Whipping through the drive-thru at a Subway in Loveland, Colo., a customer orders a meal in about five seconds at a touchscreen kiosk. The system identifies his previous orders and accepts payment with a scan of his smartphone. The whole process takes less than five minutes.
About 10% of Subway’s restaurants in the U.S. now have drive-thrus, and of those 2,455 stores, about 200 have touchscreens, says spokesperson Kevin Kane.
“Our guests love the ordering convenience,” he says. “The kiosks are also growing in popularity with franchisees because of the efficiency and accuracy.”
In another five years, however, restaurants will not be spending money on touchscreens for the drive-thru. Instead they will invest in voice-recognition software for taking orders and likely ignore drive-thru speaker boxes altogether as customers prefer to use online ordering, mobile apps or their car’s GPS system.
The drive-thru of the future is likely to become just a pickup window for customers ordering and paying for food in a variety of ways, including sending a driverless vehicle or delivery service to pick it up, says Rob Grimes, CEO of the International Food and Beverage Technology Association in Washington, D.C.
Touchscreens, online ordering, mobile apps, interactive menu boards, high-tech ovens and two-way video screens are some of the improvements operators are already embracing to make the drive-thru as convenient and frictionless as possible for consumers.
“It’s a constant—you always have to continue to evolve,” says Aaron Noveshen, co-founder and CEO of Starbird Chicken, a fast-casual chicken sandwich concept that opened last summer in Sunnyvale, Calif. “We’re trying to be as intuitive as possible.”
Starbird worked with technology partners to create a mobile ordering app tied to the POS. Customers use their phones to order, pay and indicate when they will be there to pick up the food. When they arrive, they park in a designated spot, the crew is notified and an employee brings their meal out to their car.
Earlier iterations of the app had to be improved and tweaked, Noveshen says. “As navigation on apps continues to improve, mobile ordering is becoming easier and easier to use,” he says.
To-go to grow
Restaurant chains have good reason to continuously innovate around the drive-thru. Those with the highest percentage of online, call-in or drive-thru orders tend to grow faster than competitors, according to Technomic President Darren Tristano.
“Those doing the best job are doing mobile drive-thru, but that doesn’t always mean pushing cars through faster,” Tristano says. “Speed of service is important, but not at the expense of customer service and order accuracy.”
Self-ordering touchscreens can improve accuracy and even boost sales. Rob Woodward, who operates Subway shops in northern Colorado and Cheyenne, Wyo., reports he recouped his investment in the touchscreen kiosks within 24 weeks of installation. He attributes a 15% sales increase to the kiosks.
Consumers are becoming more accustomed to self-serve devices as more operators, such as McDonald’s, use them inside their restaurants, Tristano notes. Having them at the drive-thru is a logical extension of such technology.
“The ability to use a kiosk in the drive-thru is more appealing to consumers today, but it has to be simple enough and fast enough,” he says.
QSRs without kiosks such as In-N-Out Burgers and Chick-fil-A send employees through the drive-thru line with iPads during peak hours to take orders and credit or debit payments to shorten the process and help ensure accuracy.
As technology improves, employee training must also improve, especially as interaction with customers shortens, operators say.
Starbucks has been testing a 46-inch digital screen in some of its drive-thru operations that includes a video screen that allows customers to see and speak with the barista who is taking their order. The menu display also serves as an order confirmation, and it can be updated throughout the day to promote various bakery items and specials.
When training employees to work the drive-thru, Firehouse Subs managers stress the importance of smiling while talking to a customer, even if they are taking orders through a headset and speaker and not face-to-face, according to Rich Goodman, vice president of operations and service. Although the Jacksonville, Fla.-based concept is fast casual, more than 30 of its over 1,000 restaurants now have drive-thrus.
“People have to feel your smile, feel your eye contact and warmth from your greeting,” Goodman says. “We can’t be as fast as some of the fast-food guys, so our point of differentiation is outstanding customer service.”
That doesn’t mean Firehouse doesn’t want to speed things up. For heating up sandwiches, Goodman says he’d like to see the development of faster ovens for drive-thru service and better technology for ordering such as improved menu boards that are clear, bright and easy to read.
“We’re looking for equipment to evolve—to be quicker and easier to use in the drive-thru,” he says.
To improve speed and accuracy at his Pie Five drive-thru, franchisee Billy Bajema ordered headsets for all employees assigned to the drive-thru, not just the cashier. That way, when customers pull into the restaurant’s drive-thru in a Yukon, Okla., shopping center, employees don’t have to wait for a printed ticket and can start making a pizza as soon as they hear the order being taken.
Bajema also discovered the restaurant needed additional cooking equipment after doing practice runs before officially opening the drive-thru. Some customers pulled up to the pickup window and changed their orders, asking for extra ingredients or another pizza. A Pie Five oven can cook a pizza in two minutes; however, that’s not fast enough to keep cars from stacking up in the shopping center parking lot as customers wait for additional orders to bake.
Before opening day in late November, he added a second high-temperature, high-speed oven to the drive-thru to improve service. An added benefit: With a fully equipped area dedicated to the drive-thru, the staff can now also handle more phone orders and online orders that are then picked up at the drive-thru window, Bajema says.
“We’ve been able to open a whole new revenue stream and potentially double throughput,” he says.
Bajema was the first Pie Five franchisee to open a drive-thru. An Indianapolis franchisee opened one a month later. Other franchisees are also looking for ways to add or open drive-thru units, says Clinton Coleman, CEO of Rave Restaurant Group Inc., Pie Five’s parent company.
The company is still testing the drive-thru waters for its almost-100-unit concept. Although using the drive-thru is a different experience than coming in and having a pizza made in front of you, some customers are looking for more convenience—particularly those who already know what pizza they want, Coleman says.
“Convenient is also important for what we want to deliver here,” he says. “It’s interesting to have different alternatives for guests—online ordering, third-party delivery capacity at some stores, and now the drive-thru. Additional convenience adds to the concept.”
Up to speed
Technology has made it possible for fast-casual concepts such as Pie Five to do drive-thru, Coleman says. “It enables you to make sure your concept has enough drive-thru speed so a customer is waiting in line for the appropriate amount of time,” he says. “With us, a five-minute speed of service is feasible.”
Regardless of how fast and friendly the service is, Grimes at IFBTA expects traffic to wane as delivery surpasses drive-thru, particularly as driverless vehicle and in-car food-holding and cooking technologies improve.
“As delivery improves, it’s going to have an impact on drive-thru,” Grimes says.