If we had to name the most innovative offering in restaurant history, it wouldn’t be the cronut. The drive-thru, hands down, takes the cake. We’ve all been in one at this point, and chances are you have a favorite. But, as innovative as the drive-thru was at its inception in 1947, we really haven’t seen much innovation in the past 70+ years of operation—until now.
Why is drive-thru such an enduring element of fast food and synonymous with QSRs? How are brands using drive-thru to enhance the experience and transcend the transactional nature of the process? Where does technology fit into the equation?
“The modern drive-thru as we know it today, with the ability to quickly order and receive food without leaving your car, was pioneered by California fast-food chain In-N-Out Burger in the 1940s.”
Although it originated here, the drive-thru is not an American phenomenon; fast food and QSRs are on a massive rise globally. Drive-thru is an $18.9B industry in Europe, and food delivery is a $51B industry in China. Australia saw a 10% increase in post-pandemic drive-thru traffic and sales.
Filipino brand Jollibee is one of the first brands to bring a double-lane drive-thru concept to global markets, and it continues to expand into the UK, Spain, Italy, Oman, Macau, and beyond. This concept also features a drive-thru lane sensor system, providing customers with real-time information, including waiting bay times and average service speed.
McDonald’s is pushing its drive-thru to serve a new purpose in global markets, particularly in Australia, where the fast-food giant launched its newest Eco-Prototype launched. Here, you can get a Big Mac, some fries, and charge your EV at the same time. All products come in sustainable, reusable packaging, and solar energy-charged lighting systems keep the exterior and interior lively. It’s a unique take on a fan favorite that we hope to see on a broader scale soon.
From Fast Food to Faster Food
What’s the No. 1 reason consumers visit drive-thrus in the first place? We’ll save you the thinking … it’s speed and convenience. Ironically, that is also one of the many reasons drive-thru times are increasing.
One of the busiest drive-thru experiences in America, Chick-Fil-A, also happens to be the slowest. Staffing issues and wait times between orders, as well as growing drive-thru popularity, are leading people back into the restaurant. On average, industry wait times have increased by over 30 seconds, which might not seem like a lot, but when you factor in that the drive-thru leaders can serve over 100 cars in an hour, this is a significant amount of lost business.
Sweetgreen, a fast-casual giant, is one of the many who’ve transitioned into drive-thru experience, now reaping the fruits of that labor. On average, their in-store wait time was 8.2 minutes, which led to the initiative. Its new multi-lane drive-thru experience is a blend of digital and on-the-spot ordering. In 2020, Sweetgreen saw a 178% increase in digital orders, which led the brand to lean even further into digital by developing promotional products customers can only access via online and mobile ordering.
Taco Bell & Dunkin’ lead the pack in terms of the fastest drive-thrus in America, but this comes as a result of new design concepts, both of which went live in 2022. Taco Bell’s new three-lane drive-thru/pickup configuration caters to online orders as well as traditional drive-thru orders. This way, everyone can have their cake (or taco) and eat it too. Dunkin’ is also shaking things up with new concepts, including the launch of its new drive-thru only locations… all but guaranteeing you won’t run into Ben Affleck.
AI is Here to Stay
Perhaps the most innovative feature of the modern-day drive-thru experience is the presence of AI. If you’ve already met Julia, you would know that. With an over 90% success rate, Julia, White Castle’s AI drive-thru attendee, streamlines the experience to get people their favorite products faster. Our studio team recently took a trip to see Julia in action, and we were impressed. From start to finish, the drive-thru experience took 2:33. Watch out, QSR leaders, White Castle is coming for your drive-thru business!
Brands like Wendy’s, Dunkin’, CKE, and many others are investing in AI to find ways that deliver drive-thru goods more quickly while taking pressure off internal staff. Others are searching for ways to incorporate AI into purchasing decisions, habits, and personalization.
Mezli has taken it a step beyond, with a San Francisco location autonomously run by robots & AI technology inside of a shipping container. Every 48 hours, a human comes by to check it, but the lack of required labor allows the location to sell meals at great prices. Elsewhere, Singapore brand Ebb & Flow utilizes AI to analyze and develop new menu items, deploying and testing them on a regular basis.
Innovation on the Move
From In-N-Out Burger’s first modern drive-thru to White Castle’s Julia—the drive-thru continues to evolve to meet the demands of the modern consumer for speed and convenience. We’re keeping a close eye on the evolution drive-thru experience, and we can’t wait to see the road ahead.