Drive-Throughs That Predict Your Order? Restaurants Are Thinking Fast

Inspired by pandemic lessons that kept customers in cars, chains are adding more lanes and curbside pickup, improving apps and testing menu boards that use artificial intelligence.

Starbucks has employees at hundreds of busy locations strolling through car lines, taking orders with hand-held devices so customers can get their caffeine fix a few seconds faster. Shake Shack, which has long emphasized that quality ingredients are worth waiting a few extra minutes for, will soon feature its first drive-through window. And the vast majority of new Chipotles this year will have “Chipotlanes,” where customers can drive up to a window and pull away with preordered meals in less than a minute.

With dining room restrictions in place for much of the country during the pandemic, drive-through and pickup windows became critical ways for a variety of restaurants to remain afloat.

Now, as the dining industry looks toward a post-pandemic world, many companies are betting big that digital ordering and drive-throughs will remain integral to their success. And the basic experience of sitting in a single line of cars, speaking into a sometimes garbled intercom and pulling up to a window to pay for your food before driving away is poised to be demonstrably altered for the first time in decades.

A number of restaurants are moving quickly to improve their online order and app abilities, change their physical designs or add two or three drive-through lanes. Some are testing artificial intelligence systems to tailor suggestions for individuals who pull up to the menu board.

“The drive-through has been one of those places that hasn’t changed in decades,” said Ellie Doty, the North American chief marketing officer for Burger King. “But with Covid, we’re seeing the dramatic acceleration of directions we were already going.”

Taco Bell, which last year announced plans to test a restaurant design with stadium seating for gamers to play against one another, has switched much of its focus to creating smaller restaurants with dual drive-through lanes and curbside pickup. Applebee’s is testing its first drive-through in Texarkana, Texas. Shake Shack is experimenting with a number of new designs and plans, including walk-up windows and curbside pickup. It will open its first drive-through this year in Orlando, Fla., and plans five to eight more through 2022.

“We had started working on some of the formats even prior to the pandemic,” said Andrew McCaughan, the chief development officer for Shake Shack. “But we saw a massive accelerator and catalyst to move faster and to get drive-through really going.”

While several chains lay claim to inventing the drive-through, many say it dates back to the 1930s when a Los Angeles franchise of a Texas chain, the Pig Stand, allowed customers to order and pick up their food from a window. In the late 1940s, the California chain In-N-Out Burger introduced the two-way squawk box. But the phenomenon really took off in the 1970s when McDonald’s installed drive-throughs.

As more families had two working parents and the demand for quick-and-easy meals rose, drive-throughs became mainstream. But they also became a source of derision and hilarity. In 1993’s “Wayne’s World 2,” the characters Garth and Wayne purposely cut out their voices while giving their orders, suggesting a broken intercom. The server repeats the order back perfectly.

Indeed, drive-throughs can be stressful. Other customers occasionally honk to prod you to speed up your order. After screaming “No pickles!” repeatedly into the intercom, you sometimes still get a burger with three pickles on it. And lines can stretch through parking lots and into the street, especially during peak pandemic use. Chick-fil-A has been sued by neighboring businesses that say its long drive-through lines block their customers’ access.

For most restaurants, the solution has many parts. First, more are trying to encourage customers to use ordering apps, which improve the accuracy of orders and are often connected to loyalty programs that give them points for free food. They are also trying to figure out how to best speed consumers through the drive-through or pickup process without disrupting traffic patterns or other businesses.

Drive-through times average 4 minutes and 15 seconds, according to Bluedot, a geolocation company. Like a Daytona 500 pit crew, restaurants are always looking for ways to shave off minutes, or even seconds.

To be competitive in this race, Chipotle, whose digital orders soared from 20 percent of its sales to as high as 70 percent at the height of the pandemic, installed in many of its kitchens a second assembly line where employees put together tacos or burrito bowls for mobile and online orders exclusively.