Today is National Fast Food Day, a very American holiday.
The U.S. has more than 300 fast food chains, representing 40% of the nation’s total restaurant sales. Americans spend more than $110 billion on fast food annually, on cuisine that ranges from barbecue, fried chicken and pizza to Chinese food and Tex-Mex.
Since the dawn of towns, there has been street food. It was sold by vendors who fed nearby workers and folks passing through, as well as neighborhood residents who had no fireplace in which to cook food.
Street food has been called, incorrectly, “the world’s first fast food.” Fast food is defined as a meal that can be prepared quickly and easily, to be consumed on premises or taken out. Street vendors can spend hours cooking and preparing dosas, kebabs, tacos and other foods before bringing them to sell from a cart or a portable stand.
While America is now witnessing a growth in street food—particularly food trucks—the popularity of street food waned in the early 20th century with the birth of burger stands, coffee shops, diners, drive-ins and sandwich shops—all places where one could get a quick meal. Are they fast food?
Where would America be without fast-food fries? Photo courtesy McDonalds.
No: The critical difference is that, be it a burger, a sandwich or a chef salad, the food at these types of restaurants is prepared to order.
The closest relative to fast food is the restaurant concept known as “fast casual,” a type of restaurant that does not offer full table service (like Applebee’s and IHOP’s “casual dining”), but promises a higher quality of food and atmosphere than a typical fast food restaurant. Chipotle Mexican Grill and Five Guys Burgers are examples.
How Fast Food Is Different
Fast food uses preheated or precooked ingredients. Those fries and burgers are pre-cooked and sitting under a heat lamp awaiting an order.
The food is served to the customer not on a plate, but in disposable packaging that can be brought elsewhere as take-out, or taken to a table provided by the establishment.
The Father Of Fast Food
In 1954, a milkshake machine salesman named Ray Kroc started the momentum leading to America’s fast-food phenomenon.
Although the concept did exist (according to Wikipedia, the term “fast food” appeared in the Merriam–Webster dictionary in 1951), it was still new.
Kroc was a milkshake machine salesman in California. He then became the exclusive distributor of a speedier milkshake machine, the Multimixer. One of his clients was the McDonald’s hamburger stand in San Bernardino, owned by brothers Richard and Maurice.
Kroc inadvertently invented modern fast food with his vision of franchising the McDonald’s concept, in order to sell several Multimixers to each location. He offered his services as their franchising agent. Six years later, he bought the brothers out.
Chain restaurants such as Howard Johnson’s existed before Kroc, but Kroc created the fast food model, standardizing portions and processes, keeping prices down and creating a culture of quick service and cleanliness.
Today McDonald’s is the largest restaurant company in the world, with 31,000 restaurants located in 126 countries. The Moscow location is the busiest in the world; the largest location is in Orlando, Florida. It would be hard to find an American who has never eaten fast food.
Happy Fast Food Day to all fast food fans.