It was a week night at about dusk when race-car driver Jim Snelling maneuvered his family car into the drive-through lane of an Anaheim Hills fast-food restaurant.
"Mom's out, so Dad's taking care of the kids," Snelling said, turning to smile at his daughters Julie, 7, and Jolene, 5, and 3-month-old son Jason, asleep in the back seat. "It's their little treat."
Julie had another explanation: "My mommy cooks. He won't."
The children and their dad were engaging in one of Orange County's most popular outdoor activities: Grabbing dinner through an open automobile window.
Fast food. Orange County. They go together like, well, like hamburgers and fries.
In Orange County, more so than in most places, you are likely to find life in the fast-food lane.
"If I were to cite two . . . things associated with the fast-food phenomenon, it would be the young population and the reliance on automobiles," said Cal State Fullerton professor of sociology Bartolomeo Palisi, analyzing the popularity of fast food in the county.
"You also have a lot of families where there are two-career marriages. Therefore, a lot of people . . . are not really in a position to stay home and cook. Drive-in and fast-food places really take advantage of that."
While the number of all U.S. restaurants has declined slightly in recent years, the number of fast-food outlets has remained about the same.
But Orange County bucked the trend. Fast-food restaurants here increased by 5.4% in 1986. Moreover, the county's fast-food outlets ranked behind only mammoth Los Angeles County in total sales for the state.
"The real growth seems to be Orange County," said Mark Leas, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Assn.
Bill Darnell, a vice president of Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers, called Orange County "the hub" of the fast-food business.
According to Patrick Flynn, spokesman for Carl's Jr. Restaurants, one of five large fast-food chains headquartered here, Orange County is where the restaurant chain's "future is. We don't feel the saturation point has been reached."
Why is Orange County such a successful market?
Bill Brownstein, president of McDonald's Operators Assn. of Southern California and owner of McDonald's franchises in Brea and Buena Park, said there is "more of an opportunity in a place like Orange County to create a steady customer because of the (customer's) family background."
On a recent afternoon, Barbara Hoyle of Anaheim herded most of the Hoyle household into a neighborhood Carl's Jr. Restaurant on the way to her sons' football practice.
Ryan, 9, and Adam 8, wolfed down burgers while daughter Stacy, 17, supped with Mom at the next table. Later in the evening, the family would celebrate Dad's birthday. But Barbara Hoyle said this was the only time available for dinner.
"It seems like we're always going out just for the convenience," said Rena Wolfson of Anaheim Hills, sitting at an adjoining table with her son, Matthew, 5. "The kids are so involved." Fast-food meals allow her sons to participate in activities such as soccer and still get to bed on time.
"The reality of fast-food places is that's what the kids (prefer to) eat," Wolfson said.
Barbara Hoyle added, "And that's all the parents have time for."
By preference or necessity, fast food has become "not just a menu, it's a culture," said Carl's Jr. spokesman Flynn.
Orange County customers "grew up with fast food, or at least (grew up) during the time fast food grew up, and typically are more mobile, active individuals who have less time to prepare their own meals," said Paul Schultz, regional manager for Jack In The Box Restaurants.
This mobility may be epitomized at the Carl's Jr. 24-hour drive-through window on Imperial Highway at La Palma Avenue in Anaheim Hills. More than 55% of its customers use the drive-through, compared with an average of 40% for Carl's 62 Orange County restaurants.
"This is one of the highest-volume and highest-percentage drive-throughs in the entire (Carl's) system," regional director Andy Prokop said.
Demand is so great that the restaurant has a second drive-through lane. A conveyor belt whisks bags of Western Bacon Cheeseburgers over one row of cars to waiting customers in the far lane.
"We also have a couple kids on horses who come down the drive-through," manager Clora Moore said. "When I used to manage (a Carl's Jr. Restaurant) in Santa Ana, we were right next to a convalescent home and people used to come through the drive-through in wheelchairs."
A mobile clientele counts for a lot. When Century American Inc. decided to develop a corner lot, it had a couple of options.
"We had an interest from a sit-down restaurant, . . . but we elected to go with Kentucky Fried Chicken," partner Barry Cottle recalled.
Even in the sleepy city of Orange on the average weekday, 23,909 vehicles drive past the Kentucky Fried Chicken at Chapman Avenue and Swidler Place. Century American leases space at that location to four fast-food outlets.