The modern 2-way speaker drive-thru operation is said to have been invented by In-N-Out Burger in the late 1940s, later refined and spread across the country in the 60s and 70s by fast food giants like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Jack In The Box.
Thanks to technology and changing customer demands, drive-thrus have steadily become better, faster, and more streamlined. Over the last several years, however, we’ve seen drive-thru innovation and adoption come at a much faster pace, in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When on-premise dining was restricted, brands quickly realized the need to replace their existing systems with cutting-edge solutions. Quick service restaurants that had never employed drive-thru operations started to rejigger their dining spaces and parking lots to serve guests using drive-thru and curbside order/pay technology. Other restaurants that had been in the drive-thru game for decades started pushing drive-thru to the extreme by adding multiple order and pickup lanes, curbside ordering, AI automation, drive-thru-only locations, and more.
Current Challenges in Drive-Thru Operations
Despite the new technology available, with an increase in demand for drive-thru and curbside service combined with ever-evolving customer expectations, many restaurants are still behind the curve. As drive-thru and mobile guest experiences continue to grow in popularity, it’s important for operators to consider drive-thru systems that incorporate mobile tech, among other modern advancements.
Speed of Service
The long queues you find at popular drive-thru restaurants are mainly attributed to people having to wait until they get to the window to pay and receive their order. At this point, everything that needs to be done takes too long, from making and changing orders to paying and entering rewards program info.
One way forward-oriented operations are busting these lines is by making use of mobile POS systems. According to research, customers are now spending 30 fewer seconds queueing for their orders in drive-thru lines thanks to mobile payments for restaurants.
In this scenario, employees with handheld mobile POS systems (using a tablet, phone, or handheld EMV device) go around taking orders from customers while they are still sitting in their cars. The idea here is that a customer can place their order and pay on the spot so all they have to do is pick up their order.
In traditional drive-thrus, between the intercom and the attendant keying in the order on the other side, mistakes happen. Drive-thru kiosks and curbside ordering via mobile device have done wonders to all but eliminate this issue.
Since customers personally key in their orders and review the items in their cart before checkout, human error in the ordering process is largely taken out of the equation.
On top of improving order accuracy, this type of technology can also improve labor efficiency, as drive-thru kiosks and mobile order and pay tech can cut down on the number of staff needed to work drive-thru lanes, especially for non-peak hours.
Additionally, kiosks and mobile order and pay are self-directed by the guest, meaning the entire ordering and payment process is taken out of your staff’s workflow so they can focus on service or other areas of your operation that need attention.
With the increase in demand for drive thru, many restaurants are moving away from the traditional single lane drive-thru into reconfigured spaces that allow for more efficient drive-thru and curbside service.
Some brands have introduced double drive-thru lanes where one lane utilizes the window and the other is serviced by staff taking orders via mobile POS or designated for mobile pickup and delivery.
Other restaurants have incorporated designated parking spaces for kiosk ordering or mobile ordering initiated via QR code link displayed on branded signage.
The Tech Revolution: A Glimpse Into Modern Drive-Thru Technology
Here are some key drive-thru innovations that are revolutionizing the industry.
Automated Voice Ordering
Advancements in the AI industry have given rise to AI-powered drive-thru technologies, now in use by major brands like Panera Bread, McDonald’s, White Castle, and Taco Bell. These systems, which are essentially Siri for restaurant ordering using AI voice technology, are designed not only to increase order accuracy but also decrease wait times and improve the customer experience. This tech is still very new and has had some hiccups, but should be expected to improve over the next few years.
Some restaurants are even starting to employ celebrity AI voices, which, at least initially, could go a long way in the “surprise and delight” arena – if guests could interact with an AI Samuel L. Jackson aggressively taking their order for a Big Kahuna Burger, folks would line up… just saying.
While in-store touchscreen kiosks have been growing in popularity for several years, we should start to see more restaurants adding the technology to their drive-thru lanes.
CardFree kiosks can be deployed with an interface specifically designed for someone sitting in a car, creating a simple self-serve ordering system to speed up service and reduce reliance on staff.
This gives customers a safer and more convenient way to pay. Instead of waiting to hand over their credit cards at a window, customers can simply pay through a QR code or SMS link after placing their order, or through a branded payment interface for orders placed via curbside kiosk or mobile.
Real-World Examples of Drive-Thru Technology in Action
Taco Bell Defy
Back in 2021, Taco Bell introduced the world to its one-of-a-kind AI-powered drive-thru, called Taco Bell Defy, a prototype restaurant located in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
This new concept is designed to create a fast, seamless, and contactless drive-thru experience that would eliminate almost every pain point that comes with standard drive-thru operations.
The goal of Taco Bell Defy is to revolutionize the QSR industry by:
- Creating a drive-thru experience that would take 2 minutes or less
- Prioritizing digital pre-ordering of meals
- Turning the standard 1-lane model to a 4-lane
So far, this experiment is delivering on its promise, as the prototype location is the fastest drive-thru in the country, serving guests in less than 3 minutes on average.
McDonald’s’ Order Ahead Lane
McDonald’s has an “Order Ahead Lane” that allows customers who make their order and pay for it through the app to simply drive by and pick up their order – literally. The only interaction you have with any of the McDonald’s staff is when you pull up to the “Order Ahead Lane,” and someone asks you for your order number from the app. Other than that, everything is automated, including knowing when you are in the vicinity so McDonald’s can start putting your order together.
All-in-all, you get to order online, pay online, and pick up your order in a designated lane that hardly has any traffic. The whole process takes about 2 minutes.
Your operation doesn’t have to have Big Mac-sized pockets to take advantage of this type of technology though – CardFree can tap into smartphone geolocation services to automatically send the restaurant an “I’m here” notification when guests are in the vicinity to pick up their order.
Chick-fil-A’s Four Lane Drive-Thru Concept
Chick-fil-A is working on a four-lane drive-thru concept similar to Taco Bell’s Defy, with an ambitious goal to accommodate up to 75 cars. The concept is built to accommodate multiple order modes, with all food delivered by a team member to maintain the friendly hospitality the chain is known for.
The Future of Drive-Thru Technology
The drive-thru has come a long way since that first 2-way speaker box at In-N-Out, and the drive-thru landscape continues to evolve. As drive-thru tech continues to grow and becomes increasingly important for quick service operations, the key is staying ahead of the curve and embracing innovation for a more accurate and customer-centric drive-thru experience.