Issue Five | Fast Food

A hundred years ago, in Wichita, Kansas, a revolution began: fast food. And a hundred years later, the industry looks a lot different… literally! In this post, I’m digging into why your favorite chain restaurants so often and suddenly change their looks.

Issue Five | Fast Food

A hundred years ago, in Wichita, Kansas, a revolution began. It wasn't political or religious or ideological — though some would argue its influence on global economics would suggest otherwise. It was technical, commercial, and gave way to an entirely new way Americans (and later, the entire world) would look at the dining experience.

In 1921, fast food was born. And in the tiny town in Kansas stood a white building churning out burgers like a factory line in prestine uniformity and cleanliness. That building was White Castle.

It's uh... it's a White Castle. Image from White Castle.

Now don't worry. I'm not going to give you a history lesson in fast food. There's a handful of books and documentaries out there for that already.

But fast food joints all have something in common aside from the "Chicken Wars" and offering mountains of calories on the cheap.

Between their inception in the form of walk-ups or drive-thrus and the pandemic, quick service restaurants more often than not offered a dining room for people to sit, eat, and loiter. It's these dining rooms that have my attention.

A trip down memory lane

Do you remember your first time walking into a McDonald's or Taco Bell or Burger King as a kid? Depending on your age and where you lived, you might recall the purple and turquoise aesthetic or the beige tile and hanging houseplants. If you were one of the lucky ones, you can recall themed seats that looked like cartoon characters or even a play place.

The colorful seats of a bygone McDonalds era. Image from Grand Rapicd Chari Co.
Taco bell, back when it was cool. God I can smell this photo. Image from Reddit.
A very liminal looking Burger King. Image from Reddit.

The aesthetics of the era evoke memories of bowl cuts, the smell of Hi-C Orange, and a persistent stickiness that would never fully go away.

Nowadays, those stale aesthetics have made way for more modern trends. Houseplant fixtures are replaced by edison bulbs. Purple and turquoise are replaced by blacks and golds and light wood-tones. In some places, long lines at the counter are replaced by touchscreen kiosks, further pushing the illusion of futurism in these businesses.

But have you ever asked why these places of any changed after so many years? It's not like Applebees has stepped away from their iconic shit-on-the-walls style. No fancy, Michelline-starred restuarant is aching to get a makeover.

Why fast food? As it turns out, there may be an actual, scientific reason behind this rule of change.

Gray Matters

In 2006, Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Düzel — researchers from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London — published a paper that highlighted an area of our brain that activates when we are presented with something novel and new. This area, called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), plays a role in the reward system of our brains. We get this sense of satisfaction when we experience something "new".

Meanwhile, there is an obsession with giving people this sensation of "new" in the world of media and marketing. We're taught the best methods to grab a person's attention. Copywriters do it with good ledes and headlines. Art directors do it with colors and shapes. Ads do it with fancy, staged shots.

But if we're being real, there's nothing really "new" about fast food. It is, mechanically, the same thing it has been for the past hundred years. Approach by foot or car or bike, order, eat, leave. Repeat one to three times per week.

Therefore, there is a desperate fight to stay relevant and modern. Players like Taco Bell do it with wild experimentations like a chicken sandwich taco. McDonalds does it with seasonal callbacks like the McRib or the Shamrock Shake or Monopoly. But even that isn't enough. It still tastes the same as their regular menu.

So when you can't update your food in the same way a formal, sit-down restuarant or bistro does, how do you manage to keep people interested? You change the building itself. Especially the dining room.

"It’s become an industry standard to regularly rethink the branding and design of fast-food restaurants. Consultants suggest that stores undergo a refresh every three to five years—new paint, light fixtures, menu boards, floor treatments, and so on. Every 10 years, they recommend a full-on redesign: tearing out seats, updating exterior architectural elements, maybe even scrapping the whole structure and building up from the foundation." — Nate Burg, Curbed: "How fast-food chains are using design to go local".

While some places never caught the memo (ahem, In-N Out), nearly every fast food chain has changed the style and look of their restaurant interiors and dining rooms in the past 10, hell... five years. I'd love to walk into a Taco Bell with their 90s neon colored, viynl-wrapped, hard foam booths. But instead, I'm greeted with brushed steel and faux-industrialism.

From the same Curbed article: “If things stick around too long, it becomes wallpaper,” says Mark Moeller, of the restaurant development consultancy the Recipe of Success. “We all get bored with wallpaper after a while.”

So what's the fast food future?

The future of fast food will be no different. The pattern of change will continue, if it hasn't already. In Minnesota, for example, soon exists the first Taco Bell that is purely drive-thru and mobile ordering. There is no human interaction whatsoever.

The dining room for this Taco Bell is as dated as your 98 Corolla allows. Image from Taco Bell.

Likewise, pandemic-era plastic dividers between mass populus and essential worker aren't planning to go anywhere. In the next few years, we may see more functional change in restaurants rather than just aesthetic change.

I'll leave you with more photos of fast food joints from the past, just to make you feel old.