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October 5, 2022

As the coronavirus swept through nations and brought a rush to lockdowns, drive-thru fast food chains emerged as heroes. During these trying times, the decades-old drive-thru service has proven its worth, with fast food restaurant managers also called upon to provide their expertise for drive-thru COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

While the doors of the sit-down restaurants closed, the fast food chains closed only their dining space and flourished only with drive-thru orders. In fact, doing 100 percent of sales through drive-thru service worked perfectly amid the mandates for fast food closings. These chains remain profitable while employees stay a safe distance from customers and others in the kitchen.

The influence of the pandemic on food service has highlighted how unnecessary the engagement is in fast food – so much so that fast food chains are rethinking their plans to reopen their dining areas under any circumstances.

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

There is a practical reason why consumers prefer fast food drive-thru – convenience. Drivers can roll down their windows, place their order, pay and zip away with a hot meal in minutes. Even unlikely chains that have shied away from the fast food label have embraced the drive-thru, from Starbucks to Panera Bread and Panda Express.

In reality, the need for fast food dining has become a thing of the past with more choices for drive-thru service. While some generations spent time eating at these restaurants, fewer people do now. This is partly due to fast food chains choosing not to reopen their dining space, but why is this?

A considerable component of reformatting the fast food service is the labor shortage. According to the National Restaurant Association, despite recent growth in hospitality jobs, the food service industry was still down by 794,000 jobs in April 2022 – about 6.4 percent below what it was before the pandemic.

The restaurant industry isn’t exactly famous for its wages, benefits and working conditions. Currently, employers rely on offering higher wages to hire and retain employees. They have to decide what is most important to their bottom line without the staff available to assign to drive-thru services and maintain dining areas. As a result, the drive-thru proved its worth and popularity.

The end of Dine-In Space changes the Drive-Thru

The influx of fast food establishments choosing not to reopen for dine-in has finally changed the drive-thru experience. Consumers craving a Big Mac and fries may be surprised to see some of the changes at play.

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

Of course, one of the benefits of transitioning exclusively to drive-thru service is paying for a smaller footprint—fewer people at home require less commercial space. In contrast, fast food chains can focus less on catering to a few patrons who slip away and instead aim to improve the efficiency and accuracy of drive-thru services.

According to a recent QSR Drive-Thru Study, these two components matter most to consumers buying fast food – 89 percent of respondents named accuracy as somewhat or most important, with speed of service at 88 percent . Additionally, 75 percent of respondents stated that convenience was their primary reason for visiting the drive-thru.

Eliminating fast food dining space means optimizing the drive-thru experience with fewer idle cars. Finding a way to cater to customers using mobile ordering also requires consideration in terms of fast pick-up. As a result, multiple drive-thru lanes have become the new norm, with consumers likely to see widespread adoption of this format soon.

Fast-casual chains like Panera Bread traditionally use assembly-line command and prep stations to serve their patrons. In many places, 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 shifted gears toward an enhanced digital guest experience focusing on contactless dining and delivery, kiosk ordering and a fully digitized menu.

However, Panera Bread isn’t the only restaurant exploring multiple avenues. McDonald’s has long implemented dual order courses, while other fast food establishments are trying three and four courses to meet demand and provide better customer service.

Fast food owners know that successful ghost kitchen operations require savvy planning, but it’s a risk many chains seem willing to take. After the coronavirus pandemic and the rise of third-party delivery applications such as GrubHub, DoorDash and UberEats, some fast food establishments are turning to these kitchens to satisfy requests for off-site meals.

There is no storefront, dining room or front staff in a ghost kitchen. Instead, a team works only to fulfill online orders that require delivery – the space is rented to prepare food orders made for third-party apps.

The adoption of ghost kitchens is not new, as Chick-fil-a has experienced before. More recently, Wendy’s has embraced the idea with plans to open 700 ghost kitchens in the US, Canada and the UK by 2025.

Dine-In Space could never be the same

There will probably be a handful of consumers who are sad to see dinner in fast food meet its death, especially those who used the restaurants to socialize or take a break from everyday life. However, times dictate changes. While dining space may no longer be available at 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.