Drive-Thrus: The Fast Lane to QSR Customer Satisfaction

If you said that drive-thrus have come a long way since their debut, you’d be making the biggest understatement since you told your spouse you only wanted one French fry. Today, drive-thrus are more than just a place to grab a quick bite on the go; they’re a hub for innovation and convenience. 

So, why the trend from QSRs to improve drive-thrus, and why are major brands going all in now? 

Customers are always looking for more convenient and efficient ways to get their food, and drive-thrus have been at this trend’s forefront since the first drive-thru (Kirby’s Pig Stand) opened in 1921. Ten years later, a California franchise of Kirby’s Pig Stand introduced a drive-through service that didn’t need carhops. But it wasn’t until 1947 that the first official drive-thru opened with Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri. This opening would shape drive-thrus as we now know them. 

As the decades have come and gone, drive-thrus have remained a popular option, especially for 
families with young children and busy work schedules. They’re the perfect solution to everyone’s biggest problem: time.

Life in the Fast Lane

More QSRs are investing in drive-thrus as they eat up more than their fair share of the revenue percentage. In fact, a National Restaurant News 2022 report found that drive-thru sales made up 75% of all fast food sales. And, across the U.S., orders at drive-thrus grew by 20% from February 2020 to February 2022.

And with an increase in profitability comes an increase in QSR investment. 

Drive-thrus are essential for QSRs to compete and thrive. In addition to increased customer demand, QSRs are now investing heavily in drive-thru automation to reduce costs and improve efficiency as
employee wages, construction materials, and produce prices have increased. 

In response to these challenges and opportunities, QSRs have embarked on a transformative journey driven by drive-thru automation, leading to a range of remarkable benefits that go well beyond just enhancing efficiency and reducing labor costs.

Enhanced Efficiency: By prioritizing drive-thru operations, QSRs are streamlining their service delivery. Automated systems are being deployed to take orders swiftly and accurately, minimizing the potential for errors. This efficiency boost translates into shorter wait times for customers and increased order throughput. As a result, QSRs can serve more patrons within the same time frame, ultimately driving revenue growth.

Labor Cost Reduction: Automation in drive-thrus is a direct response to the upward trajectory of employee wages. With technology handling various aspects of the ordering and food preparation process, QSRs can reduce their reliance on manual labor, thereby trimming labor costs. This cost-saving measure contributes significantly to overall profitability.

Resource Optimization: Beyond labor, QSRs are also investing in drive-thru automation to make the most of their resources. This includes optimizing ingredient usage and managing inventory more efficiently. With automated systems tracking inventory levels and adjusting orders accordingly, QSRs can minimize food waste and reduce expenditure on raw materials.

Consistency in Service: Drive-thru automation ensures a consistent and standardized customer experience. From order accuracy to food quality, every aspect of service is closely monitored and controlled. This consistency not only enhances customer satisfaction but also mitigates the risk of costly errors or inconsistencies.

Data-Driven Decision Making: Automation systems in drive-thrus generate valuable data on customer preferences, order trends, and peak hours of operation. QSRs can use this data for informed decision-making, fine-tuning their menu offerings, staffing levels, and promotional strategies to further optimize costs and efficiency.

Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want.

In the world of QSRs, the path to growth and customer retention hinges on one fundamental principle: listening to the needs of your customers. A QSR needs to constantly ask, “What do our customers want, and how do we give it to them in the most efficient way?” Customers across the board share the same answer: “We want speed and convenience.”

So how does a savvy QSR increase service speed and convenience? Below, you’ll find examples of how major brands stay ahead of the curve with drive-thrus to keep their competition in the rear-view mirror.


Double Patties. Double Lanes.

Checkers and Rally’s, two drive-thru-only chains, are adding double drive-thrus to both sides of their restaurants and dedicating one lane to e-commerce orders in response to increased customer demand. The QSR leader opened this restaurant, the first of its kind, earlier this year and it already is more than paid for its investment. As sales sizzle, Checkers & Rally’s plans to allocate 85% of its development pipeline toward the double drive-thru format.

Defying Convention.

The Taco Bell Defy, a two-story, drive-thru-only location in a Minneapolis suburb, makes mobile order and third-party delivery easier than ever before. With an elevated kitchen area, a vertical lift / “food tube” brings meals right down to their customers’ hands. It’s like a jet-propelled ATM for tacos. 

The customer chooses their lane based on how they placed their order. There’s one lane for app orders, another for third-party delivery drivers, and even an “old fashioned” lane with customers yelling their order to a speaker while trying to read the menu’s fine print.  

With an ambitious goal of filling orders in two minutes or less, Taco Bell hopes this new setup will alleviate traffic jams, increase service speed, and provide customers with a smile on their faces every time they drive away.

Taking Fried Chicken to New Heights.

Chick-fil-A is testing two new restaurant designs in 2024, including an elevated drive-thru in Atlanta. By allowing cars to move more quickly and efficiently, the elevated drive-thru has the potential to revolutionize how people order and pick up food for generations to come.  

The second design includes a walk-up window concept in New York City, which will be a convenient option for customers who are on the go. 

Gen Z, in particular, who say Chick-fil-A is their favorite QSR, will be thrilled to get their fried chicken fix faster than ever before.


Take a Seat Anywhere You’d Like… Just Not Here

Other QSRs, like Krystal, are doing away with dining rooms altogether and instead opting for a drive-thru-only approach. Their first-of-its-kind prototype became a reality in January in Alabama. With 20% less kitchen space and taking up only 1,700 square feet, the “Krystal of the future” makes convenience for guests their top priority. The location has a double-lane drive-thru, walk-up window for ordering, and a pickup area for online orders and third-party delivery. With this new, futuristic model, Krystal seeks to fast-track franchise development by minimizing build and labor costs while providing customers with maximized efficiency.

YOU Get a Happy Meal! YOU Get a Happy Meal!

With an emphasis on speed and accuracy, McDonald’s is experimenting with multiple pickup points at a new location in Fort Worth, Texas. The restaurant features a conveyor-belt-powered mobile order lane that delivers food and beverages to customers, a pickup shelf for to-go orders, a self-ordering kiosk, delivery driver pickup locations, and a traditional drive-thru.

The QSR designed the new concept to streamline operations and reduce takeout customers’ wait times. Cutting-edge tech alerts employees to start preparing customers’ orders when they get within a certain proximity to the restaurant.

McDonald’s is calling the new concept the “Order Ahead Lane,” and it’s a McBrilliant idea. The conveyor belt system is a convenient way for customers to get their food quickly and easily, so they can  spend less time waiting and more time enjoying their favorite items from the Golden Arches.

QSRs, the Future is in Your hands (or Customers’ Steering Wheels)

 As you navigate the future of your QSR, remember that optimizing the digital experience is key to promoting loyalty and boosting revenue. Whether you’re ready to fully commit or exploring your options, here are some valuable tips:

  • Simplify digital ordering and payment with mobile apps, self-ordering kiosks, or online ordering.
  • Offer multiple pickup choices, including drive-thru, curbside pickup, and delivery.
  • Harness technology to streamline operations and reduce wait times.
  • Invest in employee training to ensure excellent customer service.

Your QSR’s future is in your hands, and it’s also in the steering wheels of your customers – make it a drive-thru experience they’ll love. Dive deeper into these strategies and lots more by visiting our blog here.