Change is afoot at the drive-thru window. While the principles of the drive thru have remained the same for decades, new technology and tighter operations are ensuring that menuboards and broader menu strategies will evolve as brands attempt to maximize the outdoor lane.

One important drive-thru innovation came roughly 25 years ago, when King-Casey, a retail consulting and design firm, worked with Burger King to place pre-selling signs along the path to purchase, where customers wait to get to the drive-thru ordering station, says Tom Cook, principal at King-Casey.

“Our consumer research found that customers often panicked when prompted with the question, ‘Can I take your order?’” Cook says.

Yard signs with featured specials or bundled meals helped ease this anxiety, while also speeding up orders and providing more upsell potential, he adds.

At Caribou Coffee, the positioning of drive-thru menuboards aids the upselling of the brand’s specialty coffee beverages, says Michele Vig, vice president of marketing. “There are many studies that indicate customers are most likely to ordser from the right side of the menu-board,” she says. “A clean and easy-to-read menuboard that strategically groups items is also very important. The position of the menuboard is key when considering add-on purchases.”

These ordering cues still help the drive-thru run smoothly, says Rich Goodman, vice president of operations services at Firehouse Subs. He says preview boards are an important part of maximizing what he calls the “car stack” in the drive-thru business. The location of the order board and the distance between it and the pick-up window are critical to smooth and speedy service.

Caribou’s Vig says the ideal car stack should be between four and seven cars. “Operational efficiencies within the drive thru are important,” she says. “Retailers must … consider how many cars can fit between the speaker and the window … so patrons do not wait too long in line or at the pick-up window.”

Also critical, Goodman says, is that outdoor menuboards be clean, well lit, and easy to read. He advises operators make sure menuboards are angled to avoid sun glare and to ensure readability from at least two cars back in the stack.

“It’s important for indoor and outdoor menus to be identical, but the outdoor ones need to be simple and easy, because you have less geography. Combos need to be front-and-center,” Goodman says. “Build point-of-sale prompts into the order processing system and use crew training to address a lot of the extras and upselling.”

For chicken chain Popeyes, speed is the name of the game at the drive thru, says Hector Munoz, vice president of marketing. He says he sees “big, bold, and highly appetizing food photography” as another way to help customers easily navigate through their drive-thru experience.

“Visuals of the product offerings also help with ease of decision-making,” Vig says. “A clean, concise, and easy-to-read menuboard is crucial to help customers make quick decisions.”

As signage and menuboards move to digital platforms, the drive thru will be at the forefront of even more quick-serve innovation, says Rick Elliot, director of food services drive-thru solutions at Panasonic Systems Corporation of North America. He says features like two-way videos, software integration, remote monitoring, order confirmation, and upselling capabilities will propel drive-thru systems into the 21st Century.

Pre-set sizes, printing processes, and labor-intensive changes limit traditional static menuboards. While digital menuboards may require some significant start-up costs, they ultimately save time and money and maximize space, Cook says.

Digital is easier to change and synchronize between the outside and inside, is customizable, and is not limited to pre-set size parameters like panels or posters, he adds.

Popeyes’ Munoz sees other big advantages to using digital menuboards. “You have the ability to promote targeted, multiple offers in a much more appetizing way, using both animation and video footage,” he says. “Additionally, you have the ability to daypart your messages.”

Munoz recommends promoting single-user offers and combo meals during lunch, snack items between 2 and 4 p.m., and family meals and desserts during the dinner-time period.

While this ability to make changes in a timely manner is hard to beat, operators with lower-tech signs can borrow some of these strategies. Effective drive-thru menus toe the line between a simple price list and too many words, experts say.

“Studies have shown the most effective boards are highly visual, with minimal print,” Vig says. “The boards should focus on pricing and product photos to help guests quickly view their choices and spot exactly what they would like.”

Products that have the highest share of sales should be featured in the hot spot, or at dead center of the drive-thru menu, and photos are always effective.

“If a menu description goes too long, edit it. Streamline and consider putting more complicated items in your pre-sell sign strategy,” Cook says.

If a new menu organization strategy is working inside, test it outside, says Gregg Rapp, a menu design expert and restaurant consultant. “The food should dictate menu composition, not the size of the medium you are using,” he adds.

Rapp notes how Dairy Queen tried a system for sorting ice cream and shake flavors into categories such as candy, cookies, and fruit. This strategy helped people pass over what they did not want and find their favorites more easily.

The drive-thru menuboard also presents marketing opportunities. “When McDonald’s wants to communicate better health, they feature salads in their drive-thru messaging,” Cook says. “Salads are still less than 1 percent of sales, but it’s not just about the sales in this case.” The same goes for seasonal or new items, from holiday coffee flavors to snack-sized chicken bites, he adds.

Operators as varied as Starbucks and Panera have expressed interest in grabbing more of the grab-and-go business, which means innovations should keep coming.

Panasonic’s Elliot also looks ahead to optimum drive-thru speeds and can see a day when the technology knows a customer’s order before the customer does.

“Our point-of-sale journals collect extremely accurate data, so we can deliver the most effective upselling messages to the right customer based on the gender, age, and the car driven by the customer,” Elliot says, describing a futuristic drive thru.

Customer Experience, Drive Thru, Menu Innovations, Ordering, Story, Caribou Coffee, Firehouse Subs, Popeyes