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October 5, 2022

As the coronavirus sweeps across the country and causes chaos, fast-food chains are emerging as heroes. In these trying times, the decades-old drive-thru service is proving its worth, with fast-food restaurant managers even calling to lend their expertise to drive-thru COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

When the diner’s doors close, the fast food chain simply closes its dining room and thrives with drive-thru ordering exclusively. In fact, making 100 percent of sales through drive-thru service works well amid the mandate to close fast food joints. The chain remains profitable while employees keep a safe distance from customers and each other in the kitchen.

The impact of the pandemic on food service has highlighted how unnecessary food consumption in fast food is so fast that food chains are quickly rethinking their plans to reopen their restaurants under any circumstances.

Is Dine-In Fast Food a Thing of the Past?

There is a practical reason why consumers prefer drive-thru fast food – convenience. Drivers can just roll up their windows, place an order, pay and zip up and have a hot meal in minutes. Even chains that do not seem to steer clear of the fast food label have embraced the drive-thru, from Starbucks to Panera Roti and Panda Express.

In fact, the need for fast food is becoming a thing of the past with more options for drive-thru service. Whereas several generations would have spent time eating inside this restaurant, more people now. This is partly because the fast food chain chose not to reopen its dining room—but why?

An important component of fast food service reform is the labor shortage. According to the National Restaurant Association, despite the recent increase in hospitality jobs, the food service industry is still down 794,000 jobs in April 2022 – about 6.4 percent lower than before the pandemic.

The restaurant industry is not exactly notorious for its wages, benefits, and workplace conditions. Now, owners are struggling with offering higher salaries to hire and retain employees. They have to decide what’s more important to their bottom line without the staff available to provide drive-thru service and maintain dining establishments. As a result, the drive-thru has proven its value and popularity.

The End of the Dine-In Room Transforms the Drive-Thru

The influx of fast food places that have chosen not to reopen for dinner has changed the drive-thru experience. Customers craving a Big Mac and French fries may be surprised to see some changes in play.

With fast food considered obsolete, the chain developed a plan for the future of fast food service. Recently, a new Taco Bell in Las Vegas opened in a smaller location than other chain establishments across the country, offering drive-thru service only.

Of course, one of the benefits of transitioning exclusively to drive-thru service is paying for a smaller footprint—fewer people indoors that require less commercial space. On the other hand, fast food chains can focus less on catering to a few patrons trickling in and instead aim to improve the efficiency and accuracy of drive-thru services.

According to the magazine’s latest QSR Drive-Thru Study, those two components are most important to customers buying fast food—89 percent of respondents named accuracy as most important, with speed of service at 88 percent. In addition, 75 percent of respondents stated that convenience is the main reason for visiting a drive-thru.

Eliminating fast food in the space means optimizing the drive-thru experience with fewer cars idling. Finding ways to serve customers who use mobile ordering also requires consideration in terms of quick pick-up. As a result, multiple drive-thru lanes are becoming the new norm, and consumers are likely to see widespread adoption of this format before long.

Fast casual chains such as Panera Bread have traditionally used counter ordering and assembly prep stations to serve their patrons. In many locations, food is delivered to customers wherever they choose to sit.

However, even Panera Bread has integrated a dual drive-thru concept – one lane for new orders and a separate lane for its Rapid Pick-Up service. The change comes as Panera Bread has moved to an enhanced digital guest experience concentrating on food and contactless delivery, ordering kiosks and fully digitized menus.

However, Panera Bread isn’t the only restaurant exploring multiple drive-thru lanes. McDonald’s has long implemented two order lines, while other fast food establishments are trying three and four lines to meet demands and provide better customer service.

Fast food restaurant owners know that successful ghost kitchen operations require intelligent planning, but that’s a risk many chains seem willing to take. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the rise of third-party delivery apps such as GrubHub, DoorDash and UberEats, some food companies are quickly turning to these kitchens to satisfy the demands of off-site dining.

There is no store, dining room or front of house staff in the ghost kitchen. Instead, a team works only to fulfill online orders requiring delivery – space will be rented to prepare food orders made through third-party applications.

Adopting a ghost kitchen is nothing new, as Chick-fil-a has experimented with it before. More recently, Wendy’s has embraced the idea with plans to open 700 ghost kitchens in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain by 2025.

Dine-In Space May Never Be The Same

It’s likely that there will be a handful of consumers who will be saddened to see their food go away – especially those who use the restaurant to socialize or take a break from their daily lives. However, times dictate change. While dine-in space may no longer be available in some establishments, the result will be improved drive-thru service.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. He has over five years of experience writing for the food and beverage industry.