The owner of the Pig Stand, a local restaurant in Dallas, Texas, purportedly began serving his customers in their cars because he believed that they were too lazy to come inside. Perhaps the first truly dedicated drive-in restaurant in America, the Pig Stand opened in 1921.
As more automobiles appeared on America’s roads, the restaurant business changed to meet the needs of a new mobile class of citizen. Soda fountain operators began offering curb service for customers by 1910. Motorists simply stopped in front of their stores, honked their horns, and soda fountain employees called curbies rushed out to take orders and deliver them.
When drive-ins developed in the 1920s, orders were taken and food was subsequently delivered on trays, and customers ate in their cars.
In small drive-ins, the cook might also perform these functions, but as drive-ins became more popular, boys and girls were hired to act as servers. They were variously called tray boys, tray girls, or tray trotters because they carried trays to the cars. At first, the tray was simply handed in through the car window, to be placed on the customer’s lap.
Sometimes people drove off with the trays, and a lap tray was hardly convenient for the driver, so new trays were developed that fastened to the outside of the car.
By the 1930s, the name changed to carhops, which purportedly referred to their practice of hopping up on cars’ running boards. Carhops usually had their own entrance to the kitchen so they would not walk through restaurant seating areas. Other restaurants had their own kitchens and diff erent menus for carhops. By the 1930s, young women (usually pretty) were selected to be carhops, and they were required to wear outlandish costumes, such as those that made them look like cheerleaders or majorettes-complete with boots, short skirts, and unusual hats. Others dressed in costumes that were themed to the drive-in, such as cowgirls or kilted Scottish lasses. Carhops occasionally navigated around drive-ins on roller skates. Because they earned their money from tips and small commissions on each item they sold, carhops were especially solicitous of their customers.
In February, 1940, the cover of Life magazine featured Jeanette Hall, a shapely teenager who was a carhop at Prince’s restaurant in Texas. She had been selected Carhop of the Year. Dressed as a majorette with epaulets, a plumed hat, and cowboy boots, she glamorized the carhop’s job.
After World War II, an enterprising Milwaukee drive-in operator gave carhops walkie-talkies, which increased the number of orders carhops could handle and decreased the number of carhops needed.
The heyday of the carhop lasted from the 1930s to the mid-1950s. Carhops were featured in the 1973 film American Graffiti. Filmmaker George Lucas heard that the original Mel’s Drive-in in San Francisco was to be demolished, so he leased the site for filming. In the film, carhops skated around the parking lot, picking up orders and flirting. By the time movie premiered, Mel’s Drive-in had been demolished.
The carhop era began to fade in 1948, when Maurice and Richard McDonald designed a fast food restaurant that did not need carhops. The McDonald brothers figured that carhops were more interested in flirting than in selling food, and that teenage boys, who were attracted to the carhops, kept away more desirable customers-suburban families. The McDonald ‘ s self-service model required that patrons leave their cars, pick up their own orders, carry them back to their cars, and dispose of their own garbage – a practice that was soon made obsolete by the drive-thru service, which began appearing in America as early as the mid-1960s.