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The Future Of Drive-Thrus

Oh, the wonderful world of drive-thrus, where convenience and speed meet comfort. 

Whether it’s your regular Starbucks coffee or a Friday night burger treat, fast-food is an integral part of our daily routines—especially during and after COVID.

The car is “somewhat suddenly—big business for restaurants, and it’s getting bigger. We’re seeing brands that would never in a million years embrace the drive-thru, embracing the drive-thru,” said Adam Chandler, author of the 2019 book Drive-Thru Dreams.1

With more and more restaurants investing in drive-thrus, new trends and concepts are emerging. Here are a few to watch out for. 

Fast Casual Embraces Drive Thrus

Full-service chains, like cafes and pizzerias that relied heavily on their dine-in spaces, are expanding drive-thru options for customers.2

Pizza Hut began rolling out “Hut Lanes” in 2021, which are dedicated pick-up windows available at over 1,500 Pizza Hut locations nationwide. All customers have to do is place their order ahead of time or swing by and grab it from the pickup window.

Fat Boy’s started opening express locations with drive-thru lanes in 2022.3 A state-of-the-art, 55-inch digital menu board allows guests to preview the menu before ordering, then see a confirmation screen after ordering to ensure accuracy. Vice President of Operations Casey Biehl says, “We believe our pizza by the slice and chicken wings through the drive-thru will satisfy our guests’ needs. The technology inside and outside will allow us to focus on delivering our signature guest experience, along with great food and drinks.”4

Other big brands like Shake Shack, sweetgreen, Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, and Chipotle Mexican Grill have all introduced their first drive-thru concepts. 

More Lanes, Dedicated Uses

Taco Bell is the topic of conversation after opening what they’re calling ‘One of the most innovative drive-thru experiences yet.’ This location has four lanes to accommodate: 

  • Pre-orders or people ordering on the app
  • Third-party delivery drivers like Uber Eats and DoorDash
  • Traditional drive-thru for people just popping in

Tim Hortons, a multinational coffee shop and restaurant, has launched tandem drive-thrus that come with two sets of digital menu boards and intercoms in a single lane designed to take orders from two cars at a time. 

Schlotzsky’s new drive-thru concept features two drive-thrus, one on each side of the restaurant. One side is for traditional ordering and the other is for 1st party and 3rd party ordering.

Shelley Harris, President of Schlotzsky’s, explains, “Over the past couple of years, we’ve been allocating resources and shifting focus to develop prototypes that offer increased convenience and ease of use for our guests. This format gives consumers what they are looking for and provides franchisees with a more compact restaurant design to consider for development.”5

Drive-Thru Only

Chick-fil-A opened a location in Honolulu, Hawaii, that is custom designed to serve drive-thru-only guests via a dual-lane experience. This is one of the more than 30 drive-thru-only locations they’ve opened in the past several years.6

The way it works:

  • Employees welcome customers face to face in the drive-thru line to take orders on a tablet.  
  • As the order-taker walks the line, another restaurant employee will come to the customer’s car to take payment, allowing vehicles to move through more quickly than they do at a traditional speaker box drive-thru.6

sweet green, known for their organic salads and bowls, opened its first advanced order vehicle pickup window, “sweetlane” in Schaumburg, IL.

Their ordering process works a bit differently: 

  • To use the “sweetlane,” customers must first place their order through the website or app.
  • They choose “sweetlane” as their desired retrieval method under “Select a Pickup Location.”
  • When their order is ready, guests can drive through the “sweetlane” to pick up their meal. 7

Computer Vision and Video Analytics 

One of the coolest (and maybe a little creepy) innovations by far is the use of video feeds from the cameras in the drive-thru area.

I3 International’s video analytics platform can recognize repeat customers by reading the license plates of cars at the drive-thru. Once a repeat customer is identified, the platform will automatically display relevant information to the employees at the drive-thru to recommend favorite products and offer a personalized guest experience.2

Voice AI Assistants & Robots 

In 2019, McDonald’s acquired Apprente, an AI-based technology that can engage in conversations with humans to improve drive-thru order accuracy. McDonald’s piloted the technology in 2021 at 24 drive-thrus in the Chicago area and reported about an 80% success rate. 

Meanwhile, Wendy’s is leveraging Google Cloud to roll out a combination of AI-enabled voice technology along with computer vision that’s designed to take orders at the drive-thrus and send the transcribed order details directly to the kitchen and POS.2

Will These Innovations Make A Difference? 

So far, yes. According to the survey portion of the 2022 QSR® Drive-Thru Report, consumers are more satisfied with their drive-thru experience than at the peak of the pandemic.8 

Furthermore, Intouch Insight released their 23rd annual drive-thru study with a new category this year Innovative locations. The category examines the impacts of technology at select prototype locations like the Taco Bell Defy and the Mcdonald’s test restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas. 

Both innovative locations saw faster average service times and higher satisfaction with the level of service compared to their standard locations.  

While we’ve got more digging to do, the current results are pretty exciting. It shows that these innovations are not just gimmicks – they’re transforming the way we dine on the go. One thing is clear though: these advancements are paving the way for a more efficient and enjoyable drive-thru experience for everyone. 












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