Post-COVID Transformations for QSR Drive Thru

Melissa Olivia

Senior Account Manager
QSR Drive Thrus

Coronavirus has left no part of our lives untouched, including how we visit local restaurants. And that has QSR operators looking at store design through a completely new lens. As consumer behaviors have changed, QSR operators have begun to change the design of their restaurants and drive -thru service to meet those changing needs and positively impact the guest experience.

Drive-thru growth leads to innovation

According to a study by Upserve, 20% of US consumers are spending more on online ordering (OLO)/off-premises orders compared to regular dine-in experience, and the number is expected to continue to rise. Why? Several reasons. Many restaurants closed their dining rooms during pandemic surges, limiting customers to drive-thru or carryout options. And many of those customers became accustomed to placing their order online and scheduling pickup when it’s convenient for them. Consumers also shared that they felt safe and comfortable staying in their cars. According to Food Service Results, roughly half of all consumers say they would be interested in pre-ordering using the drive-thru lane solely for picking up.

In response, brands spent millions on advertising during COVID to promote their OLO, carryout and third-party delivery. Consumers have become conditioned to expect their food on-demand and their way. This has brands like Taco Bell and Burger King redesigning store layouts, with a smaller footprint and a focus on modernized drive-thrus that increase operational efficiencies while reducing guest wait time and labor costs. Wait time transparency is trending upward, and is especially important to younger consumers.

We’re already seeing a proliferation of multiple drive-thru lanes, exclusive curbside pick-up lanes for third-party delivery drivers, and even walk-up windows to meet customer demands.

Taco Bell has cut back its dining room seating and added additional dedicated drive-thru lanes for guests to pick-up mobile app orders. They recently announced that their stores would “prioritize digital elements,” adding more drive-thru lanes, tablets for ordering and curbside pickup. To make sure these elements all run smoothly, Taco Bell has added a new store-level position — a bellhop — which will serve as a digital order concierge service. A trend that started at Chickfila and has become popular with more QSR restaurants.

Multiple lanes improve speed of service

CEO and founder of drive-thru technology company Humdinner, Kevin Bessy was quoted in Restaurant News saying, “brands will have their traditional drive-thru window and your payment system for your everyday items. Then you can add a second lane for express items, things that are pre-made like doughnuts and wraps and then you have your third lane for delivery drivers or pre-order pickups. The traffic flow is going to be so much smoother.”

The redesigned drive-thru has an automated conveyor mechanism that brings food from the kitchen out to the guest waiting at the third drive-thru lane, where people who ordered ahead don’t have to wait in line behind traditional drive-thru customers. It’s a contactless solution that also greatly reduces wait times in the drive-thru.

According to CNN Business News, Burger King has unveiled two new restaurant redesigns that have additional drive-thru lanes, takeout counters and food lockers where customers can pre-order and pick up their food without any customer service interaction.

The restaurants will also be smaller. One prototype has no indoor dining option at all. The other has a smaller dining room and kitchen — with a conveyor belt for drive-thru orders — suspended over the lanes.

What makes Burger King’s new concept unique is the reimagined exterior and parking lot. Customers will be able to pull into a designated spot, order through the app and have food delivered to their cars or placed in a food locker for pick-up.

Food lockers are becoming more common

Consumers have widely adopted the contactless convenience of food lockers. They vary in size and can be heated or chilled to keep food at the right temperature until customers collect their orders. Some high-tech models even use UV light to kill bacteria. Food delivery drivers can also use the lockers for quick and easy pick-up.

Many operators are allowing customers to select a collection time when they place their order, which reduces the amount of time spent waiting in the restaurant and the number of customers waiting inside.

Industry experts predict that food lockers also act as a labor solution, with some vendors suggesting they can reduce payroll costs from 24%-34% of a restaurant’s total costs down to 12%-18%. They believe food lockers are a viable solution for the “number one killer” of new restaurants: high labor costs

Apps make ordering more convenient

There is no question that the post-COVID store design is driving online orders. Both Starbucks and McDonald’s have new designs that have been created to drive sales specifically through their mobile app.

Starbucks unveiled a new store format called "Starbucks Pickup." (https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/01/business/starbucks-new-pickup-location/index.html) The store is around 1,000 square feet, nearly half the size of a regular café, with no indoor seating. The reduced footprint makes it more attractive to build in areas with expensive real estate, like urban centers. The company plans to open more than 50 over the next year, expanding to several hundred locations across the US in three to five years.

Starbucks is also increasing the number of cafés (https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/09/business/starbucks-store-openings/index.html) that offer curbside pick-up and drive-thru lanes in suburban locations.

Last but not least, McDonalds plans to improve drive-thru speeds (https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/11/business/mcdonalds-drive-thru/index.html) to help customers, of course, but also to encourage more visits and higher tickets. Their improved drive-thru experience includes automated order taking and express pick-up lanes for people who placed digital orders. A simplified menu also helps speed up the total transaction time by 30 seconds.

The chain is also testing concepts for restaurants dedicated to drive-thru, delivery and pick-up, with little or no inside seating. There's also dedicated parking spots for mobile and online orders.

Looking for a silver lining post COVID? The drive-thru experience at QSR restaurants has improved greatly. I think it’s safe to say, tomorrow’s restaurant drive-thru experience will continue to evolve to meet customer expectations and provide the on-demand service they want. And operators will reap the benefits of smaller footprints, less labor and fixed costs. That’s a win-win for everyone.

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