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Jim Kenyon: Thru With Driving

Panera Bread is adding a drive-thru window to its eatery on Route 12A in West Lebanon. Heaven forbid that we have to climb out of our cars and walk 30 yards for a bear claw and caramel latte.

Panera may be breaking ground, but it is certainly not breaking new ground. America’s infatuation with drive-thrus is almost as old as the Model T. (Believe it or not, McDonald’s didn’t invent the drive-thru. Instead a bank in Syracuse, N.Y., gets the credit — or blame — for starting the trend in 1928. McDonald’s didn’t open its first drive-thru until 1975.)

It used to be that a community was considered rural if it didn’t have a stoplight. Nowadays you’re truly living in Hicksville if you can’t do your banking from behind the steering wheel.

By my count, Panera will become the 10th establishment on a half-mile stretch of 12A to offer drive-thru service. It’s possible to pull up to a bank to grab some cash that can then be used across the street to buy a double cheeseburger before making a quick stop at a pharmacy to refill a prescription for cholesterol-lowering medication.

All without lifting your keister off your heated driver’s seat.

“I know drive-thrus serve a purpose,” said Lebanon City Councilor Nicole Cormen. “If you’re disabled or have a sick kid in the back seat, a drive-thru is really helpful. But do we need this many?”

Cormen, who has made it clear at public meetings that she’s not a fan of drive-thrus, is what I’d call a big-picture person. She recognizes that a few more drive-thru windows won’t drastically alter 12A’s landscape (I’d say that’s been a lost cause for years). But their popularity speaks to the importance that Americans, in general, place on convenience.

Roughly 70 percent of sales in the fast-food industry are made at the drive-thru, Bloomberg Businessweek reported in 2011.

“Meanwhile,” said Cormen, “there is an obesity epidemic in this country.”

Cormen is the council’s representative to the Lebanon Planning Board, which reviews building projects, big and small. She joined other board members in unanimously approving Panera’s drive-thru plans. It’s not as though the board had a choice. Lebanon’s land-use regulations don’t have a lot to say that could deter drive-thru construction.

Cormen doesn’t want to give the wrong impression, and neither do I. Like Cormen, I’ve been known to use the drive-thru at the bank. Cormen, however, makes it a point to turn off her car’s engine while she’s waiting. (She’s got me there.)

Nationally, the no-more-drive-thru-movement seems to be picking up. From New Jersey to California, some communities have adopted — or at least are considering — bans on future drive-thrus. “Amid complaints of obesity and lines of idled cars stretching into neighborhood streets,” the city of Baldwin Park, Calif., placed a moratorium on the opening of any more drive-thru restaurants, USA Today reported in 2010.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of The New York Times bestseller, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) wrote for Slate in 2009 that the time had come for Americans to leave drive-thrus in the rearview mirror. “There has always been something odd in the encounter between automobility and architecture; the driver momentarily breaks her sense of hermetic enclosure, while the fast-food employee briefly thrusts himself out of the window, the two meeting amid the sickly sweet commingling of ambient grease and tailpipe exhaust.”

So why is Panera, a restaurant chain that serves soups and salads rather than burgers and fries, joining the drive-thru crowd in West Lebanon?

Competition is a driving factor, said Denise Stamatis, Panera’s district manager. With McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s already having drive-thrus, Panera saw a need to build a $150,000 addition to the back of its restaurant with a window.

“People are on the go,” Stamatis said. “Not everybody has time to sit down for a meal.”

Anything else?

“People have gotten lazier over the years,” she said.

On Tuesday afternoon, I stood outside McDonald’s to watch the fast-food restaurant’s two-lane drive-thru in action. If only the Affordable Care Act sign-up process was half as efficient. Eleven motorists placed orders, paid their tabs and picked up their orders in less time than it takes to gulp down a Big Mac.

Good thing, too.

“I’m on a tight schedule,” a woman told me, when I asked why she had gone the drive-thru route.“I have a parent-teacher conference.”

“I want to get on the road,” said the next woman, just before she hit the gas.

I’m happy to report that not every quick-serve restaurant, pharmacy and bank in the Upper Valley has opted for drive-thru windows, which, with their glass partitions and intercoms, have the ambiance of a jailhouse.

The Mascoma Savings Bank in Lyme doesn’t feature a drive-thru window.

“I don’t consider it a minus,” said Rita DeGoosh, who has managed the branch since it opened in 1994. “No one complains. The customers love coming in here. The tellers know them by name.”

The Lyme bank, which doesn’t have room for a drive-thru, can still accommodate customers who have medical conditions that make it hard for them to get in and out of their cars. DeGoosh or another employee will walk outside to handle a customer’s banking from the parking lot.

“It’s kind of an old fashioned way,” she said.

If they only served bear claws.