The first time I stopped by Amy’s Drive Thru in Northern California last year, I was struck by equal sensations of delight and befuddlement. Here was a fast-food option that offered vegan burgers, chili, burritos and pizza, made with fresh ingredients and served up in minutes. I didn’t drive away feeling like I had compromised my health with a guilty pleasure. In fact, I felt the opposite — like it would be good for me to return in my car for a modestly priced veggie burger.
Ever since, I haven’t been able to stop wondering why there aren’t more drive-thru restaurants with a more health-conscious menu. How is it that, 100 years after the first drive-in debuted in America, we’re still staring at a sea of mostly McDonald’s, Burger King, Popeyes and similar conglomerate franchises, rather than a diverse patchwork of unique and nutritious drive-thrus?
It’s a phenomenon that restaurant industry experts have noted for a long time now. And it’s not just in our imaginations. The correlation between drive-thrus and junk food is so strong that research has shown that banning drive-thrus in cities has an appreciable impact on local health outcomes. This is once obvious and bizarre: Of course drive-thrus are bad for us, because most of them serve up 200 percent of your daily fat and salt intake in one combo meal. But why does it have to be this way?
One big issue may be cost. Building a drive-thru restaurant means finding a perfect property that has room for cars to circulate and the appropriate permitting to allow for such traffic. On average, this can add between $25,000 to $70,000 to the budget in physical construction alone, not to mention the time and money spent dealing with red tape.
This is small potatoes for a conglomerate like Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell and KFC and knows exactly what it takes to open a successful drive-thru. For such operations, seeking opportunities for a drive-thru makes perfect sense — adding the feature can lead to major boosts in customers and revenue. It’s not so easy, however, for independent operators who are interested in selling healthier foods and a more conscientious brand. Dana Hunnes, a clinical dietician and author of the upcoming book Recipe for Survival, tells me that there is a notion that “health food” isn’t as suited for eating on-the-go as, say, a cheap burger. “You need a fork and a free hand to eat a salad,” as she points out.
A similar bias applies to making the food, too. “Fast foods are known for quantity over quality, right? The ingredients for unhealthy food tend to be less expensive, so you can expect a higher profit margin even if you waste food. And healthier dishes can be more challenging to make in big batches, especially in fast-food environments,” Hunnes notes.
It’s just more stress added to an already stressful situation. Opening a restaurant is a massive financial risk, and the last thing you need is for the added planning and cost of a drive-thru to go up in smoke after a bad year. Instead, much of the shifts in the drive-thru industry is happening on the backs of “fast-casual” restaurants that often market themselves as a more wholesome alternative to conventional fast food — think Panera and Chipotle. It’s an imperfect status quo, with concerns about wait times and the complications of making fresh food in minutes. But the segment is growing fast, and it’s in large part due to the lessons learned from brands that were once reluctant to join the drive-thru model, fearing it would create problems with food quality and turn off loyal customers.
Case in point: Starbucks. The venerable Seattle brand broke barriers when it entered the drive-thru game in the 1990s, confusing observers who thought the upscale nature of specialty coffee, custom-made to order, didn’t make any sense in a drive-thru format. They ended up being really, really wrong. “Drive-thrus used to have the connotation of being about convenience only,” Danny Bendas, managing partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants, told Restaurant Business. “But Starbucks changed that. You’ve got to give them credit for doing drive-thrus and not letting the quality and the uniqueness of the brand experience suffer.”
If Chipotle can dole out made-from-scratch food within the golden window of about five minutes of waiting in a drive-thru, it’s obvious that other restaurants can find success, too. Yet despite continually rising interest in vegan and health foods, there is no dominant healthy-food drive-thru player in the country. And while the dominant fast-food brands are offering things like meat alternatives, salads and calorie-conscious offerings, experts say the change is slow.
“As much as I’d love to see drive-thrus that are healthy, it’s important for ones that are well-known to keep pushing healthier options because it’s a huge opportunity for people who may not otherwise consider healthier options to see it right in front of them,” Hunnes tells me.
This is all a sad state of affairs given the intersection of our insanely autocentric society and the shitty nutrition that so many people, especially the working poor, have to deal with. Cars are actively killing us and the natural environment, in a multitude of ways — so it’s darkly fitting that our vehicles are also leading us to some of the worst food we can consume on a daily basis. If we’re going to continue to litter our neighborhoods with strip malls and freeway-adjacent drive-thrus, we might as well get some delicious, fresh meals out of it.
But the status quo is so strong that even the owners of Amy’s Drive Thru, Rachel and Andy Berliner, who are also the minds behind the healthiest frozen dinners in America, had major doubts when they began brainstorming the concept of a vegetarian drive-thru. “I didn’t really have great hopes for success, honestly,” Andy told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I just wanted us to break even with it. It turned out from the day it opened, it was popular.”
They’ve already expanded to four total locations after just six years of operations, and are planning to open two dozen more drive-thrus in the near future. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to all the shitty fast food we can eat in our cars, but every trend has an origin. Here’s hoping for more.