As one woman bought a book of Christmas stamps at the grand opening of a drive-through at the main post office in Columbia Saturday, she jokingly asked the window clerk, "So, can I get fries with that?"
Although burgers and fries aren't on the menu at the Owen Brown facility, customers can now buy stamps and money orders, get passport applications and send any package that will fit through the window of the 116-square-foot module, which stands next to the main building on Oak Hall Lane.
The first customer of about 200, Crissie Van Brunt of Columbia's Oakland Mills village, received a 1995 commemorative mint set of stamps and other gifts. Ms. Van Brunt was impressed with the ease of making her purchases.
"It's going to be especially nice in the winter," she said.
Convenience is the purpose of the new kiosk, Postmaster Alfred Fowler said. "The very second person through the line had two kids in car seats in the back. And the third person through the line was handicapped, which is exactly why we opened it," he said.
A June survey found an average of 1,821 customers using the post office each day, making for long lines and short tempers. While postal officials wouldn't say how the branch's traffic compares with other branches', the district manager for postal customer service and sales said complaints about crowding at the the Columbia facility persuaded him to open the drive-through.
"[Columbia] is a high-growth area, an influential area, and a lot of customers here interact with us about the lobby area because of the [large] number of people who come through it," said Richard Wudez, the service and sales manager. "I knew I was going to [construct] one in Bel Air first, and then I was going to build one in Columbia."
In March, Mr. Wudez approved $139,000 to build the Columbia unit, the second postal drive-through in the state. And in August, developers began work on the one-clerk station, which is connected to the main office by phone and security monitor.
The Bel Air drive-through -- which has averaged 300 customers a day since its opening last year -- has been troubled by rain and snow blowing in the building. Project manager Ralph Streeter is building a canopy-type of protection for the Columbia unit. "With a little bit of luck, it will done before Christmas," he said.
Sometime this week, Mr. Streeter expects to receive the other finishing touch -- a sign displaying the drive-through's basic service information and hours of operation, which are the same as the main office's: 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
"The drive-through should alleviate some of the lines. Everybody thinks it's a good idea," said Rudy Merrick, a window clerk in the main lobby. "But there are still a few things they have to come inside and see me for," such as picking up mail, sending large packages and picking up passports.
To make sure all of their customers know about this new service, the Columbia post office had resembled a small carnival Saturday. An Uncle Sam on stilts directed traffic and waved to those driving by. Jugglers, face painters and a magician entertained children and a local caterer served barbecue sandwiches and hot dogs under a large tent at the back of the parking lot.
"I had never heard of a post office drive-through," Oakland Mills resident Chris Ohanian said during the festivities. "I usually avoid this place on Saturday. I'm not a masochist. There's always a long queue on Saturdays."
Zulma Whiteford of Clary's Forest in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village was also pleased. "I think the drive-through is wonderful," she said. "I do day-care and coming to the post office with [six] kids is like going on a field trip just to get a few stamps."