition of a drive-thru in all its stores made it look like the company invented the drive-thru. It didn't, but at least one U.S. Army post would remember that first drive-thru at every PT test for years to come.

You can still credit the company with the Big Mac, Orange Hi-C that just hits different and the invention of modern fast food.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on LinkedIn.

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