Diving Into What’s Driving Drive-Thrus

Following the pandemic, drive-thrus account for two-thirds of all fast-food purchases.

November 08, 2023

Drive-thrus are more popular than ever before following the pandemic, reported the New York Times. The Times noted that traffic in drive-thrus rose 30% from 2019 to 2022, according to foodservice research firm Technomic. A report from Revenue Management Solutions noted that drive-thrus account for two-thirds of all fast-food purchases.

The pandemic expedited technological advancements in quick service that were already underway, industry executives told the Times, causing the drive-thru experience to become faster and smoother. Some of these advancements include better mobile ordering, streamlined kitchens and smarter traffic management.

QSR magazine’s editorial director Danny Klein told the Times that it’s “the era of drive-thru optimization.”

“The drive-thru is no longer a trade-off that is just fast and cheap,” Klein said. “Now it’s really about the technology. It’s about being accurate and being a good experience.”

In 2022, Taco Bell opened its two-story “Defy” location in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, with the goal of getting customers through the drive-thru in two minutes or less. The 3,000-square-foot location features four production lanes and a lift system to deliver food from the second-story kitchen to customers in the drive-thru.

Next year, Chick-Fil-A is opening a similar two-story, four-lane drive-thru location in Atlanta, Georgia.

McDonald’s opened a location in Fort Worth, Texas, with an order-ahead lane for customers to receive food from a conveyor. The location also has kiosks for customers to place orders to go, a pick-up shelf and parking outside dedicated to curbside pick-up and delivery drivers.

According to the Times, another major reason for people choosing to go through drive-thrus is because people emerged from the pandemic with “less tolerance for interacting with strangers.”

Before the pandemic, consumers like Ronald Gross would choose to eat inside QSRs. Now, he chooses to stick with drive-thrus. “I got out of the habit,” he said. “I think I’m like a lot of people who just don’t necessarily like being social that much anymore.”

Caitlin Campbell, who used to work in a Starbucks drive-thru, continues to visit the chain’s drive-thru while working from home. “I lean on that feeling of not wanting too much interaction,” she said. “Working from home for three years really zapped my social skills.”

With the popularity of drive-thrus rapidly rising, many restaurants are jumping on the trend, reported the Times.

Shake Shack has quickly grown its drive-thru locations, with 22 now in operation after opening its first in 2021. Sweetgreen opened its first Sweetlane last year in Illinois. Other locations known for drive-thrus are cutting the size of their dining rooms or opening drive-thru only locations. With the pandemic, many independent restaurant owners opened a drive-thru as well.

“Drive-thru culture is just part of the landscape here,” said author and Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano. “You learn how to drive and eat at the same time. The trick is how do you put the salsa on top, but you figure it out.”

“Despite the war against the combustible engine, we are all stuck in cars, and we are all pressed for time,” Arellano said. “All roads for Americans eventually lead to the drive-thru.”