June 16, 2024

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The Ultimate Driving Machines

How fast food got its start in Southern California — and why it’s still the fast food capital of the world

How fast food got its start in Southern California — and why it's still the fast food capital of the world

Fast food has been deeply intertwined with Southern California since its inception.

The logo of McDonalds is seen outside a shop in Vienna in Vienna, Austria, October 1, 2016.  REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
The logo of McDonalds is seen outside a shop in Vienna
Thomson Reuters


McDonald’s, Taco Bell, In-N-Out, Del Taco, Jack in the Box, and many other chains all have their roots in the area.

original mcdonald's


Taco Bell, Chipotle, and others are still headquartered there.

Taco Bell hq
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider


Bob Wian opened the first Bob’s Big Boy in Glendale, California in 1936.

Bob's Big Boy
Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Wian was also credited with creating the double burger, now a fast food staple.

Bobs big boy
AP Photo/Chris Carlson


Wian had some experience with serving customers in their cars from his time at Kirby’s Pig Stand, which had carhops, in Texas.

Kirby's Pig Stand Texas
Margolies, John, photographer, Library of Congress

Bob’s Big Boy had drive-ins for customers in cars, a precursors to drive-thrus.

Bob's Big boy drive in
Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images


In 1940, the McDonald’s brother first opened McDonald’s Bar-B-Q drive-in in San Bernardino in 1940.

chicken barbecue grill
Chicken on a barbecue grill.
Getty Images

That same year, McDonald’s became up a walk-up burger restaurant.

Original McDonald's Downey CA
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider


By 1955, Ray Kroc was involved as the franchising agent, and he started the McDonald’s System, the predecessor to the McDonald’s Corporation.

McDonald's Ray Kroc

Del Taco and Taco Bell, still competitors today, opened within a year of each other in 1960 and 1961.

Taco Bell hq
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider


The two restaurants broke from the hamburgers and french fries mold of fast food at the time to sell burritos and tacos.

Original Menu with Kermit Becky Taco Bell
Taco Bell’s original menu from the 1960s.
Courtesy of Taco Bell


At the same time, these restaurants were growing and expanding, the US was building its massive highway system.


American life was redesigned around car culture, and Americans wanted convenient food stops that fit into that life, according to author and journalist Adam Chandler.

LA traffic
Getty Images

Southern California in particular grew based on cars, which enabled suburban housing tracts, malls, and fast-food restaurants to emerge.

California suburbs from a drone point of view.
adamkaz/Getty Images

Southern California boomed with money as a national leader in aircraft and automobile production and other defense spending.

SoCal b-1 bomber construction
Photo by Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

A car-centered culture, spending money for leisure, and a growing demand for fast and efficient food made a perfect storm for fast food to start, poising the industry to grow through the rest of the world.

Original McDonald's Downey CA
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at [email protected].

Southern California was primed to develop drive-thrus, which make up about 75% of fast food industry sales today.

Starbucks barista drive thru COVID
Starbucks drive-thru.
Photo by Jason Whitman/NurPhoto via Getty Images