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Fascinating History of the Fast Food Industry

Gaynor Borade
The term 'fast-food' relates to food that can be prepared very quickly. Most of this popular type of food is availed in packaged forms called 'takeaways'. The fast food industry has its roots in the food-for-sale stands, that were part and parcel of ancient Roman and East Asian societies.
Fast food restaurants or outlets today are either kiosks or elaborate quick service restaurants. The franchise operations have generated restaurant chains that offer standardized meals across the globe. On account of a low capital requirement and popularity of fast food, fast food restaurants and drive-through outlets are common throughout the world.
Also known as sit-ins and upscale kiosks, these restaurants cater to the dry food demands of the younger generation, extremely tight adult work schedule and distinct ambiance preferences across the globe.

History of the Fast Food Industry

The concept of fast food is generally associated with urban development. However, research reveals that the trend has its roots in the bread-and-wine stands in ancient Rome and the popular ready-to-eat noodle shops in many East Asian cities.
All through the ancient and medieval world, flat-bread, falafel and other heat-and-serve meals were popular attractions at roadside stands. The kiosks or brochettes that were once associated with a clientèle, from the not-so-elite strata of society, are now a part of the urban and ultra-modern lifestyle.
The history of Roman antiquity reveals that bread soaked in wine and stewed vegetables, and meat were commonly sold at popinas, the eating establishments that thrived during the era.
All through the Middle Ages, major urban areas in London and Paris supported stalls that sold pies, flans, pastries, pancakes and precooked meats.
These outlets catered to the demands of single households and town dwellers, who rented facilities devoid of kitchens. The kiosks also catered to pilgrims and traders. Though pubs and coffee houses were popular in the western world by the 18th century, the idea of eating out for fun didn't take off in Western society until the late 18th century.
Industrialization and automation turned out to be a boon for the fast food industry as the rise of automobiles in the world also marked the rise in dining out and drive in restaurants. The two World Wars and growth in American economy firmly entrenched the concept of fast food as an American way of life.
Today, the United States boasts of the largest fast food industry in the world, and more than 100 countries around the world have American-owned fast food restaurants.
Fast food preparation and food servicing provides employment to approximately 2 million U.S. workers in the USA. And since the US is considered to be the capital or pioneer of the fast food industry let us take a look at a brief time-line of the fast food industry in America.

Significant Events in the US Fast Food Industry

  • 1902: The first known food vending machines or Automat opened by Horn and Hodart in Philadelphia.
  • 1912: Horn and Hodart become the first food chain in the US by opening an Automat in Manhattan.
  • 1916: The first low-cost limited menu high-speed hamburger restaurant called White Castle opens in Wichita KS.
  • 1919: A&W Root Beer becomes the first chain to start drive-in by installing road-side stalls.
  • 1921: White Castle opens its first restaurant that sells hamburgers for 50 cents.
  • 1930: Howard Johnson starts the concept of franchising and use of standardized menus logos or signage and advertising.
  • 1948: In-N-Out Burger employs drive-through service using call box technology.
  • 1951: The term fast food is recognized in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  • 1967: McDonald's opens its first restaurant outside the United States in Canada and Puerto Rico.
  • 1967: High fructose corn syrup, an ingredient that tricks the body into wanting to eat more and store more fat, appears in fast food.
  • 1971: The first Starbucks store opens in Seattle selling high-quality coffee beans and equipment.
  • 1991: Arby's becomes the first fast food chain to introduce a light meal with foods under 300 calories and up to 94% fat-free.
  • 1994: Arctic Circle becomes the first restaurant to sell Angus beef exclusively.
  • 2002: McDonald's cuts back on trans fat on its French fries by 48%.
  • 2005: McDonald's mascot Ronald ranks 2nd in the top-10 advertising icons of the 20th century.
  • 2006: According to an estimate, Americans spend nearly $142 billion on fast food.

Overview of the Fast Food Industry

An overview of the fast food industry, highlights the availability of meals that suffice the need to eat amidst tight work schedule. This has offered great respite to parents who shuttle between work and home for major part of the day.
Delicacies like fish and fries, vegetarian and non-vegetarian burgers and pizzas are washed down with great relish, with ales and aerated drinks served complimentary at many of these fast food restaurants.
Though accompaniments like coleslaw, baked potatoes and mushy peas satisfy the established and widely accepted compulsion for vegetable-intake, the fried foods are becoming addictive, depriving the modern child of a balanced diet. There is no dearth with regards to the variety available at these outlets.
Fast food franchise chains such as Subway, Burger King, McDonald's, Pret-a-Manger and Pizza Hut cater to demands for seafood, lean meat, special diet meal components, and other considerable regional variations. Snacks such as sandwiches and baguettes are the result of experiments within the fast food industry.
Most clientele indulge in the semi-dry and dry meals, to avoid interruption while working or to fulfill a family commitment that otherwise requires a considerable amount of time to be spent in the kitchen.
Most fast food variants share similarities with distant cuisines and cultures. This industry now thrives on international appeal promoted by niche chains. The development of healthier alternatives to the conventional servings at fast food restaurants, has resulted in mass promotion of portable foods that can be put together by the consumers themselves.
At many outlets and drive-ins, the customers can see the food being prepared, thus confirming to advertisements that flaunt hygienic standards. Standardized menus, signage and a unique ambiance are flaunted at take-away services and sit-ins all over the world.
The concept of eat-on-the-go not only eliminates the need for traditional cutlery, but also enables customers to indulge in foods that are characteristic of certain cultural or ethnic traditions. The common menus include pitas, fried chicken, nuggets and tacos, served along with salads and breads.
The fast food industry now operates out of convenience stores, elaborate restaurants and independent vendors, who have popularized chant sales-pitches, standardized cooking and production methods, and easy availability of low-cost delicacies.
Today, the fast food industry has become a competitive arena where brand recognition and loyalty rules. Aggressive marketing and innovative advertising has not only succeeded in making the fast food industry massive, but they have also drawn fire from critics ranging from their advertising strategies, to the unwanted attention from public health concerns.
Fast food is well and truly a global phenomenon. With massive promotional budgets, and smart advertising by adapting to public sentiments and moods, fast food industry will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.