Quick-service chains plan for a fast future

As the pandemic hit, fast-food chains rethought their designs. Here’s a look at the most popular elements.
Photograph courtesy of Taco Bell

Seats are out. Conveyor belts are in.

The fast-food restaurant is about to undergo a dramatic overhaul. The nation’s biggest restaurant chains are testing a huge variety of new service styles and technologies, all in preparation for consumers many believe will continue to consume the bulk of their fast-food meals outside of the restaurant.  

Companies like Burger King, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Chipotle and KFC decided to start rethinking prototypes, removing seats, adding drive-thru lanes and toying with ideas like conveyor belts and digital cubbies.

In the process, these companies promise to change the way the U.S. consumer interacts with their restaurant. They will have more options for convenience and takeout while the tried-and-true drive-thru will get a complete makeover.

Here’s a look at some of the notable innovations.

Fewer seats

Some time ago, Restaurant Business told you that companies were developing seatless restaurants. Since then, several more restaurant chains acknowledged they’re considering or testing seatless restaurants—including McDonald’s and KFC.

Few executives believe that consumers will completely avoid the fast-food dining room for good. But they also recognize that seats in the future will be less necessary, while real estate will become even more valuable—especially given how much space restaurants plan to devote to takeout-oriented activities.

And while fast-food seating won’t completely go away, it’s true that the typical restaurant in any sector will have fewer seats in the future. If people aren’t using them, it’s pointless keeping them.

McDonald's on the go

Smaller buildings

With more space devoted to drive-thrus and takeout, the restaurants themselves are getting smaller. Taco Bell’s Go Mobile unit, for instance, is half the size of a typical restaurant with a full selection of seats.

The smaller locations also help with something else: Real estate. By designing smaller buildings, companies can consider different types of real estate. It gives them the flexibility to go into more locations than they would with a traditional unit.

This is especially important for the big, international chains that are looking at different types of markets, where more urban locations might not be able to fit a more traditional restaurant and a drive thru.

More conveyor belts

Fast-food restaurants have been implementing second drive-thru lanes for years now, with strong results. But they all have a problem: They merge to a single set of windows.

The solution? Conveyor belts, apparently.

Burger King’s design, for instance, features a suspended kitchen over the drive-thru, which features a conveyor belt system delivering orders to two or three drive-thru lanes. McDonald’s and KFC are also considering conveyor belts to bring food out to distant lanes.

Burger King design

More mobile order integration

One thing is clear: All of these brands are finding new ways to get mobile order customers their food without standing in line. And the strategies are far more innovative than they’ve ever been.

Perhaps none of them are as innovative as Chipotle, which is developing a location designed to fulfill orders from mobile devices or websites.  Customers either order delivery or they order on the company’s mobile app or website. If they are inside the restaurant, they use their phone to scan a code to place an order.

Chipotle was also a pioneer in the mobile order drive-thru. The world’s fast-food chains are picking up that football and running with it—all of them are at least considering mobile order lanes on top of existing drive-thru lanes.

The same strategies being used for mobile integration can also be used for delivery orders. Digital cubby systems at KFC, for instance, can be used for delivery orders. Mobile order drive-thru can be used for delivery orders.

And more companies are dedicating parking spots for delivery drivers, sensing those drivers will need those spots more in the future.

Technology integration

One common theme throughout all of the prototypes is the integration of technology throughout the restaurants.

Taco Bell’s Go Mobile location includes technology in its kitchens so workers there know when customers arrive at the restaurant. That technology also suggests to customers the best route to get their food.

At McDonald’s, the company is developing an engine, MyMcDonald’s, that is integrated throughout the system and is anchored by a loyalty program expected to debut in the U.S. next year. The company is also planning to integrate automated ordering in its drive-thrus.

Overall, the goal for all of these strategies is to make the ordering process simpler and give customers more options to get takeout.

“Customers want to get through the line quick and have an ordering process that’s easy,” Lucy Brady, McDonald’s chief digital customer engagement officer, told investors earlier this month. “Technology can make that experience so much better than it is today.”

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