The drive-thru has become such a ubiquitous part of the quick-service restaurant format that most customers probably don’t give it much thought. So it’s hard to imagine how novel a concept it must have seemed when Kirby’s Pig Stand introduced the first drive-thru in 1927—Kirby’s was ahead of the curve from the start, having also opened the first drive-in restaurant in Dallas in 1921.

The basic procedure of the drive-thru hasn’t changed much over the decades. You drive up to a menu board and order into a microphone, then pull up to a window where you pay for your selections, take your meal in a paper bag, and then cruise off to enjoy it elsewhere.

Then 2020 came, and the status of the drive-thru was elevated from a convenience to a critical lifeline for many restaurants. COVID-19 made on-premises dining less safe and appealing—and even inaccessible, during periods of lockdown. The pandemic gave a serious boost to all things off-premise, including online ordering, curbside pick-up, and of course the once-humble drive-thru experience. 

Drive through to increased revenue

This shift was noticeable right from the start. The U.S. declared the pandemic a national emergency on March 13, 2020. According to the NPD Group, drive-thru restaurant visits increased by 26 percent in the April, May, and June quarter of that year, and represented 42% of all restaurant visits. For some chains, getting through 2020 meant relying heavily on the drive-thru lane. McDonald’s, for example, reported that in its top markets drive-thru orders accounted for 70 percent of total sales.

Little wonder, then, that restaurants view the drive-thru as the inevitable pathway to increased revenue and greater efficiency. According to TD Bank’s most recent Restaurant Franchise Pulse survey of U.S. restaurant operators, 45 percent said they plan to provide additional drive-thru locations.

As any Spider-Man fan will tell you, however, with great power comes great responsibility. Adding a drive-thru might very well be good for your bottom line, but its benefits must not come at the expense of providing customers with a quality product and good service. The surge in customer volume at drive-thru lanes has brought with it a number of unpleasant side effects, including more traffic congestion and longer wait times.

In QSR’s annual drive-thru study, speed wasn’t such a cut-and-dry statistic anymore. The top chain, Chick-fil-A, led in accuracy but also trailed in speed.

Technology holds the answers

These issues are not just going to fix themselves. And while there may be low-tech solutions—like Burger King’s plan to cut menu items as a means of decreasing service times—technology likely holds the most effective answers. 

Some quick-serves have already implemented mobile-order drive-thru, which eliminates waiting altogether by enabling customers to order ahead on their own device and pick up their food at a dedicated mobile-order lane.

Automation and artificial intelligence will play major roles in the modernization of the drive-thru. Companies are already experimenting with smart menu boards that incorporate AI voice systems to converse with drivers and take their orders—think Siri or Alexa, but for fast food.

Restaurants with loyalty programs can offer various perks to customers, through software that recognizes program members using Bluetooth or license-plate recognition (which requires the prior consent of the vehicle). Another option is geofencing, a location-based service in which a mobile device or RFID tag triggers a pre-programmed action when the customer pulls into the drive-thru lane. The software can personalize signage and pull a customer’s order history to suggest menu orders or offer members-only deals and discounts. 

We’re at the very beginning of what could be a golden age of drive-thru tech. For restaurant operators, this is all very invigorating. Customers should be pretty excited about it too; after all, they can look forward to shorter waits, more accurate orders, and an overall more efficient experience. Wins all around.

And who knows, maybe in another few decades we’ll be taking our self-driving hover-cars to the fly-thru lane—if someone can make that tech happen. Would you like fries with that, Mr. Musk?

Paul Rubin brings decades of experience in restaurant software to his role of CSO at PAR, most notably as the founder and CEO of Brink, the industry-leading POS software platform. With a unique blend of marketing and technical talent, he is a consistent innovator in his field. In addition to his industry acumen and accolades, he holds a degree in Psychology from Arizona State University.

Drive Thru, Fast Food, Ordering, Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story, Technology