Change Series: A Smarter Drive-thru Gives Sales the Checkered Flag

Voice assistant ordering, artificial intelligence, and other technologies are mature and ready to help brands supercharge their most profitable channel.

Change is constant, but over the course of the last year, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of change in restaurants, especially quick serve and fast casual. The shift away from dine-in to off-premises has brought technology into the limelight as a means to serve guests in various off-premises channels. As brands consider the next evolution of their restaurants, many are looking to drive-thru to drive growth. For new construction, designs trend toward less going on indoors and more going on outside: less square footage for dine-in paired with more accommodation for off-premises in its various forms including multi-lane drive-thru, traditional drive-up, mobile/order-ahead, curbside, and walk-up. 

As part of our ‘Change Series,’ here’s our look at service and tech trends in drive-thru.

Challenges become opportunities

Drive-thru and curbside have become enormously popular during the Covid-19 pandemic. With a rise in traffic and sales, some operators saw drive-thru service times grow longer. Many have introduced line busting and other operational changes to improve sales and guest experiences. Going forward, regardless of whether or not pandemic-imposed restrictions reduce dine-in capacity or keep it closed altogether, we could continue to see a lot of sales in the drive-thru.

As brands serve more and more guests in the drive thru using nontraditional service methods such as line busting, operators need to consider how they measure service KPIs, which ultimately drives customer experience and provides insights for any operational improvements. They also need to consider where they can automate steps and processes to accommodate the rising minimum wage.

Traditional drive-thru technologies like loop detectors assume a very linear flow through the lane: order at the speaker and pick up the order at the window. This has allowed operators to use timing technology to track important metrics such as overall service time. Having these metrics in hand made it easier for managers to understand how and where they could tweak operations, staffing, or training to improve their numbers. 

To accommodate more sales and service in the drive-thru, brands have made modifications such as dedicated parking stalls for customers or delivery drivers waiting for their orders; dual lanes; line-busting using tablet computers and/or headsets; and escape lanes for line-busting/in-line fulfillment. The goals, of course, are to serve as many guests as quickly as possible, keep the line moving, and avoid drive-offs and traffic jams. But these changes come with their own challenges. Metrics besides basic overall service time become more important, as brands look to determine things like dwell time, wait time, time required to place an order and pay, and so on. How do you measure service time for line busting, and how does it compare to other types of service happening in the drive-thru, like curbside, for example? More importantly, how do you make improvements if you’re not able to capture metrics? 

Guests are expecting a lot from the drive thru

Fast food prepared well, and accurately, has been table stakes for a long time. Guest expectations of the drive-thru have only increased over the past year and will continue to do so. Extreme convenience, personalization, surprise and delight, loyalty rewards, great value, order-ahead, and courteous, safe, no-contact / low-contact ordering and payment are all now essential.

Many guest expectations carry over from their experience with online retail. An obvious and familiar example is the fact that big name online retailers remember a customer’s past orders. Why shouldn’t the busy parent with a van full of kids expect their favorite fast food restaurant to recall their past order(s)? The same could be said for personalization based on guest  recognition, preferences, time of day, weather, or a combination of factors. 

Every drive thru has its crunch time. When the drive-thru turns into gridlock, software-based automation can narrow menu choices to the items that are most popular, profitable, or fastest-to-prepare, and then revert to the full menu when traffic settles down. What about having an automatic discount applied when a guest’s wait exceeds a certain threshold?

These are not only emerging drive-thru guest expectations; they’re also possible, given today’s technologies.

Trending tactics for giving guests what they are looking for in the drive-thru

Brands we work with are thinking about at least these three key areas:

  • The pandemic accelerated adoption of digital. Brands must have a formal digital strategy. Multi-unit operators need an agile tech stack that can be flexible and adapt to changing business and customer needs across all customer touchpoints including payment. 
  • Sleek, easy-to-use digital ordering experiences are increasingly becoming a competitive differentiator. Guests are increasingly adopting in-app ordering and payment over in-person. And they’re less willing to put up with suboptimal experiences. 
  • Be aware of, and address, guest concerns related to personal space and surface contact with each interaction. The more that guests can avoid touching payment devices and handing over their payment card, for example, the more comfortable they are likely to feel about their visit. So ordering and payment methods that use their smartphone are a great fit for the ‘no contact / socially safe’ drive-thru experience.

How can brands maintain speed of service while still ensuring pleasant, personal experiences in the drive-thru?

It all comes down to self-service and digital experiences. Give guests more - and better - self-service and digital ways to order, pay, and interact with your brand. By nature, a great digital experience streamlines the experience and puts - and keeps - the guest in control. Done well, with well-designed user interfaces, a digital experience can become the new ‘face’ of your brand, while your on-premises crew focuses on preparing great food and serving up smiles. Bonus: the more aspects of the experience the guest controls, the fewer opportunities there are for the experience to be unpleasant and impersonal.

There are essential, table stakes technologies that brands must consider first

Essential technologies for pleasant, low-friction service include tablets for line busting connected to the in-store POS and kitchen systems, as well as any third-party apps. Brands also must have some way to time service so they can track and improve it. Digital displays to enhance guest engagement, confirm orders, and easily update menu, pricing, and promos are also becoming de facto standard.

Drive-thru will continue to evolve

We’ll see brands increase adoption of no-contact/low-contact ordering and payment methods in the drive-thru.

In addition, they’ll need to solve the challenge of how to measure service metrics whether a guest is served in the traditional way (order at speaker stand, pay and pick up at the window), using line busting, curbside, or some hybrid / emerging service method.

Going forward, the drive-thru traffic challenges and economics present the perfect opportunity to apply emerging technologies that are integrated and connected, to deliver a superior guest experience without adding labor costs. 

A voice assistant can be used to assist with or accept order and payment, freeing up the drive-thru crew to enhance service and experience. Artificial intelligence/machine learning can help a brand deliver personalized experiences and attractive offers. Cameras are starting to replace in-lane loops and other types of legacy detectors. Cameras have a wider field of vision, so they can track service KPIs regardless of where in line the guest places their order and receives their food and drink. 

Cameras can also pick up on car make/model to help with personalization (e.g., offer kid-friendly specials on the digital pre-sell boards to the mini-van).  When everything works together, the brand can associate an order / order number with a specific car regardless of its position or location in the drive-thru, take care of a guest’s order entirely while they are in line, send them on their way via an escape lane, and avoid the bottleneck at the pick-up window. 

Xenial continues to be an innovator in drive-thru

With 97% of its sales coming through the drive-thru, fast-growing Dutch Bros. Coffee has some great lessons and practices to share with multi-unit QSR operators. Check out our interview with Dutch Bros Systems Architect Brendon Gilbert.