Like it or not, fast food dining is now an indelible part of American life. More than one-fourth of all Americans eat fast food every single day and 8 out of 10 eat it at least once a month. That means we’re all spending an inordinate amount of time sitting on plastic chairs in fast food dining rooms, standing in line at registers, disposing of our own trash, and navigating our vehicles through ever-changing drive-thrus.
Some things about the fast food experience can’t really be changed, but the things that can be changed, are often for the best. It's always a good idea to let go of the past and move forward. If they can find a way to do it faster, cheaper, and better, the fast food industry is never hesitant to do it. These are the ten best modern fast food innovations, in no particular order...
You can read our list of the ten worst modern fast food innovations (opens in new tab), but these are the ten best modern fast food innovations...
1. Credit Card Swipers
The whole point of fast food is to get the food as quickly as possible. If we all had hours of our lives to spare, we would obviously go to better restaurants with sitdown service. Since we don’t, we want to get in and out as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, for a long time, that routinely took forever thanks to long counter wait times directly related to other customers paying as slowly as possible, either with cash or a credit card machine that ordinarily forced signatures and a ninety second delay at best. That’s not so bad with one person in front of you, but with five or size, it would make drive-thru lines and counter service that much more frustrating.
Luckily, most fast food places now employ credit card swipers that allow customers to accomplish the entire process in no more than ten seconds. Sure, there’s an asshole now and again that chooses to pay in cash or ask about twenty questions. Those problems can never be completely avoided, but on the whole, paying is now exponentially faster, and that benefits all of us.
2. Digital Drinking
Short of offering Coke and Pepsi products in one space, there’s nothing beverage-related more satisfying than being able to order whatever the hell you want to drink. Thanks to the digital soda machine, those days are here. No longer do we have to suck it up and get Coke because it’s the only good option available. If Coke makes it, it’s now on the menu, typically in low calorie and zero calorie forms. It’s basically the equivalent of online shopping. You can do combinations. You can do weirdo flavors. You can do whatever the hell you want.
Obviously, for the first year or so while idiots get used to it, the new machines are going to create some hold-ups in line. That’s annoying, of course, but the Internet was still a damn good invention, even when it took my dial-up five minutes to initially connect and ninety-seconds to load a single webpage. Life is about forward progress. There are always bumps in the road, but we should all welcome those bumps if it means we’re actively watching our lives get easier in real time. Now, when you have a second, please move out of the way. I think I feel like an orange Fanta.
Disagree? Hate Digital Soda Machines? Then you'll love this: Why Digital Soda Machines Are The Worst
3. 24-hour Drive-Thru
I typically keep conventional hours. I wake up around 7:00 in the morning, and I go to sleep around midnight. I eat my meals within the generally accepted windows we’ve decided on as a society, and I don’t really have any interest in changing. Every once in a while, however, if I’m driving home from a trip or can’t sleep or randomly hit up the town, there are few things that excite me more than having the random option to grab some fast food during an utterly bizarre hour. 3:17 AM? That sounds like I’ve had a few drinks and want a chicken quesadilla from Taco Bell. 4:52 AM? That sounds iike I’ve got an early tee time and need a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit before I shoot a damn find round of golf.
The 24 hour drive thru window isn’t something I need every day, or even semi-regularly, but during those rare times in which I do need it, it’s a wonderful comfort to know it’s there and ready to serve me.
4. Besides Burgers
I love cheeseburgers. Ninety percent of the time when I hit up one of the primary fast food places (Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King if there are no other options), I’m going to order a cheeseburger and fries. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like the option to occasionally go in a different direction. Over the past few years, most restaurants have begun adding salads, multiple chicken sandwiches, wraps and a wide variety of other choices to round out menus and give customers some real options.
This is also huge when it comes to picking a place when multiple people are eating. There is almost always one or two people in a group that have no interest in consuming fifteen hundred calories, but with interesting choices like baked potatoes, people are now free to diversify. It might not be as healthy as cooking at home, but most menus are now capable of serving customers in a wide variety of moods.
5. Verify Your Order Is Correct On The Screen
There’s nothing that sucks more than getting home and discovering the restaurant has fucked up the order. Given the average age and motivation level of fast food employees, winding up with extra mayo instead of no mayo or a second hash brown instead of a first bacon, egg and cheese biscuit has always been a hazard of going through the drive-thru.
Miraculously, however, the days of orders being fundamentally wrong more often than not are now over thanks to the handy dandy ordering screens that now accompany damn near every drive-thru in America. In plain, impossible to refute English, employee and customer are now both able to see the specifics of the order spelled out, giving each ample opportunity to alter and later verify everything, down to the last barbeque sauce. Do screw ups still happen? Sure. But most of us now have reason to assume we’ll open the bag and everything will be A-OK the first time.
6. Calories On The Menu
People are going to eat fast food. You’re just not going to stop them. But the truth is, fast food doesn’t have to be bad for you. Actually, it’s entirely possible to walk in to McDonalds and walk out having eaten a healthy meal. They server lower calorie, reasonable options, but until they started putting calories on the menu, you had no way to know what those options were. You might have guessed the Filet-o-Fish would be good for you, because its fish, and you would have been totally wrong.
Thanks to this modern tendency towards full disclosure you’ve got the power to actually know what it is you’re putting in your mouth, before it goes in. Now you can walk in a McDonalds, order a regular hamburger, and walk out knowing that you have not just ingested your daily allotment of calories in a single bite. Knowledge is power, and it’s not like you thought Big Macs were good for you anyway.
Disagree? Think calories on the menu are terrible? Then you'll love this: Why Calories On The Menu Are The Worst (opens in new tab).
7. Rise Of The Almost Fast Food Restaurant
You used to have two choices. You could either sit down and eat at a real restaurant with menus, servers and water refills or you could head to one of several fast food places, all of which were cheap and designed to move people in and out with ruthless efficiency. Over the last decade or so, we’ve started to get a third group, and I think I speak for everyone when I say it is glorious.
From Chipotle to Five Guys, chains have started to pop up that, while technically fast food, aren’t designed to make every single item menu as cheaply as possible. They exist in a middle ground where they fire up the food fast but they charge a few extra dollars to use tastier bread, nicer beef and better ingredients. Sure, it might take a minute or so longer. It might cost three dollars or so more, but sometimes it’s worth paying a little bit extra for quality. Life is about choices, and when it comes to fast food, it’s nicer to have more.
8. Choose Your Own Combo Size
We don’t live in a one size fits all world, and I’m not a one hunger fits all circumstances type guy. Usually, I’m good with a six inch meatball sub and a baked BBQ potato chips, but every now and again, my stomach wants a footlong chicken teriyaki with a peanut butter cookie. And why not? If I can change dishes, why the hell shouldn’t I be able to change sizes easily and efficiently?
The same general idea applies for getting a combo at a burger joint too. Usually, I only want a handful of fries. The burger is the real reason I’m there, right? But once in a blue moon, I’m actually there for the fries. So, on those special occasions, I’ll get a smaller burger and a larger fry. I’m like a mad scientist and the menu is my experiment. I want as many size options as possible, and over the last decade or so, an overwhelming majority of places have started listening.
9. Fast Food Delivery
I like pizza more than most, but sometimes you don’t want Dominoes and you don’t want to leave the house. Now you don’t have to. Fast food delivery is here and it’s growing. Jimmy Johns can drop a sub sandwich off at your house in minutes. Pita Pit can be there with a bag of chips and a Local in a flash. Even McDonalds has started testing out Big Mac delivery in certain limited areas. Fast food delivery is here to stay.
Here’s the thing about fast food: You don’t eat it for the ambiance. Nobody loves sitting in a McDonalds. It’s why so many of their newer stores have been reduced to a drivethru with a couple of tables as an afterthought. Americans love fast food more than ever, but they love eating in fast food restaurants less than ever. Here’s a way to enjoy it without even having to leave your house. It’s the perfect solution to an industry overrun with unpleasant dining experiences. Give them your money and they’ll let you stay home. What’s not to love?
10. Seasonal Promotions
One of the great things about fast food is you can, in theory, walk into any location of a restaurant in the United States, order something and have it taste exactly the same. It’s like a security blanket. No matter where I go, a Subway meatball sandwich option will be waiting for me. That’s important, but thankfully, fast food restaurants have recently started to learn that random promotions are a damn good time too. From the McRib to the Shamrock Shake to limited time avocado, it’s nice to have a reason to actually get excited about going to a fast food place within a certain window. It’s nice to know I have one month in October to get my pumpkin pie blizzard fix on before it disappears for a year.
I love a good Seasonal Promotion in the same way I love surprise bags at ModCloth (opens in new tab) or GroupOn offers. I approve of anything that gives me a limited time to make a decision about whether or not it’s worth paying a small amount of money to try something before it’s too late.
Enthusiastic about Clue, case-of-the-week mysteries, the NBA and cookies at Disney World. Less enthusiastic about the pricing structure of cable, loud noises and Tuesdays.
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