AI and the Drive-Thru Street Fight

AI and the Drive-Thru

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The drive-thru was an innovation when it first appeared in 1921 at a place called The Pig Stand.

Fast-forward to 1947, when the two-way speaker box debuted at In-N Out Burger.

Car culture has always been popular in the U.S., and the pandemic accelerated the desire for consumers to stay in their cars while picking up retail goods, eating, or even getting vaccinated.

Now, the next phase of automation and technology innovation has arrived, as fast casual brands all race to find the latest, greatest, most cost-efficient innovation in drive-thru services.

Among some of the drive-thru developments and enhancements are:

  • The addition of drive-thru lanes among brands that didn’t offer them previously.
  • Expansion of the number of lanes, as in McDonald’s new CosMc’s (a drive-thru-only brand). Taco Bell launched a four-lane “pick-up highway” in 2021.
  • Addition of walk-up lanes and “lockers” for pick-up.
  • Integration with mobile apps, which enable consumers to get their food faster and reduces staff time and error in human ordering.
  • Use of AI to service consumers better and save costs. That includes:
    • Chatbots to take orders. Wendy’s White Castle, McDonald’s, and Carl’s Jr. are testing this.
    • Serving consumers in their native language, as Checkers and Rally’s test Spanish-speaking voice AI in communities within Miami.
    • Smart, dynamic menu boards that can offer personalized messaging to consumers and tailor recommendations to diners.
    • Geofencing could facilitate personalization of ordering and even prompt consumers to buy their favorites when they happen to be cruising by. Brooklyn Dumpling Shop may be leading the race by incorporating a range of restaurant-specific AI into its operations.
    • License-plate readers that enable brands to target specific recommendations to drivers.
    • Gamification for employees, so they can view their sales and productivity against other locations and improve service levels.
    • Technologies that identify criminal behavior and alert authorities immediately.

Of course, all restaurants are also looking for ways to reduce labor costs and use more robotics in meal preparation and delivery.

Specialized tech companies are emerging specifically to develop AI and other technologies for the fast food industry.

According to a New York Times article, “the number of people eating inside fast-food restaurants in the first half of 2023 fell by 47 percent from the same period in 2019.”

The market is robust. According to one report:

  • Close to 85M adults eat fast food every day, with close to 40% of them eating it every single day. A whopping 34 percent of children eat fast food on any given day.
  • The global fast food market is about $800 billion. The US market is about $300 billion of that.

The drive-thru is here to stay, and technology will only speed-up fulfillment of our cravings. A bot may not need to ask, “Do you want fries with that?” because it will already know!




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, the New York Times and Forbes.