The Future is Now:

Evolution of the Modern Drive-Thru

The results are clear: restaurants with drive-thrus were the most resilient against the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to being incredibly convenient and fast, drive-thrus proved to be a lifeline for restaurants, particularly if their area experienced mandated dining room closures or capacity limitations.

During the April, May, and June 2020 quarter, drive-thru restaurant orders increased by 26% and represented 42% of all restaurant visits. Even McDonalds, the arguable king of fast food brands, reported that drive-thru orders accounted for nearly 90% of their total U.S. sales during the second quarter of 2020, versus roughly 70% in previous years.

In contrast, full-service restaurants that did not pivot their operations to include a makeshift drive-thru or curbside service experienced steep declines in sales during this period, as much as 48% less than previous quarter averages.

So, what does this mean in a post-COVID world? It's a wager many restaurants are taking that while socially distant trends might fade, the consumer's love affair with convenience and the contactless experience will not.

In other words, it’s time to leave the old ways in the rearview mirror.


The Omnichannel Drive-Thru

While the drive-thru has been a relatively straightforward operation since its advent in the late 1940s, a surge of technological advancements over the last decade have greatly expanded their efficiency and variety. These innovations became a vital component in the “new normal” way of ordering and receiving a meal.

For restaurants to flourish as focus shifts from rapid adaptation to an established service model, the customer experience must be an archetype of technology-enabled efficiency, safety, and flexibility.

A key step moving forward is to bolster customer confidence in safe, contactless operations. While most restaurants have instituted a touchless payment system for traditional methods of payment, a great number falter when faced with alternate transactions such as coupons or gift cards.

A secondary scanning device is the answer to this challenge, allowing drive-thru cashiers to use the mini barcode scanner to read the information displayed on the customer's personal smart devices without the need for direct or indirect contact. An employee lacking a second scanner would otherwise be forced to take the coupon or personal item and manually key it in, or conduct an additional scan, resulting in longer wait times and increased touches.

The emphasis on safe, contactless operation via smart integration on smart devices will be a key component of managing lines, expectations, and customer safety moving forward.

Touchless payment and delivery have moved into the drive-thru lane itself. Even before the pandemic, some fast-casual chains were testing contact-free pickup from car lanes. By using mobile ordering and pickup, brands can receive digital orders from customers ahead of time, eliminating potential bottlenecks and decreasing wait times associated with traditional drive-thrus. Mobile ordering also reduces the need for face-to-face conversations between customers and staff.


More Lanes, More Sales

To improve capacity, many brands plan to transition from a single to double drive-thru lanes, perhaps even more if space allows. Additional lanes help streamline the ordering and pickup process and give brands the opportunity to put their own spin on the system. It could be two lanes that converge at one pickup point, something already common among quick-service restaurants, two separate pickup points, or even a conveyor system to deliver the product to the customer.

Many brands have introduced new prototypes with expanded drive-thrus to be built within the next year and beyond. As part of its first Go Mobile locations, Taco Bell will offer a priority drive-thru lane for mobile orders, as well as curbside pickup areas and in-store shelves for pickups. Next year, Burger King plans to build several newly designed restaurants in Miami, Latin America, and the Caribbean. These designs include double or triple drive-thru lanes, with one model having the kitchen above the drive-thrus and delivering food via a conveyor belt.


The New Employee of the Year

In the 1950s, diners were alarmed when drive-thrus rolled out a two-way speaker for the first time. The concept was so new that restaurants posted signs informing customers that the disembodied voice they heard on the other end was, in fact, still a human.

Now, the quick, personalized drive-thru experience of the future is not limited to human-to-human contact. Select chains are beginning to test automated ordering systems connected to digital menu boards that can take orders or make food suggestions. Some systems will also consider the weather and time of day. A few are even opting for license-plate recognition that – after customers opt-in to share this sort of information – will pull their order history to make the ordering process even faster.


Transforming the Drive-Thru Experience

Creating value for restaurants today is imperative in the post-COVID era. The most successful businesses will be those that utilize design in a safe, efficient, and intelligent way. Restaurant brands must assess quickly whether they have the in-house expertise and resources they need to meet the challenge, and where they don't, engage leading QSR partners like Core State Group to fill the gap.


About Core States Group

Core States Group is a A/E/C firm that simplifies the design and construction process with the ability to provide fully integrated services in-house including architecture, interior design, engineering (MEP, structural, civil), program management, general contracting, energy, building surveying, and signage and brand management. With 21 offices and 500+ employees throughout North America, Core States Group builds national and regional programs for a variety of markets including restaurant, hospitality, retail, financial, corporate, energy, fueling, and more. Visit for more information.

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