New York (CNN Business) For decades, bright, playful, and oddly shaped fast food restaurants have dotted the roadside along America’s highways.
You would pass Howard Johnson’s with its orange roofs and then pass the red shacks of Pizza Hut. A few more miles and there was the white castle by the roadside with its turrets. Arby’s roof was shaped like a wagon and Denny’s was like a boomerang. And then McDonald’s, with its neon gold arches dominating its restaurants.
These original designs were an early form of brand advertising, gimmicks meant to grab drivers’ attention and trick them into stopping.
As fast food chains spread across the United States after World War II, new brands of roadside restaurants were to stand out. Television was a new medium that was not yet in every home, newspapers were still booming, and social media was unimaginable.
Restaurant chains have therefore turned to architecture as a key tool to promote their brand and help create their corporate identity.
But today’s fast food architecture has lost its quirky charm and quirkiness. Changes in the restaurant industry, advertising and technology have made fast food exteriors bland and spiritless, critics say.
Farewell to bright colors and unusual shapes. Today, the design is minimal and elegant. Most fast food restaurants are built to maximize efficiency, not to attract the attention of motorists. Many are box-shaped, decorated with faux woodwork, faux stone or brick exteriors, and flat roofs. One reviewer called the trend “fake five-star restaurants” meant to trick customers into forgetting they’re eating greasy fries and burgers.
Chains now sport almost identical looks. Call it the gentrification of fast food design.
“They’re soulless little boxes,” said Glen Coben, an architect who has designed boutique hotels, restaurants and shops. “They’re like Monopoly houses.”
Fast food restaurants grew and expanded in the mid-twentieth century with the explosion of car culture and the development of interstate highways.
According to John Jakle, author of “Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Age of the Automobile.”
Fast food chain buildings were designed to catch the attention of potential customers passing by at high speed and slow them down.
“Buildings had to be visually strong and bold,” said Alan Hess, architecture critic and historian. “That included the neon signs and the shape of the building.”
A prime example: the design of McDonald’s, with its two sloping golden arches on the roof of its restaurant, a style known as Googie.
Introduced to California in 1953, McDonald’s design was influenced by the state-of-the-art cafes and roadside stands of Southern California, then the heartland of budding fast-food chains.
The two 25-foot bright yellow tin arches that rose through the McDonald’s buildings were tall enough to draw drivers amid the clutter of other roadside buildings, their neon trimmings glowing day and night. McDonald’s design sparked a wave of similar Googie-style architecture in fast-food chains nationwide.
Until the 1970s, the designs were a prominent feature of the American roadside, “imprinting the image of fast food drive-thru architecture into the popular consciousness”, Hess wrote in a journal article.
But there was a backlash to this aesthetic. As the environmental movement grew in the 1960s, opposition to the prominent Googie style grew. Critics called it “visual pollution”.
“Critics hated this populist, commercial California roadside architecture,” Hess said. The Googie style fell into disuse in the 1970s, with the fast-food style favoring dark colors, brick and mansard roofs.
McDonald’s new prototype became a low-profile mansard roof and brick design with a shingle texture. Its arches rose from the top of the building to signage and became the McDonald’s corporate logo.
“McDonald’s and Jack in the Box unfurled their neon and Day Glo banners and architectural containers against the endless sky,” The New York Times said in 1978. They were “dimmed by the changing taste of the 60s and 70s” . And with the growth of mass communication advertising campaigns, brands no longer relied on architectural features to stand out – they could simply flood the airwaves.
Fast food goes upmarket
In the 1980s and 1990s, companies began introducing children’s play areas and party rooms to attract families — additions to existing “brown” structures, Hess said.
The rise of mobile ordering and cost concerns have since changed the modern take on fast food.
With fewer people seated for full meals at fast-food restaurants, businesses didn’t need elaborate dining rooms. So today, they’re expanding drive-thru lanes, increasing the number of pick-up kiosks, and adding digital kiosks in stores.
“We have a lot of restaurants with red roofs” that clearly “need to go,” a Pizza Hut executive said in 2018 of its classic design. The company’s new prototype, “Hut Lanes,” is helping to speed up wait times at drive-thru locations.
New fast food box designs with their flat roofs are more efficient at heating and cooling than older structures, said restaurant consultant John Gordon. Kitchens have been reconfigured to speed up food preparation. They are also cheaper to build, maintain, and staff a small store.
But in the effort to modernize, some say fast food design has become homogenized and lost its creative purpose.
“I don’t know if you would be able to identify what they were if they had a different name on the front,” said Addison Del Mastro, an urban writer who documents the history of commercial landscapes. “There is nothing to engage the wandering imagination.”