A recent article in Fast Company reported that during the Covid-19 pandemic lots of restaurants have closed and increasingly people have avoided eating out altogether. It’s a heart-breaking situation for small restaurants everywhere with many closing their doors forever.
Meanwhile, the big boys in the fast-food industry have seized this opportunity to expand their reach in the USA. While drive-throughs have been popular for decades, representing around 65 per cent of a store’s revenue, they’ve become really popular in 2020.
In response, the industry is investing in drive-throughs with all speed. “Projects we anticipated would take five to 10 years are being prioritised and integrated into this experience as we go forward,” says Mike Grams, president and global CEO of Taco Bell. “Covid-19 has proven customers want easy, convenient access to the things they love.”
In the drive-through world, speed is the most important metric. A long line might lose customers who drive by and decide it’s just not worth the wait. In late 2018, McDonald’s prioritised speeding up its drive-throughs. Bill Garrett, SVP of operations at McDonald’s said, “We spent an enormous amount of energy and time in 2019 to build a stronger drive-through foundation, and that was really quite fortunate to us, because since Covid-19, it is clear customers find drive-throughs not just convenient but a safer way to interact.”
So, what did McDonald’s do to imporve its operations? They rethought kitchen workflows to ensure that every employee is working as efficiently as possible. As Covid-19 hit, McDonald’s slimmed down their menu that had become bloated over time.
Taco Bell simplified its menu removing a dozen menu items in July. “The menu has to fit the experience. You have to navigate it well,” says Grams. “It can’t have 140 choices and be fast.”
Starbucks has an updated espresso machine, the Mastrena II, which can pull shots in a more automated fashion. Additionally, it has introduced an entire AI back end, called DeepBrew, to help juggle orders. The most visible benefit of this tech is a new labelling system, which can funnel orders from Uber Eats, people in their car, or the app, and queue these cups up for baristas to prepare.
The menu board is now easier to read, thanks to simplified menus. That trend will continue, as McDonald’s spent $300 million in 2019 to acquire the AI company Dynamic Yield. Using predictive technologies, its digital menu boards can tailor the menu for time of day, weather, and even current restaurant traffic. Items that take a long time to prepare can be de-emphasised during a rush.
Taco Bell will begin offering a mobile priority lane at many of its stores, as part of an incentive to order on mobile. Using GPS geofencing, the app can detect when you arrive, to ensure that your order is good to go.
The last way that drive-throughs are changing is that the drive-through itself will no longer be about having one, two, or even three drive-through lanes. The entire location will become increasingly important for pickup operations as it transitions from being less about eating inside a dining room, and more about being a place to wait for your order to be ready.
In other words, to see the fast-food chain of the future, simply walk to your car, open the door, and take a seat. Because you’ve just arrived.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]