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What Is a Drive In Diner?

For many people, drive ins are synonymous with American culture. They've been featured in movies, inspired songs, and even been replicated at tourist attractions or theme parks. However, despite their popularity, many people have never actually been to a drive in. Below, we've created a guide that walks you through how to start your own drive in service, the benefits they offer compared to curbside delivery or takeout, and the history of drive ins.

What Is a Drive In?

A drive in diner is a restaurant that provides a parking area where guests can order from inside their car, receive service at their car window, and dine inside their vehicle. You may have also heard them referred to as a carhop service. While most traditional drive-ins were small businesses or smaller chains isolated to specific areas, chances are you’ve heard of popular chains like Sonic, Checkers, and A&W.

Though many people see them as a retro novelty, the modern concept of a drive in varies quite a bit from what it was in its heyday. Drive ins have become more accessible now than they were in the past, allowing anything from your local mom and pop diner to the most upscale restaurant in your town to start one.

How to Offer Drive In Services

If you currently own a restaurant and are looking for a new way to connect with customers and drive sales, establishing a drive in service might be right for you. However, there are several things you'll need to do to make sure your new service runs smoothly. Below, we've created a list of steps for you to follow as you start planning your new drive in service!

1. Create a Designated Drive In Dining Area

Classic Drive In Sign with Arrow

If you’re considering starting a drive in service, it’s important to set up a designated area for guests to park. Not only will this keep your customers informed on where to go, but it helps you and your staff to stay on top of who is ready to be served. Follow the steps below to organize your parking lot in a way that's drive in friendly.

  • Number specific parking spots so that servers know where each order is headed.
  • Buy or construct a sign that marks where your designated drive-in space is.
  • Make sure the area is separate from your staff parking or walk-in parking areas.
  • Provide enough space so that each car has privacy from the car next to it.
  • Consider having an employee direct drive-in guests to their spots.

2. Invest in Drive In Supplies

If you’re offering drive in services for the first time, chances are you'll need to stock up on the necessary equipment and supplies to run it properly. Dining in a car is a much different experience compared to dining in a restaurant, meaning traditional restaurant supplies won’t do. Some necessary products to buy for your drive-in include:

  • Attachable Window Serving Trays
  • Parking Lot Signs
  • To-Go Containers
  • Takeout Supplies
  • Menu Signs
  • Additional Parking Lot Lighting

3. Create a Drive In Menu

Food tray in window of car with burger and fries

Some meals that you typically sell might be too large or messy to eat in a car, so consider optimizing your menu to better suit your new drive-in! Sticking to smaller dishes or handheld foods can benefit both you and your customer. Consider featuring the following foods to create a convenient and car-friendly drive-in menu.

  • Burgers
  • Hot Dogs
  • Chicken Tenders
  • Wraps
  • French Fries
  • Milkshakes
  • Ice Cream

4. Establish a Drive In Ordering System

Since guests won’t be greeted by a host or asked to order inside the restaurant, you’ll want to make sure to establish an effective ordering system. Doing so is essential to make sure every customer gets their food on time and has access to excellent customer service. Some drive-ins have an individual menu for each designated parking space, while others might send a carhop to the car window and pass a menu through. It's also common for some drive-in services to use an intercom system for placing orders. Additionally, you can consider having guests order online, by phone, or through your app once they’ve parked.

5. Train or Hire Your Carhop Staff

A carhop is an employee who serves customers in their cars at a drive in restaurant. Because of the differences between traditional diner settings and drive ins, it's essential to point them out and make changes to your protocols for employees that will be working on the drive in side of your business. Additionally, it might be beneficial to hire more staff, as serving guests indoors and in your parking lot might put a strain on your existing employees. Consider adopting these topics into your current training protocol if you plan on starting a drive in service.

  • Clearly explain new rules, processes, and guidelines.
  • Demonstrate how to safely and efficiently transport food from the kitchen to the parking lot.
  • Show each employee how to attach window serving trays.
  • If you’re aiming for a retro aesthetic and your employees are comfortable with it, have them complete a roller skating course.

It’s important to note that while many classic drive ins featured roller-skating carhops, it’s not required that yours do the same. You can still run an effective drive in service with servers on foot.

Benefits of a Drive In Service

Food tray in window of car with milkshake and popcorn

Drive ins offer several benefits compared to curbside delivery, takeout, or drive thru services. The different layout and proximity to your business allow you to serve guests in ways you otherwise couldn't. Some of the benefits associated with drive ins include:

  • Your servers can provide guests with additional customer service.
  • Customers who dine at a drive in might consider ordering more food than they would if they were just grabbing a meal and heading home, giving you a chance to increase profits.
  • You’ll be able to serve more items from your menu. Some meals like ice cream might melt by the time it gets to your customer’s house, and dining on location eliminates that risk.
  • If your restaurant dining room is closed or must operate with limited occupancy due to pandemic restrictions, a drive in allows you to serve more customers while remaining socially distant. Additionally, increased customers allows you to employ servers who would otherwise be out of work if you remained operating at limited capacity.

History of Drive In Diners

The concept of a drive in was first popularized in 1921 by a chain of restaurants in Texas called The Pig Stand. By the 1950s, they’d become popular across the nation and were a staple of American culture. They were a common hangout spot where teens, young adults, and families could go to spend time with one another and socialize.

As time went on, highways and other infrastructure advancements made drive ins less of a focal point in the community. They were replaced with gas stations, hotels, and fast food chains that offered faster and convenient service. Save for a few chain restaurants and tourist attractions, drive ins were virtually extinct up until 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic forces restaurants to follow social distancing guidelines, drive ins have begun to make a comeback.

While some people have transitioned to curbside take out and no-contact delivery, others have begun to experiment with drive in service once again. Many business owners have found their new drive ins to be successful, leading to some considering making them a permanent part of their restaurant going forward. Follow the guidelines listed above if you plan on starting your own drive in service.

By Jason Kurtz
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