When drive-thrus first became a thing
in the 1950s, they brought together two of American’s favorite things:
cars and fast food. Drive-thrus were essentially developed to
make fast food even faster. Experts estimate that about 60-70 percent
of a restaurant’s sales come from the drive-thru, if
they have one. That means nailing customers’
experience there is essential. We’re doing a number of things to make
sure that not only is it fast, not only is the food delicious, but also to
make sure we get your order right. Drive-thrus have been undergoing transformations
as restaurants turned to technological solutions to
boost sales. Companies are pouring money into
innovations like digital menu boards, dual-lane drive-thrus and even artificial
intelligence to get diners to spend more. And it’s working. Drive-thrus represent a huge chunk of
restaurant sales and more people than ever are using them. In 201 9, 39% percent of consumers
reported they use the drive-thru more often than they did the year prior. Despite the surge in popularity, just
20 percent of American restaurants currently have a drive-thru. In a segment with razor thin
margins like fast food, providing solid drive-thru service can be
make or break. In the 1920s, the number of people
who owned cars in the U.S. exploded. In these pre-depression years,
people were making more money, and everyday-consumers could afford
to buy a car. Over the next few decades, drive-in
restaurants and drive-in movies took off. At drive-in restaurants, customers
would drive into a restaurant’s parking lot, park their car and order
from a waiter or waitress called a car hop. Car hops delivered food
to people sitting in their cars. Those restaurants where the
predecessor to drive-thrus. Then banks started rolling out drive
-thrus in the 1930s, so that customers carrying big sums of cash didn’t
have to wait on the street. It didn’t take long for
fast-food restaurants to catch on. Drive -thru dining first became a
thing in the 1950s in California. But it didn’t go mainstream until
the 70s, when major fast-food restaurants across the country began adding
drive -thru windows to their restaurants. With more single parent
households after school activities for kids, and women working outside the
home in the 70s, convenient fast food became more and more attractive,
according to the National Museum of American History. In-N-Out has long
been a drive -thru trendsetter. At the California burger chain, customers
were given butcher paper to shield their laps from spills
while eating in the car. In-N-out has what’s considered one
of the best drive-thru experiences today. In-N-Out drive -thrus also
developed now commonplace elements of the drive thru experience. The company says it invented the
two-way speaker system for drive-thru ordering. Some of the most popular
fast-food chains have drive-thrus to thank for strong growth. For instance, Wendy’s started adding
drive-thru windows in 1971, and restaurant experts credit them as one
factor behind Wendy’s fast expansion in the years that followed. Drive -thrus saved Wendy’s space in
its parking lots and indoor seating areas because the drive-thru customers
usually left and eat somewhere else. McDonald’s built its first
drive -thru in 1975. Most national fast-food chain had
drive-thrus by the mid 70s. Fast-food restaurants also started developing
more products that could be eaten easily in a car. According to one fast-food historian,
Chicken McNuggets were developed with driving in mind. And it wasn’t just the fast-food
chains that were adapting the sales experience to be as convenient
to customers as possible. As eating in the car grew
in popularity, automakers also took notice. By the 1960s, glovebox doors
opened flat to support drinks. And in the 80s, built-in
cup holders were standard issue. The number of cup holders in a car
has even become a selling point for manufacturers. Subaru’s Ascent SUV made
headlines for sporting 19 cup holders. Drive-thrus have even started to
catch on with restaurants that have long avoided the format. Fast casual chains like Panera and
Cava resisted the drive-thru model for years, but QSR magazine
says that’s changing. Some of the biggest names in fast
casual are adopting the model and showing that the drive -thru can be
compatible with food that takes a little longer to prepare. There’s no question that the
drive-thru is uniquely American. There’s even a national drive-thru day
celebrated every July 24th in the U.S. The drive-thru has spread
to other countries, too. But experts note they’re most popular
in places that share some similarities with the U.S.—low population density and a
car centric culture. Think places like Saudi Arabia, the
United Arab Emirates and Australia. McDonald’s Ireland claims to have brought
the very first drive -thru to Europe when it opened in a
Dublin shopping center in 1985. It was soon rebranded as McDrive. All around the world, McDonald’s
drivers have different names. In Spain, they’re called McAuto. And in Chile and
Paraguay, you’d visit Auto-Mac. There’s even a McSki in Sweden where
customers can pick up Big Macs and McFlurries after a day on the slopes. The drive-thru isn’t particularly popular in
Asia, which has less driving culture and cities with
high population density. In jam-packed cities, fewer people have cars
and real estate for a big drive -thru is expensive. In South Korea, Singapore and Japan
in particular, take out from quick service restaurants is common, but a
small portion of those orders take place in the drive
-thru, according to Technomic. There are some countries that are hardly
showing us much of anything at all, such as Japan, for example, where we
have only about a fifth of those takeout orders that
are drive through. What do we have in Japan? We
have a very concentrated population, right? As the drive -thru has become
an essential revenue stream for fast-food chains, it’s continued to dictate what
products they develop and where they build restaurants. Here’s how
restaurants are bringing drive-thrus into the 2020s. There are a lot of factors that
go into a customer’s experience at the drive-thru. Order accuracy, customer-service
and cleanliness all determine a consumer’s experience
at the drive-thru. It’s not all about speed. In fact, the amount of time customers
spent in the drive-thru actually got longer in 2019 when compared
to the year prior. But customers didn’t seem to
care all that much. Take Chick-Fil-A. It has the longest service
speed, but it comes out on top in accuracy and customer service. Despite the drive-thru service, Chick-Fil-A
actually has incredibly loyal customers, and their customers don’t think that
their wait time is long , which is an interesting
aside to that. So while they have the longest time,
people are going to go there anyway. Fast-food chains see a big opportunity
in improving how customers order. Menu boards are more complicated
than you might expect. There are certain ways to arrange
products and highlight promotions that will encourage customers
to spend more. Fast food-restaurants are designed to be
quick, but sometimes that speed of service in line or at the drive-thru
can end up being stressful for the consumer. And stressed customers
may order less. So fast-food operators think pairing technology
with menus can help solve the problem. There’s a science behind it, but
it’s also a bit of an art. So designing the menu board in the
right way can really help leverage investment and drive returns more than,
more than some people may realize. There’s an industry shift to using
digital menu boards which can be updated faster than printed menus. Digital signs can help restaurants rotate
menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner and remove products
that are sold out. Restaurants that had digital menu
boards made service speedier and customers do care about their menus. In a 2019 survey, 74 percent of customers
said an easy to read menu board is a top priority. But digital menu boards were president
at less than 20 percent of drive-thrus. In the survey, McDonald’s had
the most digital menu boards in place by far, with 60.6 percent. McDonald’s is making huge
commitments to improving menu boards. In March 2019, it bought a tech
company called Dynamic Yield, which uses artificial intelligence to personalize digital
menu boards based on factors like the weather
and restaurant traffic. Let’s say it’s a sunny day, menu boards
enhanced with AI might show you an ice-cream cone or iced-coffee at
the center of the board. For some customers, that
makes choosing easier. It’s also helped McDonald’s too. Former CEO Steve Easterbrook said on
a call with analysts, that adding Dynamic Yeild’s technology to outdoor
digital menu boards is increasing how much customers spent. Some chains are also experimenting with
license plate recognition to speed up drive-thru times and
sell more to customers. Here’s how it works: A camera reads the
license plate on a car in the drive-thru, compares it to information
in a restaurant’s database, and finds that customers ordering history
and credit card details. That allows the restaurant to target menu
items to the customer and use saved payment methods. That technology isn’t being used on a
national scale, but it suggests what could be ahead in
drive -thru innovation. Before you even get to the
point of ordering your food, fast-food restaurants have to convince
customers to choose them. Restaurant experts say sometimes a crowded
drive -thru is enough to turn customers away. To fix congestion in
the drive -thru, the physical format of fast-food restaurants
is changing too. More restaurants are
building dual-lane systems. Sometimes it’s just two typical
drive, order and pay lines. At other restaurants, there’s one traditional
lane and then a second special lane for customers who already
placed and paid for their order online, and are just coming
to pick up their food. Dunkin’, Chick-Fil-A, McDonald’s and others are
testing this kind of dual drive -thru system. But while restaurants
intend to make the drive-thru more efficient, research has shown
dual drive -thrus don’t necessarily speed up service. That was a bit surprising
to us when we sliced the data last year, and we found that it
didn’t necessarily speed up an individual customer’s time in line, but it may
increase the overall throughput for a restaurant. So that’s not to say that
it’s not a good investment, because it might be, but it doesn’t
always speed up, again, an individual customer’s experience there. Restaurant experts say that while dual drive
-thrus may not speed up the process… Hi there, got
a mobile order? Mobile ordering on its own can
succeed in reducing a customer’s ordering stress and increasing efficiency. Ordering through an app
can also improve speed. At Chipotle, service times are as low as
11 seconds at its version of the drive-thru called Chipotlanes. There’s two parts of the of the
process when you go through a traditional drive -thru, that you don’t
have to do at Chipotlane. And there ‘re really two of
the slowest parts of the experience. One is ordering, so not only do you
not have to order at Chipotle, you order ahead on your phone. So the
ordering process has already been taken care of and the
payment process as well. Those are the two things in a
drive-thru that tend to cause the drive-thru to stack up. And that’s what
c auses the wait times. The app also tries to reduce
slow service times during busier periods. At Chipotlanes, if a restaurant has a
lot of orders coming in at once, Chipotle will suggest another time for
pickup, so customers don’t have to wait as long. For instance, the app
might suggest you pick up a lunch order for 12:30 at 12:45 instead. By the end of 2019, Chipotle had
66 Chipotlanes around the country, and plans to add more. Chipotle had a
strong fourth quarter of 2019 with digital sales-growth of 78.3 percent and same-store
sales-growth of 13.4 percent. And some restaurants are literally
going all in on the drive-thru. KFC opened a drive-thru only
restaurant in Australia in 2019, the first of its kind. Customers order on the KFC app and
enter a four-digit code onto a touchscreen receiver, which transmits their
order to the kitchen. The drive-thru has five lanes, three
of which are for online pickup. I wouldn’t be surprised to see
more smartphone technology and more ordering capabilities go
into the car. Domino’s is starting to play with
this, as a matter of fact. The drive-thru used to be the
most convenient way customers could get their fast food. Third-party delivery apps,
like GrubHub and Uber Eats, have disrupted that in the 2010s. Now food from popular chains like
McDonald’s and Tripoli can come straight to your door. Some restaurant experts
say that’s a threat to the drive-thru. The rise in third-party delivery
apps is one of the biggest disruptions in fast-food this decade. In 2018 alone,
consumers ordered $10.2 billion dollars worth of food
from third party delivery services. That size would make the third-party
delivery market the fifth largest U.S. restaurant chain. But as consumers embrace the ease
of ordering through apps like GrubHub and Uber Eats, restaurants are grappling
with how delivery services impact their bottom line. On one hand,
third-party delivery apps may boost the number of customers chains like
McDonald’s and Chipotle reach. On the other hand, restaurants have to
share some of the profits from orders with third-party
delivery services. Delivery providers charge restaurants a
fee of 15-30 percent for fulfilling orders, eating
into restaurant’s profits. Given over the last three years or
so, the advent of the third-party delivery companies, and being able to order
your food on your own and walk inside and pick it up, all of
the other channels available to people to get their food, the drive -thru
has seen an incredible amount of competition. In some cities, Drive-thrus are
just fighting to stay open. Cities across the U.S. are banning the construction
of new drive-thrus. Places in Missouri, California, New
Jersey and Minnesota have implemented bans restricting drive-thrus. These policies aim to improve safety
and walkability in cities and reduce pollution and trash. They also want to
encourage healthier eating. Some research has pointed to
the possibility that legislation curbing drive-thrus promotes
healthier eating. A study of 27 Canadian cities
with fast-food bans found that fast-food drive-thru service bans may play a
role in promoting healthier food environments. Though it was short lived,
in 2008, South Los Angeles was one of the first places in the U.S. to ban construction of new
fast-food restaurants, including drive-thrus. The city stopped the construction of
new fast-food restaurants to address higher than average obesity rates. A few years later, in 2015, the Rand
Corporation did a study on the impact of the 2008 ban and found that
obesity actually increased in the area. Although the number of soft
drinks consumed per person fell. The study concluded that residents had
other places to find unhealthy food, like convenience stores, and that
focusing on reducing portion sizes might have been more effective. Experts say, bans like this
won’t kill the drive-thru. Third-party delivery apps aren’t
likely to either. I would say that the drive-thru
has a very bright future, whereas deliveries future is at this point
seems somewhat questionable when we talk about third-party, and that really
has to do with the economics behind it. Nearly 40 percent of
consumers reported they’re using the drive -thru more often. This spike is part
of a bigger shift, eating off premise, away from a restaurant. Customers want to take
their food and go. To stay competitive, chains have to
make eating outside the restaurant easy and fast. And that’s where the
drive-thru really delivers.