During the COVID-19 pandemic, drive-through sales exploded at many restaurants. This should come as no surprise to anyone. After all, avoiding human contact had become a health necessity. What may be more surprising is that in the wake of the pandemic, customers continue to be drawn to the drive-through window.
According to a recent report by Revenue Management Systems (RMS), the drive-through leads performance by channel, accounting for two-thirds of quick-service restaurant (QSR) revenue. RMS reports that net drive-through sales were up 25% in the first half of 2023, compared to the same period in 2019. Over the same four-year stretch, dine-in traffic declined by nearly 50%.
An Appetite for Solitude
There are many possible explanations for the surge in the drive-through’s popularity. A big part of it is that the drive-through experience has become faster and more efficient due to technology and infrastructure improvements. Another explanation, according to the New York Times, is a desire for solitude: “People emerged from the pandemic with less tolerance for interacting with strangers.”
Recent advancements in digital ordering technology go a long way toward enhancing this aspect of the drive-through experience. Customers can order using self-service kiosks in the drive-through lane or via mobile apps. Some restaurants send employees with tablets to the drive-through lane to take orders, but according to the New York Times, even this level of interaction may be too much for some people. Of course, some customers are uncomfortable with digital systems or prefer personal attention, so it may be a good idea to offer the option of traditional drive-through ordering.
A Need for Speed
Drive-through speed is critical. According to survey data compiled by QSR Magazine in 2022, “Guests would wait six minutes prior to ordering. After that, there was a clear move to pull off the line and head somewhere else.”
Midway through 2022, Taco Bell opened its “Defy” prototype, a two-story restaurant with four drive-through lanes, which run under the building, and no dining room. There is one traditional drive-through lane and three lanes dedicated to digital orders. Food is delivered to customers from the second-floor kitchen via dumbwaiter-style lifts. According to QSR Magazine, the average wait time from arrival to order was just over 24 seconds and the average time from order taken to order received was around 2½ minutes, for a total time that averaged just under 3 minutes.
Defy-style infrastructures may be the future of the drive-through experience, but there are things restaurants can do to enhance the speed of more traditional drive-throughs, such as implementing double drive-through lanes and digital ordering systems. Contrary to popular belief, digital systems do not necessarily displace workers. Instead, they free up employees to focus on filling rather than taking orders, further reducing wait times.
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Although high-tech solutions can do wonders for your drive-through services, there are also low-tech strategies you can use to enhance drive-through performance. For example, you might use pre-menu displays along the drive-through lanes to help customers make decisions in advance and order more quickly. It is also important to keep pre-menu and menu descriptions brief and design these displays to highlight more profitable items. Customers like “value meals” or other bundled items that allow them to make decisions and order more quickly.
For a variety of reasons, the drive-through is here to stay. QSRs that fail to capitalize on the heightened demand for drive-through services are missing out on a potentially lucrative opportunity.
For more information about benchmarking for restaurants, please contact Brian Israel at [email protected]. Visit ORBA.com to learn more about our Restaurant Group.
“Unlocking QSR Success in 2024: Insights from Post-pandemic Data,” Revenue Management Systems, September 2023, https://www.revenuemanage.com/en/blog/qsr-success-2024-insights-post-pandemic-data.
 Kim Severson, “Hungry (but Not for Human Contact), Americans Head for the Drive-Through,” New York Times, November 7, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/07/dining/drive-through.html?unlocked_article_code=1.8kw.Ybk5.yi-5cOEkU1oq&smid=url-share.
 “The 2023 QSR® Drive-Thru Report,” QSR Magazine, September 28, 2023, https://www.qsrmagazine.com/reports/the-2023-qsr-drive-thru-report.