article / Nov 1, 2017

Meet me by the Dumpsters: The Neglected Drive-Thru Experience

Knowing that a plethora of people delight in a fast, hot meal from the comfort of the driver’s seat, it is time to pay more attention to the consumer's drive-thru experience.


We’ve all been there. The sad, lonely pathway that winds its way behind your favorite fast food restaurant, past the dumpsters and along the uninspired shrub landscape. Eventually leading to your boxed and bagged meal ordered through a speaker and delivered with a side glance.

What is amazing about this prosaic mealtime parade is it has been this way for decades. Consumers can blame brands, franchise owners and architects; however, we as designers at MG2 are starting to take note as we continue to work with our F&B clients. Data shows that in the U.S., 60-70 percent of every quick-service restaurant (QSR) visit happens at the drive-thru. The numbers are fairly staggering when it comes to American dining habits too. One in six Americans eats fast food every day. That’s 50 million consumers a day with more than 25 million of those having a drive-thru experience. Only four percent of the entire population says they don’t frequent fast food restaurants.

Knowing that a plethora of people delight in a fast, hot meal from the comfort of the driver’s seat, it is odd that brands still focus on speed and delivery as the primary concern for the drive-thru experience.  According to the October 2017 issue of QSR Magazine, Arby’s is the industry leader when it comes to the drive-thru experience. With a four minute average dwell time and more than 90 percent order accuracy average, they deliver a consistent experience. But is there any delight in the basic expectation that they got your order right?

Take for instance what I’ll call the “Kimmy Schmidt Factor.” You’ve been squirreled away from the modern world for years and as you approach the daunting line-up of products and endless combination options at the drive-thru menu board you panic and freeze in indecision. As an operator, any indecision or delay by the consumer, is out of your control and can stack up the line of cars behind, effectively compromising all the good stats and good will you are trying to foster. Yet even in this bleak, unchanging world of bollards and partial canopies, there are some fresh ideas. Starbird Chicken has deployed an app-based approach that does away with the drive-thru lane entirely. This has several advantages for both the consumer and the operator. In this case, the drive-thru is replaced with a few parking slots and your food is brought to you out front, in a parking space by a real human being. Your place in line is based on your order entry time and your arrival signaled by the app’s “I’m here” button. The app-based approach gives the operator the opportunity for speed and more control of the transaction.

In a February 2017 article by Elizabeth Friend for Euromonitor International, she shares areas of focus for the drive-thru that are being addressed in the Starbird Chicken model, which could be applied to any forward-leaning drive-thru model in the future. One area is simply the square footage that is required to execute a traditional drive-thru vs. curbside delivery. How cars route through the property (yes, back by the dumpsters), how traffic is affected and how much land you really need to build upon are all concerns with the usual model. What if you simply added some parking spaces out in the daylight, out front where all the curb-appeal is focused? Could you buy a smaller patch of dirt?

Another prehistoric practice of the drive-thru is the complete lack of data capture beyond point of sales. The app-based drive-thru is an opt-in model that captures not only shopping behavior but the demographics of the user, connecting patterns of locations visited and favorite repeat purchases. This data allows for future growth and interaction with the consumer including pushing personalized offers, sharing product development invitations to participate in new product testing and much more.

Advances in technology will happen, but what of the brand and designer mindset when it comes to the drive-thru consumer? Where is the empathy for the majority of consumers that visit the property? Adding thoughtfulness to the process may actually pay dividends when you consider that statistically only 25-26 percent of fast-food customers sit-down in the dining area of restaurants to eat their meal. It might make more sense to animate, entertain and create interaction in the four minutes your customer waits for their meal in their car, than fighting consumer behavior trying to tempt them into staying with dining-room based amenities.

As is the condition of the entire retail community today, there are thousands of locations that are built and function the “old-way,” regardless of industry or consumer mix. It is not an easy look in the rearview mirror at aged experiences with future leaning solutions; however, there are brands out there running the numbers and seeing a new way. The fact remains that for the QSR industry to meet new consumer expectations and their appetite for experiential retail, they will have to revamp the slow crawl past the dumpsters.