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  • Writer's pictureMaya

Fast-Food Drive-Through Concepts and Trends

The first-ever restaurant drive-thru concept was launched way back in 1947. Then, Red's Giant Hamburg drive-thru allowed customers to drive to a window to place orders and receive food. Since then, drive-thrus have consistently delivered a significant chunk of the revenue in the QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) category.

COVID-19 has accelerated the need for restaurants to have a comprehensive drive-thru strategy and focus on drive-thru innovation. This was primarily driven by the following:

  1. Heightened anxiety about health and safety

  2. Need for greater convenience and flexibility in ordering food

By the end of 2021, every major restaurant brand reported significant drive-through sales growth, and drive-thru accounted for 52% of the customer traffic share for QSRs.

This trend is not just restricted to QSRs. Even full-service chains, cafes, and pizzerias traditionally invested in dine-in spaces are expanding drive-thru options for customers. For example, Applebees recently revealed that they plan to roll out drive-thrus to strengthen off-premise service capability aggressively. As a result, the drive-thru has become the new battleground for restaurants eager to attract customers, delight them

with fast service and conveniently packed food, and get them to keep coming back for more. Restaurant brands are now investing in a suite of technology solutions and drive-thru a concept that delivers a fantastic customer experience across the customer engagement lifecycle for the drive-thru channel.

Expanded Drive Thru-Lanes

In June 2022, Taco Bell launched the Taco Bell Defy, which boasts four drive-thru lanes, food delivery lifts that eliminate direct contact between customers and employees, and interactive audio-video technology for customer service. Separate drive-thru lanes for app pre-orders, drive-in customers, and third-party delivery agents allow Taco Bell to maximize the speed of service and minimize wait times.

Brands like Panera, McDonald's, Burger King, and KFC are rolling out updated restaurant designs with increased drive-thru capacity and smaller dine-in areas.

Adding additional lanes is one of many options to increase drive-thru throughput. For example, Tim Hortons has launched tandem drive-thrus with two sets of digital menu boards and intercom in a single lane designed to take orders from two cars simultaneously.

Adding additional drive-thru lanes can be challenging as restaurants proactively address customer friction points, manage traffic volumes, and enable seamless integration with POS systems.

Here is an extract from an article that summarises the real-world challenges that Schlotzsky experienced when he piloted a double-drive-thru, with one drive-thru on each side of the restaurant.

Intelligent Outdoor Digital Menu Boards (ODMBs)

Outdoor digital menu boards are critical in helping drive-thru customers decide what to order and speed up the drive-thru experience. The latest generation of digital menu boards are connected to the cloud and can dynamically change the menu and pricing based on diverse input from other restaurant applications.

Some of the recent innovations in personalizing the drive-thru experience include:

  • Digital menu boards are linked to mobile apps that rely on the phone's location data to trigger menu board personalization when the customer drives up to the restaurant location.

  • Speciality Bluetooth devices integrated with the drive-thru speaker post to start menu board personalization enable customers to redeem reward points and make payments using their mobile phones.

  • Machine learning-driven menu boards not only suggest a personalized menu based on the purchase history, external factors (such as the weather), or daypart but also optimize the menu to eliminate order processing complexity.

McDonald's implemented Dynamic Yield's personalization platform to offer a dynamic menu at their drive-thrus. In the US, McDonald's can show menu items based on factors such as time of day, real-time restaurant traffic information, and popularity to help provide an enhanced customer experience.

Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of QSR brands such as Burger King, Tim Hortons, and Popeyes, had already started rolling out personalized ODMBs in 2021 across thousands of locations.

Gamification for Drive-Thru Employees

Serving customers at the drive-thru can get monotonous for employees. Critical performance metrics such as average speed of service and order value are reviewed periodically by the manager or supervisor. Employees only hear about it when they fall short of productivity benchmarks or for training purposes. Gamification of drive-thru tasks addresses this problem and significantly improves employee participation and engagement.

Here are some of the ways gamification can improve employee engagement and productivity:

a. Drive-thru leaderboards can show where employees stand compared to their colleagues and introduce a positive competitive spirit at work.

b. Restaurant chains can conduct friendly contests between locations with bragging rights and offer rewards as an upside for top-performing locations.

c. As critical metrics are now transparent and available for all employees in real-time, employees readily take ownership of performance improvement plans.

Computer vision and video analytics at the Drive-Thru

Video feeds from the cameras in the drive-thru area can be analyzed by computer vision algorithms in real-time to improve sales, improve order accuracy, reduce chargeback claims, flag food safety issues, and track line dropouts before purchase.

  1. Computer vision can read the license plates of cars and even identify the age profile of the occupants inside the vehicle. This data helps recognize repeat customers and show a personalized menu or offering exclusive perks as the customer pulls into the drive-thru digital menu post.

  2. Ensuring order accuracy directly impacts sales performance and customer loyalty. For example, computer vision and AI applications connected to cameras in the kitchen can pinpoint mismatches in order assembly before the items are delivered to the customer.

  3. Besides identifying customers, computer vision can track drive-thru line dropout data. This information can uncover valuable insights for QSRs when mapped to dayparts, locations, weather, and day of the week. These insights can help restaurants optimize menu complexity and staffing or even re-design the drive-thru lanes.

  4. A Deloitte study has found that customers are willing to pay a premium if they see evidence of cleanliness and safe food handling practices. Computer vision and AI applications can spot instances when prescribed food preparation and handling processes are not followed so restaurants can train their employees better and ensure complete safety compliance.

AI-Based Voice Assistance

Voice is a critical component of the drive-thru customer experience, and hence more QSRs are investing in installing advanced two-way audio communication systems at the drive-thrus that are designed to:

  • Reduce outbound (kitchen noise) and inbound noise (traffic or engine sounds) to improve order accuracy and eliminate delays due to miscommunication or poorly understood order details.

  • Use automated audio alerts for employees to manage customers at the drive-thru, curbside pickup slots, or 3rd-party delivery pickups.

With AI-enabled voice technology, voice can now go beyond just improving communication. It could reduce the need for employees to handle all the drive-thru transactions. This is especially useful in a tough labor market where staffing and retention are significant challenges confronting QSRs.

Here are the various ways AI-enabled voice automation is being used by QSRs and fast-casual restaurants.

  • Chipotle had already rolled-out Amazon Alexa reordering skills in 2019 for Chipotle customers who are already a part of the loyalty program. They later expanded AI-based voice ordering for phone orders as well. With the recent roll-out of dedicated drive-thru pickup windows (aka Chipotlanes), Chipotle customers who order ahead using voice or app can drive up to the pickup window and drive out in under 12 seconds.

  • In 2019, McDonald's acquired Apprentice, an AI-based technology that can engage in conversations with humans to improve drive-thru order accuracy. McDonald's piloted the technology in 2021 at 24 drive-thrus in the Chicago area and reported an 80% success rate. The technology is being further tested and upgraded with the help of IBM before a system-wide roll-out.

  • Wendy's is leveraging Google Cloud to roll out a combination of AI-enabled voice technology and computer vision designed to take orders at the drive-thrus and send the transcribed order details directly to the kitchen and POS.

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