The White Castle in Wichita, Kansas, is credited with being the first fast food restaurant, even though the term “fast food” was not yet widely used when it opened in 1921. Though definitions vary, a fast food restaurant is usually distinguished by its speed and efficiency. Customers place their own orders at a centralized counter, and take care of picking up their own condiments, utensils, and other necessary accoutrements. When it first opened, White Castle served only hamburgers, and that has been the restaurant’s staple ever since.
What Made White Castle Different
One of the distinguishing features of the Wichita White Castle was its “open kitchen” model. Most restaurants at the time kept the kitchen far from customer view, making food preparation something of a mystery. At White Castle, customers could watch as their hamburgers were made.
Requiring customers to place and pick up their own orders saved the restaurant a lot of money when it came to wait staff. This made the overall price point relatively low, which attracted a range of customers and families looking for a budget outing. In the early 1920s, this sort of dining experience was new and different.
Changing the Public’s Image of the Hamburger
White Castle’s popularity was also testament to America’s changing view of hamburgers. In the early 1900s, burgers were mostly viewed as carnival food and were rarely considered a substantive meal. Hamburgers were also considered by many to be unhealthy and often undesirable, as early iterations were often made from scrap meat of very low quality.
The opening of a fresh, made-to-order hamburger restaurant changed this. White Castle used only standard-quality meat, and the patties were proclaimed by the media and critics of the time to be a “superior sandwich.” In many respects, the open kitchen helped put the public’s mind at ease — not only did the food taste good, it was also verifiably exactly what it said it was.
The First Assembly Line Restaurant
Modern fast food restaurants typically rely on an assembly line method of food preparation, where meals are put together very quickly by a number of employees working in tandem. White Castle did not employ this method in its Wichita restaurant, as it was pioneered by McDonald’s and first introduced at that restaurant’s grand opening in 1937.
The First Drive-Through Restaurant
The ability to purchase a meal on-the-go did not come about until after the Second World War. In-N-Out Burger, a California franchise, is widely regarded as the first drive-through fast food restaurant; it opened in 1948 as a no-frills hamburger stand promising total convenience by allowing patrons to place and receive their order from the comfort of their car. The restaurant was one of the first to use a two-way speaker system, and did not open an indoor dining room or seating area until the 1960s.
Settling the A&W Dispute
Some fast food scholars argue that A&W was the first in the field, as it opened for business in 1916 — five years before White Castle. According to most accounts, however, A&W began as little more than a root beer stand selling sodas and floats. It was not until 1923 that the company developed actual dining options. The company grew quickly from that point, and it is often regarded as America’s first chain of roadside restaurants.