Birthplace of 'drive-thru' turns its back on fast food

Baldwin Park in California was the home of the world's first fast-food outlet, an In-N-Out burger franchise, in 1948. Photo / Creative Commons image
Baldwin Park in California was the home of the world's first fast-food outlet, an In-N-Out burger franchise, in 1948. Photo / Creative Commons image

In 1948, an entrepreneur called Harry Snyder decided to open a new kind of fast-food outlet. It would cater to motorists who were too busy, or too lazy, to leave their car. Customers would drive to a speaker-phone outside a building, place their order and then proceed to a service hatch, where dinner would be handed to them in a paper bag. He called this revolutionary means for selling burgers, shakes and fries the "drive-thru" restaurant.

Six decades, and tens of thousands of drive-thrus later, Snyder's big idea has been shamelessly copied by McDonald's, Burger King, and almost every modern fast-food company, changing eating habits around the world.

The small restaurant he opened in Baldwin Park, a blue-collar city just east of Los Angeles, became In-N-Out, one of the most popular burger chains in the American West.

But progress comes at a price. While residents of Baldwin Park have long celebrated their hometown's claim to fame as the semi-official birthplace of a culinary revolution, fast food has exacted a terrible toll on their waistbands.

So terrible that the city's council has now taken the headline-grabbing decision to ban any new drive-thru restaurants from opening there.

In a bid to combat rampant obesity levels - almost half the town's 90,000 inhabitants are overweight and a third are classed as clinically obese - and decrease the traffic congestion and dangerous pollution being caused by long queues of cars idling outside burger and fried-chicken restaurants, the city's law-makers voted last month to impose a moratorium on new fast-food outlets. The ban, which took effect at the weekend, will initially last for nine months.

"We here in Baldwin Park have taken strides to create a healthy community, and allowing one more drive-thru is not going to meet that goal," said Baldwin Park city planner Salvador Lopez, who was inspired by a small number of Canadian cities which have imposed similar bans in recent years.

He estimates that the city's off-licences and fast-food outlets outnumber its old-fashioned grocery stores and sit-down restaurants by a factor of six to one.

You interfere with the all-American freedom to scoff cheap junk food at your peril, though. And while Baldwin Park's totemic ban has delighted healthy-eating campaigners, it is already meeting with stiff resistance from customers of the city's existing drive-thrus. They complain that it will merely lead to longer queues outside existing venues.

"They ought to put in more drive-thrus, not stop them," Isaac Colin, a regular customer of the city's current In-N-Out, a stone's throw from the original venue, told the Associated Press.

"It's a waste of time getting out of your car, finding a parking spot, going in, ordering your food."

While conceding that cities in other US states ought to impose a ban, he added: "Not here, this is California!"

Another customer, Fabian Olguin, conceded that "to be honest, yeah, we have too many drive-thrus", but said they are a victim of their own success.

Sometimes, the long line of cars outside In-N-Out makes it impossible for him to drive there from his workplace, on the other side of the road, he complained. When that happens, he is forced to walk across the street and eat his dinner in the restaurant's sit-down section.

Locals who support the moratorium have pointed out that it is only temporary, and say that it is not as if motorists searching for artery-clogging snacks aren't already spoilt for choice.

Although Baldwin Park measures just 6.5 square miles (16.8sq/km), it already contains 17 drive-thrus. A short drive into neighbouring cities will provide them with dozens of further options.

The moratorium is the latest in a string of moves being taken by local law-makers hoping to combat obesity.

Earlier this year, they passed a law forcing restaurants to display the nutritional value of their food. It revealed, among other things, that a large McDonald's milkshake contains more than a thousand calories.

Last month, they also opened a new, publicly funded outdoor fitness centre, which will be dedicated to helping fight childhood obesity. It consists of a running track, fitness centre and gymnasium.

"Baldwin Park is going through a revolution," proclaimed Monica Garcia, one of the council members who lobbied for it to be built.

In a bid to appease critics, the town's mayor, Manuel Lozano - who is a strong supporter of the new ban - is anxious to stress that his administration remains proud of its standing as the home of the drive-thru revolution.

The original In-N-Out restaurant was torn down in the 1950s when they built the 10 Freeway which stretches from the Pacific Ocean to Florida, but, he said, it remains "one of our icons".


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