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    The Drive-Thru Experience

  • “With more customers visiting our restaurants than ever before, we want them to know that they can continue to depend on McDonald’s to provide the everyday value and convenience they’ve come to expect every time they visit our restaurants,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling says.

    Potential technology offerings for quick-service drive thrus continue to capture attention.

    Some outlets have employed off-site order-taking companies. Although a costly feature, these remote-location employees are trained exhaustively at order taking, including upselling techniques and add-on sales. Others brands have worked to improve the layout and look of their menuboards with advanced technology. In fact, Wendy’s franchisee FourCrown opened an all-digital restaurant in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, reputed to be the first in the quick-serve arena. The store is highlighted by a three-panel outdoor LCD menuboard offering a vivid, engaging display.

    Yet, technology certainly arrives with its limitations. 

    Although customers, particularly of younger generations, have expressed a preference for touch-screen ordering, Subway’s trials of the amenity at its drive-thru outlets have produced mixed results.

    “We feel that the customer loses out on the human interaction, especially since no two sandwiches are alike and because they are all made to order,” Winograd says.

    Operators increasingly value curb appeal, including one quick serve that painted its curbs black to cover tire scrapings.

    Olafsson says the ordering option that embraces customization and interactivity if not necessarily the drive-thru staple of speed is popular in theory but not reality. “These trials haven’t gone as well as hoped,” he says. “Not everybody using the drive thru is a tech-savvy teen raised in the computer age.”

    Moving forward, many say enhanced service and the smart, strategic integration of technology in the drive-thru lane will differentiate brands and gain favor with consumers perhaps beyond even the food itself. In some cases, restaurants might pair high-tech features, such as touch-screens, with an option to order with personal interaction—a dual method that would have appeal for a wide variety of customers.

    As QSR’s 2010 Drive-Thru Experience Study shows, customers want more and have expressed a clear desire to visit restaurants that better address their needs and expectations. Simply meeting the basics of speed and accuracy might do, but it is unlikely to advance the brand as the new restaurant age unfolds.

    “At the minimum, the service experience will need to be just as distinctive as the food experience,” Bower says. “If there’s anything we’re learning about the drive thru these days, it’s just that.”