Drive thru is not staying in its lane. For decades, drive thru was associated with a slow-moving line of minivans filled with families ordering fast-food burgers through a scratchy intercom. But over the past couple of years, drive thru has been undergoing a renaissance and is expanding to (and thriving in) new categories like pizza and coffee, while becoming a center of tech and real-estate innovation for the entire restaurant industry.
Drive-thru coffee shops
Operators are realizing that you don’t need to be a typical quick-service chain to find success in the drive-thru lane. In fact, a couple of the fastest growing drive-thru categories include pizza and coffee.
While Chicago-based, technology-focused pizza chain Slice Factory has been offering pizza to go via the “slice-thru” lane since 2019, other pizza concepts have tried out drive thru more recently, including Pizza Hut, which began rolling out “Hut Lanes” in 2021, and Fat Boy’s, which started opening express locations with drive-thru lanes in 2022. Before these concepts, it would have been inconceivable to successfully pass off a pizza through a drive-thru window.
But coffee has been the real drive-thru success story as of late. Although Starbucks might be best known for its drive-thru formats, other coffee chains are topping the customer satisfaction charts. According to data from Technomic, the drive-thru chains with the highest customer satisfaction scores in the quick-service category are Dutch Bros Coffee and Peet’s Coffee, the former of which had record store openings of its drive-thru concept in 2022.
The growing consumer need for drive-thru coffee options is not lost on The Human Bean, the Oregon-based, 150-unit drive-thru coffee brand that is expanding rapidly throughout the U.S.
“The industry as a whole has become more focused on drive thru because of the speed and convenience,” said CEO Dan Hawkins. “It’s a really efficient model without dine-in because you add some overhead when you do interior dining … and if not positioned properly, you’d have to have two separate production areas.”
The Human Bean has been around since 1998 and, since then, drive-thru innovation has evolved tremendously. One of the biggest changes it’s added to the drive-thru lane is utilizing employees as line-busters to go out to the drive thru and take orders via a tablet to keep down wait times. Once customers get up the window, they can also choose to pay via touchless transaction through a QR code. Between these updates, The Human Bean has gotten its order times down to around 30 seconds, which is crucial to the efficiency-focused industry.
Drive thrus are not just for the largest quick-service chains, either. Emerging concepts across restaurant categories are also getting in on the trend. Salad chain Sweetgreen added a drive-thru pickup lane called a “Sweetlane” for the first time in 2022 (after opening a solar-powered drive-thru lane in 2020) and Fuzzy’s Taco Shop added drive-thru prototypes for the first time last year as well.
Big Chicken — the rapidly growing chicken franchise from Shaquille O’Neal — is one of the most high-profile newcomers to the drive-thru industry, adding its first drive-thru location in February of this year. Although Big Chicken is big on dine-in experience, CEO Josh Halpern recognized how crucial a quicker experience is for customers on the go.
“Watching other fast-casual chains with similar ticket times enter the space before us and be successful with it gave us the confidence that we needed to figure out how to do it,” Halpern said. “You need to go to where the guest wants to be, and the guest wants convenience, and they want to be able to get in and out faster. Drive-thru definitely no longer has the same stigmas attached to it that it had 15 years ago and has improved dramatically.”
Increasing speed, efficiency, and convenience for both employees and customers is the name of the game not only for operators just entering the drive-thru space, but also for those looking to perfect it. Over the past couple of years the biggest names in QSR, like Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A, have added more lanes, technology, and bells and whistles to their drive thrus to keep up with increasing consumer demand for off-premises options.
When Taco Bell’s Defy store format first opened in 2021, it was a game-changer with four drive-thru lanes (three of which are dedicated to delivery and mobile pickups), digital check-in screens, and food delivered via a contactless proprietary lift system. This format, along with the company’s Go Mobile format (which has gone through several iterations, the latest of which favors walk-up food pickups), is meant to appeal to a rapidly changing customer demographic that favors ease of experience rather than dine-in options.
Of course, as drive-thru lanes get bigger and more elaborate, they’ll need help in the labor department. The most ubiquitous tech advancement here is voice AI, which has been dominated in recent years by tech companies like Hi Auto, Soundhound, Presto and more. The list of restaurants that are testing voice AI — including Wendy’s, White Castle, McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. — keeps growing, as restaurants look to hire AI-powered chatbots to take orders in the drive-thru lane, allowing employees to keep up with front-of-house tasks. Although the technology is not yet perfect, these tech companies are racing to add features and keep perfecting AI’s capabilities to understand and speak human speech naturally. This month, Checkers and Rally’s added the first-ever Spanish-speaking voice AI in the drive-thru lane in Spanish-speaking communities like Miami, and ConverseNow began partnering with Google Bard and OpenAI to perfect its digital capabilities with two of the most powerful generative AI tools out there.
Drive thru takes over
As drive thru becomes increasingly important to off-premises success, many restaurants are experimenting with drive-thru-focused or even drive-thru-only formats, like the Chick-fil-A location that just opened this summer in Honolulu, Hawaii, that boasts two drive-thru lanes and multiple pickup windows.
Sister concepts Jack in the Box and Del Taco recently debuted drive-thru-only prototypes — the former in fall 2022 and the latter in summer 2023 — as part of the Fresh Flex store prototype redesigns. According to Jack in the Box CEO Darin Harris, the company’s drive-thru-only prototype, which opened last fall in Tulsa, Okla., performed better than expected. Moving forward, the drive-thru focused store formats are going to become a crucial part of the company’s portfolio.
Van Ingram, vice president of franchise development at Del Taco, said that developing these drive-thru-focused formats has been a lesson in operational efficiency — in learning how to design the kitchen to better manage the traffic outside, and provide both traditional drive-thru lanes and pickup windows.
“These drive-thru-only formats are much smaller and are really designed around the kitchen being the engine of the facility and maximizing drive-thru capability,” Ingram said. “The pandemic really changed how consumers interact with our brands, as drive-thru service continued to increase, especially in the burger and taco categories. Even before the pandemic, people were inclined to use the drive thru, and now people use it almost 100% of the time.”
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]