Remember the White Tower chain of hamburger joints? These small shops were set up so that the customer could watch a blob of hamburger smashed to a small pancake size, quickly cooked mass, and served up in a matter of minutes. The first store began in Wichita in 1916, but they quickly spread across the U.S.

These tiny white huts were the forerunners to the McDonald brothers, who opened shop in 1948 to show us how a high speed hamburger should be done—quickly and tastelessly. It was followed by Burger King and Wendys, and now many others, all seeing how fast they can get us to buy, devour and pay for a hamburger—or chicken sandwich, pizza, taco, donut or cup of coffee. We have become the Olympic champions of fast food and drive-thrus.

Americans don’t like to wait—now even medium-class restaurants have little monitors on the tables so you can order (and pay for) your meal by touching a picture of your food choice on the screen. A few years ago touchscreens were unheard of, but now they are everywhere. At church, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a scanner passed down the aisle instead of the collection plate. I understand that there are ways of using your credit cards in some churches. We also have on-line giving so that the church of our choice doesn’t have to worry about fewer contributions when half of the congregation is away on vacation.

The idea of drive-thrus was born sometime in the 1930s and the speaker systems were added about 20 years later. There are now two lanes at most fast food drive-thrus, with some discussion about the etiquette of who goes first to the pay window. Apparently it is the guy with the biggest pick-up or SUV.

The value of a drive-thru is that you don’t have to interact with a person—just a voice, and you can sit and look at your i-phone and text, with no one to bother you with real conversation. However, drive-thrus are not always fast, because everyone wants to be fast, and only so many people can be fast at once. If there are more than five cars in line, it is better to go inside. It keeps the ketchup and crumbs on the table rather than on your car seat too.

Gas stations started in Pittsburg a century ago and they used to provide full service: check your oil and gas and wash your windshield. Now, except for Oregon and New Jersey, where they are illegal, drive-thrus are self-serve and ubiquitous. The management gets the best of two worlds: they don’t have to handle cash and you do all the work. Supposedly, this makes the product cost less for the customer and provides more cash for the proprietor.

ATMs are everywhere too, especially at mom and pop shops or gas stations where they sell lottery tickets. You may have to go in the shop to get your tickets, but you won’t have to worry about cash. Some stores now ask if you want “cash back”, meaning they will give you up to $200 and add it to your grocery bill. Another kind of ATM, a little bank at the till.

I have been confused at the aisles that say “self-checkout” because you have to scan items and put them on a scale, put your cash or credit card into a slot and then wait for a receipt. Apparently, this is also the easiest way to steal something—in the UK a study showed that one third of the customers tried to cheat the system and many were successful. A new kind of shoplifting has come on the scene, not the old kind of putting on three shirts on at the fitting room and trying to pay for one. There are electronic monitoring devices that catch some. But when the customer acts like a cashier,  there is plenty of opportunity for cheating, and my Wikipedia source says that by 2019 there will be 325,000 self-checkout units around the world.

Companies save money by not providing clerks and customers save money by buying on line and forgetting about the clerks. My wife buys a lot of stuff on line and they often provide free shipping and return labels, knowing that a lot of merchandise has to be re-shelved.

There are other ways to save money in food service: cafeterias do not provide table service and want you to mop up your mess and put away your trays of junk at the end of the meal. Buffets are better for the indigent because they often let the customers eat all they can. But they can be unhealthy as well, with people sneezing and coughing their way around the food counters. The Chinese eateries seem to like buffets, but not the Japanese, who have conveyor belt sushi’s where the bill is added up on the basis of how many plates you take and their color.

Travel on a toll road and you don’t even have to stop. Cameras will click your license plate and the bill will be sent in the mail, or you can purchase a toll sticker for the window of your car.

At one time there was service at the airports. Now you check your own luggage, use a touchscreen to debit your card if there is any overweight, and have your ticket barcode scanned upon entering the plane. And, of course, nothing is free—airlines are now even charging the customer for luggage stored overhead or for blankets and pillows. No free lunch either—not even pretzels or peanuts.

We used to enjoy talking to our doctor. He is still there but his computer records everything, which we can then read later. He listens to our heart to make sure we are alive but mainly he asks questions and types in our answers. We can read our “portal” later to see if we agree.

There is still some interaction possible at the ballpark. Venders sell their hotdogs, nachos, peanuts, popcorn, soda and beer. But you better have a wad of bills ready—a hot dog, which turns out to be somewhat cold, can cost you five dollars. And they don’t take credit cards.

March 2017
Waco, Texas