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 www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9n0c3W8Vow.

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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