Starbucks has employees in hundreds of busy locations strolling down car lines taking handheld orders so customers can get their caffeine fix a few seconds faster. Shake Shack, which has long insisted that it pays to wait a few minutes longer for quality ingredients, will soon have its first drive-through window. And the vast majority of new Chipotles this year will have “Chipotlanes” where customers can pull up to a window and have pre-ordered meals in less than a minute.
With dining room restrictions in place throughout much of the country during the pandemic, drive-through and pick-up windows have become a crucial way for a variety of restaurants to stay afloat.
Now that the hospitality industry is facing a post-pandemic world, many companies are counting on digital ordering and pass-throughs to remain an integral part of their success. And the basic experience of sitting in a single row of cars, speaking into a sometimes mangled intercom, and pulling up to a window to pay for your meal before driving away is likely to change for the first time in decades.
A number of restaurants are moving quickly to improve their online ordering and app skills, change their physical design, or add two or three drive-through lanes. Some are testing artificial intelligence systems to make suggestions for people who get to the menu bar.
“The transit was one of those places that hasn’t changed in decades,” said Ellie Doty, Burger King’s North American marketing director. “But with Covid we are seeing the dramatic acceleration of the directions in which we have already gone.”
Taco Bell, who last year announced plans to test a restaurant design with stadium seating so players can play against each other, has placed a heavy emphasis on creating smaller restaurants with two thoroughfares and one roadside pickup. Applebee’s is testing its first drive through in Texarkana, Texas. Shake Shack is experimenting with a number of new designs and plans, including walk-in windows and curbside pickups. It will open its first transit this year in Orlando, Florida, with plans for five to eight more by 2022.
“We had started working on some formats before the pandemic,” said Andrew McCaughan, Shake Shack’s chief development officer. “But we saw a massive accelerator and catalyst to go faster and really get the drive going.”
While several chains claim to have invented the drive through, many say it dates back to the 1930s when a Texas chain’s Los Angeles franchise, the Pig Stand, allowed customers to order and collect their food from a window . In the late 1940s, California chain In-N-Out Burger introduced the two-way squawk box. But the phenomenon really increased in the 1970s when McDonald’s installed drive-throughs.
As more families had two working parents and the demand for quick and easy meals increased, drive-throughs became mainstream. But they also became a source of ridicule and exhilaration. In “Wayne’s World 2” from 1993, the characters Garth and Wayne intentionally cut out their voices while giving their orders, suggesting a broken intercom. The server repeats the order back perfectly.
In fact, drive through can be stressful. Other customers honk their horns occasionally to encourage you to expedite your order. After shouting “No cucumbers!” Again and again in the intercom, you sometimes get a burger with three cucumbers on it. And lines can extend through parking lots and onto the street, especially during the pandemic. Chick-fil-A has been sued by neighboring companies that the long thoroughfares are blocking their customers’ access.
For most restaurants, the solution consists of many parts. First, more and more customers are trying to use ordering apps, which improve the accuracy of orders, and are often associated with loyalty programs that give them points for free food. They are also trying to figure out how best to speed up consumers through the drive-through or pick-up process without disrupting traffic patterns or other businesses.
March 8, 2021, 9:50 p.m. ET
Drive-through times average 4 minutes and 15 seconds, according to Bluedot, a geolocation company. Like a Daytona 500 pit crew, restaurants are always looking for ways to save minutes or even seconds.
To be competitive in this race, Chipotle, whose digital orders soared from 20 percent of its sales to up to 70 percent at the height of the pandemic, installed a second assembly line in many of its kitchens, where employees put together tacos or burrito bowls exclusively for mobile and mobile phones Online orders.
The chain also expects 70 percent of its restaurants opening this year to have dedicated chipotlanes for online ordering.
“In the traditional drive-through experience, you wait in line to order, you wait in line to pay and collect, you wait in line for your food to be prepared,” said Jack Hartung, Chipotle’s chief financial officer. “We try to hit our service time from the time you drive to the restaurant, pick up your food and drive to 40 or 50 seconds.”
Others, like McDonald’s and Burger King, add multiple thoroughfares, which were a feature of some busy fast-food places like Chick-fil-A, but are becoming more common. Burger King is running three-lane tests in the US, Brazil and Spain. In the USA and Spain, the third lane is “Express” for pre-orders via the app. In Brazil, the lane brings the deliverers to a pick-up area with food cupboards or shelves.
Burger King would like to use an artificial intelligence system similar to Big Brother, Deep Flame, to advance its passages into the future.
Currently, roughly half of Burger King’s passages with digital menu boards use Deep Flame’s technology to suggest foods that are particularly popular in the area that day. External factors such as the weather are also used to highlight elements such as an iced coffee on a hot day.
This year, Burger King is testing Bluetooth technology that can identify customers in Burger King’s loyalty program and view their previous orders. If a customer ordered a small sprite and a whopper of cheese hold the pickles, the last three visits, Deep Flame calculates that the chances are high the customer will want the same order again.
It’s unclear whether the technology will pay off. McDonald’s is moving in a similar direction. The fast food giant acquired the Israeli artificial intelligence company Dynamic Yield in 2019 to drive sales through personalized digital promotions for customers.
Restaurant Brands International – the parent company of Burger King, Tim Hortons, and Popeyes – hopes to have the predictive personalized systems in more than 10,000 locations of its restaurants in North America by mid-2022.
“We’re taking an outdated, old, static sales channel and bringing it to the forefront of the industry,” said Duncan Fulton, chief corporate officer of Restaurant Brands International. Now customers have the ability to “automatically rearrange things and pay for the items on the board, ultimately reducing window time and allowing you to collect your groceries and be on your way.”