Although fast-food restaurants are often viewed as a representation of a day by day family outing, the concept of "ready-cooked food to go" is as old as cities themselves; unique variations are historical in various cultures. Ancient Roman cities had bread-and-olive stands, East Asian cultures feature noodle shops. Flat bread and falafel are ubiquitous in the Middle East. Popular Indian "fast" food delicacies include Vada pav, Papri Chaat, Bhelpuri, Panipuri and Dahi Vada. In the French-speaking nations of West Africa, meanwhile, roadside stands in and around the larger cities continue to sell- as they have done for generations- a range of ready-to-eat, chargrilled meat sticks known locally as "brochettes" (not to be confused with the bread snack of the same name found in Europe).
The modern history of fast-food in the United States of America began on 7 July 1912 with the opening of a fast food restaurant called the Automat, a cafeteria with its prepared foods behind small glass windows and coin-operated slots, in New York City, created a sensation. Numerous Automat restaurants were quickly built around the country to deal with the demand. Automats remained extremely popular throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The company also popularized the notion of “take-out” food, with their slogan “Less work for Mother”. The American company White Castle is generally credited with opening the second fast-food outlet in Wichita, Kansas in 1921, selling hamburgers for five cents apiece. Among its innovations, the company allowed customers to see the food being prepared. White Castle later added five holes to each beef patty to increase its surface area and speed cooking times. White Castle was successful from its inception and spawned numerous competitors.
McDonald's, the largest fast-food chain in the world and the brand most associated with the term "fast food," was founded as a barbecue drive-in in 1940 by Dick and Mac McDonald. After discovering that most of their profits came from hamburgers, the brothers closed their restaurant for three months and reopened it in 1948 as a walk-up stand offering a simple menu of hamburgers, french fries, shakes, coffee, and Coca-Cola, served in disposable paper wrapping. As a result, they were able to produce hamburgers and fries constantly, without waiting for customer orders, and could serve them immediately; hamburgers cost 15 cents, about half the price at a typical diner. Their streamlined production method, which they named the "Speedee Service System" was influenced by the production line innovations of Henry Ford. The McDonalds' stand was the milkshake machine company's biggest customer and a milkshake salesman named Ray Kroc travelled to California to discover the secret to their high-volume burger-and-shake operation. Kroc thought he could expand their concept, eventually buying the McDonalds' operation outright in 1961 with the goal of making cheap, ready-to-go hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes a nationwide business.
Kroc was the mastermind behind the rise of McDonald's as a national chain. The first part of his plan was to promote cleanliness in his restaurants. Kroc often took part at his own Des Plaines, Illinois, outlet by hosing down the garbage cans and scraping gum off the cement. Kroc also added great swaths of glass which enabled the customer to view the food preparation. This was very important to the American public which became quite germ conscious. A clean atmosphere was only part of Kroc's grander plan which separated McDonald's from the rest of the competition and attributes to their great success. Kroc envisioned making his restaurants appeal to families of suburbs.
Fast-food outlets are take-away or take-out providers, often with a "drive-thru" service which allows customers to order and pick up food from their cars; but most also have a seating area in which customers can eat the food on the premises.
Nearly from its inception, fast food has been designed to be eaten "on the go" and often does not require traditional cutlery and is eaten as a finger food. Common menu items at fast food outlets include fish and chips, sandwiches, pitas, hamburgers, fried chicken, french fries, chicken nuggets, tacos, pizza, and ice cream, although many fast-food restaurants offer "slower" foods like chili, mashed potatoes, and salads.
Traditional retail outlets
Many petrol/gas stations have convenience stores which sell pre-packed sandwiches, donuts, and hot food. Many gas stations in the United States also sell frozen foods and have microwaves on the premises in which to prepare them.
Supermarkets often include their own cafes with prepared food service counters. Many markets prepare baked or rotisserie chickens due to the low cost of fowl and ease of preparation. Some, like ASDA and Wal-Mart may even include a well-known fast food chain within their own store, such as McDonald's or Subway.
Street vendors and concessions
Traditional street food is available around the world, usually from small operators and independent vendors operating from a cart, table, or portable grill. Common examples include Vietnamese noodle vendors, Middle Eastern falafel stands and New York City hot dog carts. Commonly, street vendors provide a colorful and varying range of options designed to quickly captivate passers-by and attract as much attention as possible.
Depending on the locale, multiple street vendors may specialize in specific types of food characteristic of a given cultural or ethnic tradition. In some cultures, it is typical for street vendors to call out prices, sing or chant sales-pitches, play music, or engage in other forms of "street theatrics" in order to engage prospective customers. In some cases, this can garner more attention than the food itself; some vendors represent another form of tourist attraction.
The common preparation practice for small vendors consists of serving a few basic ingredients and toppings that can be cooked in batches and served quickly on the spot.
Modern commercial fast food is often highly processed and prepared in an industrial fashion, i.e., on a large scale with standard ingredients and standardised cooking and production methods. It is usually rapidly served in cartons or bags or in a plastic wrapping, in a fashion which minimizes cost. In most fast food operations, menu items are generally made from processed ingredients prepared at a central supply facility and then shipped to individual outlets where they are reheated, cooked (usually by microwave or deep-frying) or assembled in a short amount of time. This process ensures a consistent level of product quality, and is key to being able to deliver the order quickly to the customer and eliminate labor and equipment costs in the individual stores.
Because of commercial emphasis on speed, uniformity and low cost, fast food products are often made with ingredients formulated to achieve a certain flavor or consistency and to preserve freshness. Hydrogenated vegetable oils are pumped into fast foods which contain high amounts of trans fat. This requires a high degree of food engineering, the use of additives and processing techniques substantially alter the food from its original form and reduce its nutritional value.
Although fast food often brings to mind traditional American fast food such as hamburgers and fries, and this is indeed the most popular form in most Western countries, there are many other forms of fast food that enjoy widespread popularity in the West.
Chinese takeaways/takeout restaurants are particularly popular. They normally offer a wide variety of Asian food (not always Chinese), which has normally been fried. Most options are some form of noodles, rice, or meat. In some cases, the food is presented as a smorgasbord, sometimes self-service. The customer chooses the size of the container they wish to buy, and then is free to fill it with their choice of food. It is common to combine several options in one container, and some outlets charge by weight rather than by item. Many of these restaurants offer free delivery for purchases over a minimum amount.
Sushi has seen rapidly rising popularity in recent times. A form of fast food created in Japan (where obento is the Japanese equivalent of fast food), sushi is normally cold sticky rice served with raw fish. The most popular kind in the West is rolls of rice in nori (dried seaweed), with filling. The filling often includes fish, chicken or cucumber.
The Subway chain has had a major impact on the fast food industry, by showing that food can be mass produced in the American manner without compromising taste or nutritional value. Consequently Subway has marketed itself as a healthy alternative to other fast food chains, and has been largely successful in this. Many other chains (especially McDonalds) have altered their menus to include healthier options in order to prevent loss of customers.
Kebab houses are a form of fast food restaurant from the Middle East, especially Turkey and Lebanon. Meat (or falafel) is shaven from a rotisserie, and is served on a warmed tortilla with salad and a choice of sauce and dressing. These doner kebabs are distinct from shishkebabs served on sticks.
Fish and chip shops are a form of fast food popular in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Fish is battered and then deep fried.
In the United States alone, consumers spent about US$110 billion on fast food in 2000 (which increased from US$6 billion in 1970). The National Restaurant Association forecasts that fast-food restaurants in the U.S. will reach US$142 billion in sales in 2006, a 5% increase over 2005. In comparison, the full-service restaurant segment of the food industry is expected to generate $173 billion in sales. Fast food has been losing market share to so-called fast casual restaurants, which offer more robust and expensive cuisines.
Criticism and alternatives
Fast-food chains have come under fire from consumer groups (such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a longtime fast-food critic) over the past decade. Some of the concerns have led to the rise of the Slow Food movement. This movement seeks to preserve local cuisines and ingredients, and directly opposes laws and habits that favor fast-food choices. Among other things, it strives to educate consumers' palates to prefer what it considers richer, more varied, and more nourishing tastes of fresh local ingredients harvested in season.