Pandemic Drives Ups Demand for Drive-Thrus

Burger King is planning three-lane locations.

March 05, 2021

Drive Thru Lane Sign

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—The pandemic has put limits on foodservice seating capacity and sparked a boom in the demand for drive-thrus, reports the Wall Street Journal.

While many foodservice operators took a big hit when COVID-19 occupancy limits closed their dining rooms, chains such as Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s and Checkers & Rally’s are enjoying a sales uptick at stores with drive-thru lanes.

Even retailers that have never offered drive-thru options are rolling out lanes. Shake Shack is building its first drive-through this year in Orlando, and as NACS Daily reported, Wawa opened its first drive-thru convenience store in January in Morrisville, Pa.

Real-estate investors are eager to get a piece of the action, said Derek Waltchack, a partner at Shannon Waltchack, a real-estate developer based in Birmingham, Ala. A property with a drive-thru lane typically commands 10% to 20% higher rent compared to one without, he said.

Shannon Waltchack wants to broaden its portfolio so that half of the firm’s properties include drive-thrus or layouts that would permit the construction of the lanes, he added. Seven of the firm’s 40 properties currently have drive-thrus.

One reason drive-thru sites are in big demand is their scarcity. Many municipalities have imposed restrictions on the lanes at new developments. At some drive-thru locations, long lines of vehicles have prompted neighboring businesses to complain that their customers aren’t able to enter the parking lot or secure a parking space.

Some restaurant chains that already rely on drive-thrus are building even bigger versions to help meet the rising demand of digital orders. In September, Burger King unveiled plans for future restaurants designed with triple drive-thru lanes. One of the lanes would be reserved exclusively for online order pickup.

Chipotle Mexican Grill plans to add 200 locations this year, with many offering customers the option to pick up digital orders via drive-thrus dubbed Chipotlanes. And in December, Starbucks said it expects to open about 800 stores annually, particularly in suburban locations with drive-through lanes. The company said that stores with drive-thrus generated half of net sales for the quarter ended in December, up more than 10% from pre-pandemic levels.

Some real-estate brokers believe it might be easier to find locations for smaller stores that have little or no indoor seating, such as Checkers & Rally’s properties. That company already has double drive-thru lanes in 726 of its 843 locations. It said it wants to add 55 restaurants this year, up from 36 in 2020.

Some buildings could require as little as 1,000 square feet on a half-acre site, said Kristen McDonald, vice president of development for Checkers & Rally’s. “We’re able to fit on a smaller site,” she said. “This allows us to be pretty nimble.”

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.