Industry News

The End of the Drive-thru As We Know It

It is quite possible that our love affair with drive-thrus, as we currently know them, is going to come to a gradual but decisive end. Drive-thrus are one of the cultural inno­va­tions of the US. They combined our love for fast food with our love for cars when the country was coming of age and suburbia was being born circa the late 1940s. Drive-thrus have also provided signif­icant business leverage for quick service restau­rants (QSRs) by increasing store velocity without growing the store foot­print commen­su­rately. Reportedly McDonald gets as much as 70% of its sales from drive-thrus and most other major chains with drive-thrus attribute 50%-70% of sales to them.

Drive-thru success is measured across two criteria – speed and accuracy. QSR companies have poured enormous resources into opti­mizing across these cate­gories. However, according to a 2012 study, the best result was still only at 92.4% of the benchmark, achieved by Chick-Fil-A. Taco Bell (91.2%), McDonald’s (90.9%), and Wendy’s (89.9%) followed.

Service accuracy is dictated by human capacity. A noisy restaurant envi­ronment, multi-tasking atten­dants, insuf­fi­cient training, and distracted customers leave ample room for human error. Over decades of drive thrus, QSR companies have continued to use tech­nology to mitigate these chal­lenges by adopting noise-cancelling wireless headsets, LED display boards, inte­grated auto-greeters and message repeaters (so customers feel they are not waiting), and other process inno­va­tions.

In 2005, to improve oper­a­tions and reduce costs, McDonald’s even tried using remote drive-thru atten­dants, including home workers connected using voice over IP lines, who routed the orders to appro­priate stores elec­tron­i­cally. As it turns out, the future of drive-thrus may not be too far from that vision — except the attendant will be right in the customer’s pocket. Smartphone apps with inte­grated GPS coor­di­nates mapped to the closest store location, built-in payment capa­bil­ities, and up-to-date menu and inventory infor­mation synced on the device provide the core ingre­dients for any customer to virtually pull up to a drive-thru or a walk-up window (how McDonald’s actually started serving burgers orig­i­nally) anytime and anywhere.

With today’s AI tech­nologies, building an intel­ligent order-taking assistant into an app is now possible. The assistant can take a spoken order, make sugges­tions (e.g., “do you want to upgrade this to a meal?”), correct an incom­plete order (e.g., “can you please specify the size of the drink”), provide confir­mation of the order and price, transmit the order to the restaurant staff, and let the user know when the food will be ready. Here’s a link to a video that is more illus­trative of what I mean

This changes a few things:

Speed: Customers don’t have to order at the facility. They can place the order while on their way so it is ready by the time they get there. How speed is measured changes. There is no waiting to place the order or to pick it up, so the speed is as good as it can possibly be.

Accuracy: The human factors that are intro­ducing errors are elim­i­nated. The order is confirmed and processed by computers, greatly increasing accuracy.

Customer Experience: In addition to anytime access to the virtual drive-thru window, customers don’t have to deal with back­ground noise or distracted atten­dants. Companies can stan­dardize and brand the user expe­rience, including person­al­izing the user inter­action (e.g., “Hello, Mr. Jones. Would you like your usual order or some­thing different today?”).

Costs: Not only is the virtual concierge not on an hourly compen­sation and bonus plan, but it also frees up people from order-taking tasks. Companies can better utilize store staff in food prepa­ration and service – things that the virtual assistant cannot do, at least not today!

Just as intercoms and wireless changed drive-thrus and oper­a­tional models for quick service restau­rants, the next gener­ation of AI tech­nologies and intel­ligent virtual assis­tants bodes the passing of drive-thrus as we know them. However, similar to the drive-thru when orig­i­nally intro­duced, these new tech­nologies will take oper­a­tional effi­ciency, scale and customer satis­faction metrics to a new level, as soon as companies realize what’s possible with today’s voice-based intel­ligent assis­tants.

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By Tim Tuttle, CEO and founder of MindMeld

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