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Quick-service retailers steer toward innovation at the drive-thru

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
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Taco Bell's new "Taco Bell Go Mobile" concept will debut next year.

Drive-through ordering has been around since the 1930s, but quick-service chains are upgrading this time-tested service with 21st century technology.

As customers demand greater convenience and more contactless pickup options in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of quick-service retailers are applying technology innovation to their drive-thru offerings. 

Following is a brief overview of how some leading retailers are transforming the drive-thru experience.

Eminence (store) front
A number of quick-service chains are reformatting stores around streamlined drive-thru operations. McDonald’s is testing a smaller restaurant footprint called “On-the-Go,” focused on drive-thru, takeaway, and delivery with limited or no dine-in seating.

Meanwhile, Chipotle is unveiling its first-ever digital-only restaurant, called the “Chipotle Digital Kitchen,” which does not include a dining room or front service line. Customers must order in advance via the Chipotle website or app, or third-party delivery partners.

In Q1 2021, Taco Bell will debut its "Taco Bell Go Mobile" concept, featuring two drive-thru lanes, including a new priority pick-up lane with rapid service for customers who order via the Taco Bell app. Smart kitchen technology integrated with the brand’s app will detect when customers have arrived and alert them to the quickest route for pick-up: curbside, express lane, or carry-out. The limited-seating concept will also offer contactless curbside pick-up and tablet ordering at the drive-thru.

See me, feel me
Quick-service retailers are also attempting to recognize customers at the drive-thru in order to streamline ordering and payment, as well as anticipate orders and provide more personalized service.

Restaurant Brands International Inc. (RBI), which owns and franchises the Burger King, Tim Hortons, and Popeyes chains, is installing more than 40,000 digital screens across all three banners with predictive selling capabilities, integration with restaurant loyalty programs, and the ability for remote, contactless payment.

The new screens enable RBI brands to tailor special promotions based on previous orders, regional weather patterns, the time of day and other factors. The solution dynamically learns preferred ordering habits and also displays the latest and trending menu items most-ordered in a store’s location. 

The menu boards have also been designed with the ability to integrate loyalty programs, allowing for display of customized menu options that are based on a customer’s favorite purchases and redemption history. In addition, they have the flexibility to add immediate, remote contactless payment to allow customers to order and pay simultaneously and speed up drive-thru lanes. 

McDonald’s experiments with advanced drive-thru technology also include automating ordering and payments by identifying customers at the display screen. In addition, new technology will alert store associates to prep orders when customers are nearby, with dedicated parking spaces helping to ensure fast pickup.

And White Castle launched on-location pilots of the AI-powered Mastercard Drive Through platform in October 2020. Provided in partnership with SoundHound Inc. and Rekor Systems, the solution delivers personalized, dynamic menu offers which can be based on historical purchasing trends by store or individual participating consumer. The platform also removes the need for drive-thru customers to wait for an employee to take an order.

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