By: Gino Geruntino, Marketing Specialist at PAR
For decades, the drive-thru lane has been the gold standard for speed in food service. In a matter of minutes, your local fast-food burger joint can take your order, prepare it, and have a piping hot bag of food in your hands.
With the coronavirus only just starting to loosen its grip on the United States, those same drive-thru lanes we’ve enjoyed for decades have been serving another purpose; keeping large fast-food giants like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell afloat. The drive-thru typically makes up a majority of a fast-food restaurant’s sales at any given time, but with dining areas shuttered to prevent the spread of the virus, they’ve taken on an even more important role.
Establishing A New Normal
Drive-thru lanes at fast-food locations are offering an intriguing option for guests to still patronize their favorite restaurants as safely as possible. Despite longer lines and wait times, guests are flocking to their favorite eateries to enjoy a small slice of normalcy after spending weeks cooped up in their homes.
Although overall orders are down for many brands, there has been an increase in the amount spent per order. This is likely due to people getting more food to feed more people, rather than going to the drive-thru alone during their lunch break. The increase also comes despite certain dayparts taking a hit, including the important breakfast rush. Many chains are experiencing a decrease in breakfast sales due in part to workers commuting less, though Wendy’s, which recently introduced a breakfast menu, has been one of the few chains to experience less of a hit.
The impact of drive-thru sales for restaurant chains who have them or can implement them quickly is paramount to protecting revenue and, ultimately, keeping the doors open. For brands like Jack in the Box and Wendy’s, same–store sales quickly improved from their respective lows in late March and early April as guests rushed to the drive-thru for their orders.
Solving For X: Dine-In Areas Pose A New Problem
Surging drive-thru sales numbers are also giving restaurant operators a new challenge to solve for as they begin the process of reopening dining areas. These areas will likely require additional employees to keep surfaces clean and help guests maintain social distancing guidelines, so even though restrictions have loosened in some states, operators are being cautious to protect employee and customer health.
While full-service restaurants struggle to adhere to state guidelines and social distancing protocols, some quick service locations are seemingly taking a wait-and-see approach to opening. Drive-thru sales, combined with a growing number of delivery sales, have been able to make up a majority of lost revenue for these brands, allowing them the time to take a measured approach that works for both guests and employees.
In fact, according to NPD Group, drive-thru sales in March of 2020 outperformed sales figures from 2019, with $8.3 billion compared to $8 billion in the previous year. While the increase is not enough to cover all the revenue lost from in-store purchases, it did soften the blow slightly.
Improving the Model
It’s no secret the drive-thru has become slower in recent years. In 2019, the average customer spent more than four minutes (255 seconds) in line waiting for their order, and that’s about 20 seconds longer than the previous year. While some of the lag can be attributed to more complex menu items and higher quality ingredients that take longer to prepare, customers are also yearning for better quality service. As a result, employees at major chains like Chick-fil-A are taking their time to ensure orders are accurate and providing a better quality of service. Despite having the slowest drive-thru wait time of major fast-food chains in 2019, Chick-fil-A’s high-quality service and attention to detail made them the most accurate of the group studied.
So, with drive-thru business still surging and dine-in areas struggling to get back to normal, what are restaurants doing to improve the service they can still provide? The answer may come in the form of timers. A growing number of fast-food chains are using drive-thru timers to streamline the foodservice process, getting customers in and out of line as quickly as possible while using different methods to detect vehicles in the drive-thru line, including induction loops, magnetometers, ultrasonic sensors, and cameras.
The timer starts when an order is placed and is tracked in real-time, allowing managers and staff to make changes on the fly to increase service speeds and address issues in the line. As a result, data can be complied and used to simplify menu items, make staffing changes and determine how to address impending rushes when they happen.
Even small improvements to a customer’s drive-thru wait could result in big benefits all around. Restaurants can increase through-put by getting people out faster, while customers fighting the lunch rush will likely notice the shorter times and there will be more incentive to visit the drive-thru if customers know they’ll be moved along without much delay.
Fast-food culture is going to continue evolving as we move beyond the impacts of COVID-19. Large-scale players and smaller chains are both going to capitalize on opportunities to increase speeds, especially as dine-in locations and other concepts continue to get back on their feet. Customers, for their part, may see simpler menus and cutbacks on offerings like all-day breakfast, but the loss of some items may result in better, quicker experiences.