What's New at the Drive-Thru?

What’s New at the Drive-Thru?

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We spend the equivalent of 4.3 years of our lives in our cars. Multi-location restaurants and retailers have known this for quite some time and introduced the drive-thru decades ago. Although the exact date of the first-ever drive-up window is fiercely debated, sources indicate that banks introduced the concept in the early 1920s.

The drive-thru became commonplace from the 1950s to the 1970s, and by 2014, a whopping 20 percent of all meals were consumed in the car.

The pandemic resulted in various shopping and dining variations that allowed consumers to stay in their vehicles. During that period, drive-thru dining represented 90 percent of quick-service orders. That has since fallen to 75 percent, meaning that although people have returned to some in-store experiences, food pick-up has stuck.

Curbside pick-up at retail represents a huge convenience for today’s shoppers. Behavior varies by generation, with 62 percent of millennials taking advantage of that option. It may be because staying in the car is ideal for parents with young kids and/or pets.

So, besides the increased use of vehicle-based retail and restaurant options, what else is new in drive-thru design and operations?

  • New footprints abound. Dine-in spaces are shrinking, and carry-out and drive-thru options are proliferating. Chipotle even branded its drive-thrus as Chipotlanes, and 80 percent of its new restaurants will feature them. Many brands are expanding the number of lanes in their drive-thrus or opening locations that are drive-thru and take-out only.
  • Speed is increasing, but service is worse. This annual study reports on time spent at the restaurant drive-thru. The good news is that wait time is shrinking, but human interaction is not as pleasant. But that could be moot in a few years because…
  • Automated food lockers, appearing inside restaurants, may soon be incorporated into drive-thrus. Although a human may need to put items into a locker, the consumer won’t have to deal with them upon pick-up.
  • AI may soon be used to facilitate cross-sells, upsells, and even product recommendations. For example, a family in a mini-van may be prompted to look at  kids’ meals. Or the menu may change based on the weather. “Is this creepy or cool?” Ultimately, the consumer will decide.
  • Robots might ask, “May I take your order?” Both Checkers and McDonald’s are testing AI-based order systems. Reducing the need for labor, these systems are still in their early stages.
  • Retail stores are also adapting new techniques that allow consumers to stay in their cars. Drive-up banking has been around for ages, and some of us remember the old Fotomat. Many drug stores now have drive-thru capabilities, and clothing stores are reconfiguring their parking lots to allow customers to wait for their purchases. From clothing to household necessities like groceries, BOPIS (buy-online-pick-up-in-store) is commonplace. In fact, one can even search locally for “stores with curbside pickup near me.”

Multi-location brands would be wise to follow the trends around the drive-thru and make sure that their online listings include that feature. Clear signage, especially in parking lots and drive-up lanes, is critical.

Technology will impact all aspects of the drive-thru, from marketing to food preparation to purchase tracking and predictive modeling. Whether your ride is an EV or an RV (or anything in-between), know that the drive-thru is here to stay. As long as we have cars and trucks, we’ll eat and shop in them!



Nancy A Shenker, senior editor with Street Fight, is a former big brand (Citibank, Mastercard, Reed Exhibitions) marketing strategist and leader. She has been featured in Inc.com, the New York Times and Forbes.