“Mere seconds can be a make-it or break-it in terms of where a consumer decides to order from,” Amanda Topper, a research director at the research firm Mintel, said of the slowdowns. The data is from SeeLevelHX, which tracked drive-thru times at about 1,500 US restaurants across 10 major chains from July 5 to August 6.
So far, the habit has stuck. A Technomic consumer survey found about 52% of quick-service restaurant orders were placed in drive-thrus in August 2021, compared to about 42% in January 2020.
In the highly competitive fast food space, increased demand through any channel is a win. Restaurants don’t want to lose ground by giving up any potential drive-thru sales, yet they also can’t overwhelm their systems and risk losing customers.
To solve that problem, fast food chains are chasing multiple solutions, many of which are about more: more lanes, more pickup options and more technology.
How drive-thrus got bogged down
And the pandemic-fueled push to drive-thru, delivery and pickup has created a cycle: With workers scrambling to fill those off-premise orders, customers inside the restaurants may become frustrated — and turn to the drive-thru instead.
“You’re sitting there waiting in line, and meanwhile all the drive-thru orders are getting filled, the takeout orders are getting filled,” Henkes said. Until the labor situation eases, restaurants are “diverting their resources where they’re going to be most effectively used. For a lot of quick-service-restaurants, that’s the drive-thru.”
Some staff-strapped restaurants are opting to keep dining rooms closed entirely. But even if they add more employees to the drive-thru staff, there’s tremendous pressure on that channel.
Meanwhile, there’s even a challenge with the staff restaurants have managed to maintain. Turmoil in the industry means more turnover, which means less experienced workers. “If you have an employee who has been with you for a year, they’re much more efficient … than the person who you hired three weeks ago,” said Peter Saleh, restaurant analyst with BTIG.
Larger orders, another pandemic trend, only exacerbate the situation, Saleh noted. Some restaurant chains said although traffic may have slowed during the crisis, the average check size went up. That’s partially due to price hikes, but also because people placed larger orders for families or groups eating together at home.
Order ahead, double lanes and artificial intelligence
It’s not clear when, or even if, the labor pool for restaurants will grow. So restaurants are turning to other solutions.
Still, fast food has always been about convenience, so adding another step might not appeal to every diner. So several chains are leaning into the drive-thru.
McDonald’s has been testing automated order taking at several US drive-thrus, CEO Chris Kempczinski told analysts during an October call. He said the efforts “have shown substantial benefits to customers and the crew experience.” McDonald’s drive-thru times in major markets have shortened an average of about 30 seconds over the past two years, according to the company.