- Drive-thru visits increased by 26% in the April, May and June quarter, and represented 42% of all restaurant visits during that time frame, according to new research from The NPD Group.
- As more dining rooms began to open in July, drive-thru visits still increased by double digits — 13% — the highest visit increase among service channels including on-premises, carryout and delivery.
- "Drive-thru operations are delivering a high ROI during the pandemic, offering convenience, speed, and the comfort of social distance to consumers using them," David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor, said in a release emailed to Restaurant Dive. "Fast casual and traditional quick service chains have already announced expansion plans for their drive-thru operations, and more chains will be doing the same. Drive-thru and other off-premises operations will be a major part of the U.S. restaurant industry’s recovery and future."
The fact that the drive-thru continues to generate the most business at restaurants even as dining rooms reopen is certainly good news for the quick-service segment, which captures 60% to 70% of its business through the channel. The drive-thru was on a tear prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that drove nationwide lockdowns, too. According to a study from the National Restaurant Association, 39% of customers used the drive-thru more in 2019 than they did in 2018.
In other words, driven by time constraints and demand for convenience, consumer behavior was starting to shift even before dining room closures and safety concerns forced consumers to change their eating out habits. Ongoing anxiety won't likely reverse these trends anytime soon either.
According to data from CivicScience, for example, 41% of consumers said they wouldn't be ready to eat in a restaurant for another six months, rising from 30% at the start of May. Another survey from DISQO’s Consumer Confidence Study shows that more consumers are returning to restaurants, but that they’re not willing to cut back on off-premise orders.
This could explain why a number of chains are placing their bets on changed behavior for the long term by investing heavily into the drive-thru channel. Shake Shack announced in May that it will remodel some restaurants to a "Shack Track" model that includes drive-thru lanes and walkup windows, for example. Notably, Shake Shack's portfolio currently has zero drive-thru locations. Also, Chipotle plans to pivot its new development portfolio to its mobile drive-thru Chipotlane formats. Taco Bell is set to open its newly developed Go Mobile locations Q1 2021, that allow customers to go through a priority lane to pick up their pre-ordered meals. White Castle will test Mastercard's artificial intelligence-based platform at the drive-thru, taking a page from McDonald's investment in AI company Dynamic Yield last year. Even convenience store Wawa is focusing on drive-thrus.
If this channel sustains business at such high levels, it could not only tip the scales in the drive-thru-heavy QSR segment's favor, but perhaps alter the way chains operate to meet off-premise volume demands. Several chains have trimmed their menus during the crisis for this very reason, and they've seen their speed of service scores rise as a result. Others have simply focused on operational improvements at the drive-thru to meet increased usage.
Wendy's CEO Todd Penegor said during his company's Q2 call, "As the operations within our restaurants shifted primarily to drive-thru and delivery-only in the second quarter, we focused on delivering an exceptional experience, and we delivered. Overall speed of service improved across the system as we continue to run our restaurants very efficiently. Customers are noticing these operational improvements as overall satisfaction scores, including speed, taste and order accuracy have seen significant improvements."