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You won’t believe where McDonald’s opened its first drive-thru

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Did you know the first McDonald’s drive-thru was opened in Arizona? Here are eight other interesting facts about our state’s part in McDonald’s history. Scott Craven/The Republic
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How an Arizona McDonald’s made it possible for hungry drivers to boldly go where no cars had gone before.

Imagine pulling into America’s most prevalent fast-food franchise and having no choice but to get out of your car and march a hundred feet or more just to place your order.

Looming is the return trip to the car, only now it will be as a pack mule. With a large bag of burgers and fries in one hand, it’s 50-50 whether you’ll complete the trip without dropping the cardboard tray of drinks balanced in the other hand.

Now add small, impatient children to this scenario and you have a recipe for a very unhappy meal indeed.

Most people younger than 40 can barely imagine such nightmare circumstances, let alone live them. But before 1975, there was no such thing as a McDonald’s drive-through.

Let that sink in. You parked. You went to the counter. You waited with no music, no AC blowing directly on you, no Pokemon to catch. The fast-food dark ages.

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The reign of order-at-the-counter terrorism ended Jan. 24, 1975, when an ingenious franchise owner cut a hole in the side of his restaurant that allowed customers to order food the way it was always intended — from behind the wheel of a running vehicle.

And it just so happens that our men and women in uniform played a vital role in this innovation. Specifically, those men and women stationed at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista.

That’s right, Arizona was at the forefront of McDonald’s drive-through history. The fast-food giant gets 63 percent of its business from customers who stay in their cars, and Sierra Vista was Ground Zero for an innovation that was one small step for a hungry family, one giant “Please pull up to the window” for mankind.

It was an invention born of necessity rather than convenience, one that was required for the survival of one particular franchise.

To grasp the enormity of the burger company’s first drive-through, one must look at it through history’s kaleidoscope of influential changes. There you’ll see Jordan Martin, who in the 1930s developed the drive-through for banks. And many were actual drive-throughs, cut into the middle of buildings.

Decades passed and Americans found reasons to spend more time behind the wheel, from short trips to the store to cross-country vacations. As the love affair deepened, so did butt-grooves on the front seats.

Car culture grew most dominant in the West, and restaurant owners soon reached out (and through car windows) to their vehicle-based customers. Drive-ins flourished as servers ferried food from counter to car.

At most McDonald’s restaurants in the 1950s and 1960s, counter culture thrived. Patrons placed face-to-face orders and either ate in their cars or took the food home. A few might take a seat on benches outside, about the only amenity offered to the rare dine-in customers.

The business model began to change in the 1970s when customers showed interest in a daring innovation, according to McDonald’s archivist Mike Bullington.

They wanted to eat where they ordered, and thus a remodeling program was started to install indoor seating, the anti-drive-through. The simple red-and-white-tiled outlets slowly transformed into the mansard-roofed restaurants familiar today.

“We saw that innovations were needed to meet what customers were asking for,” Bullington said. And by the early ’70s, customers didn’t seem interested in dashboard dining.

By this time, the first fast-food drive-throughs were more than 20 years old. A handful of burger stands claim the first full-service drive-through, including In-N-Out (1948, using a simple intercom system).

But Sheldon “Red” Chaney is widely credited with the first patty-centered drive-through when in 1947 he opened Red’s Hamburg along Route 66 in Springfield, Mo.

But even as Flower Power gave way to disco, McDonald’s didn’t seriously consider drive-throughs. After all, the two things most crucial to eating while driving — cup holders and passive restraint systems — were still years away from becoming standard equipment.

In 1974, a McDonald’s regional manager in Dallas noticed how well drive-through restaurants were doing in Oklahoma City. He eventually got the OK to design and build the company’s first drive-through — a thoughtful garden-themed four-column portico to be attached to an Oklahoma City restaurant. It would be populated by a handful of McDonald’s characters, including a full-size Ronald McDonald statue that would take orders via speaker and microphone.

Word of the project eventually reached David Rich, operator of the McDonald’s in Sierra Vista. He was intrigued because some of his best customers weren’t allowed to order at the counter.

Soldiers at Fort Huachuca were not allowed to appear in public in their work or duty uniforms, a longstanding rule that had to do with military decorum, according to Steve Gregory, a technician at the Fort Huachuca Museum.

Because the base was just 2 miles down Sierra Vista’s main drag from McDonald’s, soldiers heading to and from work were dressed the part. Rich, who had opened his franchise the year before, knew the uniform policy meant soldiers would drive by rather than in.

But what about through?

Erecting a lovely portico populated with character statues required time Rich didn’t have. Instead, he pushed out a small portion of the wall, creating just enough space for an attendant. He installed a small sliding window, low enough to be reached via car window, wide enough to pass burgers and a side of fries.

On Jan. 24, 1975, the world’s largest fast-food franchise opened its first drive-through.

Leann Richards, who bought the Sierra Vista franchise in 1989, said the post commander and his daughter were the first in line.

“It was a big thing in a small town,” Richards said. “Soldiers are still a very important part of our business.”

In the 41 years since that fateful day, thousands of burgers have been dished to drivers, if not countless coins plunking on pavement during counter-to-car cash transactions.

Gregory, the fort museum tech, recalled how the window was an instant hit. He encountered long lines of soldiers at the drive-through when he and his friends needed a burger fix.

“In this little town in 1974, just getting a different restaurant to eat at (or as a teenager, to have another place to hang out) was a big thing,” Gregory wrote in an email. “As a high school student, we were bugged when the drive-thru first opened by the lines of the soldiers, which slowed us down on our lunch times as well.”

Two months later, McDonald’s opened its second drive-through, in Tucker, Ga. The long-planned Oklahoma City drive-through debuted in April, and sales jumped 40 percent in just two months.

The concept went viral and by the end of 1979, nearly 2,700 of the nearly 5,000  McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. at that time had drive-throughs, according to restaurant spokesperson Lisa McComb.

Company officials don’t track specific drive-through numbers, but it’s estimated that most of the 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. are equipped to handle vehicle-based orders.

But in 1975, the newfangled addition confused customers, Sierra Vista franchise owner Richards said. For safety’s sake, doors on the drive-through side remained locked so hungry patrons wouldn’t walk in front of vehicles.

“People were very unfamiliar with the concept,” she said. “They didn’t know to look for cars.”

Unfortunately, the original drive-through was flipped out of existence by the spatula of time. In 1999, the restaurant was leveled to clear the way for a new, updated McDonald’s, this one with two drive-through windows.

“It was not an easy decision,” Richards said. “But the old restaurant needed to be replaced.”

Before the old building went to that big Dollar Menu in the sky, much of it was auctioned off piece by McPiece. If it could be unbolted, cut out or otherwise detached, it would be sold.

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Patrick Arbenz, a Sierra Vista resident, submitted a winning bid for glass, a material he neither desired nor needed. But the reason for his bid was as transparent as his purchase. He wanted the drive-through window, behind which his teen daughter spent many minimum-wage hours, greeting customers with a cheery, “Welcome to McDonald’s, may I take your order?”

“My dad knew how upset I was when they were about to tear down the McDonald’s,” Debbie Arbenz, 58, recalled. “When he showed up a few weeks later with the window, it was so unique, so over the top. But that’s how my dad was.”

For decades Arbenz held onto the window. It was a treasured relic from teen-hood, if not a conversation starter. She doesn’t know how much he paid for the glass.

Then, in early 2014, the retired teacher attended a tourism meeting representing Ramsey Canyon Preserve (where she now works). When Arbenz casually mentioned owning the window, one person popped up like a jack-in-the-box.

Nancy Krieski, curator for the local museum, had been trying to track down the window for two years. She was in charge of putting together a tribute to Sierra Vista’s 60th anniversary. Her goal was to collect 60 iconic items that told the town’s story.
And that story would be incomplete without something representing the world’s first McDonald’s drive-through.

What better than the actual window, a two-pane slider that launched a thousand (and more) Egg McMuffins?

“All that time looking and I find it by pure luck,” Krieski said. “I’m just glad someone kept it.”

Today that window of drive-through opportunity sits in the lobby of the Ethel H. Berger Center, which houses the Henry F. Hauser Museum. It’s set in a sturdy rectangle of oak built by its buyer, who thought it important enough to be framed for history.

In April 2014, the Sierra Vista Historical Society unveiled a plaque commemorating the city’s place in McDonald’s history. Several residents gathered at the newer McDonald’s to see the plaque and share memories of the dearly departed drive-through.

Should anyone miss the plaque in front of the restaurant, they can’t help but notice history riding shotgun on the sign.

Just beneath “McDonald’s,” in bold red and yellow, those driving by see, “World’s First McDonald’s Drive Thru.”

It’s all right there on Fry Boulevard.

Mobile Users: To view a McDonald’s history interactive timeline click here. 

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