The profound economic, urban and social changes of the 20th century resulted in people eating their meals more and more often outside the home. A new style of restaurant appeared, offering simple dishes that were prepared quickly and presented with minimal service, thereby changing people’s eating habits. This concept marked the beginning of fast food, and a whole new style of eating out. It emerged in the United States during the interwar period, a time when cars became more affordable. Hot dog stands sprang up along main roads, as did drive-in restaurants, where waitresses brought the food directly to customers’ cars.
In the late 1940s, to increase efficiency, the McDonald brothers developed a new, faster and cheaper method for preparing food. They removed two thirds of the meals from their menu, along with crockery and cutlery, keeping only hamburgers, cheeseburgers and chips served on cardboard plates. They used the same seasoning on all the hamburgers (ketchup, onions, mustard, gherkins), no longer requiring the skills of specialised chefs, and assigned a specific task to each employee. Finally, customers were no longer served at the table but queued to place their order. Once an order was placed, one employee was in charge of grilling the hamburgers, a second wrapped them, a third prepared the drinks, a fourth cooked the chips while a fifth took the customer’s payment.
For the first time ever, the principles of an industrial assembly line were applied to a restaurant kitchen. This system revolutionised the restaurant industry and was embraced by other fast food chains (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Burger King, etc.). The major chains secured the loyalty of their customers with huge advertising campaigns, special offers and sponsoring. Once successfully established in the United States, in the late 1950s, the major chains began to export the concept across the world.
Despite their success, fast food chains draw considerable criticism. Accusations focus on employees’ low wages, certain health problems possibly caused by the chains’ products, the use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the environmental impact of meat production and packaging waste.