Drive-thru restaurants, a pure Americana tradition from the 1950s, have been making a comeback. Decades after reinvigorating the dining-out scene, the old-school paradigm is dominating once again. Only this time, rather than being the exclusive property of American fast-food joints, the take-out service has come to the fore as a champion of the foodservice industry overall. While the rise to fame over the past two years can be attributed to the pandemic, restaurant insiders claim that the drive-thru trend began long before – however, thanks to the pandemic, in the words of David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor “we’ve really just fast-forwarded years into the future in a very short period of time…” .
Drive-Thrus Came to the Rescue of an Ailing Foodservice Industry
Drive-through (or drive-thru) foodservices have long been acknowledged as the ultimate in speed and convenience. While this claim remains true even more today, what began as a survival strategy for ailing restaurants under threat of extinction, today’s drive-thru experiences are reaping the rewards of the off-premises phenomenon that began pre-covid.
Drive-Through Restaurant Stats
If owned or managed a restaurant in the year 2020, you may be familiar with some of the following statistics published by location technology company Bluedot and by the NPD’s tracking of U.S. consumer eating-out habits. Between April and June of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, full-service restaurant traffic declined by as much as 48%, with a slight improvement in July to negative 32%. As restaurants began to reopen in July-August, primarily as takeout and delivery services, drive-throughs enjoyed the largest increase in traffic activity with a 13% boost. To date, that rate has skyrocketed, with the quick service option comprising 42% of all restaurant visits.
In the words of David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of “Eating Patterns in America”: “Drive-thru operations are delivering a high ROI during the pandemic, offering convenience, speed, and the comfort of social distance to consumers using them. Fast casual and traditional quick service chains have already announced expansion plans for their drive-thru operations, and more chains will be doing the same. Drive-thru and other off-premises operations will be a major part of the U.S. restaurant industry’s recovery and future.”
Consumers Flock to Drive Thru
Also hailed as ‘the rise of curbside,’ consumers are likewise reporting higher usage of drive-through foodservices, from 27% in April to today’s rate of 62%. And, what’s on the menu? Well, everything from classic burgers, fried chicken and tacos to more sophisticated fanfare such as fish, sushi, pasta, daiquiris, desserts, and more. In the face of COVID-19 and fears for their health, customers waiting on drive-thru lines say they feel safer in their cars than in restaurant dining rooms. Among their preferred features are safety information posted at the drive-thru window, employees clearly wearing masks, minimal contact with staff, the option to order via an app or online, and contactless payment.
Benefits of Drive-Thru for Restaurant Owners
On the flip side of the frying pan, a growing number of food and beverage companies are also jumping on the drive-thru bandwagon. Enticing them are business incentives such as expedited throughput, valuable data collection, and increased profitability. Furthermore, operators of some national chains say that closing their dining room has decreased expenses associated with paper products, cleaning, and maintenance. Industry analysts predict that the expanded format will manifest in scores of new drive-thru pickup windows with order-ahead options.
Drive-Thru Sales Surge at Major Fast-Food Chains
In response to COVID-19 and the challenges posed under the current reality, some of the industry’s best-known top guns are reinventing their entire business models and making the move to curbside. In fact, many fast-food chains have begun to offer drive-thru and delivery services only. For example, Burger King has announced that its new restaurants will be outfitted for the coronavirus age with triple drive-thru lanes, shielded takeout counters, burger pickup lockers, and more. Also investing in the upgraded quick service are moguls such as Taco Bell, Chipotle, Shake Shack, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Panera.
And if all this wasn’t incentive enough, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified restaurants with drive-thrus as essential retailers, allowing them to remain open during the pandemic.
Digital Paves the Way for the Restaurant of the Future
Social distancing guidelines have set down the tracks for the increasing popularity of drive-thrus. But if you’re wondering what’s slated to appear down the not-so-distant road in foodservice, check out what’s on the menu at the Yum! Brand chain. Their new concept, “Go Mobile,” is slated to debut in Q1 of 2021 and features five updates built around digital adoption, with an emphasis on customers ordering ahead through a mobile app. The reliance on mobile ordering will allow the chain to shrink its store size, improve ROI, and provide an enhanced digital drive-thru experience. The company plans to double its lanes with priority curbside pickup for customers ordering via the app. At the same time, its new smart kitchen will be able to detect when customers arrive and suggest the quickest route for a seamless experience.
In the words of Yum! CEO David Gibbs: “With demand for our drive-thru at an all-time high, we know adapting to meet our consumers’ rapidly changing needs has never been more important.” The brand plans to boost drive-thru speed of service by 18 seconds, allowing it to serve an additional 4.8 million cars. And in a statement by global COO Mike Grams: “The Go Mobile restaurant concept is not only an evolved physical footprint, but a completely synchronized digital experience centered around streamlining guest access points. For the first time, our guests will have the ability to choose the pick-up experience that best fits their needs, all while never leaving the comfort of their cars.”
Drive Thru Restaurants: It’s Not all About the Speed
According to Bluedot, the average speed of drive-thru service during corona has been four minutes and 15 seconds – equaling a mere two cars completing the drive before customers become frustrated. However, 35.5% percent of services had six or more cars in line, while 9.1% achieved six cars or less.
Yet while 81% of consumers interviewed said any wait longer than 10 minutes was too long for a satisfactory experience, it turns out that drive thru isn’t all about the speed. To score top marks, consumers place value on either little to no contact with employees, or contact that includes a pleasant demeanor, saying “please,” smiling, and overall being “very friendly.”
Hope for Your Restaurant’s Success Even without Drive-Thru
If you are managing a restaurant in the aftermath of corona and are not equipped to provide drive-thru service, do not despair. It turns out that where it matters most, the operation is not all that different from how in-house dining rooms work. The key to success? As always, when it comes to the food-and-beverage business, the customer experience trumps all. So, whether you are enjoying more customers pulling up curbside or are greeting your walk-in patrons, be sure to provide a seamless experience that keeps the consumer journey flowing from beginning to end. Let them know that their satisfaction is your priority – and enjoy the smooth ride to the top of the charts!