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Fort Huachuca soldiers inspired first McDonald's drive-thru nearly 50 years ago

Sierra Vista honors history of first McDonald's drive-thru in the country
Posted: 3:21 PM, Feb 13, 2023
Updated: 2023-02-13 17:21:24-05
McDonald's in Sierra Vista

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. (KGUN) — We take it for granted. We pull up to the drive-thru at McDonald's to get a Quarter Pounder with cheese and French fries. All without ever getting out of our car.

It happens thousands of times a day at more than 13,000 McDonald's nationwide.

That convenience is only possible because of a Sierra Vista entrepreneur. He launched the first McDonald's drive-thru in the country.

"What, in Sierra Vista?" said LeAnn Richards. "No, thinking it'd be some large metropolitan area. No, it's us."

Richards is the current owner of the Sierra Vista McDonald's that boasts the distinction of having the fast food chain's first drive-thru.

"Who would have thought in this small little town in Southern Arizona, we have this notoriety," added Richards.

So why was the McDonald's, ironically located on Fry Boulevard, the first? We have to go back to January of 1975.

According to theMcDonald's Corporation website, owner David Rich had to solve a problem. Regulations at nearby Fort Huachuca wouldn't allow soldiers to go into a restaurant off-post while wearing their fatigues. But they could drive through.

So on January 24, 1975, the first McDonald's drive-thru opened, with a menu board, a Ronald McDonald statue with a speaker and microphone, and a sliding glass window.

First McDonald's drive thru menu board with Ronald McDonald

"It's not like it was the first drive-thru in the whole wide world," explained Richards. "So they knew, but this was the impetus to say 'we're going to lose half our business if we don't figure something out'."

First McDonald's drive thru on opening day

The post commander and his daughter were the first in line the day it opened. Business took off.

First McDonald's drive thru opening day line of cars

In 1989, Richards and her family purchase the McDonald's.

By 1999, they were forced to tear down the original outdated building, and construct a new McDonald's just feet away.

"I don't know if I'm notorious now because I tore down the first McDonald's with a drive-thru," Richards said. "But we kept all of the relevant information— Ronald, pictures. He is the original. You can see him in the pictures."

Original Ronlad McDonald still on display

"This is critical to this restaurant. That statue and those pictures are history you won't find anywhere else."

Actually, there's one more part of that history, tucked away at the Henry F. Hauser Museum in Sierra Vista: The original drive-thru window, salvaged as they were tearing down the building in 1999.

First McDonald's drive-thru window.jpg

Patrick Arbenz bought it as a gift for his daughter Debbie, who used to work in that drive-thru window. It has since been gifted to the local museum.

"It's our little claim to fame," said Elizabeth Wrozek, Henry F. Hauser Museum Curator. "We do have people who stop in, just kind of driving through. It's a fun roadside attraction, just to pop in and see this."

Back at the modern McDonald's, Richards says the drive-thru now accounts for 80% of her business, with about 1,000 cars going through each day.

There's another important thing has changed since 1975—the prices. Then, it cost 30 cents for a hamburger. The old McDonald's slogan ”A hamburger, fries and a drink, and change back from your dollar.”

"Times have changed," joked Richards. "Now you can get change back from five or ten."

Prices have changed over time. Even the first actual McDonald's drive-thru is different. But the history lives on in Sierra Vista, along Fry Boulevard.

McDonald's drive thru today in Sierra Vista

"It's really fun to be part of history, and to keep it alive, to not let it die and let people remember where," said Richards. "For tiny Sierra Vista it's a nice little claim to fame."

And a nice little piece of Absolutely Arizona history.

The Hauser Museum in Sierra Vista hopes to showcase the drive-thru window soon with a larger display of its own.

Richards now owns 12, soon to be 13, McDonald's restaurants in Southern Arizona.

Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.