As any quick-service restaurant operator—and customer—knows, drive-thru menuboards come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and capabilities.

Increasingly, the emphasis is on the last of those attributes, as devices become more technologically adept and, as a result, progressively efficient and effective.

Menuboards are better and smarter than ever, whether it is through visual upgrades, with eye-popping animation and colorful digital displays; auditory advances, thanks to speaker and microphone upgrades; and artificial intelligence developments.

“Any innovations in menuboards that I’ve been aware of have to do with technology,” says Tom Cook, principal at King-Casey, a restaurant and foodservice business improvement firm based in Westport, Connecticut. “[The future] is not in static boards,” he says.

A simple way to think about it is in terms of smartphone evolution. “First you had flip phones where all you could do was make calls” he explains. “Now, just think about what smartphones can do,” as refinements and new options are added every year.

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

“It’s pretty clear for innovative brands, like ours, that digital boards are the future,” says Nate Hybl, chief executive of burgeoning Atlanta-area fast casual gusto! The chain will be switching to those boards, featuring “amazing and crisp motion graphics” over the next few years.

Technological advances can make a drive-thru experience more natural, but “you have to be careful,” notes Sean Thompson, information technology director at Wichita, Kansas-based Freddy’s Frozen Custards & Steakburgers. The goal is for a board to be “cool versus creepy.”

Animation alone in the past few years has moved beyond menuboards showing, for instance, steam rising from a cup of coffee to a video display of how coffee or any other menu item is created. Zoom-like video can show an eatery employee speaking to a guest in the drive-thru.

Meanwhile, upgraded speaker systems linked to menuboards are not only seeing improved voice recognition, like Siri or Alexa, but they can rely on artificial intelligence to learn how to differentiate a customer’s voice from background noise or to adapt to different accents.

“Microphones in the past recorded everything, and it would have been hard for a system to adapt to that,” says Minh Le, chief information officer at Checkers and Rally’s. “Now you can tell a human voice versus cars or street noise or birds.”

Artificial intelligence (AI), or machine learning, is key to future quick-service menuboards. It will allow operators to change their boards—even automatically— “depending on factors like weather or product availability,” Cook says. And by learning what customers are ordering, “the menuboard can customize itself to that. It’s all about capturing data and using analytics.”

The use of AI can provide operators a deep dive into what makes their customers tick and goes beyond the individualization that already occurs through tying the guest ordering experience—including menuboards interaction—to mobile apps and loyalty programs.

Examples of these advances can be found across the quick-service restaurant firmament.

Starbucks rolled out the digital barista camera in 2015 to bring the employee-customer personal connection to the drive-through lane

The screens can show the barista taking a guest’s order, the menu item, and the cost. Customers can also view AI-driven beverage and food recommendations, based on weather, relevant beverages and food for the daypart, product availability, or popular items other customers at the store have ordered, says a spokesperson for the Seattle-based giant.

Not only does the barista camera bring a more personal touch to the drive-through, but there have been instances where hearing impaired guests in their cars have been able to order a menu item through sign language or other means.  

Early this year, the chain began rolling out a redesigned digital order screen layout at U.S. drive-thrus. The appearance is similar to Starbucks’ mobile app, builds on existing features like the barista camera, and has a visual order confirmation that mirrors the app-ordering experience.

Gathering data and putting it to work is key to expanding digital drive-through menuboards beyond pretty pictures and nifty graphics, Freddy’s Thompson says. The idea is to reduce order and fulfillment times and make menu choices easier through a data-driven design strategy.

“Most people who come up to a menuboard make their decision in a few seconds,” he says. “So, you have to be quick, but tell the entire story.” Static menuboards change slowly, and even manual entry on digital boards—from pricing to popular items—may lag.

Freddy’s new system was built using more than 3 million lines of data to see what guest behavior was saying. Testing added a million more lines.

For gusto!, moving to a new system means the chain’s unique menu requires order confirmation needs to be strongly woven into the drive-through lane’s digital technology. “Managing that will help us to be more nimble on changes and allow the messaging to be more dynamic,” Hybl says.

“It’s where art meets engineering from a communications standpoint,” he notes. At the same time, the chain intends to complement its upgraded menuboard with a human connection by

Continue to have an employee in the drive-through lane during busy times to help guests.

Checkers and Rally’s new voice assistant has proven to be highly precise—clocking in at 98 percent accuracy rate overall and nearly 100 percent at some locations.

The system is triggered when a guest drives up to the menuboard, and the customer is greeted in real time by a female human-sounding voice connected to the cloud. The voice will respond to the visitor by not only taking the order but by suggesting a combo or other menu item, answering consumer queries, making any corrections, and then providing the payment amount.

Most of the time, an employee in the restaurant “is not involved,” Le says. Instead, the less-pressured worker at the pick-up window is filling drinks, making fries, and accepting payment. In the more than 170 restaurants where the system is installed, “the employees love it.”

The assistant continues to learn. “The longer it works at a store, the more the machine learns and builds up its dictionary,” the CIO notes.

At most Checkers and Rally’s units, the new voice assistant involves minimal cost for franchises that had updated their overall timer and headset systems over the past five years.

Certainly, cost is a factor as technology continues to move forward. “As we roll out all these things out, we have to be sensitive to the needs of our franchise community,” Thompson says. These devices are not free, “so let’s do it where it makes sense, for us and for franchisees.”  

Customer Experience, Drive Thru, Fast Casual, Fast Food, Ordering, Restaurant Operations, Story, Technology, Checkers/Rally's, Freddy's, gusto!