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What was the First Fast-Food Restaurant?

A White Castle fast food restaurant.
A drive-thru lane at a fast food restaurant.
Fast food.
A sign for a fast-food drive-thru restaurant.
Article Details
  • Originally Written By: Sheri Cyprus
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Images By: Paul Lowry, Michael Langley, Andrey Armyagov, Karin Hildebrand Lau
  • Last Modified Date: 22 July 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
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    Conjecture Corporation
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The White Castle in Wichita, Kansas, is credited with being the first fast food restaurant, even though the term “fast food” was not yet widely used when it opened in 1921. Though definitions vary, a fast food restaurant is usually distinguished by its speed and efficiency. Customers place their own orders at a centralized counter, and take care of picking up their own condiments, utensils, and other necessary accoutrements. When it first opened, White Castle served only hamburgers, and that has been the restaurant’s staple ever since.

What Made White Castle Different

One of the distinguishing features of the Wichita White Castle was its “open kitchen” model. Most restaurants at the time kept the kitchen far from customer view, making food preparation something of a mystery. At White Castle, customers could watch as their hamburgers were made.

Requiring customers to place and pick up their own orders saved the restaurant a lot of money when it came to wait staff. This made the overall price point relatively low, which attracted a range of customers and families looking for a budget outing. In the early 1920s, this sort of dining experience was new and different.

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Changing the Public’s Image of the Hamburger

White Castle’s popularity was also testament to America’s changing view of hamburgers. In the early 1900s, burgers were mostly viewed as carnival food and were rarely considered a substantive meal. Hamburgers were also considered by many to be unhealthy and often undesirable, as early iterations were often made from scrap meat of very low quality.

The opening of a fresh, made-to-order hamburger restaurant changed this. White Castle used only standard-quality meat, and the patties were proclaimed by the media and critics of the time to be a “superior sandwich.” In many respects, the open kitchen helped put the public’s mind at ease — not only did the food taste good, it was also verifiably exactly what it said it was.

The First Assembly Line Restaurant

Modern fast food restaurants typically rely on an assembly line method of food preparation, where meals are put together very quickly by a number of employees working in tandem. White Castle did not employ this method in its Wichita restaurant, as it was pioneered by McDonald’s and first introduced at that restaurant’s grand opening in 1937.

The First Drive-Thru Restaurant

The ability to purchase a meal on-the-go did not come about until after the Second World War. In-N-Out Burger, a California franchise, is widely regarded as the first drive-thru fast food restaurant; it opened in 1948 as a no-frills hamburger stand promising total convenience by allowing patrons to place and receive their order from the comfort of their car. The restaurant was one of the first to use a two-way speaker system, and did not open an indoor dining room or seating area until the 1960s.

Settling the A&W Dispute

Some fast food scholars argue that A&W was the first in the field, as it opened for business in 1916 — five years before White Castle. According to most accounts, however, A&W began as little more than a root beer stand selling sodas and floats. It was not until 1923 that the company developed actual dining options. The company grew quickly from that point, and it is often regarded as America’s first chain of roadside restaurants.

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Discuss this Article

anon353911
Post 26

I could have sworn Redhot Burritos was the first.

anon241128
Post 22

You say White Castle was the first? I thought A & W was the first fast food joint, established in 1916?

anon143803
Post 21

For all the idiots who say McDonalds was the first true fast food restaurant because of the drive-thru will all hopefully choke on a big mac. In-n-Out Burger was the first, opened in 1948. Even Ray Kroc admitted to stealing the idea of the drive-thru from In-n-Out. If that's not enough proof, I don't know what is.

anon92924
Post 20

I consider fast food as places with drive-throughs. McDonald's appears to be the only true fast food place. When in a hurry, or coming home from a game or school event, I don’t want to go into a place. I want to drive through and get these kids home as fast as I can. So you can also add restaurant. Thanks.

anon62976
Post 19

i learned a lot about white castle from this website. thank you very much. :)

milagros
Post 18

In and Out Burger, a well known hamburger chain on the West Coast, was the first drive through chain of fast foods restaurants.

They first opened in 1948 and have been doing business successfully, ever since.

anon30342
Post 16

anon30153:

If you're familiar with the Christian Scriptures, then you know that Christ has freed us from the Law by fulfilling it in our place so we are not bound to observe the Levitical Law and as Christ said, "It is not what goes into a man's mouth that makes him unclean, but what comes out."

anon30153
Post 15

According to the Bible, hamburger is an unclean food because it has the fat of the animal mixed in with the flesh. Christians are not supposed to eat either the blood or the fat of an animal. *God Bless.*

Info
Post 14

This section really helped me with my speech on fast food. Thank you very much =)

anon20567
Post 7

Thanks. I'm doing a persuasive essay on fast food. This helps.

anon19450
Post 6

Thank you so much, im doing a speech on the hamburger and this answers a lot of my questions!

anon18402
Post 5

Thanks, this article also helped me with my research paper!

AuthorSheriC
Post 4

That's interesting that people are writing papers about fast food. It is quite a cultural phenomenon. Thanks for your comments, anon 12912, and I'm glad my information helped you in your research.

anon12912
Post 3

im not a member of this site but i am also doing a research paper on the diffusion of fast food n this helped thanks!

AuthorSheriC
Post 2

I'm glad my article helped with your research, Lowanda and thanks for your kind comment!

anon8084
Post 1

My name is lowanda and im doing a research on fast food and one of my questions was what was the first fast food restaurant. i learned a lot from this section. thanx

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