In the late 50-s - mid 60's:
For a start, the fries were always (or most places, from what I recall) fresh cut and were typically twice fried in a solid shortening product (lard?). Unlike today's fries, they were VERY tasty / enjoyable, albeit probably not all that healthy. (Then again, is there anything healthy about today's fries? or enjoyable for that matter?) Most orders were for an equal number of small fries & burgers - no large items other than soft drinks & coffee (12 & 16 oz). People were a LOT THINNER back then.
A second biggest difference was that there were no breakfast items and supper time was the primary busy time. Today, it seems lunch time is the most popular. Evening lines were MUCH longer. I recall still my first night working fast food (Howdy Beefburgers - owned by Dunkin Donuts) where all I did was pour soft drinks constantly for two hours - it was that busy. It would not be uncommon to have four lines, 20-30 customers deep on each on Friday & Saturday nights. It was equally busy for the fry man & two on the grill - constant use of two cooking fryers (plus two blanching fryers) & the grill. Since the fries could not be cut up fast enough, they would start blanching inventory in the afternoon and building an inventory of baskets in a walk-in refrigerator to help with the evening rush. Business seemed to be essentially non stop from about 5:30 - 8:00.
A third big difference was in the help. Most, if not all, were college males - few, if any females and few, if any trying to make a living there. Pay was minimum wage (almost all part time) where the manager would get 10-20 cents / hr premium. The math was done primarily in one's head (no help from the cash register, although there were pads of paper available, but rarely used). Of course, the math was not all that hard since there were no combos, burgers were 15 cents, fries 10 cents and drinks either 10 or 15 cents with few other items. Typical staffing was two on the grill, one to wrap the burgers, one on fries with another cutting, rinsing & blanching fries, one on soft drinks, one on shakes (when busy) and two - four on the windows plus a manager who would fill in where needed..
Cheeseburgers and shakes messed up the easy math a bit being 18 cents and 20 cents, respectively. Trick was to add in 10 and 15 cent denominations and at the end, adjust for the odd cent items although cheeseburgers tended not to be too popular back then. The orders were typically matching numbers of fries, drinks & burgers, i.e four burgers = 60 cents, plus four fries = $1 and four 10 cent drinks (large drink orders tended to be uncommon) = $1.40 cents plus tax off a chart (adding in each cheeseburger, 3 cent premium just before the tax) . Requests for special orders were rare - perhaps a few / night such as fries without salt or a burger without mustard, etc..
Coke was still the most popular soft drink, but root beer was perhaps 1/3 of the sales. Uncarbonated orange was also available. Shakes would sell about 5 chocolate to three strawberry to one coffee. Coffee was available, but not all that popular of an item (Dunkin Donut coffee, but not labeled at the Howdy's where I worked).
A fourth difference was that there was no in-door seating. Most ate in their cars or at a few outside tables. Customers typically just tossed their trash out the car window. Birds loved it, local residents hated it. At closing, we'd sweep the lot of the papers - typically covering most of the pavement.
All in all, I wonder how FF places make it today considering the short lines, cost of seating and higher number of employees preparing all the specialized items. Of course, a typical customer did get a meal for 35 cents ( no tax unless the order exceed $1.00 in CT).
Favorite FF place (of all time) - that's easy - It's clearly Burger Chef with Howdy's being a far second. It would be a challenge to name a 3rd position - way back in line. For quality of food (excluding their FoF), last place clearly would go to McDonalds with Burger King a close second (to last).
<message edited by mjambro on Fri, 12/7/12 12:23 PM>