FAST FOOD: FINE, HAVE IT YOUR WAY

In a 2000 survey by the National Restaurant Association, researchers detected a strange hankering: Americans said they'd like to be able to pick up "drive-thru" food at sit-down chains like Ruby Tuesday and Outback Steakhouse. Ask and ye shall receive: today a host of chains (including those) offer "curbside service," in which employees carry takeout bags of food to customers' cars. Now restaurant trend spotters say they've found another innovation on the horizon: automated ordering at fast-food drive-thrus. In a recent survey, National Restaurant Association economist Hudson Riehle found that 75 percent of consumers between the ages of 18 and 24 said they'd prefer to banish the traditional drive-thru setup, where customers place orders through tinny speakers, and instead punch in the order themselves on a touch screen.

So far none of the nation's "quick service restaurant" chains is using such a system, but a Los Angeles-based firm, Drive Thru Technology, says it should have one available for sale within 12 months. President Sam Naficy expects restaurants to buy in because they'll reduce labor costs and order times. Brian Baker of the market-research firm G3 says that since one in four drive-thrus already accepts credit and ATM cards, the new technology could catch on. "The big hurdle is consumer acceptance," he says. NEWSWEEK's take: anything that eliminates the phrase "Fries with that?" is a surefire winner.