Driving Miss Lazy

From strippers to politicians, the drive-through may be finally coming into its own.


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Pull up to a Wendy’s drive-through window and you can get a Baconator and a side of fries in 131 seconds. But if you try ordering an upright bagless vacuum cleaner, you can wait forever and Wendy’s won’t be able to accommodate you — and neither can McDonald’s, KFC, Sonic, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, or any other fast-food chain in the land. But is there any good reason that we have dozens of places where we can procure deep-fried animal parts without exiting the soothing cocoons of our automobiles but must battle for parking spots and bushwhack our way through maze-like department stores whenever we need a new pair of crew socks? Earlier this year, the Sears Holding Corporation introduced a new concept store in Joliet, Illinois called Mygofer that addresses this weird imbalance of modern life. It is the world’s first drive-through department store.

Over the years, the drive-through universe has grown to include banks, pharmacies, coffee shops, wedding chapels, liquor stores, and dry cleaners. In New Alexandria, Pennsylvania, a strip club called Climax offers patrons a drive-through option, charging $10 a minute for a peek at its dancers. In Scranton, Pennsylvania, first-term state representative Kevin Murphy maintains a drive-through window at his office to meet with constituents: There’s no nudity involved, but at least it’s free.

Meanwhile, if you want to buy a new toaster, you either have to get out of your car or pay a hefty shipping fee, only to have the UPS man knock on your door while you’re taking a nap. But if minimum-wage workers can assemble extremely complicated cheeseburgers while we idle in the drive-through lane, shouldn’t they also be able to pluck an appliance off a shelf just as easily? The Mygofer test store is currently exploring this proposition, in a former Kmart that now functions mostly as a warehouse. Instead of shopping there in person, you order online, get in your car, drive over, and collect your loot. “From hammers to flat-screen TVs to snacks to jewelry, you can get it all at our convenient drive-thru,” the Mygofer Web site explains. “Order everything you need, and pick it up without ever having to lift a finger.”

In an age where convenience is king and productivity often trumps leisure as our greatest source of pleasure, drive-through commerce is an extremely timely expression of consumer desire. It’s especially appealing to disabled people who’d prefer not to get out of their cars, parents who have to manage sizable broods while shopping, and criminals who don’t like to dilly-dally. For retailers and service providers, however, it’s even better. You don’t need as much space in which to operate your business. You don’t have to deal with slobs who think that buying a cup of coffee gives them the right to pee all over your restroom floor. Essentially, the drive-through approach turns one of the most unpredictable and annoying components of commerce — the customer — into a more manageable part. It moves him through an assembly line of consumption, limiting his options, choreographing his behavior. Shopping is transformed from an often arbitrary pastime into an extremely rationalized process with clear steps to follow: Order. Wait. Pay. Leave. Additional customers who enter the assembly line become the de facto managers of those ahead of them, their presence implicitly coercing stragglers to keep moving forward in efficient fashion. Labor costs drop and profit margins rise. In the utopian scenario, consumers speed from shop to shop to shop, slowing for fuel breaks at Burger King and wallet refills at drive-through ATMs but never actually coming to a standstill until the cargo capacity of their car is reached. Hey, maybe it’s time to start thinking about getting a Hummer!

Not everyone shares this dream, of course. In 2000, Wendy’s led the industry in terms of speediness, taking an average of only 150.3 second to serve customers at its drive-through window. By 2008, it had reduced its average serving time to 131 seconds. But that’s still 131 seconds during which drivers are idling noisily and wastefully. According to Sierra Club estimates, people waiting at fast food restaurants burn approximately 50 million gallons of gasoline a year. At the current rate of $2.58 per gallon, that’s $129 million, or 26,380,368 Baconators, which, at 830 calories per Baconator, could feed exactly 34,084 100-pound supermodels every day for a year.

In the big scheme of things, 50 million gallons of gas isn’t all that much, actually. In fact, it’s less than 3/100th of 1 percent of the 140 billions of gas we use each year. In addition, there are drive-through advocates who claim that drive-throughs are, relatively speaking, the environmentally correct way to go. In 2008, for example, the Canadian coffee and donut chain Tim Hortons commissioned an engineering consulting firm called RWDI to compare the environmental impact of its drive-through outlets against that of its outlets which did not have a drive-through. Based on traffic surveys conducted at four stores during peak hours, RWDI concluded (PDF) that the outlets without drive-throughs produced about 40 to 70 percent more smog pollutants and carbon monoxide and 10 to 30 percent more greenhouse gases than the ones that had them. The reason? Idling that occurs in the parking lot as drivers hunt and wait for spaces, the extra distance traveled during this process, and the extra engine start-up that’s required after customers complete their transactions and return to their vehicles.

Of course a single study of four stores, commissioned by a company with a huge incentive to promote the benefits of drive-throughs, is hardly going to stand as the last word on the subject. All across Canada and the U.S., there are efforts to ban drive-throughs, just as there have been for at least the two decades. For many, the drive-through — and especially the fast-food drive-through — is the most potent symbol of the unhealthy, car-centric culture that’s making us fat and unhealthy, poisoning the planet, and locking us into an alienating, stressed-out consumerist lifestyle that for all its abundance and variety, doesn’t deliver true satisfaction and is ultimately unsustainable. Fifty years from now, or maybe only 20, it won’t matter how fast Wendy’s can serve you an Original Chocolate Frosty — we’re still going to be drowning in sizzling seas made from melted icebergs.

But even as city councils contemplate bans, drive-throughs proliferate. In Frankenmuth, Michigan, there’s even a drive-through farmer’s market now. It takes place in a McDonald’s parking lot; if customers want to augment their Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets with freshly harvested zucchini or leeks, that’s now a possibility. Healthcare providers now regularly offer drive-through flu shots and other medical services. And of course there’s Mygofer, which, if it catches on, will pretty much allow you to purchase anything you can fit through your car window without ever turning off your ignition. Or to put it another way: The drive-through lane — which, according to The Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food was pioneered in 1921 by A&W Root Beer founder Roy Allen or in 1931 at Pig Stand #21, a fast food joint in Los Angeles — may still be in its infancy.  • 11 September 2009