Drive-thrus that predict your order? Restaurants are thinking fast.
By Julie Creswell
Starbucks has employees at hundreds of busy locations strolling through car lines, taking orders with hand-held devices so customers can get their caffeine fix a few seconds faster.
Shake Shack, which has long emphasized that quality ingredients are worth waiting a few extra minutes for, will soon feature its first drive-thru window. And the vast majority of new Chipotles this year will have “Chipotlanes,” where customers can drive up to a window and pull away with preordered meals in less than a minute.
With dining room restrictions in place for much of the country during the pandemic, drive-thru and pickup windows became critical ways for a variety of restaurants to remain afloat.
Now, as the dining industry looks toward a post-pandemic world, many companies are betting big that digital ordering and drive-thrus will remain integral to their success. And the basic experience of sitting in a single line of cars, speaking into a sometimes garbled intercom and pulling up to a window to pay for your food before driving away is poised to be demonstrably altered for the first time in decades.
A number of restaurants are moving quickly to improve their online order and app abilities, change their physical designs or add two or three drive-thru lanes. Some are testing artificial intelligence systems to tailor suggestions for individuals who pull up to the menu board.
“The drive-thru has been one of those places that hasn’t changed in decades,” said Ellie Doty, North American chief marketing officer for Burger King. “But with COVID, we’re seeing the dramatic acceleration of directions we were already going.”
Taco Bell, which last year announced plans to test a restaurant design with stadium seating for gamers to play against one another, has switched much of its focus to creating smaller restaurants with dual drive-thru lanes and curbside pickup. Applebee’s is testing its first drive-thru in Texarkana, Texas. Shake Shack is experimenting with a number of new designs and plans, including walk-up windows and curbside pickup. It will open its first drive-thru this year in Orlando, Florida, and plans five to eight more through 2022.
“We had started working on some of the formats even prior to the pandemic,” said Andrew McCaughan, chief development officer for Shake Shack. “But we saw a massive accelerator and catalyst to move faster and to get drive-thru really going.”
While several chains lay claim to inventing the drive-thru, many say it dates back to the 1930s when a Los Angeles franchise of a Texas chain, the Pig Stand, allowed customers to order and pick up their food from a window. In the late 1940s, the California chain In-N-Out Burger introduced the two-way squawk box. But the phenomenon really took off in the 1970s when McDonald’s installed drive-thrus.
As more families had two working parents and the demand for quick-and-easy meals rose, drive-thrus became mainstream. But they also became a source of derision and hilarity. In 1993’s “Wayne’s World 2,” characters Garth and Wayne purposely cut out their voices while giving their orders, suggesting a broken intercom. The server repeats the order back perfectly.
Indeed, drive-thrus can be stressful. Other customers occasionally honk to prod you to speed up your order. After screaming “No pickles!” repeatedly into the intercom, you sometimes still get a burger with three pickles on it. And lines can stretch through parking lots and into the street, especially during peak pandemic use. Chick-fil-A has been sued by neighboring businesses that say its long drive-thru lines block their customers’ access.
For most restaurants, the solution has many parts. First, more are trying to encourage customers to use ordering apps, which improve the accuracy of orders and are often connected to loyalty programs that give them points for free food. They are also trying to figure out how to best speed consumers through the drive-thru or pickup process without disrupting traffic patterns or other businesses.
Drive-thru times average four minutes, 15 seconds, according to Bluedot, a geolocation company. Like a Daytona 500 pit crew, restaurants are always looking for ways to shave off minutes, or even seconds.
To be competitive in this race, Chipotle, whose digital orders soared from 20% of its sales to as high as 70% at the height of the pandemic, installed in many of its kitchens a second assembly line where employees put together tacos or burrito bowls for mobile and online orders exclusively.
The chain also expects that 70% of its restaurants that open this year will have the dedicated Chipotlanes for online orders.
“In the traditional drive-thru experience, you wait in line to order, you wait in line to pay and pick up, you wait in line for your food to be prepared,” said Jack Hartung, chief financial officer of Chipotle. “We’re trying to get our service time from when you pull up to the restaurant, pick up your food and drive off to 40 or 50 seconds.”
Others, like McDonald’s and Burger King, are adding multiple drive-thru lanes, which have been a feature at some busy fast-food spots like Chick-fil-A but are becoming more commonplace. Burger King is running three-lane tests in the United States, Brazil and Spain.
In the United States and Spain, the third lane is “express” for advance orders made through the app. In Brazil, the lane takes delivery drivers to a pickup area with food lockers or shelves.
Burger King is also looking to propel its drive-thrus into the future with a Big-Brother-like AI system, Deep Flame.
Right now, roughly half of Burger King’s drive-thrus with digital menu boards are using Deep Flame’s technology to suggest foods that are particularly popular in the area that day. It also uses outside factors, like the weather, to highlight items like an iced coffee on a hot day.
But this year, Burger King is testing a Bluetooth technology that will be able to identify customers in Burger King’s loyalty program and show their previous orders. If a customer ordered a small Sprite and a Whopper with cheese, hold the pickles, the last three visits, Deep Flame will calculate that chances are high that the customer will want the same order again.
It is unclear whether the technology pays off. McDonald’s is moving in a similar direction. The fast-food giant acquired the Israeli AI firm Dynamic Yield in 2019 with an eye toward boosting sales by providing personalized digital promotions to customers.
Restaurant Brands International — the parent company of Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes — hopes to have the predictive personalized systems at more than 10,000 of its restaurant locations across North America by mid-2022.
“We’re taking what was an outdated, old, static sales channel and bringing it to the forefront of the industry,” said Duncan Fulton, chief corporate officer for Restaurant Brands International. Now, customers can have the “the ability to automatically reorder things and pay for the items at the board, which, ultimately, speeds up the window time, allowing you to collect your food and go on your way.”