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24-hour service that isn't: the drive-thru dilemma

To expats from Western Europe, one of the most visible and convenient displays of American capitalism is the array of services available every day of every week, late into the evening, and in select cases, absolutely whenever one's heart fancies (like a pair of tube socks from a Super Wal-Mart at three in the morning).

Photo by Bruce Bottomley on Flickr.

Indeed, many other western nations sharply regulate business hours on a national level. Most stores must to close by a set time, such as six or seven in the evening, with no Sunday shopping. European lawmakers justify this in two ways. First, they argue that no employee should be forced (or, perhaps, allowed) to work at "undesirable" hours. And second, they say that smaller mom-and-pop stores can't afford to stay open late or on weekends; permitting superstores to do so would put those independent haberdashers and bodegas out of business.

America generally knows no such boundaries, and so we have at our overnight disposal, variously, 10 pm treadmill runs at the gym, 2 am iPods at Apple on 5th Avenue, and 4 am Caramellos at the corner 7-Eleven.

A casual walk down a commercial street in virtually any local neighborhood will reveal numerous fast food restaurants seemingly open "late-nite" or "24-hours". But on closer inspection, in virtually every case outside of DC's French Quarter, Adams Morgan, only the drive-thrus serve late night patrons, and then only those in motorized vehicles (sorry cyclists).

For whatever reason, whether it's a desire to keep the dining rooms tidy or to protect cashiers from those would-be lawbreakers who are seemingly more dangerous on foot than in a car, late-night food seekers are forced to get behind the wheel, even if they live directly adjacent to such a restaurant.

Without going into the community merits (or lack thereof) of the availability of the 3 am Chalupa, sampling such a tantalizing offering requires residents to drive, rather than walk. That's often when they're in their least effective, and even possibly intoxicated, states, posing considerable risk to their and others' lives.

I propose we require parity in the treatment of pedestrians and drivers, where such service would not serve as an unreasonable burden on the business. I suggested such to an Arlington County Supervisor, who found the concept novel and worth an investigation.

Unfortunately, in Virginia at least, except for liquor laws, most localities may regulate operating hours only through zoning. As a result, once an establishment has opened for business, the municipality can't impose any new operating-hour regulation. The business is "grandfathered" into its use under the original zoning regulations, even if they are later amended. It might be easier in Washington or Maryland.

Arlington changed their zoning laws in 1998 to prohibit new drive-thrus, except by a "special exception" at the discretion of the governing body. In the future, if any new establishment wanted to open a drive-thru, the negotiation over the necessary permission would let the County to include conditions of pedestrian parity for approval.

Until then, I guess I'll have to take a taxi 200 feet for my late-night fix. Or not.

Joey Katzen is an entrepreneur and attorney who previously lived in Arlington, Virginia. A native of the Commonwealth, he hopes our public and private sectors can work together to continue transforming each of our neighborhoods into attractive places we can be proud of. 


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Or maybe the whole MC=MR thing in business, ya know?

Maybe it's just the case that the economic costs of keeping the dining room open past X o'clock are higher than the revenues generated in that period.

by Economic Geography on Dec 31, 2008 11:05 am • linkreport

I've never even heard of such a thing. Surely they have a walk-up window too.

by Mike on Dec 31, 2008 11:36 am • linkreport

It's not the fact that the dining room is closed that's the issue. It's that they won't serve a paying customer unless they are operating a multi-ton heavy machine. Would a walk-up window change your MC-MR formula vs. a drive-up window?

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 11:44 am • linkreport

I'd bet that allowing pedestrians to use the drive-through window opens up the owner to a lot of liability. So in that case, yes, it would change the marginal cost.

by Dan on Dec 31, 2008 12:17 pm • linkreport

Follow the "sorry cyclists" link - it makes it clear that there is no walk-up/bike-up window and if you approach the Sacred Auto Only Zone of the drive-through without a car, you will be chased away angrily "for your own safety."

by Erica on Dec 31, 2008 12:19 pm • linkreport

then how about having a walk-up window right next to the drive-up?

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 12:20 pm • linkreport

Are you seriously getting turned down when you walk up to the drive-through? That kind of contradicts my own life experience, which is that (1) the people who want their fast food at 2 am tend to be either 15 years old or drunk, (2) the people who work these shifts will do anything to avoid getting into a fight with their customers.

by tom veil on Dec 31, 2008 12:31 pm • linkreport

@Tom Veil - I can certainly attest that the now closed Taco Bell on Wilson refused to take walkups. And yes, drunks did get hail cabs specifically to go through the drive thru.

by FourthandEye on Dec 31, 2008 12:36 pm • linkreport

Maybe this is something you should take up with the businesses themselves. Then maybe the chamber of commerce or BBB. Going right to municipal government to demand regulation of how they do business is a little disproportionate, doncha think?

by NAB on Dec 31, 2008 1:21 pm • linkreport

Restaurants are rarely if ever robbed by someone in a car in a drive thru. The logistics make it hard to do, and the vehicle makes for an easy identification of 'the perp'.

They are frequently robbed by people on foot (yes, even in drive-thrus and walk-ups).

Having worked fast food drive-thrus all through high school and college, I can tell you that's exactly why we didn't allow walk-ups.

It makes sense, then, that they'd be shy about serving someone on foot late at night.

That's the far more common-sense answer (sorry, anti-car conspiracy people).

by Hillman on Dec 31, 2008 2:50 pm • linkreport

I ran into this situation years ago visiting a Wendy's drive thru late at night that was only 1/8 or 1/4 mile from a friend I was visiting, and figured, why drive when I can walk that short distance?

I have been told that its due to insurance company regulations.

The answer would be a re-design with a walk up window at a right angle to the front, hence avoiding placing pedestrians in the drive through path.

by Douglas Willinger on Dec 31, 2008 3:38 pm • linkreport

An online friend of mine was back from Iraq and recovering in Walter Reed. He was well enough for a driving tour of Washington, and as he was a cop when not activated to the Reserves, I figured I'd just blow past the usual touristy spots in a hurry, and show him some of the gritty and ugly sides of town. Generally speaking, we had a great time -- part of which led to the observation that "it doesn't matter what town you're in, the dump looks like the dump" -- but what caused him to erupt in gales of laughter was the sign on the door at a Prince George's liquor store:

"Door closed. Drive through only, after midnight".

by Thoms Hardman on Jan 4, 2009 10:45 am • linkreport

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