Contact Us

Not Just For Fast Food: Pandemic Highlights The Brilliance Of The Drive-Thru For Any Business

For most traditional restaurants, the coronavirus pandemic has been a disaster. But it has provided opportunity for one particular sector: drive-thrus.

Given the social-distancing benefit of the model, many types of businesses from coronavirus labs to the Salvation Army to haunted houses have devised drive-thru components to do business. Other retailers might do well to follow their example.

Burger King's newly designed restaurants will be built in 2021 in Miami, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Pre-pandemic, fast-food restaurants were doing about 70% of their business via drive-thru, according to QSR magazine. Looking specifically at Miami-based Burger King, its parent company, Restaurant Brands International, found that drive-thrus accounted for two-thirds of its business in 2019, but the pandemic lifted that percentage to more than 85%.

In March, as the coronavirus began to devastate America, Burger King accelerated new restaurant designs that its in-house team had been working on. The company unveiled some of those changes in September.

Many of the tweaks were for a contactless experience: addition of a third drive-thru lane; coded lockers where people can pick up food without entering the restaurant; and kitchens suspended above the drive-thru lanes, which allow a reduced building footprint and a conveyor belt system to lower food down to cars. BK will start building these newfangled restaurants in Miami, Latin America and the Caribbean next year.

Other fast-food purveyors are likewise experimenting with their space. Taco Bell is planning to launch a "Taco Bell Go Mobile" restaurant concept in 2021, with locations that are 1,325 SF, just over half the size of a standard 2,500 SF Taco Bell, and designed for people placing orders through a mobile app. Even Chipotle, which had long resisted drive-thrus because it was focused on the in-store experience of watching food be freshly prepared, opened a prototype “digital kitchen” in Highland Falls, New York, that doesn’t have eat-in seating, but does have a lobby for pickup orders.

Joseph Bona, founder of New York-based Bona Design Lab, gave a presentation to the National Association of Convenience Stores on Nov. 9, about how convenience stores can take advantage of the trend.

In a call with Bisnow, Bona noted that drive-thru-only convenience stores have existed for decades, with companies like Farm Stores and Swiss Farms selling staples like bread, milk and eggs. Banks and pharmacies incorporated drive-thrus decades ago. “What’s old is new again,” Bona said.

Wawa has already announced a drive-thru-only store and the concept can be adapted for other types of retail, he said. If companies eliminate the need for people to come inside to sit and eat or even browse shelves, they can thus reduce their real estate costs. In turn, they might be able to reduce other operational costs: heating and cooling, labor and even security to protect against retail theft.

However, if operators do cut store size and real estate needs, they need to factor in the possibility of traffic backups and circulation, so that customers aren't stuck in long lines and don't interfere with delivery trucks.

Bona warned that drive-thru demand has added an extra 30 seconds to the average wait time at a fast-food restaurant. That’s partly from waiting for food to be prepared, but also because retailers had been adding menu items, which in turn meant that customers needed more time to decide what to order.

Retailers can adjust by using digital menu boards and swap out menus at different “meal occasions,” showing only lunch items at lunchtime, for instance, Bona said.