guestXM – by Black Box Intelligence

Rising Drive-Through Demands: Quick-Service Brands Adapt to Trends

In today's highly competitive market, meeting drive-through expectations have become a formidable challenge for most quick-service brands.

Evolving Drive-Through Dynamics and the Role of Technology

The popularity of drive-through services has soared over the past few years, especially during COVID-19 when more people turned to drive-throughs as a safe and convenient option. Today, customers are more satisfied with their drive-through experiences than at the peak of the pandemic, according to QSR Magazine’s 2022 Drive-Thru Report, mostly due to an acceleration in technological advancements, which helped streamline the entire drive-through experience.

Furthermore, GuestXM Market intelligence insights predict customers will continue to trade down to quick-service restaurants (QSRs) as a means to save money. As such, we expect limited service to continue to perform better than other segments next year.

An influx of price/time-conscious customers means increasing pressure on QSRs to provide efficient and streamlined drive-through services that meet the needs of their customers. These demands include faster service, order accuracy (according to QSR Magazine’s Drive-Thru Report, 58% of customers indicated that order accuracy was the most important factor when asked what would inspire a repeat trip), more convenient ordering options, a wider variety of menu items, personalized services, etc.

But as the industry continues to grapple with the labor shortage, meeting expectations becomes more challenging. For that reason, brands have been turning to AI-powered and other innovative technologies to remedy the issue: mobile ordering and payment, digital menu boards, voice recognition systems to speed up the ordering process, AI-driven data solutions, and even robotic “chefs.” About 58% of restaurant operators say using tech and automation to alleviate labor shortages will become more common this year, as stated in the 2023 State of the Restaurant Industry Report by the National Restaurant Association.

While some of these investments can certainly help enhance the drive-through experience, brands must practice caution and do their due diligence before investing in the “newest, greatest” tech. Brands that take the time to define their business goals and shortcomings, evaluate the true value and reliability of a new product, and estimate its impact can avoid falling into the novelty trap, where potential flaws are overlooked, resulting in wasted time and resources.

It’s also important to note that drastic changes can lead to customer and employee pushback, so balancing technology with the human touch is essential for a smooth transition.

Below, we’ve compiled a list of strategies drive-through brands are implementing today to keep up with ever-changing demands:

1. Streamlined Drive-Through Experience:

One of the key challenges of serving customers via the drive-through channel is the need to minimize wait times and provide quick and convenient service. Speed of service (SOS) plays a significant role in determining customer satisfaction rates. Slow SOS is often a result of staffing shortages, inadequate employee training, increased workloads, insufficient management, outdated front- and back-of-house technology, a lack of operational, workforce, and customer insights . . . the list goes on.

There are many options available to enhance your brand’s SOS and ensure order accuracy. For example:

  • Self-service kiosks, mobile apps, AI speech recognition, and order confirmation screens can reduce the time customers spend in line and minimize the chance of order errors caused by poor communication.

White Castle, the first fast food chain in the US, recently announced they are planning on introducing AI-powered voice bots to 100 drive-through lanes by the end of 2024. Seven other US chains have followed suit: McDonald’s, Checkers & Rally’s, Del Taco, Taco Bell (whose digital channel increased almost 35% year-over-year owing to in-store kiosks now deployed in 100 percent of restaurants), Panera Bread, Popeyes, Carl’s Jr., and Hardee’s.

  • Kitchen display systems automatically display orders in the proper food preparation areas, ensuring timely food delivery.
  • Proper data analysis on customer flow, order patterns, and wait times can identify bottlenecks and areas of improvement. This information guides informed decision-making in tech investment and process optimization.
  • Digital menu boards can integrate with point-of-sale systems and inventory management software, allowing real-time updates on item availability. This ensures accurate information is displayed to customers.
  • Predictive ordering leverages data analytics to anticipate customer orders before they arrive at the restaurant.
  • Robotic chefs, or robotic arms, can be used to prepare large amounts of menu items, often to perfection, in record time.

In California, Chipotle is currently testing Autocado, a robot that prepares avocados, or guacamole, at top speed.

2. Optimized Menus:

As per the QSR Magazine report, 51% of respondents said they are overwhelmed by large menus. By offering a limited menu that focuses on the most popular items, you can reduce information overload and wait times and improve order accuracy. Menu optimization can also help reduce food waste and improve inventory management, benefiting the bottom line of your business.

Furthermore, digital menu boards can reveal “hot spots” using eye-tracking technology. Brands can leverage this information to place their most popular and profitable items in these hot spots, which can increase average check size, provide ease of ordering, and enhance SOS.

According to QSR’s 2022 report, 39% of survey respondents said they prefer digital menus because “they are easier to read.” Only 9% disagreed completely.

Additionally, the same study revealed that order accuracy is especially vital to Gen X, with 71% getting “angry” when their order was inaccurate. 73% said order confirmation screens were “somewhat” or “most important” to their drive-through visit.

3. Personalized Customer Experience:

Personalization is becoming increasingly important for quick-service brands as they look to differentiate themselves from the competition. By capturing customer data and using it to tailor promotions and offers, brands can create a more personalized and engaging experience for customers. This can include customized menus, loyalty programs that offer rewards and discounts as well as personalized communications via email and social media.

4. Workforce Experience:

Quick-service brands are investing in staff training and development to improve the quality and consistency of their services, particularly for drive-through channels. This includes training on best practices for order taking and delivery as well as training on customer service and problem resolution. By using training software, such as Schoox, a learning and talent development platform, or Opus, a mobile-first training solution, brands can simplify and streamline employee development.

Likewise, 7Shifts, a cloud-based solution designed for restaurant owners to manage shifts, labor compliance, employee communication, and engagement, can help you implement flexible scheduling to ensure adequate staffing during peak hours and days.

Some brands are even testing out autonomous robots to transport orders to customers in their cars and robotic waiters to reduce front-of-house employee workload. For example, Wendy’s is testing a robot-powered “underground delivery system” for online order pickups. With the help of autonomous logistics company Pipedream, these robots will travel through tunnels to transport online food orders from Wendy’s kitchens to the “Instant Pickup portals” next to parking spaces.

However, our research determined that guest net sentiment improves with less employee turnover. So before brands welcome automated robots, they must first make sure they are investing in the employee experience.

5. Dual-Lane/Express Drive-Through:

Implementing a dual-lane drive-through system can accommodate more cars and help manage higher volumes of orders. For customers who order ahead, adding an express lane, where they can bypass the other line and go right to pickup, can significantly decrease wait times.

Chick-fil-A, for instance, recently announced a drive-through format where four lanes go underneath the building. They are aiming to open the restaurant in 2024 in Atlanta.

6. Curbside Pickup / Pickup Window:

Consider offering curbside pickup options for customers who prefer to wait in their cars rather than queuing in the drive-through line.

Taco Bell recently unveiled the next iteration of their Go Mobile concept, which has no indoor dining space. They added a two-lane drive-through and dedicated parking for mobile and delivery orders with a walk-up window.

A quick reminder: Make sure your Google and social media profiles clearly state your ordering options. This will help you attract a wider pool of customers who prefer one ordering style over another.

7. Outside Order Takers:

To cut wait times during peak hours and days and offer a more personalized experience, brands often rely on outside order takers, where employees approach customers waiting in line to take orders directly.

According to the QSR Magazine Drive-Thru Report, 31% of consumers demonstrated a preference for placing orders with an employee in line. Having employees interact with waiting customers offers more opportunities to enhance the customer experience.

And with today’s customers having the luxury of choosing from endless fast food options, delivering a superior experience compared to the competition has become a crucial differentiator.

GuestXM’s Market Intelligence research has shown brands in the top quartile of service net sentiment have a 1.5 times better four-year sales growth and 6 times better traffic growth than their competitors.

8. (Most Importantly) Data Management Solution:

Before even considering any of the aforementioned strategies, you need to understand how your decisions will impact your entire organization. Without accurate data, you are relying on guesswork.

The ability to comprehend and predict customer behavior, market trends, and more as well as evaluate relationships between variables to identify patterns, dependencies, or potential cause-and-effect relationships, is what sets the best apart from the rest.

But where does one begin?

The answer lies in collecting and assimilating accurate restaurant data.

Whether you want to track restaurant performance benchmarks or home in on how guests are responding to your newest tech addition, an advanced data solution can simplify access to restaurant analytics so you can gain a deeper understanding of your customers, see how your workforce metrics stack up against the regional competition, track your overall financial performance, and more.

For example, by managing customer feedback, solicited and unsolicited, and leveraging AI natural language processing to comb through the data, you can unveil valuable insights into customers’ impressions and recommendations from their in-store, takeout, drive-through, or third-party delivery experiences

Leveraging the insights gathered through meticulous data analysis means you can potentially predict how your customers would respond to a drastic change like adding AI voice ordering to your drive-through. Or, if you’ve already invested in such technology, you can quickly learn whether your decision was indeed the right one. And depending on the outcome, you can work on either enhancing your technology or slowing the process to meet the needs of your customers.

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