As consumers seek out more contactless dining options, restaurant drive-thrus and curbside delivery services are seeing a boost in popularity. According to research from The NPD Group, drive-thru visits increased by 26 percent in the second quarter of 2020 (April-June) and represented 42 percent of all restaurant visits during that time frame.

The effectiveness of a restaurant’s drive-thru service is and always will be judged on speed—how fast can an order be taken, processed, and delivered to the customer. The gold standard all restaurants try to meet for drive-thru service is three minutes. With demand skyrocketing, and lines growing longer despite multi-lane concepts, it is getting more challenging to meet that goal. The trick is balancing when the order is taken with how quickly it can be fulfilled. Customers become increasingly less satisfied when they must wait to have the payment taken, and that dissatisfaction increases even more rapidly once payment is taken.

We’re seeing a fundamental change in the ways a restaurant approaches all its operations, from traditional takeout to curbside and drive-thru services, with the end goal to reduce wait times. Restaurants are directing their focus to the operational efficiency of their business, rethinking their workflows including streamlining how an order is processed and fulfilled, not just how it is taken.

Technology can help restaurants prepare for the rush

When it comes to efficiently processing orders, restaurants should think about a fully integrated fulfillment journey. An intelligent starting point would be to review existing data to help forecast and predict traffic volume, menu item affinities, and arrival times. This is a basic analysis that most restaurants conduct to balance inventory and waste—the important next step is employing predictive models and technology to help optimize kitchen operations in preparation for the rush.

A comprehensive kitchen display system also plays an important role in helping a restaurant optimize its operations. These systems provide real-time updates from a restaurant’s point-of-sale (POS) system, website, and mobile apps. They can use predefined cooking times to prioritize orders, the preparation of tasks, and provide automatic alerts to kitchen staff regarding orders that have exceeded the restaurant’s service standards.

Nordic fast-food chain Sibylla is a great example of how to quickly leverage new technology to increase response times and better serve customers. Sibylla offered drive-thru options at 36 sites, but until this spring had not set up online ordering and pick-up. The company was able to quickly pivot and deploy both online ordering and contact-free pick up to customers across its properties. These changes guaranteed customers could continue to rely on the comfort food they have enjoyed for the past 88 years and ensured the restaurant could efficiently manage fluctuating orders and a variety of pick-up methods in a safe and timely manner. In just weeks, the company went from the idea of expanding online ordering and pick-up to having all locations live and operational.

Even if a restaurant is only able to offer traditional in-store takeout service to its diners, optimizing kitchen operations will still have a significant impact. One restaurant that has successfully improved its operations for drive-thru and traditional take-out is Sweden’s Panini Internazionale. With 27 stores across the country, the sandwich shop has been at the forefront of online ordering in the region. At Panini, customers can order multiple ways—in the store, via a Panini app, online for delivery, and contactless payment through mobile scan. No matter how the order comes in, Panini is able to keep their restaurant running efficiently and provide top-notch food and service to their customers.

Curbside is critical

According to a recent restaurant survey by Oracle, half of the consumers in the US who ordered delivery during stay-at-home-orders plan to start picking up their meals again. With many patrons still wanting to avoid indoor spaces, this equates to a big spike in demand for curbside and drive-thru services.

Not all restaurants—especially in cities and other urban areas—have the space available to have or expand their drive-thru operations. This makes the curbside experience an even more important dining option. Restaurants will need to adjust and refine their curbside processes so that they are seamless. As a diner enters the parking lot, a restaurant staffer should be able to discern who the customer is from any number of technology identifying markers and be ready to complete the delivery of their order.

Connected devices like mobile phones, beacons, and geolocation can help with this, as they provide restaurants the ability to track a customer’s location from the time they place their order until they arrive at the restaurant. This enables businesses to pinpoint when they should prepare the order so that it will be ready exactly when the customer arrives, minimizing wait times and maximizing efficiency.

Major brands like Dunkin’ have significantly reduced wait times in frictionless drive-thrus, allowing stores to service more vehicles than ever before. New technology services assist Dunkin’ stores with menu management by allowing them to track a customer’s preferences for specific menu items, enabling the business to streamline their menus where needed, and increasing the business’s performance. These technologies also shorten wait times for diners, speedily advancing them through the drive-thru to pick up their meal. Having a quicker drive-thru experience not only increases mobile order revenue but also customer experience. Customer satisfaction increases as wait times decrease—the net result is a better customer experience and fresher food for the customer. 

A customers’ tolerance for waiting for the delivery of their meal is incredibly low, so any service that can shorten wait times are extra critical. And with winter weather about to arrive in the northern hemisphere, customers will be in even more of a rush to pick up their food, get home and out of the cold. In addition, receiving these deliveries right the first time will be critical to maintaining customer loyalty. The restaurant survey found that 27 percent of consumers stopped ordering from restaurants after a bad takeout experience. Restaurants can’t take that risk.

There is no question that consumers demand convenience, and with the increased appetite to order ahead, we expect a natural evolution of that pickup process. Advancements in technology will enable the experience of online ordering, pickup, delivery, and drive-thru to be consolidated into one seamless experience. With the right technology and processes in place at a restaurant, drive-thrus and curbside fulfillment will become even more important and demand than they are today.

Tim Brown is the VP of Global Sales Engineering at Oracle Food and Beverage.

Drive Thru, Outside Insights, Story, Technology