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How Did Fast Food Become an American Favorite?

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 4, 2023 3:01 am

How Did Fast Food Become an American Favorite?

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 4, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, today, we don't think twice about pulling up at a drive-thru and grabbing a quick meal. But this idea was once unheard of. Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams, brings us the story of fast food in our country and how it became a part of every day American life.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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For cleaning tips and exclusive offers, visit slash BonaClean. And we continue here with Our American Stories. Pulling up at your favorite drive-thru and grabbing a quick, familiar meal is a part of everyday American life.

But this idea was once unheard of. So how did fast food and drive-thru restaurants come to be such appealing and significant aspects of American culture? Here's Adam Chandler, author of Drive Thru Dreams, a journey through the heart of America's fast food kingdom with the full history and evolution of fast food in our country. The history of fast food is a fascinating one in part because it really is the history of America.

You can look back 100 years. That's basically when fast food started as we know it in Wichita, which is where we have the birth of White Castle. And what White Castle does is create this experience that is very standardized.

It looks the same wherever you go. And that is a large part because people were very suspicious of food and ground beef, especially at that time in American history. That infamous book, The Jungle, had come out 15 years earlier and really kind of riled people up about what was in the food they were eating. So they made a big show of emphasizing that this food was affordable, but also clean and prepared expertly in very sterile environments because there was a real fear about the health and safety of what you were eating. White Castle's old slogan was buy them by the sack, which meant you'd buy all these small sliders for a nickel a pop and you'd walk out and you'd have food for however long you wanted.

Billy Ingram is the kind of marketing pioneer behind White Castle who wants to make the hamburger something that you would serve to your family safely as opposed to something that was thought of as just for factory workers and people who didn't really have a lot of regard for maybe the health and safety of what they were eating in, you know, factory commissaries and things like that. So the idea of eating something that's affordable and cheap and easy to kind of take with you is an American story in a way that's casual and approachable. The history of it really speaks to this idea that we are a country that likes to keep moving, that we're hyper efficient, that we are constantly on the go. And you know, that starts with small hamburgers and eventually that becomes a food that you can take with you and it becomes eating in your car and cup holders in your car, drive-throughs. So the context for how we got White Castle and burgers and fast food in general was because of mobility.

There are these portable little items you can take with you wherever you go and that directly links to the rise of the car. A hundred years ago it was the Model T was becoming more affordable as Ford assembly lines were producing them for cheaper and cheaper. And where fast food really takes off where we start seeing the beginning of drive-throughs is in Southern California right after World War II. There's this moment where the world is coming back from war.

America's power and standing in the global order is strong and the economy is booming and there are no more regulations on gasoline and steel. Cars are being built again during the war. There were all these rations and you couldn't create new cars. And car culture takes off. They're building the suburbs. They're building the highways. And so all of this kind of creates this convenience culture where people are on the road.

They want to take food with them. Drive-throughs become an upshot of this whole movement to eat on the go and explore the country and be out in the world. The rise of fast food really happens in Southern California where all of these big American features that were developing after World War II happen everywhere but happen in California on steroids.

We're talking about the space program, defense spending, the building of the highways, the creation of the suburbs, all of these big things. And so that really influences the fast food industry. And from Southern California we get Taco Bell, we get McDonald's, In-N-Out Burger, we get Del Taco, we get Jack in the box. We have a lot of these major chains.

Bob's Big Boy, Der Wienerschnitzel is another one that's a little bit lesser known, but these all influence all the other chains that come about after. White Castle may have started and been a pretty big success, but the real explosion of fast food happens in Southern California. And that is because of economic prosperity after the war.

And what's really interesting about this is we're coming out of the shadow of the Great Depression at this time. World War II has just ended, but we're not that far back from bread lines. And there wasn't a really established culture of dining out in America among working class people.

It was mostly reserved for wealthier folks. And so what fast food really does is give American dining culture and the way that drive-ins and drive-throughs do an entree, an affordable, accessible way to kind of start dining out. And so what In-N-Out Burger does, and this is a mom and pop operation started by Harry and Esther Snyder in 1948. So these are literally a newlywed married couple starts this hamburger chain in a working class suburb of Los Angeles. And part of the technology that they rely on is a two-way speaker. And they're the first ones to do it in 1948.

You drive up and you give your order through the speaker and you drive up to the window and you get the food and you pay for it. This is the most normal thing in the world to us now, but back then nobody knew about it. Nobody had any idea what the story was, what the history was. People were perplexed. They had no idea what they were doing when they drove up because they'd never seen something like this before. They'd constantly have to explain it over and over again.

And so these little innovations are a big part of the story. The McDonald's brothers move out to California from New Hampshire to work in showbiz, and it doesn't quite work out that way for them. But what happens is they open a barbecue stand in 1940. And this is in San Bernardino.

It's on Route 66. And along the way, they find success, but they're still not happy. They want it to be better. They see these inefficiencies, and even though they have a successful business, they decide, we can do something different with this. So they closed the restaurant in 1948, and they spent three months totally refitting it, totally remastering and reassembling and reformatting all the way that they were going to do business.

And everyone thought they were crazy. And what they do is they streamline the whole operation. They get rid of the car hops.

They got rid of the cups and plates that were disappearing. And they set up this hyper-efficient kitchen where the food is served really quickly. And they make it cheaper for customers by getting rid of all of the extra real estate and all the extra employees and just creating this assembly line for hamburgers. And the result of that is this hyper-efficient, extremely popular hamburger chain. And everyone from all over the country comes around to see it because they've heard about this place that is making burgers by the dozen in a matter of minutes and just turning over so many customers so fast and not dealing with any of the inefficiencies of the business.

One of the people who comes to see this is Ray Kroc, who is a milkshake machine salesman and a lifelong industry person. And he's shocked by what he sees. He's stunned at the efficiency and the success of this place. And he says to himself, I want this to be everywhere. This should exist everywhere across the country, dotting the landscape. And he devotes himself to convincing them to let him open McDonald's franchises.

Eventually, he buys it out from under them. And McDonald's becomes this juggernaut that we all know today, not just in America, but around the world. It's synonymous with American life. And it's an impressive story of what vision and understanding of human appetite and trends can really take you. And it was copied ruthlessly by everyone. The founders of Burger King came by all the way to California and they were from Florida to check it out. There were so many chains that dropped by that San Bernardino store and saw what the McDonald's brothers are doing and said, we got to do this the same way. We got to copy this. There were so many knockoffs and imitators, and it really influenced how we eat today.

You grab the food, it's wrapped up in paper and you can take it with you. And that was something that was revolutionary at the time. And you've been listening to Adam Chandler, author of Drive Thru Dreams, a journey through the heart of America's fast food kingdom. And it all started in Wichita, Kansas, with White Castle. And the founders there made, well, they made food standard and safe, affordable and cheap. Most importantly, easy to take with you for a country that was always on the go and was casual.

In other words, it fit the American character completely. When we come back, more of this remarkable story of how fast food and the drive through swept the nation and came to define the nation here on Our American Stories. Sean Brace here from your favorite new podcast, Brace for Winnings. It's where we talk all things wagering on the NFL. New episodes will be available every Thursday to get you ready for the primetime action and all the big games going down over the NFL weekend. We will cook up same game parlay strategies, cover all the money making matchups and look to find what we all want when we place a bet winning wagers. At the end of every episode, I will make you a better better on the NFL.

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Listen to Brace for Winnings presented by DraftKings Sportsbook on the IR Radio app on Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. And we're back with our American stories and with Adam Chandler, the author of drive through dreams. We just heard some of the first of fast food in and out burger introducing the two way speaker for ordering and McDonald's doing away with carhops, servers and reusable utensils. The rise of success within these businesses. Well, it's astronomical and everybody wants a piece of the pie.

Back to Adam. You didn't need a college degree or really great connections to make it in the fast food industry when it was starting out. Looking at the early stories of the founders, most of them didn't graduate high school, much less go to college. They were salespeople. They were salesman driving around the country trying to sort out a way to create a business model that would be sustainable. A lot of them served in the armed forces at some point and kind of learned what the meaning of regimented service and operations are and they just worked hard and created a system that was very popular. So all of these really big American ideals that we cherish as hard work and that part of the American story really come to bear in fast food.

And it's not just the big recognizable names. You know, there are also these small entrepreneurs who opened franchises and are able to become wealthy in a way that you would think you would need connections or advanced degrees to get. And that's just not the story of fast food. There are so many different people, all ages, all backgrounds, all ethnicities that managed to create something special in that post-war era. The story of Colonel Sanders and KFC is one of the best stories there is in fast food.

There's nothing else like it. This is a guy who was born into poverty, grew up on a rural farm. He's basically an orphan. He raises his own family while his mother's working after his father dies at a very young age. And he works every job imaginable for the first six, seven decades of his life. He's selling tires. He's working for the Chamber of Commerce. He's building ferries. He's working on trains. He's trying to become a lawyer. He does all of these different things and he finds success in some of them and he fails in other ones and he keeps trying. And he ends up in a small gas station that he owns in southeastern Kentucky.

And basically his entire focus is trying to beat out the other gas stations for customers on the newly built roads that are happening in southeastern Kentucky, the Dixie Highway. And he ultimately succeeds by having excellent service and excellent food. And that's the beginning of fried chicken. He loves it. He creates a electric pressure cooker, patents it to make fried chicken faster than anyone has ever made fried chicken before.

And it is a hit. He gets written up in national publications and eventually he turns this idea into a franchise. He goes around and patents the recipe and sells the idea on handshake deals to small mom and pop shops and diners all around Appalachia and the Midwest, basically just saying, here's the recipe for my chicken. I'll send you the seasoning. And you give me five cents for every chicken that you cook.

It's the most homespun thing imaginable. It sounds completely insane today, but this is how he built his empire. And eventually he started opening these standalone stores. And mind you, he was 66 when this happened, he was old.

That was the standard age that you were suspected to possibly pass on at that point. That was the life expectancy was where he was basically at when he decides to turn KFC into an empire. And he could have just retired. He would have been fine doing it, but instead he goes out on the road and he just creates this brand that everyone falls in love with and it expands around the world. And he becomes one of the most famous men in the world after living in obscurity for so long, because he's got this big personality, he's got this drive and he's got this really strong belief in his product.

And you know, the white planter suit with the tie, that's all something that he came up with as a way to kind of brand himself. He was a Kentucky Colonel, which is an honorary title in Kentucky. And he uses this to market himself as the Colonel. There are thousands of Kentucky Colonels out there. There's only one Colonel Sanders and everybody knows who he is. So this story of sort of perseverance and a real belief in self and in your own invention is a huge reason why we know KFC the world around. He gets on television, he's in movies, he becomes this character. He becomes the second most recognizable figure in the world according to one poll in the 1970s.

And that's not something that happens to a lot of people, but through sheer force of will and a lot of skill, he manages to do this. And that idea is still a cherished part of the brand's motto is doing things the hard way, the way that the Colonel did it. As the industry grew, it becomes so popular that everyone kind of wanted a piece of it. So as the country was growing and as these small mom and pop shops became recognizable figures on the roadside, you had a lot of big interest kind of swoop in and take an interest in it. Jack in the Box is an example of a chain that was eventually bought out by Ralston Purina, which is a big food conglomerate and it's passed hand since then. KFC also was bought from Colonel Sanders by a group of investors and eventually was spun off into a lot of different owners over the years. Burger King was bought by Pillsbury. So there was a big moment where industries realized that this is an enormous opportunity for them. McDonald's goes public. There are all these sort of markers that show fast food is big business. And when you go from being a small founder led organization with a couple of restaurants or a small kind of framework in place and you become part of a big corporate machine, sometimes you lose the focus.

And a lot of these chains had that happen to them. Burger Chef grew to become the second biggest fast food chain in the country. It's based in the Midwest. They patented the combo meal and the kids meal. These are things that are huge parts of the fast food experience, but it was eventually purchased. And what ultimately happened to it was their operation suffered and consistency, which is a key aspect of the success of fast food restaurants, eventually undercut its success. And there aren't any more burger chefs anymore.

And it was the second biggest one. So there are stories of big chains that really made it and ones that during the shakeout that happened in the 70s and 80s didn't survive as a result of it. When you think about in the 70s and 80s, we're talking about a time when people are working more than ever and drive-throughs have become more of a norm in the American sort of landscape. And there's a moment where McDonald's kind of recognizes we need to create a breakfast menu because this is a huge opportunity. And the birth of the Egg McMuffin and the birth of breakfast is something that changes basically the way that Americans eat breakfast.

There were no breakfasts eaten outside of the home. There wasn't really a model for that. And so to create this item that, again, you can hold in one hand and eat in your car while you're driving to work. You can put your coffee in a cup holder. These are innovations that happened because consumers demanded it. They were in a rush and they wanted to grab food that was cheap and delicious and go on their way. Or, you know, they just needed a break in the middle of their day and wanted to step out and grab something quickly, whether it was a lunch or a snack after school or whatever the story was. McDonald's and fast food and drive throughs had an answer for it.

And it was just an efficient, familiar way of doing business. And breakfast is another facet of that. And you're listening to Adam Chandler tell a heck of a story about how we eat and why we eat the way we do.

His book, Drive Through Dreams, is what we're talking about. And it's true that America really didn't have a dine-in culture. Fast food and drive through, well, it democratized dining out and transformed the country and how we live, how we work, and so much more. When we come back, more of this remarkable story of how we eat. Drive Through Dreams with Adam Chandler continues here on Our American Stories. And we continue with Our American Stories and to Adam Chandler with the story of fast food and drive through restaurants in America. When we last left off, Adam had just told us about the rise of fast food breakfast in the 1970s. But the following decade would tell a different story.

Here's Adam to continue with the rest of this remarkable tale. In the 80s and 90s, we begin to see the beginnings of people starting to look at fast food differently, the effects of American diets in an obesity epidemic that a lot of people put on the shoulders of fast food. But to be honest, exists everywhere. Fast food is an easy target for efforts about American health. Every American eats there more or less, and some people eat there multiple times a week. And this draws the attention of a lot of public health advocates who say, we need to reform fast food.

We need to make changes. And the industry responds to it by trying to offer new things that will appeal to them. Wendy's unveils a salad bar that's famous for a little while for being an alternative to the hamburgers. McDonald's creates this low fat burger that gets totally lampooned because it has seaweed in it.

It's an extract to keep the burgers juicier, but people find out it's seaweed and they freak out. Burger King toys with a low calorie menu and introduces a grilled chicken sandwich, which does well, but eventually kind of falls by the wayside. So you have all these stories of people trying to respond within the industry to this pressure for healthier food. But that's not what people really go to fast food restaurants for. They go because they've had a long day and they want a hamburger.

They're not interested necessarily in having a salad. So it's this real hang up because externally there's all this pressure for fast food to change, but ultimately that's not really what the customers seem to want. Even as they introduce healthier items, people still just want to have hamburger and fries. In the early nineties, there's such a backlash to fried food in the context of the obesity epidemic that KFC actually does this crazy thing where they shorten their name from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC because the F fried was a new F word and people did not want them to associate fried with the chicken. And so they were releasing chicken that was grilled and roasted instead.

And it hung around for a while and you can still get some grilled chicken at KFC, but you're there for the original recipe. So you see all of these changes happening as people and their priorities as consumers change. And KFC is an example of a company that paid very close attention to that much earlier than a lot of them did. What's really fascinating about the way the fast food industry has changed over the years is we kind of think of these big companies as Goliaths that kind of determine what we eat and what we do. This is a perception that's popular about fast food industry, but the fast food industry is really responsive to what the mainstream seems to want. And it's really interesting to think of fast food as these companies that are ultimately receptive to consumer demands because that's not the rap that they get in the public imagination. And there are just so many ways that this manifests. One of the big upshots of the baby boom that happens is you have all these parents.

A lot are coming from two-income households. And by the 80s and 90s, they're looking to fast food as places where they can go, relax, have a meal that their kids and they are going to like, and also kind of just take a minute and let the kids run wild. And that led to the birth of the play places and the creation of characters like, you know, the Hamburglar and Grimace and the playgrounds become, again, a place where the elements of the relaxation that goes into going to a restaurant where the food is cheap and everyone's happy and, you know, likes what they're eating. It gives it another push because in an era where people are in a hurry and there are more people in the workforce than ever before, it becomes important to be able to just kind of stop and let your kids run wild for a couple minutes while you get a moment of peace.

And so the playgrounds become a big part of that aspect as well as later hours because people are working longer hours and sometimes different shifts in different jobs. You have more 24 hour fast food restaurants kind of come up in the late 90s. And that's another response to the various needs of American consumers.

And then a lot of stores have Wi-Fi now as a result of where attention spans are going. And that is another thing that speaks to how fast food changes over the years. There's the foodie movement. And that happens, you know, at the beginning of the 21st century where we're seeing in response to Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me, the companies are changing their tune about having certain size portions and they're trying new things and seeing how they work.

And oftentimes it's the thing they're best known for that ultimately keeps them going through the years. I think it's just what people want and what they know and what they're familiar with when it comes to fast food. You know, the excitement that people feel about a happy meal. There's such nostalgia for it.

We all have these various markers of our lives. I remember going to birthdays at McDonald's when I was a kid. I remember sneaking out of high school to go to Wendy's or Taco Bell with my friends. I remember being a broke college student and absolutely needing Burger King to get me through.

And these are all things that resonate with everyone. That's one of the powers of fast food is how it, you know, is always there and just kind of is this consistent force. And so even as things are evolving, there is that baseline DNA to fast food that still appeals to American lifestyles. You know, why fast food maintains this intense popularity is because they focus on the mainstream and what the mainstream wants and how quickly it's moving towards something. And so in that way, it will always be relevant.

It's never going to be cutting edge, but it always knows what people are looking at and paying attention to and are interested in trying out. And that's a big part of why it succeeds is that as the country moves, fast food moves with it. There are certain things that you get at fast food restaurants today, whether it's a fancier coffee drink or pumpkin spice, everything, or veggie burgers, things that were not on the consciousness 10 or 15 or 20 years ago are now big parts of the experience today.

And you can get those things, but you can still also get your burger and fries, which is what a lot of people still want. So even as parts of it change slowly, there are the core parts of the DNA of fast food that remain universal and highly appealing. And you know, it's why 96% of Americans eat fast food every year. It's why it's something that everyone is familiar with. It's why it's something that everyone loves.

All ages, all races, all economic backgrounds. You'll see it at a fast food restaurant. And there are very few places that get that kind of broad support, that kind of, that kind of loyalty doesn't exist in a lot of other industries. The American relationship with fast food is deeper than I think a lot of people give credit for because we are a country that is scrappy and that values time and values affordability and familiarity and custom and isn't pretentious. Eating a hamburger is a very American experience. It's part of how we live. Beef itself is something that we look back on with fondness in America because it reminds us of the frontier and the cattle trails and the Cowboys.

All of these really important things that define us as a country, our mythology is really tied up in this concept. And I think that even as people within the States or abroad kind of characterize Americans as being a certain way or having a certain way about them that is a little too casual, a little less formal, a little too familiar, I think fast food really stands as a symbol of why that is such a popular thing. There's something egalitarian about fast food where you go into a store and there is no wait service. There's no hierarchy. There's not a good table. There's not a bad table.

There's not a good table. And that's a very American concept to not really have special status one place to another. Everyone kind of has to stand in line and that's meaningful because that's kind of encoded in American life.

And I think that that's why it'll always stand separate as a part of an American experience because that's really kind of who we are, who we aspire to be. And a terrific job on the production and storytelling by Madison Derricotte and a special thanks to author Adam Chandler. His book, Drive Through Dreams, a journey through the heart of America's fast food kingdom. Well, go to a local bookstore and get it.

Go to Amazon or wherever you'd get your books. This all started or really took off in Southern California after World War II, the booming housing market, the booming car culture, and of course this idea that we're a people on the go and we just want to go in, have a quick meal and move on. And my goodness, how many times my family stops at fast food restaurants, Chick-fil-A once a week, Jersey Mike subs wherever I can get a chance. And I would compare those dining establishments to any five star restaurant any day. In some ways I like them even better. They're consistent, they're there and they're good. And let's not forget the McDonald fries. Sometimes we just stop for those alone. The story of fast food, how it came to be and why Americans love fast food is it's darn tasty. This is our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-04 21:13:13 / 2023-01-04 21:25:15 / 12

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