Fast food chains relying on drive-thrus for coronavirus survival

Fast food drive-thrus: Plan for it now or pay for it later

Fast food chains relying on drive-thrus for coronavirus survival

If you're building or renovating a QSR now or in the near future, industry experts increasingly recommend that you find a site and the dollars to include a drive-thru lane … or two.

COVID-19 has ushered in a new era of the drive-thru. (Photo: iStock)

In the U.S., although restaurant drive-thrus have been around since 1921 — shortly after the time of the last pandemic — the world's current battle with COVID-19 is breathing new life into this quick-service delivery channel that greatly limits customer contact with employees and other customers.

As much as 70% of a fast food restaurant's sales typically come through its drive-thru if it has one.

It's little wonder then that with the dawn of this deadly virus, the popularity of drive-thrus appears to be growing exponentially at fast food brands everywhere.

All one need do for proof of this fact is to take a trip to the nearest strip mall to see the lines of cars encircling any given fast food outlet at any time of day

Naturally, that's sending a lot of fast food concept leaders to restaurant site development firms, SCGWest in Newport Beach, California, in search of ways to either revamp locations or construct new ones to capture the most drive-thru traffic, as well as that from the other out-of-restaurant channels delivery and carryout.

Still, though COVID-19 has underscored the importance of these channels, most restaurateurs were well aware that business was increasingly moving off-site before the pandemic.

QSRweb recently spoke with SCGWest co-founder Kyle Gorman to find out what QSR leaders are seeking in drive-thru locations builds, as well as renovations for the future. What we learned is that the changes going on aren't so much hard “pivots,” as they are a gentle tilt toward evolving QSR customer preferences.

Gorman said brands that have cash available are looking for new locations and they're looking for places that can accommodate drive-thrus with the added space, access and even municipal traffic patterns that will allow for drive-thru operations. But more than that, Gorman said many casual and fast casual brands and others that have, in the past, relied heavily or entirely on dine-in traffic, are now in search of drive-thru options.

“Drive-thrus are an extremely hot commodity right now,” he told QSRweb in an interview. “They seem to be kind of COVID-proof at the moment because they're doing really well and other restaurateurs are seeing that and they want a drive-thru because they also want that. So it's very sought-after.”

In fact, the overall desirability of drive-thru restaurant locations, Gorman said, could even mean the increased demand might also trigger increasing leasing and real estate costs for locations that provide both adequate access, traffic flow and the considerable extra space that drive-thrus demand.

The tricky art of finding the top drive-thru spot

Gorman said the task of ensuring adequate drive-thru access and traffic flow accommodation has always been left up to the governmental bodies of each particular jurisdiction. If that concerns you, as a QSR operator, it should.

After all, anyone who has ever attended a packed-house municipal public hearing around the pluses and minuses of a new fast food drive-thru location on a busy street, knows this part of building a drive-thru concept can be particularly vexing for brands on tight timelines and budgets.

“They have to do parking studies traffic studies and so forth. And they shouldn't allow certain things to go in spaces that are not capable of having them,” Gorman said.

“In fact, if you've ever gone into a parking lot that is just way too crowded or come up on a drive-thru line that is impeding the flow of traffic somewhere, that is poor design and there's somebody that should be looking out for that.”

Though these issues fall under each municipalities responsibilities, brands are wise to keep fairly close tabs on what's happening. More than one busy drive-thru has been built in a bad location after either local authorities failed to do the upfront work required. The location's operator, however, will be the one who pays the price.

The double-lane dilemma plus other space considerations

But for brands that can find adequate space, Gorman said double drive-thrus (those with two lines of traffic and ordering) have found new life in this pandemic-ridden world. But Gorman advised that brands also make accommodations for curbside pickup areas, as well, since this is proving increasingly popular with customers.

The bad news is that Gorman said brands seeking these features can expect to pay increasing prices for real estate that offers them. But, he said, better to pay the price upfront for these benefits, than decide your location absolutely has to have it down the road.

“Put it in your design from the beginning,” he cautioned. “Don't come back and try to do a second drive-thru add on because I mean, that's rough.”

Other things to think about for drive-thru accommodation in any space deemed appropriate include things :

  • A minimum of at least two customer windows.
  • Accommodation for desired technology from digital signage to even payment tech.
  • Clear and adequate ingress and egress to drive-thru lanes.
  • Consideration of surrounding parking areas.
  • Space for mobile-order takers and needed tech, iPads.
  • Space for marketing images and video, if planned (and it should be).
  • Payment procedure accommodation, including everything from credit card machines “on a stick” that prevent close contact between staff and customers, to more sophisticated payment technology.

Other space considerations

Gorman said it's wise for restaurant site designers to also work physical space into their locations to accommodate everything from delivery order and carryout pickup to curbside orders. He advised that restaurateurs make plans for each type of channel to have its own customer line, lest one potentially endless line form and frustrate customers.

He also said that light, airy and very clean-looking design having what is ly to be more than just “a moment.” As a result, it pays for brands to incorporate these types of looks into restaurant interiors and exteriors since it visually shouts to customers, 'Hey, this place is extremely clean!”

Gorman said many brands are also finding that incorporating natural elements into their designs takes some of the edge off of what might be otherwise seen as a sterile, institutional look resulting from the use of lots of white and stainless steel.

“Anything that shows cleanliness, because you need to be able to visually depict that as well,” he said. “So some of those darker colors are really in the past and I don't think are going to be as popular anymore. … But clean is easily seen, and sanitation is easily seen.”

Finally, restaurant leaders are reminded to stay mindful of the key role great menu images play in the drive-thru, just as in-store and elsewhere. Brands that build a pleasant drive-thru path, using both adequate, low-maintenance landscaping and drool-inducing digital signage food photos and video, stand to make much more their drive-thru lane investment.

But the planning for these spaces and technology and their inclusion in the overall site design must take place early in the site-planning process to give great images their best stage for viewing. Then, stand back and watch the orders happen.

After all, who reading this story hasn't added a milkshake to their otherwise well-behaved drive-thru salad order just because the pictures on the drive-thru panels made it look we just couldn't leave without it?


How a Drive-Thru Ordering System Can Help You Adapt to COVID-19

Fast food chains relying on drive-thrus for coronavirus survival

COVID-19-related restaurant dining room closures and social distancing have skyrocketed the use of drive-thru ordering systems.

According to a report by Bluedot released in late summer 2020, three in four Americans are visiting drive-thrus as often, or more often, than before the pandemic.

Compared to a report they released at the start of the pandemic, this figure represents a 43% increase in drive-thru use since April 2020. 

While drive-thrus are typically associated with fast-food chains, they’re not the only venues reaping the rewards of this socially-distant, limited-contact pickup phenomenon. Independent restaurants have also begun setting up their own non-traditional drive-thru ordering systems. 

If you run a restaurant and are curious about maximizing your pandemic revenue with a drive-thru ordering system, we’re giving you the tools you need to make this possible.

In this guide to restaurant drive-thrus, you’ll learn:

  • The benefits of a restaurant drive-thru
  • How to set up a drive-thru ordering system at your restaurant
  • How to maximize drive-thru orders

Let’s get started.

4 Benefits of a Drive-Thru Ordering System

Fast-food chains have understood the benefits of drive-thrus for a long time. Did you know that California’s cult chain, In-N-Out Burger, pioneered the drive-thru ordering system for restaurants in 1948?

The technology has come a long way, but the benefits of this innovation have only increased amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are four reasons why drive-thrus are beneficial for restaurants.

1) Drive-thrus are convenient for customers

Drive-thrus are all about convenience. Customers can order food, pay for it, and receive it – all without leaving their cars. 

This system is also incredibly fast. According to a study by QSR Magazine, customers spend an average of 255 seconds in the drive-thru line. Coming just under 4.5 minutes, this is barely enough time for you to heat a frozen meal or boil a pot of water at home. The convenience of restaurant drive-thrus is a primary selling point for hungry customers who want food almost instantly. 

2) Restaurant drive-thrus increase capacity

Drive-thru ordering systems help restaurants serve more people than could fit in their dining rooms at any given time. This factor is incredibly important during the pandemic, while indoor seating is limited or prohibited in many parts of the United States and Canada, and outdoor dining is weather dependent. 

During a pandemic, drive-thrus can be the difference between a restaurant that thrives and one that has to shut down.

3) Drive-thrus are an opportunity for a new revenue stream

A drive-thru ordering system provides a new revenue stream for restaurants. And the more options your business has to make money, the more ly it is to thrive. By adding a drive-thru revenue stream to your indoor dining, outdoor dining, and delivery and takeout revenue streams, you’re hedging your bets towards survival.  

4) Drive-thru ordering systems are pandemic-friendly

Restaurant drive-thrus are perfectly designed for pandemics. Because drive-thrus typically use a two-way microphone ordering system, they save face-to-face contact for only the payment and pick up part of the transaction. With both staff and customers wearing masks and being able to close windows between necessary interaction points, contact is kept to a minimum with a drive-thru. 

To increase the safety of your drive-thru window, you could add plexiglass barriers, PaPa’s Burgers of Parksville, British Columbia did.

How to Set Up a Drive-Thru Ordering System at Your Restaurant (Even If You Don’t Have a Drive-Up Window)

So, you want to get in on the drive-thru action? There’s no time the present. 

Here’s the good news: you don’t have to stick to a traditional drive-thru window model to take advantage of this revenue stream.

By following these steps, you can build a custom drive-thru ordering system for your restaurant.

1. Determine how customers will place orders 

The first thing you have to do is figure out how customers will place orders. Here are some options:

  • Customers place orders on-premise using a traditional two-way microphone drive-thru ordering system – an option that isn’t just for quick service restaurants. For instance, Miami’s El Atlakat is a full service restaurant that is housed in a former Wendy’s. The restaurant took advantage of their built-in drive-thru window to create a seamless drive-thru ordering process.
  • Customers place orders online or over the phone before coming through a drive-thru lane to pick up the order.
  • Customers arrive on-premise and place orders by scanning a QR code with their smartphone.
  • Customers order form staff members with POS tablets, much Chick-fil-A did to speed up drive-thru wait times. Just remember to equip staff with the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE).

Choose the drive-thru ordering method you can afford to implement, one that a) gets customers in and the queue quickly, and b) is pandemic-safe.

2. Figure out where customers will receive their orders

After deciding how your customers will place their orders, you need to determine how these same customers will receive their food what your space allows:

  • Dedicated pickup window: If your restaurant has traditional drive-thru ordering system capabilities, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Just ensure that staff who hand off food are wearing proper PPE, such as face masks.
  • Food lockers: This contactless, self-service option involves placing a food locker outside of the restaurant for customers to access easily, much an Amazon Locker. Burger King, for example, is introducing a system that sends customers a code to use to open the locker that contains their food.
  • Curbside delivery: If you don’t have space for a traditional drive-thru window or locker, you can have masked staff members bring customers their food. Red Robin, you can designate curbside parking spots at the front of your restaurant and place a sign out front with a phone number for customers to call when they arrive.

All of these options are practical methods for drive-thru order pickup.

3. Make a plan for collecting payments 

Perhaps most importantly, you need to consider how customers will pay for their food. 

In a traditional drive-thru ordering system, customers pay for their food through the pickup window after placing their order and before receiving their food.

Payment usually involves a handoff of cash or card between the customer and a staff member. While this method is simple, it’s not the safest option during COVID-19, and may not work if you don’t have a traditional drive-thru window.

You can make it safer by limiting cash transactions and offering contactless payment options instead.

Another option is to have customers pay online. They can do this by placing the entire order through an online ordering system or placing an order on-premise by scanning a QR code to complete the transaction. These kinds of online payments reduce contact, which is critical during the pandemic.

4. Decide how to direct traffic

Creating a drive-thru ordering system for your restaurant could disrupt traffic flow around your restaurant. Before the pandemic, some cities across the United States banned the construction of drive-thru windows in an effort to reduce carbon emissions and improve public health. Check local laws beforehand to make sure that you’re allowed to build a drive-thru. 

If you can construct one, you should paint arrows on the ground or put up signage to direct traffic. If you have multiple drive-thru lanes, you can differentiate them for on-premise ordering and online ordering pickup Shake Shack did. 

If curbside pickup is all you’re allowed to do, designate priority parking spots in the front of your lot. When a car pulls up, a staff member can greet them and ask them for the name on their order, or the customer can call the phone number on the parking sign and share that information with the staff member.

5. Prepare the kitchen for drive-thru orders 

Drive-thru operations are similar to takeout operations. Make sure your drive-thru and online ordering platforms integrate with your POS so that the kitchen automatically gets tickets for all drive-thru orders.

Prepare takeout packaging at the start of each day by placing plasticware, sauce packets, napkins, and other amenities in bags. Speed is critical for drive-thru orders, so do what you can in advance. 

4 Ways to Maximize Drive-Thru Orders

Whether your restaurant has a traditional drive-thru ordering system or a makeshift one, here’s how you can optimize your drive-thru orders to keep guests coming back:

1) Invest in proper signage 

Installing a drive-thru ordering system requires lots of signage to avoid confusion, traffic jams, and accidents. If you need permits to create a drive-thru, you may also need to get stop signs, no-turn signs, and one-way signs from your local government to ensure a smooth flow of traffic around your restaurant. Paint arrows and words on the ground to further indicate traffic flow.

Your menu is another type of sign you have to optimize for drive-thru service.

Display your menu in a way that customers can easily read from their cars: either in the form of a digital menu they can access from a QR code or a physical menu board. Georgia’s Williamson Bros.

Bar-B-Q opted to print massive versions of their menus, cover them in vinyl, and post them to the side of their restaurant for easy ordering.

If you’re doing curbside pickup, purchase additional signs so customers know where to park and what number to call to get their food.

2) Create a drive-thru menu

Create a simplified drive-thru menu to ensure your customers can be in and the queue in five minutes or less. If your drive-thru wait time takes longer than five minutes, set expectations from the start so that customers don’t get angry.

With such a short turnaround time, your restaurant needs to be able to spend the majority of those five minutes assembling and serving dishes, rather than cooking them. 

For your simplified menu, focus on several dishes that you can make continuously in large batches. Things curries, large-batch noodle dishes, casseroles, soups, and stews work well. 

For made-to-order dishes sandwiches, salads, and burgers, place staff in an assembly line formation to speed up the process. Rearrange your kitchen to facilitate this service method and focus on prepping enough mise en place at the start of the day to last you as long as possible.

3) Spread the word about your restaurant drive-thru

Promote your drive-thru ordering system on social media, your restaurant’s website, and via its email newsletter. 

On your website, create a pop up that announces your new drive-thru ordering system. You could even offer customers a discount on their first drive-thru order.

4) Use tech to your advantage

Technology is the key to a smooth drive-thru ordering system.

If you’re using a traditional drive-thru system, opt for a POS system with a customer-facing display option to confirm orders. This technology can reduce costly mistakes that occur when it’s difficult for customers to hear staff through a two-way microphone system. 

If you’re doing a less traditional drive-thru ordering system, you can equip several staff members with POS tablets and have them walk through the drive-thru line to expedite order placement. Just don’t forget to provide them with proper PPE!

Finally, look for an online ordering system or a dedicated mobile app to simplify the ordering and payment process. Look for a system that lets customers create accounts to save orders and save payment information for fast checkout and convenience.

The bottom line: A drive-thru ordering system can help your restaurant adapt to COVID-19

A drive-thru ordering system can help your restaurant thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic because it allows you to increase your capacity for orders in a way that reduces face-to-face contact.

And fortunately, you don’t have to have a traditional drive-thru window set up to take orders on-the-go. Get creative with food lockers, curbside pickup, and online ordering.

When you optimize your menu for fast preparation and deliver quality service with the help of technology, you’ll keep customers coming back again and again. 

Learn how you can use TouchBistro’s online ordering software and tableside ordering hardware to create a makeshift drive-thru ordering system for your restaurant.


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