The drive-thru concept has been around since 1948, when In-N-Out Burger established the prototype in Baldwin Park, California. It had neither seating nor parking, so it was truly a takeout that operated out of a 100-square-foot glass box with five employees assembling the meals. One of its features, which became standard for others, was an intercom ordering system. What customers wanted was quick service, simple American-styled food, and low prices.
Then as now, the drive-thru grew out of societal forces. Then it was suburbanization, making the car an integral element in daily life. Now it’s COVID-19 and the lockdowns that shut down eat-in and even outdoor dining in some cities. Curbside pickup became the survival strategy for countless restaurants, not just quick-service ones.
Before the drive-thru there was the drive-in. The first one was built in 1921 along the highway connecting Dallas and Fort Worth. It was called the Texas Pig Stand because it featured barbecued pork. The Pig Stand introduced new menu items, notably onion rings, chicken-fried steak, and Texas toast as well. Another early adopter, Sonic (f. 1953), has kept the drive-in look at its 3,613 locations across 45 states in the US. (1)
Before the drive-thru there was the drive-in. Sonic still runs drive-ins today. Photo by Sue Ogrocki/APDrive-ins became the socializing hangouts for many families and teen drivers. They encouraged eating in your car, whereas drive-thrus are true to their meaning: It’s the throughput that matters for them. Pig Stand Number 21, in Los Angeles, is thought to be the first to allow car drivers or walkups to order and receive their bagged orders at a single window. But Wendy’s (f. 1969) was the first to offer a dedicated grill at its drive-thru window. And Jack-in-the-Box (f. 1950) also adopted drive-thru before today’s giant chains. Neither McDonald’s (f. 1940) nor Burger King (f. 1954) introduced drive-thru until 1975.
Influence of Technology
Drive-thrus have always been dependent on technology and staying close to their customers’ preferences, starting in the 1950s with ordering systems such as Aut-O-Hop, Dine-a-Mike, Electro-Hop, Fon-A-Chef, and Ordaphone. (2)
McDonald’s founders understood the importance of systems to produce the speed and efficiency its customers appreciated. Their insight led to a redesign of every process and system in their stores and to the simplification of their menu to nine items and their staff to 12 task “specialists.” Their mechanized system was called the Speedee Service System.
Today, with the advent of mobile communications and AI, there’s a whole new world of systems available to QSR and drive-thrus. Market leaders are investing in digital menu boards for drive-thrus and kiosks for instore customers. Some are even “reading” license-plate numbers with the help of AI technology to understand whether their customers are travelers or locals. Understanding who the customer is and what his or her preferences are is now quantifiable. AI can analyze factors contributing to customer preferences beyond purchase history: factors such as weather, time of day, demographics, seasonality, and even competitive data, if available. This capability is leading to a new kind of marketing, called algorithmic marketing.
Analytics2Go has developed an omnichannel solution to increase sales through cross-selling at QSRs. A2Go xSell offers next-product recommendations that have been optimized for individual stores and customer preferences. At the drive-thru, customers can receive additional product recommendations at either the outdoor menu board or the cashier window. Those highly relevant recommendations are provided in a fraction of a second to the cashiers on their POS screens, enabling the outlets to track their impact on sales.
Today, the early advantages of drive-thrus in speed, efficiency, lower pricing, and volume are still valued. But trends for more choice and healthier foods are changing the menus and the styling of these fast-food outlets and modalities. More quick-service restaurants will offer the drive-thru option and have to change their physical footprints accordingly. More full-service and fast casual restaurants may offer takeout windows.
The upshot is that the drive-thru is slated to get new life. Studies reported in QSR magazine show that fast-food restaurants at some national chains make as much as 70% of their yearly revenue from the drive-thru lane. (3) This result is a welcome sign that the drive-thru will have a second renaissance post-pandemic, as customers have been retrained to take advantage of comfort foods that are readily available for pickup and taking home.
Who knows? Born of the Modernism Movement decades ago that married form with function, drive-ins and their offshoot—drive-thrus—may even develop a new look for 2021.
A2Go offers solutions for demand prediction, pricing, and cross-selling for QSRs and other foodservice brands.