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Fast Food Firsts

October 25, 2017

Here’s to the pioneers behind some of the biggest innovations in American history: the people who made fast food what it is.

First fast food restaurant

The first to offer quick food on the go: A&W. Beginning in 1919 they served their draft root beer at a walk-up stand in Sacramento, California, and soon began selling hot dogs, burgers, and fries, too. Around the same time, in the Midwest, White Castle started selling its signature tiny hamburgers.

First kids’ meal

In 1973, now-defunct chain Burger Chef introduced the Funmeal. It combined child-size portions of a burger, fries, and a drink with a free toy. McDonald’s followed with the Happy Meal five years later.

First combo meal

The combo meal allows customers to easily order a burger, fries, and a soda—it’s like a kids’ meal for grownups, without the toy prize. Generally offered a little cheaper than ordering each item individually, Burger Chef came up with the idea in the late 1950s.

First fast food breakfast

In 1972, McDonald’s started opening at dawn to offer pancake platters and a burger made of breakfast foods called the Egg McMuffin. It was invented by a couple of California franchisees who turned the essentials of Eggs Benedict—English muffin, eggs, ham—into a sandwich.

First chicken sandwich

It seems like a no-brainer now, taking chicken off the bone and molding it into a patty and serving it on a hamburger bun. The first company to actually do it: chicken-centric Chick-fil-A. In 1964 they put a breaded and fried chicken fillet (a “chick-fil-A,” really) on a bun.

First drive-thru window

Today, most fast food places offer two options: go inside and eat, or drive by the side of the building and get food handed to you through a window. Before drive-thrus, there were drive-ins—customers would park their cars, order some food, and hang out for a while. The first place to install a service window was Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri, in 1948. A year later, In-N-Out introduced the concept in California.

First fast food salad

Wendy’s pioneered the idea of “healthy” fast food, offering things like baked potatoes and chili in addition to the usual burgers and fries. In 1979, the chain became the first fast food restaurant to offer green vegetables: They installed salad bars.

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