Drive thrus haven’t changed much since they first sprouted up across America in the 1950s—at least from the customer’s perspective. There’s still the drive-thru lane, the menuboard, the order station, and the pickup window.
But that also means many of the problems traditionally associated with ordering a meal from the car remain for guests: the anxiety of having to choose what they want quickly after they pull up to the menuboard; the fact that they often have to wait in lengthy lines; the unpleasant experience of having to yell out their window and pray to the takeout gods that the employee inside can actually hear what they’re saying.
It all adds up to one harsh reality: Drive thrus aren’t always associated with quality, which is a big part of the reason why many fast-casual restaurants have opted not to install them.
But things are starting to change. With new digital tools available to the limited-service industry, a renaissance is underway that rethinks how the customers get their food to go quickly and conveniently.
Just look at Starbird Chicken, which opened its first location in Sunnyvale, California, in June. Instead of customers waiting in a long, exhaust fume–filled drive-thru lane, they can place their orders on their phones, drive to Starbird, pull into a parking space, and have their food delivered to their car no more than five minutes after they arrive. They can even save their favorite orders, customization and all, and reorder them in seconds.
“The main thing the drive thru today allows the consumer to do is not get out of their car to get their food, which is great,” says Aaron Noveshen, cofounder and CEO of the brand, as well as CEO of the San Francisco–based chef consultancy The Culinary Edge. “We basically looked at all the pain points of the drive thru and said, ‘How might we be able to fix them?’”
The store doesn’t have a physical drive-thru lane, just the curbside parking spaces. The kitchen doesn’t start preparing an order until the customers indicate via the mobile app that they’ve pulled into the restaurant’s parking lot, so the orders are hot and fresh when the customers get it. The order-ahead function works for in-store takeout, as well.
“It immediately fires the order the second you say, ‘I’m here,’” Noveshen says. “You could say ‘I’m here’ five minutes away, and it will be ready literally the minute you [get there].”
Noveshen says this system is significantly faster than a traditional drive thru, especially during peak hours. “You also can pay via the app, and you can earn rewards via the app,” he says. “You have someone who comes out to your car and hands you your food. You don’t have that barrier of a window slamming in your face. It’s a little nicer service experience, we believe.”
Starbird isn’t the only concept using mobile ordering to update the take-out experience. As Americans continue to spend more time on their mobile devices—the company eMarketer projected that adults would spend an average of three hours per day on their phones in 2016, excluding making calls—an increasing number of operators are experimenting with the technology as it relates to food pickup and delivery.
“Apps will become a more important part of drive-thru or curbside-pickup ordering going forward,” says Carman Wenkoff, CIO and chief development officer for Subway. “They allow customers to expedite speed of service, skip traditional drive-thru ordering communications, and not fumble around with payment.”
Subway quietly launched an app with mobile-ordering capabilities over a year ago in all of its U.S. restaurants, and while the chain won’t disclose specific numbers, it says the percentage of sales that are made digitally have grown steadily since then. “We didn’t have a big marketing launch, as this was the first time that our restaurants accepted remote orders, and we wanted to make sure that our franchisees were able to adapt well to the new operational procedures,” Wenkoff says.
Jackie Berg, director of marketing for Olo, a digital ordering platform for multiunit restaurants, says mobile programs are “the gateway to increasing throughput at the drive-thru.” But she points out that mobile technology isn’t without its challenges.
“Operators really need to think about the small details that are specific to remote orders,” she says. “What happens on holidays when there may be modified orders? What about limited-time offers or substitutes for out-of-stock situations during limited runs?”
Point-of-sale (POS) systems in particular are an important piece to the mobile-ordering puzzle. Third-party vendors typically provide those systems, which means brands must work with their vendors to ensure the proper integration. In addition, many multiunit concepts, especially larger franchised chains, use several POS vendors across their system.
While having one unified POS system is convenient for mobile platforms, Berg says, operators should explore a mobile strategy even if their POS varies from location to location.
“I think operators tend to think, ‘Oh, we need to have everyone on the same POS,’ but in a heavily franchised organization, that can be a challenge, and you may be waiting a long time,” she says. “That can be dangerous, because you’re losing market share to people who are perfecting mobile sales.”
She recommends using a mobile platform that’s compatible with the concept’s most-used POS, and then having an off-POS equivalent for other stores.
Chris Gardner, head of in-store products at PayPal and chief product officer of Paydiant, which lets retailers build features like one-click payment and loyalty programs into their own apps, says he thinks the idea of using one POS system will soon become a thing of the past.
“Not every payment has to work exactly the same way,” he says. “You’ll start to see a purchasing … experience that is optimized around streamlining what the consumer has to do, as opposed to being focused around one particular technology.”
Once operators have the technology function in place for an order-ahead mobile program, the next challenge is getting customers to use it.
With Starbird, the company’s website explains the mobile app and curbside experience and encourages customers to download the app. The menuboard inside the restaurant references the app, as well. “We also are printing up information we’ll be putting in all to-go orders,” Noveshen says. “And we just took a lot of photographs for our Instagram feed that are going to feature and show that experience.”
Gardner recommends that brands promote their mobile app experience on every piece of traditional media they do, whether it’s print, radio, or TV. He adds that operators could look at industries outside the restaurant world when considering ways to drive app downloads, or discuss with their vendors.
Once customers download a restaurant’s app, making the ordering process and drive-thru or curbside experience as seamless as possible for them is key, Berg says.
“The beauty of the drive thru and why brands rely on it so heavily is it’s all about utility,” Berg says. “So if you’re introducing technology that’s too hard for customers to use, that drive-thru line, even if it has eight cars in it, isn’t going to look so bad. In the digital-ordering environment, if customers don’t see it’s going to be fast or secure, they’ll abandon it and say, ‘You know what? ‘I’ll just go in and wait in line—or I’ll go somewhere else where I know there won’t be a line at the drive thru or the counter.’”
She adds that enabling in-app payment can improve a customer’s experience, as can ensuring the restaurant has enough staff to minimize the wait time once a customer arrives at the store. For example, there could be one employee dedicated to running orders out to cars, especially during peak hours.
Berg says some new technologies, such as bluetooth and geolocation, make it possible to detect when customers arrive, alerting the restaurant to fire their order. But while some people might find that functionality cool, she says, others could consider it an invasion of privacy.
“We have innovation labs testing how customers respond to some of these things,” Berg says. “Our position is we think it’ll take customers a while to adapt to location-aware technology, but that doesn’t mean you should abandon it.”
After all, when customers are ready to adopt new technologies, the payoff can be big. Just look at Tropical Smoothie Café; the company launched mobile ordering system-wide in June, and by mid-July, more than 600,000 people had downloaded the app.
“This really tells us that our customers across our 500 locations in 40 states who love our brand [are] engaged in apps,” says Jennifer Crawford, the chain’s field marketing manager. “Our daily download numbers are just astronomical.”
Tropical Smoothie Café’s app is integrated into its POS system and allows customers to place their orders, set the time they want to pick them up, and have the orders waiting for them in a specially designated part of the restaurant. CEO Mike Rotondo says the program has brought speedy service to in-line locations that couldn’t include a drive thru. Curbside pickup might also be an option in the future, he adds.
Tropical Smoothie’s app has also given the brand additional opportunities to communicate with its frequent customers.
“I’ll give you an example,” Rotondo says. “We were looking at making a change to an ingredient in one of our smoothies. What we’re able to do with the app is reach out to customers who are currently buying this product and ask them if they’d be interested in coming in to be part of a taste test. We had 50 customers respond and say, ‘I love that product, I buy it all the time, I’d be interested in being part of a test panel.’”
Berg says leveraging a mobile app in this way is a smart strategy, and stresses the importance of bringing what Olo calls “digital hospitality” to consumers, particularly the most loyal ones.
“This is all about being able to have a good experience,” she says. “That becomes even more important when you’re not going through the line and customizing your order as you normally would.”