The Next Time You Get Coffee In The Drive-Thru, Thank The Late Jim Roberts

Most people can agree that the drive-thru is an ingenious idea — and was a major breakthrough in not only fast food, but also coffee history. It makes getting java on the go much easier, especially for those in need of an early morning pick-me-up on the way to work. 

In the years since, drive-thru locations have become a common part of the espresso coffee chain experience, with many locations of Starbucks, Coffee Bean and others opting in. While the concept of the drive-thru already existed for fast food — the first McDonald's drive-thru opened in the '70s — it was completely foreign for espresso-focused coffee shops until the '90s.

As commonplace as it may seem now, drive-thru coffee wasn't an option until one man came along: Jim Roberts, who died in July of 2023 at the age of 74. Roberts is credited with inventing the drive-thru with the opening of his Motor Moka shop in 1990.

Roberts was a coffee pioneer

Roberts was born in Cottage Grove, Oregon, less than 30 minutes away from where he would go to college: University of Oregon. He majored in English, and began dipping his toe into the coffee business. 

It was in Eugene (where the University of Oregon is located) that Roberts and his new wife Patty tried coffee that wasn't Folger's and decided to try their hand at selling quality espresso products. They attempted to sell pour over coffee — with beans bought from the Coffee Bean Coffee Company — at a weekly market, but didn't gain much momentum. Later, they tried leaving Oregon to attempt other coffee businesses — also to no avail.

The duo finally found success with a Portland coffee shop called Coffee People, which opened in 1983. The couple ran the shop for five years before they owned it (although many assumed they already did). In 1991, with the company valued at $2.6 million (which equates to about $5.8 million in 2023 due to inflation), the couple bought half the company. According to Oregon Live, the shop was one of the most popular places to get coffee in Portland, introducing swaths of people to lattes and cappuccinos at a time when drip coffee was the norm. In other words, it helped pave the wave for Starbucks, which opened its first Portland location in 1989.

Not only did Roberts beat Starbucks to Portland — he also beat Starbucks to a major innovation: the drive-thru.

Roberts opened Motor Moka — and its drive-thru

In 1990, a year after Starbucks arrived in Portland, Roberts opened up Motor Moka, the first-ever drive-thru espresso coffee shop — complete with the subtitle of "motorist's espresso bar." The notion of a drive-thru shop was so unique that Motor Moka made headlines, with magazines and TV news reporting on its opening. At its peak, an estimated 2,500 cars would pass through on a daily basis — numbers that had competitors taking note.

"I used to watch customers park in heavy rain," Roberts recalled of his inspiration during a 2017 interview with Willamette Week. "[They'd] get out of their car, walk through the lot, stand in line to order, finally get to pay, stand in line again to pick up their drink, walk out the door through the parking lot in the rain, and try to open their door and get in the car. People just want that cup of coffee."

Within six years, Motor Moka had expanded to about a dozen locations around Portland; it even had its own radio station and a poetry magazine, and was paving the way for coffee pioneers like Dutch Bros. An attempt by the couple to expand Coffee People nationally — largely as an alternative to Starbucks — stumbled, and by 1998 Jim and Patty Roberts were out of the business. Coffee People was sold to Diedrich Coffee Inc., and by the time Starbucks acquired Diedrich in 2003, the Coffee People name was gone.

The Roberts invention of drive-thru coffee evolved far beyond Motor Moka

As Roberts would later tell Willamette Week, Starbucks was initially resistant to the drive-thru idea. "For a while after we opened, Starbucks was against drive-thrus," he explained. "They said it was because they had built this culture around the coffeehouse experience, and they didn't see how people could have the coffeehouse experience inside their Buick." 

Years later, Starbucks customers don't seem to have such concerns. Roughly 60 percent of the 8,500 Starbucks locations in the U.S. (as of mid-2022) have a drive-thru, meaning thousands of Starbucks drive-thru locations are in operation every day. 

The trend continues to grow. In May 2022, Starbucks announced plans to expand with exterior traffic in mind, as 90% of all new locations would feature a drive-thru. Nowadays, nearly every major coffee chain — from Coffee Bean to Peet's to Dunkin' — has drive-thru locations.

The drive-thru would further its dominance during the COVID-19 pandemic, with consumers relying on the lower contact option to get their coffee fix. Motor Moka, meanwhile, resurfaced with a new location in Vancouver in 2022 — complete with a drive-thru.