The Resurgence of the Restaurant Walk-Up Window
A former eatery function returns as a vital resource in the wake of the pandemic.
Before McDonald’s was slinging hamburgers at the drive-thru window, the restaurant was serving its (now billions-served) burger at a walk-up window. The fast-food behemoth debuted a hamburger stand in 1948 in Downey, California, which predated its drive-thrus by nearly three decades in the 1970s.
Prior to running a business squarely focused on burgers and fries, the McDonald’s brothers served slow-cooked barbecue utilizing carhops to service customers who drove into the parking lot. Upon realizing that the majority of their sales came from beef patties and understanding the importance of speed for profit, they shifted focus. “They reduced their menu to a few items and eliminated carhops, so customers had to walk up to an outside window to order their food,” explains food historian and author Andrew F. Smith in his book “Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine.”
The walk-up or take-away window was popularized throughout Southern California in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, and in recent years, especially in this time period of the pandemic, the restaurant window is making comeback.
On the famous Rose Avenue in Venice, California, American Gonzo Food Corp. (the company behind Pitfire Pizza and Superba Food + Bread) launched The Win-Dow, a casual takeaway spot producing a simple menu of items through a humble walk-up window, in April of 2019. While the company worked on its adjacent future fine-dining restaurant, American Beauty, The Win-Dow opened to rave reviews.
In late August, American Beauty debuted with a full dine-in menu of cocktails and stellar, dry-aged steaks. But almost one year to the day of The Win-Dow’s first anniversary, American Beauty shutdown along with an entire city of restaurants due to the safer-at-home order. The Win-Dow, however, thrived. It remained open for takeout and soon extended its hours from exclusively lunchtime to evening dinner service.
Fortunately, with staff in place and an existing business model for takeaway, the restaurant met the surge in demand from the community. While The Win-Dow capitalized on a system already in place, many others pivoted to putting purpose behind their walk-up windows.
Prior to the pandemic, Eater reported that a third of all sales at the only two-month-old All Day Baby on Sunset Blvd. stemmed from one section on the menu: biscuit sandwiches. When the safer-at-home order hit Los Angeles, co-owner Lien Ta had to deliver difficult news to her employees of their furlough and on March 17 hosted a one-day-only “pop-up bodega” to unload goods including half racks of smoked pork spare ribs. A few days later, with a skeleton crew, the restaurant launched a takeaway window with changing themes. Soon, the window took on a personality of its own focusing on single-subject items from the menu, beginning with those bestselling biscuit sandwiches.
Announcing the theme on Instagram, the “biscuit window” morphed into a meat lover’s window one day, a pastry-leaning window serving sticky buns and cinnamon rolls another day, and a tiki window after that. Pie, bagels and doughnuts have all been featured with the original biscuit window making reoccurring appearances throughout the weeks.
From expert barbecue at Horse Thief outside Grand Central Market, to a taquito stand called Cielito Lindo that dates back to 1934, to the newly opened Pie Life Pizza in Pasadena, walk-up windows are all around Southern California. However, the concept is no longer limited to this region and has even caught the eye of QSR operators like Chipotle, which tested its first walk-up window last December in Chicago.
The model has proven successful in a short time. Since mid-March’s official shutdown, The Win-Dow rolled out cocktails and wine along with many other walk-up takeout concepts, plus a breakfast menu, extending hours even further.
In New York, ICE alum Missy Robbins (Culinary, '95) reopened Caffe Lilia in Williamsburg this week with a morning to mid-day menu of pastries, sandwiches and gelato served through an open window, requiring mask-wearing. Bottled negroni and olive oil martinis are also available at the window, which has drawn a line since returning.
A wave of restaurants like Brodo, Dudley's and Seamore's revived the business model in recent years, with The Bowery Market debuting a collection of takeout windows, much like an outdoor food hall with crowd favorites from tacos to sushi, in 2016 in NoLita.
With timeless advantages and pandemic-driven restrictions on dining rooms, the future of the walk-up window looks bright.