During the first four months of 2021, visits to the 20 largest fast-food chains increased by 33% nationwide, according to an analysis of GPS tracking data by TOP Data. More demand should be a good thing for businesses. But several factors, including staffing shortages, increased expectations for the customer experience, and uncertainties about Covid-19, are making it difficult for restaurants to handle the surge—let alone prepare for the future.

Juggling “here and now” challenges while navigating rapid digital transformation is not easy, especially when restaurants are grappling with so many unknowns. How big an impact will the Delta variant have on customer behavior and the economy? Will mobile app adoption continue as the pandemic subsides? Will customers return to dining rooms in droves as mask mandates change? While the list of unanswered questions goes on, there are steps that quick-service restaurants can take to both achieve short-term outcomes and prepare for long-term success. 

Let’s start by considering five restaurant priorities, and how they can drive results across each area using a mixture of strategic messaging, existing solutions, and emerging technology.

Priority 1: Staffing and employee training

Hiring in the restaurant space is on the rise, but staffing levels are still below pre-pandemic levels. According to June 2021 research from the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry remains about 1.5 million jobs short of where it needs to be. A survey by the Association in April found that 84% of restaurant operators say staffing levels are lower than normal. As quick-serves are recovering faster than sit-down restaurants, they are feeling the impact the most. 

While there is no quick fix for a nationwide labor shortage, reducing turnover is a good place for restaurants to start. Turnover in the quick-service restaurant industry was high pre-Covid, at upwards of 150%. Now, eateries are asking more of their staff than ever before, which has contributed to increased turnover rates for some fast-food chains. In addition to keeping the establishment safe and clean, employees must also deliver exemplary customer experiences that keep guests coming back. Most turnover happens in an employee’s first 90 days, underscoring the importance of training. One way to improve education and combat turnover at both the front and back of the house is by using digital signage and strategic messaging as communication vehicles to reinforce safety protocols and other job functions. Restaurants should also use workplace digital screens to thank and encourage staff. Likewise, restaurants can use on-site televisions, digital screens, and overhead messaging to engage potential job prospects. Rather than trying the typical “we are hiring” message, quick-serves can stand out by promoting educational and career advancement opportunities.   

Priority 2: The modern drive-thru experience

Speed and accuracy are not the only things that matter at the drive-thru. Category leaders like Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, and McDonald’s also emphasize customer service and delivering a memorable, on-brand experience. New best practices emerged during the pandemic to manage record-breaking lines, such as introducing multiple lanes and using a concierge-like approach, in which employees take orders before a car gets to the drive-thru window. Implementing outdoor ordering traditionally required companies to invest in Wi-Fi extenders, portable point of sale terminals, software, and extensive training. But, turnkey portable drive-thru ordering solutions are emerging, allowing restaurants to launch outdoor concierge services more quickly. quick-service restaurant players can also use customizable digital menus to enable easy product and pricing updates—a necessity in the face of supply-chain challenges. Even more exciting, these menus pave the way for the drive-thru experience of the future: personalized menu recommendations that reflect a customer’s past ordering history.

Priority 3: Mobile apps that drive brand loyalty

Digital sales soared during the pandemic. At Domino’s, digital sales now account for 75% of total revenue, while Wendy’s doubled digital sales to 5% in Q2 2020. At Starbucks, mobile orders account for more than 20% of transactions and continue to rise. The coffee company isn’t just driving app downloads—it is increasing brand loyalty. Why waste time ordering your complicated coffee drink elsewhere when Starbucks has your “usual” saved? Moving forward, customers will expect seamless online ordering like this from every restaurant, so quick-service restaurants must invest in these solutions now or risk falling behind. 

Priority 4: Exceptional in-person experiences

While delivery and takeout have emerged as key focus areas, the in-person experience still matters, whether a guest is sitting in the dining room or grabbing food to go. Fast-food restaurants should look for ways to connect with customers on a local level and lean into community ties. To do so, brands can use strategic messaging on their televisions, signage, and overhead systems that highlight local owners and celebrate employees and communities. Restaurants can also highlight their charitable giving at both the national and local levels to build their brand and strengthen customer loyalty. These types of messages will certainly deliver greater ROI than linear TV or music alone.  

Priority 5: Technology and digital connectivity

Customer preferences for how they order and where they dine may wax and wane. But they will continue to expect cohesive digital and in-person experiences that reflect brand ideals and meet their expectations for fast, friendly, and personalized service. That requires strategy, but also, technology. A 5-year-old mobile phone is considered seriously outdated. Yet, many quick-service restaurant companies are working with 15-year-old technology. Now is the time to invest in the systems and software needed to meet customer expectations. Flexible, cloud-based solutions enable businesses to merge disparate data sources and integrate emerging technology, from personalized digital menus to touch-free kiosks empowered by conversational AI. 

The brands that have come out ahead during the pandemic thus far are the ones that embraced digital connectivity and integrated customer experiences even before the pandemic. But it is not too late for the rest of the industry. With the right priorities and a thoughtful approach to messaging, experiences, and technology, restaurants can navigate their immediate challenges while laying the groundwork for future success.


Jaime Bettencourt, Senior Vice President, North America, Account Management at Mood Media, is is an accomplished senior-level sales and marketing leader with a proven ability to achieve double-digit revenue growth, recognized for designing world-class customer experiences for leading lifestyle and retail brands. She has a robust track record for leading teams and leveraging custom, complex in-store marketing, media, and technology solutions for Fortune 500 clients in the retail space. Throughout Jaime’s 20 years at Mood Media, she’s been in various marketing, branding and sales leadership roles and has worked with global organizations to enhance in-store experiences through targeted brand initiatives and marketing strategies supported by customer insights and analytics.

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