Order Up! 5 Trends Changing the Drive-Thru Experience

Drive-thrus are here to stay, so how can restaurants, coffee chains, and QSRs stay relevant in the marketplace? Take a closer look at five innovations responsible for transforming drive-thrus.

The drive-thru concept has evolved since its inception in 1948, originating in California with the wildly popular west-coast burger chain, In-N-Out Burger. It was then that Americans began to crave faster, more efficient services, so many fast-food chains were quick to adopt the now-standard drive-thru concept. Many things have changed since the opening of these first drive-thru locations. But what remains the same is the customer's need to get in, get out, and get on the road without getting out of the car, whether they're on their way to work, school, or taking a full car of kids home from soccer practice. The drive-thru has evolved into an experience made to order for everyone.   

Prioritizing Operational Efficiencies    

Improving speed and service is one of the most important foundational elements, if not the number one priority of all design and infrastructure changes QSRs and drive-thru restaurants are considering acting on. Giving them the confidence that they will get  consistently fast and quality service is paramount to a successful drive-thru operation, and the key to keeping the customer returning. It’s now more important than ever to remain open to updating operational workflows to serve customers best. Mega coffee chain Starbucks has heeded this lesson well, working to pivot their operations and site designs to prioritize drive-thrus, placing a smaller emphasis on indoor dining space the past few years.

But how can companies capitalize on these shifting trends and consumer tastes, and what are some of these essential innovations or operational efficiencies they should consider adopting? Below we'll outline five of the most common and exciting trends changing the drive-thru landscape as you know it.

#1 Upstream Ordering

If you've been to a Chick-fil-A or regional coffee chain like 7Brew Coffee, you are intimately familiar with upstream ordering. By cutting down the wait time for customers to get to the window or menu board, retailers are making it easier than ever for customers to see their wait times at the drive-thru window diminish or disappear altogether in some cases, especially if employees take payment upfront. These employees are typically the first face customers see once they arrive on-site and are armed with an iPad with mobile payment technology built in (most often, card readers, or contactless payment capabilities like Apple Pay, etc.). Once the order has been completed and sent to the kitchen, they then have time to ensure accuracy and quality, which is what keeps the customer coming back for more, line or not.  

Tips for Implementation: Relatively straightforward technology is needed to establish a successful upstream ordering system capable of handling multiple payment methods (think: Square Up. Lightspeed, Toast, etc.). However, that’s not all. Restaurant operators also need to think about the safety of their team members first and foremost. Simple things like dedicated walkways, removing curbs to avoid tripping hazards, and barriers between traffic and employees are all things that can be relatively easy to implement, but their importance should not be underestimated.

An unintentional positive side effect of upstream order-taking? More personable, intentional interactions between employees and customers. Rather than feeling like they're talking AT someone, customers get to interact with employees face-to-face rather than behind a screen.  

#2 Introducing Site Canopies  

Restaurants take their guests' experiences to heart and think about their employees when working through drive-thru innovations. Incorporating infrastructure like these massive canopies that run the length of the drive-thru window provides much-needed coverage for guests and employees in the sun, heat, rain, cold, and snow. Many of these canopies are being outfitted with external heaters and fans to add to the comfort level of team members, who, as stated in a previous section, are often participating in upstream ordering and delivering meals and drinks to customers outside of the drive-thru window. This new and improved "Drive-Thru Experience" allows certain locations to level up their drive-thru game by creating even larger canopies supported by steel posts to cover dual drive-thru lanes.   

While not every drive-thru is ready for the massive canopies that outfits like Chick-fil-A have doubled down on, which include the aforementioned heating and cooling capabilities, many can still benefit from smaller ones that still provide shelter from weather while ordering, whether from a restaurant associate or at the menu board.  

Tips for Implementation: By implementing things such as fans for hot summer days and heaters for the colder winter months, restaurant operators can ensure the comfort of both employees and customers underneath these canopies, especially if used in tandem with innovations like upstream ordering.  

But how do those restaurant associates get in and out of the restaurant quickly and efficiently to serve those customers? Drive-thru doors.  

#3 Automatic Drive-Thru Doors

Adaptability is the name of the game in drive-thru innovation, especially in these post-COVID years. What is more adaptable than quickly deploying employees to the drive-thru line to get customers in and out quicker? By allowing them easy access to the kitchen/pickup point for drive-thru orders, restaurants can reduce the time customers spend there. However, having the ability to revert to business as usual with a drive-thru window when restaurants aren't experiencing peak traffic is essential, too.  

Tips for Implementation: Restaurant operators should plan to pair this innovation with the appropriate site design and drive-thru operation strategy. It's important that you do not forget about the impact on the interior of the building and potential for additional heating and cooling thanks to the free flow of outside air when these doors are open. Air curtains to prevent pest infiltration are also a must!

Suppliers like ASSA ABLOY, a leader in the automatic door industry, have a patent-pending design meant to "feature the convenience of an automatic window with express panels that slide out of the way when additional space is needed to serve your customers."

Ross Merkling, Key Account Business Manager at ASSA ABLOY says, “It is key that the door equipment that is selected must be easy to use, reliable, has an attractive appearance and improves the customer experience without adding additional effort to staff.  Utilizing a convertible drive through door allows for improved customer interaction at the vehicle but the ability to increase throughput. This is the basis of the ASSA ABLOY product line.”

#4 Heating Things Up with Solar Power  

Chick-fil-A and KFC are among the first to beta test solar drive-thru canopies in their California markets to combat power shortages and capitalize on the relentless sun in more arid climates. A Bakersfield, California KFC location recently installed a 72-foot solar canopy capable of producing 1.2 million kilowatt hours of renewable energy over the system's lifetime. That translates into the ability of this solar panel canopy to lower energy costs by more than $11,000 in the first year alone.  

On the other hand, Chick-fil-A began working with California-based operators in 2021 to launch a pilot program for a "microgrid system designed for a 5,000-square-foot building to save energy costs and help prevent power-related business disruptions.” The idea was borne out of the desire to capitalize on the already installed large drive-thru canopies, making them an even more useful addition to the restaurant’s site design. Only time will tell if this becomes a trend that catches on within the at-large drive-thru industry, as well.  

Tips for Implementation: If solar is a consideration, restaurant operators should explore and maximize all available incentives while simultaneously delivering their carbon reduction and resilience goals. These criteria can be weighed with the other design considerations and operational outcomes to determine if adding solar to their existing canopies is the right approach.  

#5 Mobile Ordering

Another way quick service restaurants like Chick-fil-A are paving the way for others in the industry? Testing mobile order-only drive-thru lanes dedicated to customers who have chosen to order ahead allows them to check in and skip the wait.   

A senior integration leader for Chick-fil-A's Service + Hospitality team explains the need for this service "as a way to serve customers more effectively and give them more control over their experience. The express lane is meant to cut down on time used for ordering and paying, which is helpful in "granting customers access to greater speed, ease, and convenience when they want it most."  

Not only does this get more customers through the drive-thru faster, but it also encourages brand and app loyalty. Chick-fil-A is one of many doing it. Others, like Taco Bell, have been testing this concept as well. It is further leveraging the "store of the future" model.  

Taco Bell launched what it is calling the "Defy" concept in mid-2022 in Brooklyn Park, MN. Notable features of this new concept include three dedicated mobile/delivery drive-thru lanes, a QR code scanner that notifies team members that the customer has arrived, and a proprietary lift system that delivers the food directly to the customer’s window.  

Tips for Implementation: With the increasing popularity of mobile ordering, A+E firms must be willing to think of solutions that help achieve the right balance of drive-thru infrastructure, while still planning for and expecting mobile order pickup/carry out traffic, as well. This may look like designated parking for those mobile orders that doesn’t impede the flow of traffic through the drive-thru and potentially a more secluded staging area off the kitchen for these orders to be picked up by customers.  

Dine-In Isn’t Dead  

It must be noted that while drive-thrus are and will always be wildly popular, dine-in is making a comeback post-COVID, but it is not for everyone at every moment. So, how do you juggle the two, allowing both formats to prosper, serving customers where they’re at, whether in the car or at the table?   

Restaurants are quickly realizing that drive-thru, delivery, and on-premise dining aren’t mutually exclusive. Each serves a purpose to the type of customer using them. However, those dining room doomsday predictions that came hot off the heels of COVID? Likely just that, scare tactics for restaurants and customers alike.  

In recent months, on-premise dining has picked up, but so has drive-thru and delivery adoption. According to the National Restaurant Association, in 2023, 16 percent fewer people were dining on-premise than before. Yet, many say this gap can and should be accounted for in off-premise business (drive-thru, delivery orders with partners like DoorDash, Uber Eats, etc.). So, while this does account for a drop in the number of customers leaving their homes or cars to eat at a restaurant, it doesn't call for the complete closure of dining rooms either. However, restaurant operators and their A+E teams must work together to ensure each experience is seamless. Care must be taken regarding drive-thru traffic patterns, parking, etc.     

Looking to the Future, One Order at a Time

What does this mean for the future of drive-thru restaurants? How can companies adopt some or all of these innovations to make a better experience for their customers? How long until the next "big thing?" Only time will tell, but one thing hasn't changed, the customer is always king, and restaurants must remember that and continue to innovate and evolve with them in mind.  

Generational traits change how customers look at the world, which often includes how they order their food. Will the adoption rate of mobile-only orders take off in the next five years? Will on-premise dining see a remarkable surge in popularity, paying homage to trends in the early 2000s? We must wait and see. However, we do know that the best thing restaurant operators (and the design firms that support them) can do is carefully consider those needs and support the adoption of innovative trends when designing new locations or updating existing sites.    

Special thanks to Steven Baker (AIA, NCARB), Team Lead / Architect at HFA, for his thought leadership and expertise provided throughout this article.  

Want to know more about our work with QSRs, Drive-Thrus, and other restaurant formats? Contact Steven Baker, AIA, NCARB (steven.baker@hfa-ae.com) for more information.  

Written by
Ashley Hayre