The rise in off-premises dining occasions has some interesting implications for the drive-thru operation. On one hand, the popularity of services like third-party delivery could alleviate some of the pressure in the drive-thru lane by pulling some business out of it. On the other, mobile ordering and other digital advances have made it easier than ever for customers to order ahead, and a drive-thru lane becomes a natural fit for facilitating order pickup.
While it remains to be seen what kind of long-term effects the off-premises business will have on the drive thru, this year's data shows that the outdoor lane is less busy than last year (with the exception, perhaps, of Chick-fil-A and Burger King).
Chick-fil-A once again reigns in drive-thru popularity, with more than three-quarters of its drive thrus boasting three or more cars at the time of this study's audits, and more than a third having six or more cars. Dual drive-thru lanes have become a chief priority for the company, but Cooper also says the brand's tablet approach to line-busting is helping relieve a lot of the pressure outside.
"We've seen restaurants be able to get more cars per hour through our drive thru since we started engaging technology like this," she says.
Across the industry, other strategies to fight busy drive-thru lanes include curbside pickup options and special parking spots to direct cars that are waiting for orders. But Arby's Kelly isn't too keen on that approach; the brand's goal is to always have the order ready to go at the window.
"If it's not ready, our guidance to the restaurants is to continue to work on the car that's at the window," he says. "If it's going to take long and it's a very large order and the next car is ready, we will allow them to move the car with that order up. But in my experience, having somebody come into the drive-thru lane and telling them to pull forward doesn't make their drive-thru experience quicker."
Which leads us back to mobile ordering. If done right, a mobile-ordering application in the drive thru could allow guests to self-select their experience (thereby empowering them to go at their own speed) while also making a significant portion of the drive-thru business more timely and efficient. It's an approach many quick serves are already proving successful inside the restaurant.
"Our mobile-ordering approach allows our customers to check in when they arrive at our restaurant," Wendy's Ajmani says. "This ensures that their order goes to the kitchen at the right time and their food is hot and fresh. While exploring the efficiency of curbside pickup or employing fast lanes [for mobile-order pickups in the drive thru], there's a lot of factors that require thoughtful consideration—and we're not one to rush greatness."