10 Restaurant Innovations Changing The Way We Eat

From the first drive-through restaurant in 1948 to Instagram food pics, here are the innovations that have changed how we dine out.

10 Restaurant Innovations Changing The Way We Eat
[Illustration: Peter Oumanski]

1. Delivery, 1922

New Los Angeles Chinese restaurant Kin-Chu Cafe promises delivery until 1 a.m., one of the first instances of telephone-based food ordering.


The impact: Delivery is a $43 billion business annually in the United States, and apps such as GrubHub and Postmates offer delivery from just about any restaurant.

2. Drive-through, 1948

The first In-N-Out Burger allows drivers to order through an intercom and pick up from a window—without stepping out of the car.

The impact: With up to 70% of fast-food sales coming via the drive-through lane, even higher-end chains such as Starbucks and Chipotle have been forced to embrace the system.

3. Credit card, 1950

Diners Club becomes the first multipurpose charge card, eliminating the need for cash or a house account at upscale restaurants.

The impact: Bill-paying tech continues to evolve, with restaurateurs embracing startups that offer prepaid ticketing (Tock) or eliminate the check drop and replace it with pay-by-phone (Resy).


4. The McDonald’s system, 1955

After Ray Kroc opens the first McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines, Illinois, he institutes consistent prep methods and sets up a supply chain to ensure uniform quality while expanding rapidly.

The impact: Almost every chain since has tried to emulate its prowess; Just Salad, for one, touts its employees’ ability to toss 60 salads an hour.

5. Electronic cash register, 1973

IBM rolls out the 3650 Retail Store System, a client-server mainframe for tracking orders and inventory.

The impact: Since McDonald’s adopted computerized order entry in 1974, systems have become increasingly sophisticated; Square delivers even more power—in a tablet computer.

6. Molecular gastronomy, 1987

A microbiologist experiments with making ice cream using liquid nitrogen (rather than churning), inadvertently inventing Dippin’ Dots.


The impact: Molecular gastronomy is now mainstream; Smitten is a popular liquid-nitrogen ice cream chain; Panera and others use cooking techniques such as sous vide.

7. Internet ordering, 1994

The promise of ordering a pizza via the internet becomes a reality when Pizza Hut takes the first digital order—large pepperoni with mushrooms and extra cheese.

The impact: About half of all U.S. pizza orders are now digital, and Domino’s has usurped Pizza Hut with its pizza tracker and emoji ordering.

8. Data-driven restaurant management, 1999

Owners ran restaurants by feel until the startup Avero created software to analyze sales and inventory to reveal insights such as which servers are best at wooing customers to order dessert.

The impact: Data now rules the guest experience as well, via services such as Yelp, which has tools to manage reservations, wait times, and rewards.


9. Instagram, 2010

Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom’s first photos on the app are from San Francisco’s Tacos Chilakos stand, establishing the relationship between food and photo sharing.

The impact: Taco Bell creates products like the Quesalupa for its Instagrammable cheese pull; avocado toast sales boom because it’s pretty.

10. Robots!, 2017

Domino’s Pizza announces a test to deliver via self-driving cars. Customers grab their order from the back, no human interaction necessary.

The impact: Robots are also being deployed to make food—Chowbotics is a salad maker and Cafe X a barista—and chains such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s are rolling out self-serve order kiosks.