Lentis/How Cars Became Dining Rooms: Drive-Thrus, Cupholders and American Culture

From the 1950s to the present day, the United States has experienced a boom in the prevalence of two convenience technologies - drive-thru restaurants and in-vehicle cup holders. This chapter will discuss the influence of culture on technology, and technology in turn on culture, specifically with regards to these innovations. This chapter considers the perspectives of two major social groups - corporations and drivers - but does not examine the potential impacts of eating in the car on public health or driving safety, or any advocacy groups that may have formed as a result of these concerns.


Busy CultureEdit

More Americans are working than ever before, and the demographic makeup of the labor force provides us with valuable insights about long-term cultural shifts.

Increase in Workforce & Women in WorkforceEdit

From 1950 to 2000, the ratio of employed individuals to the total population increased from 52.7% to 59.2%[1]. During this time period, the total population of the United States increased from 150 million[2] to 281 million[3]. This information shows that the American work force has increased dramatically - from 79 million individuals in 1950 to 167 million in 2000.

In addition to increasing in size, the demographic composition of the labor force has also changed. In 1976, women made up just 40.5% of the work force; in 2006, that number had increased to 47.4% [4]. This is indicative of a larger cultural trend - that of women preferring to pursue a career outside of the home to being a stay-at-home mother[5].

From 1950 to 2000, the average number of hours worked per person each week increased from 22.3 to 23.9; however, with the aforementioned increase in size of the labor force, each worker has noticed a decline in hours worked per week, from 42.4 to 40.5 over the same time period[6]. While the average worker is not working longer hours than their historical counterparts, they are spending more time commuting to work, with an average commute time of 50 minutes per day[7] - equivalent to two weeks per year in the car. In addition, there are a variety of other factors that contribute to the perception of constant busyness.

Social PressuresEdit

While the following traits are particularly noticeable in Millennials, members of all generations are susceptible to "The Busy Trap"[8]. While more individuals are working, it is the external social factors that are likely to contribute to the perception of busyness - increased connectivity due to the spread of telecommunications technology, the derivation of pleasure or social cachet from being needed, the fear of missing out[9] or being passed over for opportunities or promotions if one does not become highly involved[10][11].

The pressure to become increasingly involved is also present in the youngest generations - those who have not yet entered the work force. In 2012, the Common Application (accepted by over 400 institutions of higher learning in the United States) increased the number of spaces in which to list extracurriculars from seven to twelve[12]. While it was officially the consolidation of spaces for work experience and extracurriculars, the move is perceived by some as a mandate for involvement in twelve extracurricular activities, or a response to students who needed more than seven slots to list all of their involvements. Student involvement drove the change, and the change, in turn, is driving student involvement.

Convenience CultureEdit

The increase in busyness demonstrated previously has led Americans to seek products and services that will accommodate their schedules. Convenience stores that are open 24 hours a day began to appear in the early 1960s and are contributing to a phenomenon known as the "death of diurnal time"[13]. Several other industries have been created and supported as a result of an American preoccupation with busyness and convenience.


Spending an increasing amount of time in the car has created a perceived need for the on-the-go consumption where over 20% of meals are eaten in the car[14].

History of the Drive-ThruEdit

McDonald's original mascot, "Speedee"

Drive-in restaurants, popular in the 1950s and 1960s, used to be a quick and social dining experience. The customer’s food was delivered to the car by a carhop and customer's enjoyed their meals in their parked cars. McDonald’s, an influential company in the fast food movement, introduced a “Speedee Service System” in 1948 that allowed drive-in customers to serve themselves to make the dining process quicker and cheaper[15]. Their original mascot was a character named Speedee to represent their commitment to fast service. However, customers deemed this fast service insufficient and the invention of the drive-thru promoted meals to-go. The first drive-thru was thought to be Red’s Giant Hamburgs, created in 1947 on Route 66 in Springfield Missouri[16]. However, it wasn’t until 1975 that McDonald’s created their first drive-thru in Sierra Vista, Arizona[15]. It was at this time, during the late 70’s, that the technology really began to take off and proliferate into what exists today.

Evolution of Drive-ThrusEdit

A drive-thru operation is a highly logistical system that has evolved with technology. An annual Drive-Thru Performance Study commissioned by QSR[17] and Insula Research[18] evaluates businesses’ improvements in drive-thru service. Researchers use a list of benchmarks for assessment, the most important being: speed, accuracy, service and cleanliness. Initially, the speed of service increased significantly with advances in technology. However, while speed and accuracy remain desired end goals, current innovation in drive-thrus focuses on streamlining the process as much as possible to increase capacity, improve efficiency, and appeal to the customer. Companies have begun preparing better for rush periods, teaming drive-thru crewmembers, reducing the number of times the employee reaches out of the window, and using line-busting technologies such as an outside order-taker. Some chains are additionally considering implementing immediate credit card swipes and mobile ordering[19]. Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for NPD Group, highlights the importance of drive-thrus for companies as she states, “a successful drive-thru operation translates to higher customer satisfaction, repeat business, and more profit”[20].

Drive-thrus are prevalent in other industries, including coffee shops and banks

Prominence of Drive-Thrus and CultureEdit

Today, the prevalence of drive-thrus is undeniable. In 2011 there were 12.4 billion visits to fast food drive-thrus[20] and Americans eat nearly 32 fast food meals per person in their cars each year[21]. Drive-thrus streamline routines and any slight disruption to convenience is an unwelcome intrusion. A 2012 report by the NPD Group reported that "when consumers complain about their drive-thru experience it’s because they somehow lost time"[20]. However, the need for time-saving conveniences does not stop with drive-thru restaurants as there are also drive-thru coffee shops, pharmacies, postal services, and banks. The popularity of performing tasks from our cars has even led to the creation of National Drive Thru Day, celebrated each year on July 24.

Cup HoldersEdit

History of the Cup HolderEdit

retractable cup holder in a Saab 9-5.

The car cup holder was first introduced in the 1950s with the invention of the snack tray, a removable tray that hung from the dashboard of a car. Common 1950s ads pictured the snack tray as a travel experience. In the 1960s coffee cups were redesigned with wider bottoms to provide stability for drinks placed on the floor or dashboard of a vehicle, but created the need for an in car cup holder[22] . Rubbermaid pictured ads in the 1970s for removable cup holders that either attached to the window or glove compartment[23]. The first built in cup holder appeared as shallow grooves in glove compartments. Then in the 1980s, cup holders were integrated into the design of the car and appeared between the front passenger seats or front consoles. The integration of cup holders into the car increased after the Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Corporation case in 1994 and by the early 2000s over 60% of drivers report using their cup holders every day[21].

Evolution of In-Car ConveniencesEdit

The 1948 Oldsmobile was the first commercial vehicle sold with an automatic transmission, and manual transmissions now account for less than 10% of vehicles sold in the United States[24]. The launch of the automatic transmission in the 1940s enabled food and beverage consumption in the car by freeing the driver’s right hand. Since its introduction, American cars have also incorporated many other technologies that encourage eating or drinking in the car. A study by ExxonMobil found that over 70% of drivers admit to eating while driving and 83% to drinking[25]. Modern vehicles feature built in or removable pull-down trays with special recesses for dipping sauces, stationary tray tables, and redesigned seating with shared tables. More expensive technologies include cup holders than can heat or cool a beverage, automatic cup lights at night, stain and odor-resistant upholstery, and compact refrigerators[21].

In-Car Consumption and CultureEdit

Americans lead increasingly busy lifestyles that necessitate convenience, driving the cup holder to become an integral feature of the car, with some cars having more than 10 cup holders. An article featured on MSNBC depicts a perspective of this relationship, “Most Americans, regardless of how jaded they are about what cup holders represent (our lifestyle of never-ending, on-the-go consumption, […] even when driving), have grown to demand them”[26]. The use of the cup holder is also a reflection of the unique driving culture in the United States as stated by Keith Price of Volkswagen, “In Germany, cars are for driving, not for dining, and there is a strong cultural objection to eating in the car”[21].


Americans perceive themselves as busier than ever, and are spending more time in their cars, particularly on their way to work. This cultural shift towards busyness and increased time spent in the car has led some Americans to seek products and services that can be obtained or performed on the go. Technology develops as a result of consumer demands. Consumers adapt to technological innovations and as technologies become normalized, people seek further improvement. In turn, the availability of convenience encourages greater utilization of these services which influences the consumer’s attitude toward a busy lifestyle. Social behavior is shaped by the way technology can be used. More generally, the influence of culture on technology and technology on culture is cyclical. The application of this lesson in the case of drive-thru fast food and cup holders leads to the conclusion that Americans’ cars are becoming dining rooms.


  1. Change in Hours Worked, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Quarterly Review Vol. 28, No. 1, July 2004, pp. 14–33
  2. 1950 Census - http://www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/decennial/1950.html
  3. 2000 census - http://www.census.gov/main/www/cen2000.html
  4. AN OVERVIEW OF ECONOMIC, SOCIAL, AND DEMOGRAPHIC TRENDS AFFECTING THE US LABOR MARKET, United States Department of Labor - http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/herman/reports/futurework/conference/trends/TrendsI.htm#.UMd_3JPjlqd
  5. Gallup - http://www.gallup.com/poll/157313/half-women-prefer-job-outside-home.aspx
  6. Change in Hours Worked, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Quarterly Review Vol. 28, No. 1, July 2004, pp. 14–33
  7. When Home Seems To Be on the Road - http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/16/AR2008021600750_2.html?sid=ST2008021600970
  8. The Busy Trap - http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/
  9. FOMO - http://www.researchgate.net/publication/230766160_An_Ocean_of_Information/file/9fcfd5040cf2fd559e.pdf
  10. If Time Is Money, Millenials are Broke - http://www.forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2012/09/05/if-time-is-money-millennials-are-broke-busy-obsessed/2/
  11. Too Busy To Notice You’re too Busy - http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/31/business/31shortcuts.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
  12. Common Application - http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/education/07choice-t.html
  13. Working In A 24/7 Economy: Challenges For American Families - http://books.google.com/books?id=56gXBZzzY7AC&pg=PA5&lpg=PA5&dq=harriet+Presser+death+of+diurnal+time&source=bl&ots=uxipfMuGU-&sig=72n6sXB6PBHrymSKsmHv3toUcVM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=tgzGULa9IZGB0AHF6IHIBw&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=harriet%20Presser%20death%20of%20diurnal%20time&f=false
  14. 11 Facts about American Eating Habits - http://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/11-facts-about-american-eating-habits
  15. a b McDonald's History - http://www.aboutmcdonalds.com/mcd/our_company/mcdonalds_history_timeline.html?DCSext.destination=http://www.aboutmcdonalds.com/mcd/our_company/mcd_history.html
  16. When Was the First Drive-Thru Restaurant Created? - http://www.wisegeek.org/when-was-the-first-drive-thru-restaurant-created.htm
  17. QSR Homepage - http://www.qsrmagazine.com/
  18. Insula Research Homepage - http://www.insularesearch.com/
  19. 2012 QSR Drive-Thru Study - http://www.qsrmagazine.com/reports/2012-qsr-drive-thru-study?microsite=5
  20. a b c Drive-thru Windows Still Put the Fast in Fast Food Restaurants, Reports NPD - https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/pr_120530a/
  21. a b c d Cars and Quick-Service. - http://www2.qsrmagazine.com/articles/features/94/car_design-1.phtml
  22. How Americans came to have cup holders in their cars. - http://www.slate.com/articles/business_and_tech/design/2004/03/drink_me.html
  23. Ludington Daily News 1979 - http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=qycKAAAAIBAJ&sjid=IUoDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3622,3117740&dq=cup-holder+car&hl=en
  24. More Americans driving stick-shift - http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-05-04/news/31576912_1_stick-shift-fuel-efficient-cars-transmission
  25. Eating while Driving and Distracted Driving Facts - http://www.drive-safely.net/eating-while-driving.html
  26. Cup holders paved way for interior car design - http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31613390/ns/business-autos/t/cup-holders-paved-way-interior-car-design/#.UMlmGYWs1sU