With the need to provide food to guests safely and efficiently, quick-serve restaurants depend on their drive-thrus more than ever. Drive-thru service, which represents 43 percent share of traffic, grew by 24 percent in October compared to a year ago, according to The NPD Group’s foodservice market research, which daily tracks how U.S. consumers use restaurants and foodservice outlets.
Operators need to consider throughput and speed in light of more and more people taking advantage of drive-thrus. Efficient use of the drive-thru window means quicker speed of service and can lead to serving more customers and increased sales.
Quick-service restaurant operations are looking to avoid bottlenecks and protect their employees and customers during COVID-19. They have adapted their drive-thru service to meet current needs, including the following:
- Reevaluating their drive-thru operation to meet both pre-placed and on-site food orders efficiently
- Setting up plexiglass windows as a barrier between drive-thru workers and customers
- Using existing supplies, like elongated pans, to extend their reach to guests in their cars without making direct contact
- Expanding service with make-shift drive-thru lanes in parking lots and using tablets to take orders carside, while still using the window for pick-up
According to Datassential research, a majority of operators feel drive-thru ordering is easy for them to do safely, but 27 percent still find it difficult to do.
The features of a drive-thru window are important when evaluating the safety of this service option. Here are four safety factors to consider in a drive-thru solution:
Limiting or eliminating the contact between the employee and guest may be the most important safety factor. Drive-thru windows with airtight barriers or revolving windows ensure that these parties don’t interact directly.
Limiting air flow
A window design that reduces heat or air conditioning loss eliminates the need for auxiliary heaters, fly fans and air curtains, as these more elaborate options can increase costs. For example, windows with an airtight cylinder don’t require these additional components and enable order delivery without robbing the building of costly heat and air conditioning and keep the outside air and germs out.
Operators should consider how to-go orders can fit through the window or opening in a barrier. As more quick-serve restaurants offer family-style meals, the order size—and in turn, the packaging—has increased. Operators need to think through the best way to deliver orders of all sizes as safely as possible.
Safe food delivery is a key factor, but those practices should include payments as well. Options such as Apple Pay, Google Pay and restaurant and third-party apps have eliminated some payment exchanges, but there is still a need to be able to take credit cards or cash. An extendable tray with coin and card holder can reduce the risk of disease transmission.
Beyond safety during this current COVID-19 season, drive-thru windows should provide an extra security barrier when not in use. Features like bullet-resistant glass and a window that locks in place prevent damage or entry after-hours.
The focus around drive-thrus doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. A a number of leading quick-service chains have announced plans to expand their use, such as:
- Shake Shack will incorporate drive-thrus alongside walk-up windows while retrofitting existing locations
- Chipotle Mexican Grill continues to add Chipotlanes to its restaurants
- Taco Bell recently introduced its Go Mobile store design with separate drive-thru lanes for traditional ordering and mobile pickup
- On a recent earnings call, Wendy’s CEO indicated the chain has "a new appetite to look at drive-thru-only restaurants"
The quick-serve of the future will likely include other drive-thru advancements, including AI, personalization, smart menu boards and automated ordering and payments.
Drive-thru service can be an asset to quick-serve restaurants—demonstrating an emphasis on safety and providing a positive guest experience. The COVID-19 pandemic is reason enough to evaluate the safety, efficiency and durability of drive-thru windows, but the benefits of a quality unit are long-lasting and will positively impact restaurant operations for years to come.
Chad Harned is Vice President of Operations at AyrKing. As a leading manufacturer of food prep equipment, AyrKing offers durable, efficient products that allow operators to prep and serve the foods customers love more quickly and more consistently. AyrKing’s Lockaire drive-thru window enables contactless serving during COVID-19.