Speed. Convenience. Throughput. Accuracy. Innovation. A discussion of drive-thru restaurants in the modern era is incomplete without consideration given to each of these attributes.

The history of restaurant drive-thru service stems back to the 1920s, but I think most would agree that it was not until the 1970s that the drive-thru menu board, speaker and pickup window blossomed as an integral part of American culture. Before long, the drive-thru was synonymous with fast-food restaurants. For a period of time, the absence of a drive-thru lane would merit the classification of a restaurant as something other than a fast-food restaurant (e.g., a fast-casual), but in a sign of the times, drive-thru service is becoming as important to some fast-casual concepts as it is to conventional quick-service restaurants.

Of all the aforementioned attributes, achieving warp speed is at the top of the priority list. Speed of service enhances convenience, and faster speed of service increases throughput. As all drive-thru operators know, delivering accurate orders to the guest is a fundamental part of the recipe for achieving high levels of guest satisfaction, and the quest for greater speed can be a combustible point of friction with accuracy. The common solution for improving speed and accuracy is often found in menu and operational simplification; the balancing act between the two is a constant exercise given the fact that little remains static in the business environment.

READ MORE: Check out QSR’s 2022 Drive-Thru Report

Innovation is the pathway toward optimization of the drive-thru business model. The drive-thru itself is a form of innovation. The improvements made to the service model over the past several decades constitute a steady stream of technological innovations designed to improveyou guessed itspeed, throughput and accuracy.

My first experience operating a drive-thru was in 1980, and I remember well the days of air-hose bells that signaled the car at a speaker. Mirrors enabled the line-of-sight to cars at the menu board and the stack lane that trailed them and served as a warning to get another basket or two of fries down. Short stack lanes between the menu board and the pick-up window turned large orders into major bottlenecks. Clipboard-clutching and stop-watch-yielding district managers were a common sight outside of your restaurant. Crude speakers and microphones were fodder for late-night comedians.

Yet we managed to make it all work and achieved sub-30 second window times. How? Limited menus (compared to today) and operational simplicity offset the crude instruments of the day. Of course, at the time, they weren’t viewed as liabilities. They were the norm, and when coupled with a well-trained and motivated restaurant team, we went into battle every day in a heady pursuit of breaking the 100 car per-hour mark. I might add that, looking back on it, it was fun.

Over the years, there have been many technological and operational system enhancements that have improved speed, throughput and accuracy. Ideally, these improvements have boosted convenience for the guest, which in the end becomes the most significant benefit that drives usage of the channel. After all, if not for being of greater convenience than other ways of accessing the brand, why would the guest use a drive-thru to begin with? If not for a financial reason to do so (e.g., a lower price point compared to other channels of trade), I’m at a loss.         

All that being said, I believe there is another attribute that is not given enough consideration when designing and operating a drive-thru. If I wanted the highest-performing drive-thru, I’d request one more thing from my engineer: impulse power.

An advantage that drive-thru restaurants possess over other providers of ready-to-eat meals is the ability to capture consumers based upon impulse. It is not unusual for more than 80 percent of a quick-service restaurant’s sales volume to be derived from the drive-thru. And of that, an uncertain (but one would assume consequential) percentage of the sales volume is derived from impulsive decision making. A restaurant that is not designed and operated with this segment of the market in mind is likely missing out on business.

Impulse and convenience are intertwined, but they are not the same. For example, ingress and egress (the right to enter and/or exit) are both very important aspects of restaurant design. If we are focusing on convenience, ingress and egress are of relatively equal importance. However, when it comes to appealing to impulsive decision making, ingress is by far the dominant factor. Any factor that detracts from the consumer’s ability to act on impulse is one that will potentially limit sales.   

Impulsive behavior is complicated—it is decision making that is done in a small fraction of time. For example, a consumer may make a convenience-driven decision to visit a restaurant that has a reputation for slow or inconsistent service. They love the food, but haven’t been thrilled with the speed of service in the past. The decision to go to that restaurant is nevertheless driven by convenience, simply due to the fact that it is a quick-service drive-thru and fits within a certain drive time that aligns with their need for convenience. On this particular occasion, as the consumer drives within sight of the restaurant property, they observe that there are no cars in the drive-thru lane. They can then breathe a sigh of relief and go ahead with their order and purchase. Alternatively, the consumer may see eight cars in line, and given their past service experiences, they’d more than likely make a spontaneous and impulsive decision to order at the competitor across the street.  

As brands refine or reinvent the drive-thru experience, the ability to satisfy the impulse purchase may be the most significant factor for optimizing sales volume. Once the design is optimized and implemented, the battle is waged in the field by each individual restaurant striving to perform at the highest level with the tools they have been provided. Make no bones about it: the winner will capture more than their fair share of the drive-thru galaxy.

Don Fox is Chief Executive Officer of Firehouse Subs, in which he leads the strategic growth of Firehouse Subs, one of the world’s leading restaurant brands. Under his leadership, the brand has grown to more than 1,200 restaurants in 45 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and non-traditional locations. Don sits on various boards of influence in the business and non-profit communities, and is a respected speaker, commentator and published author. He was recognized by Nation’s Restaurant News as 2011’s Operator of the Year. In 2013, he received the prestigious Silver Plate Award from the International Food Manufacturers Association (IFMA). 

Business Advice, Drive Thru, Fast Casual, Fast Food, Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story, Firehouse Subs