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A sign posted outside a Los Angeles McDonald's tells customers that the drive-thru is still open on May 20, 2020.Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press

North Americans have a complicated relationship with drive-thrus. Officially, most of us consider them human flypaper that attracts unwanted traffic to residential neighbourhoods, exacerbates smog and appeals to the worst characteristics of our car-centered society.

On the other hand, we love them. Now more than ever.

Thanks to COVID-19, drive-thrus have reached peak popularity. When all the world got locked down, only the lonely drive-thrus remained. Using mobile technology, they offered minimum contact with maximum fast food, what industry experts call “frictionless” dining. They were a safe way to dine in an unsafe world. Drive-thru lineups routinely extended beyond the parking lot and into the road.

While many businesses have suffered, those with drive-thrus have prospered. According to the Chicago-based trade magazine Restaurant News, drive-thrus normally account for two-thirds of McDonald’s sales. During the pandemic, that’s increased to 90 per cent. Starbucks closed down outlets, but thanks to drive-thrus, they’ve managed to keep 75 per cent of their prior-year revenue. In February 2019, Chipotle had 10 drive-thrus. The chain now has 100 “Chipotlanes” and is hiring 10,000 more workers.

It’s not just fast-food companies that are feeling the drive-thru vibe. In Ottawa, Tubman Funeral Homes has held drive-thru memorial services. Students at Central Memorial High School in Calgary held a drive-thru graduation ceremony. And, of course, we can’t forget the drive-thru COVID-19 testing lanes.

The popularity of drive-thru service is a telling rebuke for those who predict, as the New York Times did a few weeks ago, a “future without cars.” When they feel threatened, people seek shelter. During the pandemic, that has meant automobiles.

Pre-COVID-19, we used drive-thrus for the following reasons:

  • Embarking on an early-morning car journey;
  • Wishing to feed children but not wanting to unleash them on the public;
  • Self-medicating with fast food.

To me, drive-thrus have always represented the ultimate shameful pleasure. They combine fast food with zero exercise. I use them because I am alone and have surrendered to the urge to buy something that is inarguably bad for me. I don’t want to be around other people while I punish the vessel God has given me, so I use the drive-thru, stop at a secluded area of the parking lot, and then shovel food into my mouth. A lot of people celebrated the film Supersize Me. I did not. Following its release, McDonald’s got rid of the phrase, and that made it harder for me to place my order.

But drive-thrus aren’t just for shame-based eating anymore.

They have become a tenuous lifeline to our previous proclivities. The glowing illumination of the drive-thru window at 1 a.m. has become like Gatsby’s green light – beckoning to us, promising us that one day we will indeed repeat the past and eat in restaurants without fear.

As the country opens up in stages, drive-thru dining has remained desirable. That’s unlikely to change soon. Drive-thrus will remain a fixture in our post-pandemic lives. When we were in lockdown, they were the bare minimum. They allowed us a furtive spree to break the monotony.

In fact, many predict that there is currently a drive-thru revolution underway. According to QSR, a website that focuses on the limited-service food industry, “the newest buzzword is AI – artificial intelligence – which could improve the drive-thru operation by replacing the employee at the speaker, recognizing each car’s past orders, or simply predicting what the customer might want to order at that particular time of day.”

Who knows, one day you might be able to drive-thru and thanks to AI, you won’t even have to order. They’ll already know what you want. Instead of drive-thrus, we may have walk-ups. There’s a whole brave new world of shame-eating on the horizon.

So we eat on, taps against the debit, borne back ceaselessly for a combo.

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