How Did Southern California Become The Fast Food Epicenter Of The World?

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What is your favorite fast-food indulgence? Is it a classic Big Mac? A Panda Express Original Orange Chicken? Or maybe the Crunchwrap Supreme? Whatever it is, there is a good chance that it had its origins in the greater Los Angeles area.

“I was teaching at Purdue University in Indiana,” recalls food historian George Geary, author of Made in California. “One day I was driving down the highway and I noticed all of the fast-food places that were off the next off-ramp. There were about 14 listed, and I realized most of those were from California!”

Why Los Angeles in particular and California in general became fast foods’ greatest exporter is a multi-faceted question. According to Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams, part of the answer is simple — we are just pretty rad.

“California, it’s always had this mystique around its effortlessness and coolness, and some of that has to do with the weather,” he says. “[It’s ] looser in terms of conventions, in terms of dress, in terms of conversation, in terms of the way of life.”

And nowhere is cooler than Los Angeles. The greater L.A. area alone is the birthplace of many chains: In-N-Out, Taco Bell, Fatburger, Panda Express, Hot Dog on a Stick, Orange Julius, Bob’s Big Boy, Fosters Freeze, Original Tommy’s, The Blimp (now Carl’s Jr.), Wienerschnitzel, Wahoo’s Fish Tacos, and Pioneer Chicken. Farther afield is San Bernardino’s McDonald’s, San Diego’s Jack-in-the-Box, and Yermo’s Del Taco.

A menu is displayed in the drive thru at an In-n-Out restaurant. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

How did it happen?

But we cannot claim to be the founders of fast foods as a concept. According to John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, authors of Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age, fast service food has been around worldwide since the Industrial Revolution in the form of coffee shops and oyster houses.

During the 1880s, soda fountains and drug store counters across the country began serving quick soup and sandwich meals along with popular novelty drinks and ice creams. Then there were inexpensive fair foods — the hot dogs and hamburgers served at county fairs and amusement destinations like Coney Island and the Santa Monica Pier.

Chandler argues that the first true modern fast food restaurant was White Castle, which opened in Wichita, Kansas in 1921. “1920 was famously the first year that more people showed up on the U.S. Census as living in cities instead of outside of cities,” he says. “People were congregating in urban centers and working at factories, and a lot of this had to do with electricity and just general movements of populations. And so, people needed to eat something.
They were working in factories every day and they wanted something that was quick and cheap.”

Growing road system

As more and more people drove and commuted to work, those tried and true fair food favorites began to be sold in roadside shacks along America’s burgeoning highway system.

The Rite Spot road stand | Courtesy of the archives, Pasadena Museum of History

In Southern California, these included the Rite Spot in Pasadena, where owner Lionel Sternberger is said to have invented the cheeseburger in the 1920s. Southern California, with its perfect weather, spread out populace, and pioneering spirit was the ideal place for small business owners to open their very own “road food” stands.

A plaque commemorating the cheeseburger’s invention in Pasadena in the sidewalk outside the L.A. Financial Credit Union at 1520 W. Colorado Blvd. | Courtesy Pasadena Chamber of Commerce

“Most stands were seasonal since, until the late 1920s, motoring was primarily a warm-weather proposition. Only in mild-winter states like California and Florida did stands operate all year,” Jakle and Sculle write.

“Highway selling was ideal for entrepreneurs willing to experiment with limited capital. The roadside stand … was hailed as one of America’s last ‘frontiers’ for independent businessmen. Most stands were built by their owners, the capital invested largely that of ‘sweat equity.’”

Driving change

And then there was SoCal’s early embrace of car culture, and the popularity of drive-ins, staffed with pretty carhops, and high fat, highly caloric comfort food at an affordable price.

A carhop at Bob’s Big Boy, located at 4211 W. Riverside Drive in Burbank, serves a couple in their car. | Valley Times Collection at Los Angeles Public Library

“In the 1930s in Southern California there developed a remarkable phenomenon in the food service business,” Ray Kroc, who took McDonald’s to the stratosphere, recalled, according to Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. “It was the drive-in restaurant, a product of the Great Depression’s crimp on the free-wheeling lifestyle that had grown up around movie-happy Hollywood. Drive-ins sprouted in city parking lots and spread along canyon drives. Barbeque, beef, pork and chicken were the typical menu mainstays, but there was an endless variety in approaches as feverish operators hustled to outdo each other.”

But it was not until L.A.’s boomtime in the 1940s that we truly became the epicenter of fast food innovation, starting with “Dick” and Maurice “Mac” McDonald, who opened the first McDonald’s in San Bernardino in 1940.

“California takes over the story,” Chandler says of the 1940s. “After World War II, there was obviously a ton of growth. The end of the war brought the end of rations for steel and for gasoline and for beef. And you had a lot of government spending that was focused on building highways and infrastructure. And a lot of that happened in California because of defense spending.”

A photograph of U.S. President John F. Kennedy at a McDonalds restaurant hangs on a wall at the world’s oldest-operating McDonald’s fast food restaurant on its 50-year anniversary on Aug. 18, 2003 in Downey. | (David McNew/Getty Images

Southern California’s unique lifestyle also contributed to the need for fast food. “The building of the suburbs is huge, the growth of the highways, and that introduces all these other facets — the rise of two income households, more women are joining the workforce,” Chandler says.

“So, the erosion of traditional gender roles when it comes to making dinner, the rise of commutes, make it so that you’re kind of eating on the go and there’s more distance between work and home. So, a lot of these things create a need for someone to step into the gap here and fast food places do that.”

A troop of Boy Scouts wait in the parking lot of a Taco Bell, possibly awaiting their turn to march in the Chinese New Year parade, San Gabriel. | (Steven Gold/Los Angeles Photographers Collection / Los Angeles Public Library)

Dreamy entrepreneurs of all stripes flourished in this heady environment, where taking risks, whether it involved the space race or mom and pop startups, was encouraged. “Southern California is a place where people innovate,” says food writer Katherine Spiers, of How to Eat L.A.

The innovations in fast food came fast and furious in the post-World War II era. The McDonald brothers pioneered a new kind of assembly line food production, which they coined their “speedee service system,” maximizing efficiency and convenience. Every menu item was standardized — only two pickles per hamburger, no exceptions. “If we gave people choice, there would be chaos,” Dick McDonald explained, per McDonalds: Behind the Arches.

In-N-Out Burger

Out in Baldwin Park, Esther and Harry Snyder opened the first In-N-Out Burger in 1948, which along with their contemporary Jack in the Box (founded in San Diego in 1951) revolutionized the drive-thru system we now see as the fast food norm.

An In-n-Out fast food restaurant in Encinitas on May 9, 2022. | (Mike Blake/Reuters)

“What was unique about them both is that when they started, they both were drive through only,” Chandler says. “So, you didn’t get out of your car and walk up to a window, you just drove through. And In-N-Out in particular had a two-way speaker that was built by Harry Snyder in his garage, which is its own kind of classic tinkering-in-your-garage American innovation story that we tend to love.”

Fatburger

Los Angeles was also home to a particular brand of enterprising visionaries, who may not have been given the capital, or chance, to flourish in other parts of the country due to racism and sexism. In 1948, Lovie Yancey and a partner opened Mr. Fatburger on Western Avenue. Initially a three-seat counter made of scrap metal, Yancey soon bought out her partner, changed the name to Fatburger and worked tirelessly to make it a smashing success.

“She apparently really loved working in the restaurant,” Spiers says. “And she would work 20-hour days and sleep under the counter sometimes. She kept having people knocking on the door after they were closed at a reasonable hour. So, she was like, ‘well, I want to feed people. Guess I’m staying open late’.”

Yancey also tapped into post-war America’s obsession with large portions of food for a low price. “There was a real efficiency in American culture and in American cuisine at the time, the idea that you could just have an enormous burger and that would be your meal was exciting,” Chandler says.

“It had everything you needed kind of fit into this space age, high industry mood of the time, spirit of the time. And so Fat Burger was a big burger. It still is a big burger. And people were interested in something that was a challenge to eat — something you needed two hands to eat — that was appealing.”

Taco Bell

Fast food pioneers also often appropriated the foods of the numerous diverse cultures that called Southern California home. In San Bernardino, a young entrepreneur named Glen Bell fell in love with the tacos served at the Mexican American owned Mitla Café. In 1962, he opened the first Taco Bell in Downey.

“Glen Bell picks up this bit of cuisine and he is interested in it and he just kind of makes it his own mission to present it to the masses,” Chandler says. “And the taco was an exotic thing back then, and now it’s the most normative dining thing next to the hamburger you can have in America.”

As Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times notes, there was also a spirit of collaboration among many of SoCal’s fast-food titans, who were more than happy to share their innovations with other upstart entrepreneurs. “There was a fraternity of us, and every one of us saw the McDonald’s in San Bernardino and basically copied it after the boys gave us a tour,” James Collins, head of Collins Food International (KFC) remembered, per Morrison. “We became good friends, and we all took our lessons from the McDonald brothers.”

Dump that guilt

By the 1960s and ‘70s SoCal-born fast food was expanding, spreading a unique brand of American culture throughout the globe. Today there are over 38,000 McDonald’s, 8,500 Taco Bells, and 3,100 Carl’s Jrs. And while some Californians may feel guilty for introducing the oft-maligned, problematic fast food universe to the world, Geary has come to terms with his love of a quick meal.

While attending a high-end cuisine conference in 1995, he found himself at a dinner at a grand Philadelphia train station. But there was one problem, the caterers had messed up, and there was no food. “I was sitting with Julia Child and she’s like, ‘we’re hungry!’ Because it was a train station, they had a McDonald’s. So, a few of us got up and I thought, ‘okay, I guess it’s okay to eat the fast food in front of these people.’ And then Julia Child ate French fries,” Geary recalls. “And I thought, ‘you know what? If she can do it, I can do it.’”

So next time you’ve got a hankering for a good ole processed burger with fries, instead of guilt, feel a sense of hometown pride. “We wouldn’t have the American fast food culture that we have today without Southern California,” Chandler says.

“I think if you created a map and looked at all the chains that came out of a 45 mile radius in Southern California and stacked it up to other businesses elsewhere, not just in fast food, but in any industry, you’d be hard pressed to find a lot of things that really compete in terms of name recognition and endurance and excitement than what’s grown out of Southern California’s fast food boom.”

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