Fast food drive-thru has been a part of Southern California life since the 1960s.
But it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. For decades, critics have complained that the thoroughfares create traffic problems, litter, noise and poor air quality.
The latest outbreak was in Santa Barbara, where authorities are threatening to declare the Chick-fil-A on State Street a public nuisance due to traffic issues.
Officials and the restaurant say they hope to resolve the issues. And history suggests it’s hard to bet against the drive-thru. The companies have grown tremendously over the years, successfully fending off calls for restrictions and regulations, and gaining even more cachet during the pandemic.
Here’s a look at the drive-in wars from the pages of The Times:
Fast food wasn’t invented in Southern California, but it has strong roots here. Especially the burger.
As Times food writer Charles Perry reported in 2004, “It’s no coincidence that so many national burger chains have sprung up here. Bob’s Big Boy started in Glendale in 1936, McDonald’s in San Bernardino in 1948, Carl’s Jr. in Anaheim in 1956, and Johnny Rockets on Melrose Avenue in 1986. Fatburger…was founded at the corner of San Vicente and South La Cienega Boulevards to 1952.”
Many started as pit stops, then were drive-ins (where you waited in your car for service; A&W ended its last car-hop service in Southern California in 2006), then restaurants and drive-ins, which saw an explosion in popularity starting in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1991, McDonald’s opened the nation’s first drive-thru fast food restaurant in a high-rise building on Central Avenue in Glendale.
The backlash begins
The backlash against drive-throughs began in the 1990s, when complaints about traffic and noise prompted some cities to impose lane moratoriums.
“From the 1960s, they defined the regional landscape, extending to the whole territory. Now drive-thru fast-food restaurants are joining strip malls and landfills in being seen as the land-use pariahs of the 1990s,” The Times reported in 1996.
“The city of Sierra Madre banned drive-thru restaurants this year. Last year, Burbank banned fast-food restaurants from opening 24-hour drive-thru windows. South Pasadena officials and of Newport Beach have imposed temporary bans while they draft tougher driving restrictions, and Los Angeles is beginning to charge higher permit fees to new outlets to pay for traffic improvements.
The complaints were about more than traffic. Environmentalists and regulators have said cars idling in long queues contribute to air pollution. Some residents at the time said the drive-thru “could be a magnet for gangs, graffiti and beggars, a concern restaurant officials dismiss.”
A Seal Beach resident said he had had enough. After listening to hundreds of steering wheel commands from the nearby Jack in the Box, Jim Cook took action, The Times reported in 1996. While renovating his home, Cook installed double-glazed windows, walls 6 inches thick and noise blocking. blinds on the side facing the restaurant. The changes helped but did not eliminate the problem.
The cars keep driving
Despite the backlash, drive-ins proved immensely popular. Some restaurants have added traffic calming measures and landscaping. Others have tried to improve traffic flow with more lanes, more workers and pick-up stands.
In 1998, Starbucks opened its first LA County drive-in in Hermosa Beach.
“I’m too lazy to park my car, take the keys out of the ignition and go inside,” one customer said at the time.
“I’m on the phone a lot. I don’t want to get out of the car. I can just do a lot more business while I’m online,” another said. “Hey, this is Southern California. Everybody needs an edge.
Drive-thru has been a hit during the pandemic, leading more businesses to seek additional locations, such as Sweetgreen and Shake Shack.
“These efforts run counter to recent planning thinking that some cities are seeking to limit new driving to reduce emissions and automotive waste, reduce obesity and improve pedestrian safety,” reported the Times last year.
Still, “drive-thrus and outdoor dining terraces are rare bright spots in the restaurant industry, which has seen many businesses fold or suffer sustained hits from COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants. communal meals and the reluctance of many diners to venture far from the safety of home.
A One Times reviewer reflected on how drive-thru has become a big part of the pandemic: “A trip to the In-N-Out on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood revealed a drive-thru line that not only was going down the block, but that also wrapped around,” Carolina Miranda wrote in a 2020 essay. ).
Santa Barbara vs. Chick-fil-A
Chick-fil-A has operated a location in Santa Barbara since 2013 and attracts a steady stream of customers whose vehicles block driveway entrances to nearby businesses, block the bike path, block the sidewalk, and compel city buses and emergency vehicles to make a detour. area, according to public planning reports. The city has been in talks with the store operators for years, and in 2020 the city recommended that Chick-fil-A hire a security company to manage site traffic.
City officials say the drive-thru line increases the risk of traffic collisions and injuries to pedestrians. A city traffic report said that at its peak, the drive-thru line can block a State Street lane for 90 minutes on weekdays and 155 minutes on Saturdays.
On March 1, the Santa Barbara City Council assessed traffic reports and complaints from residents and a response from Chick-fil-A representatives.
The owner said he was committed to finding solutions. Past fixes have included adding more drive-thru lines, pushing online food orders and, in recent months, hiring a third-party company to control the flow of traffic during peak hours. Chick-fil-A has also hired more staff inside its restaurant, posted signs to tell customers where to drive along with a hotline number for customers to give feedback. The restaurant is also considering using a nearby parking lot for its employees’ cars, according to Chick-fil-A.
Drive-ins are rare in Santa Barbara because the city banned the construction of new drive-in businesses over 40 years ago. Chick-fil-A is grandfathered to its site, which used to be a Burger King drive-thru that didn’t have the same amount of traffic anywhere.
Brea vs. Raising Cane
In February, Brea City Council backtracked on what was to be the town’s first Raising Cane restaurant. Council members voted to overturn earlier resolutions passed a year ago that paved the way for the construction of a 22-car capacity drive-thru restaurant in Gaslight Square, a shopping center along Imperial Highway, but also 20 feet across from Laurel Elementary School.
Ahead of the vote, the chain said in a Feb. 7 letter to Brea Town Manager Bill Gallardo that it “has decided not to pursue development of a Raising Cane’s restaurant on a portion of the mall known under the name of Gaslight Square”.
The move and vote came as part of a settlement between Raising Cane’s, the city and a community group known as Safer Avenues for Everyone, which challenged the planned location in court. The prospects of increased traffic and long lines so close to an elementary school and foot traffic have prompted residents to take action.
“I am relieved and grateful that Raising Cane’s has stepped down,” said Diane Stites, a longtime Laurel Elementary volunteer and plaintiff in the lawsuit. “We’ve said from the start that we’re not against development or Raising Cane’s.”
The resolution came more than a year after Brea residents began to worry about the Raising Cane’s project.
Times writer Nathan Solis and Times Community News writer Gabriel San Ramon contributed to this report.