In this past year’s QSR Drive-Thru Report, we got off the track a bit. In addition to mystery shopping 10 of America’s top chains, rolling through drive-thrus and recording everything from speed to tech upgrades to friendliness, as QSR always has, we decided, along with our partner Intouch Insight, to give some of the most-innovative builds a spin (Taco Bell’s Defy, McDonald’s conveyor-belt prototype in Fort Worth, Texas, and a Chick-fil-A deploying robotics in Alpharetta, Georgia). The motivation was straightforward. If there is one area of the industry COVID-19 tossed kindling under, it was the asset evolution of quick-service restaurants.

As has been touted countless times in recent years, the pandemic’s disruption wasn’t so much an inventor of trends for this sector as it was an accelerant. Many of the updates consumers observe today, whether it’s drive-thru-only boxes, multiple lanes, or dedicated systems that connect mobile ordering to pickup, were on the minds of chains well before regulations forced dining rooms to go dark. The urgency wasn’t there. But necessity changed that.


And one visible result were the builds themselves. By and large this is a jigsaw of smaller dining rooms and interconnected restaurants that flow technology through layouts. They’re designed to reflect a shift in order preference as well as strip friction from the point itself.

In one example, Burger King unveiled a “Sizzle” prototype in October. It has multiple variations—kiosks, double-lane drive-thrus, designated spaces for mobile order fulfillment. Yet the broader point isn’t simply the introduction of a fresh look, but how quickly Burger King wants to roll it. The chain plans to remodel 400 units in 2024, with more than 80 percent of those being full scrapes and rebuilds. It even acquired its largest franchisee, Carrols Restaurant Group, in January for $1 billion, in hopes of hyper charging the company’s refresh program and bringing in smaller operators to run updated units. Burger King said in February it planned to shift $50 million from its “Reclaim the Flame” agenda toward refreshes so more than 6,000 U.S. restaurants, or roughly 90 percent of the U.S. footprint, would get touched. Even more recently, it earmarked another $300 million toward the effort.

It’s a clear principle—the quick-service sector is in an arms race to meet evolving consumer demand.

With all that said, it was time to go deeper. Year 2 of the Emerging Experiences Report with Intouch Insight (the inaugural edition focused on pickup in fast casual) investigated the way customers engage with restaurants today, and how those interactions have adjusted thanks to innovation. The four emerging experiences evaluated were:

  • In-store kiosk ordering versus in-store live counter order
  • Mobile ordering for drive-thru pickup versus live drive-thru ordering
  • Drive-thru ordering at a new prototype versus live drive-thru ordering
  • Mobile ordering for pickup at a window/locker versus mobile order for pickup in-store

The brands included were: Burger King, Shake Shack, Taco Bell, Chipotle, Panera Bread, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, Checkers & Rally’s, Whataburger, and Zaxby’s.

For each brand, three locations were visited: The innovation locations and two legacy stores in the same geographic area as the innovation units. Thirty mystery shop visits were performed for each, totaling 90 visits per brand. All visits took place in January and February 2024.

Broader results showed innovation experience overall scores outperformed legacy experiences in seven out of 10 brands.

  • Three out of four Innovation Experiences received higher overall satisfaction scores compared to their legacy counterparts.
  • Technology innovations drove speed improvements for digital orders placed for pickup.
  • Three out of four innovation experiences’ overall order accuracy scores outperformed the legacy experiences. 

On to the full results.

Consumer Trends, Fast Casual, Fast Food, Special Reports, Story, Technology