Burger King, Popeyes and Tim Hortons will modernize their drive-thrus

The chains will add new technology to more than 10,000 North American restaurants by mid-2022 as drive-thrus become more important to fast-food chains.
Burger King Drive Thru
Photograph courtesy of Restaurant Brands International

Burger King, Popeyes and Tim Hortons plan to add new technologies and other elements to their North American drive-thrus in the coming months, with plans to upgrade more than 10,000 of them by 2022, parent company Restaurant Brands International (RBI) said on Tuesday.

RBI said the company would add more than 40,000 digital screens with “powerful predictive selling” technology, integration with loyalty programs and the ability for contactless payment. Franchisees will largely fund the drive-thru improvements in the U.S.

The strategy comes as the drive-thru has become the centerpiece of the fast-food industry during the pandemic. Chains have been eager to push that advantage as consumers have flocked to the lanes.

RBI’s drive-thru strategy is well underway. Tim Hortons has installed digital menu boards in about 800 drive-thrus in the U.S. and Canada, and Burger King franchisees have installed them at 1,500 locations. Popeyes plans to start its installation later this year. A typical drive-thru lane features four digital screens, while a double drive-thru will have seven.

RBI says it is assessing its drive-thru lanes to install double drive-thrus where possible.

“We’re seeing really strong sales uplifts from the investments our franchisees are making,” Josh Kobza, chief operating officer for RBI, said on the company’s third-quarter earnings call Tuesday.

He said the sales improvements come from three different elements: the addition of double drive-thrus where possible, digital menu boards and the addition of artificial intelligence to suggest items based on weather or the customers’ orders.

For Burger King, the drive-thrus get the company on a level more equal to McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A, which have taken aggressive steps to bolster their drive-thrus in recent years.

McDonald’s in particular has pushed its drive-thru advantage. The company acquired Dynamic Yield last year, giving it the ability to add artificial intelligence to its digital menu boards, and quickly integrated that technology into its drive-thru lanes.

For Tim Hortons, the upgraded drive-thrus are a centerpiece of the chain’s comeback in its Canadian home market, where it has struggled in recent years leading up to the pandemic. Same-store sales in Canada declined 13.7% in the third quarter ended Sept. 30 as the country has been slow to reemerge from the pandemic and consumers work from home and don’t get coffee on their way to work.

The company has 2,700 drive-thrus in Canada and believes that will be a major differentiator going forward. “Our network of drive-thrus is by far the largest in Canada,” RBI CEO Jose Cil said. “We believe this investment will have an especially profound impact.” He said the company expects to have most of the drive-thrus upgraded by next year.

RBI’s in-house “Guest Intelligence” team has developed the program that suggests items to customers based on their order, the time of day or weather.

It also integrates the drive-thru boards with loyalty programs, an especially important point for Tim Hortons, which has been building its Tims Rewards program. The menu boards will be customized based on a customer’s favorite purchases and redemption history. That functionality is being tested at 30 locations in Canada.

The menu boards will accommodate loyalty programs through scanning, Bluetooth or near-field communication.

They will also have contactless payment. The company is working with payment company Verifone to develop a global remote contactless payment device for the lane. The first prototype has been installed at a Tim Hortons in Canada, with 15 more locations to test the function by January.

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