Looking To A Post-Pandemic Future, Restaurant Chains Place Their Bets On The Drive-Thru

The quick-service drive-thru has been around for nearly 75 years and yet hasn’t changed all that much.

Nor has it had to. The channel has had such a significant impact on both consumer behaviors and businesses’ bottom lines that it’s not been necessary to tinker with it (other than technological upgrades and cosmetic improvements). 

That’s changed. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused several major operators to not only tinker with the drive-thru, but to go all in on the channel. As it turns out, quick-service chains don’t seem to need that dine-in piece.

Consider McDonald’s, for example. The QSR giant’s drive-thru business jumped to plus-90% during the crisis, but any early-pandemic anxiety about losing dine-in business likely dissipated with faster drive-thru speed and higher customer satisfaction scores. And, McDonald’s has recovered and then some, recently turning in its strongest same-store sales growth in 10 years.

As such, McDonald’s

MCD
announced a number of drive-thru enhancements earlier this month as part of its comprehensive Accelerating the Arches plan. Those enhancements include a new “On-the-Go” model, offering drive-thru, takeaway and delivery with limited or no dine-in seating. McDonald’s tends to win over consumers simply through its giant, 14,000-unit footprint and a model designed entirely around drive-thru operations might prove to be even more appealing.

It’s worth noting that this idea of prioritizing the drive-thru isn’t new. Last year, KFC claimed a “first-of-its-kind” drive-thru-only format in Australia, for example.

But last year was a very different time. Now, the conversations and commitments dedicated to drive-thru-focused models are happening at a dizzying pace. Just today, for example, KFC U.S. took a page from its Australian system, announcing a drive-thru/delivery-focused “Next Generation Prototype,” without indoor seating.

Dunkin’ introduced its Next Generation concept nearly three years ago. That design included the chain’s first drive-thru exclusively for mobile ordering, but it also focused heavily on the restaurant’s interior, with features like a coffee tap system and digital ordering kiosks. In light of the pandemic, however, Dunkin’ recently announced an iteration of that next-generation idea with a drive-thru-only model.  

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. A glance across the quick-service segment finds that Captain D’s has announced plans for a no-dining-room “Express” design, Del Taco has unveiled plans for a drive-thru-only prototype and Wendy’s has teased of a drive-thru-only model. Burger King announced a new drive-thru-focused design in early September that includes double or triple lanes, while Taco Bell plans to launch a mobile-focused double drive-thru model in 2021

Even Wawa is diving into a drive-thru-only model–no small footnote as convenience stores make share-of-stomach gains against quick-service concepts.  

Importantly, this shift toward the drive-thru doesn’t just entail models with limited or no dining rooms–several chains are simply honing their focus on the drive-thru while maintaining that dine-in presence.  Starbucks

SBUX
, Chipotle and Shake Shack

SHAK
are all pressing the gas on their drive-thru plans, for instance, which could spark an intense competition over real estate in the long term.

There is buy-in across the industry that this demand for drive-thru/off-premise access will continue even after a vaccine hits the market and restrictions are lifted. During McDonald’s Investor Day earlier this month, Mason Smoot, senior vice president and chief restaurant officer, predicted customers’ desire for convenience, speed and ease will actually grow.  

“We’re ready for that. We’re taking steps to accelerate our phenomenal drive-thru advantage,” Smoot added.  

Still, these chains aren’t likely to scale such a model quickly, and the model itself might only grow to be a fraction of their overall footprints. But there is most definitely a broader impact here on the industry.   

Not to mention, this specific conversation doesn’t even scratch the surface of other off-premise-focused models, like ghost kitchens, which heavyweights like Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A are experimenting with to keep up with delivery demands.  

We were seeing a material adoption of an omnichannel approach before, but off-premise channels have experienced triple digit growth since the pandemic hit and these customer behaviors aren’t going away. They’ll likely correct themselves a bit, but they’re not going away. Brands that aren’t adjusting their portfolios to offer this increased access will likely have a longer road to recovery.

1 Comment

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