When the coronavirus outbreak first exploded in March of 2020, many restaurants were forced to shutter -- other than for takeout and delivery. And while that hurt dining establishments in a very big way, fast-food chains were able to retain their customer base pretty easily.
Whereas ambiance plays a big role in higher-end and even casual restaurants, patrons of fast-food joints don't have the same expectations in that regard. As such, ordering a burger and fries from a drive-thru window versus getting to dine in person doesn't detract so much from the experience. Throw in the fact that drive-thru ordering is among the safest options in the midst of a pandemic, and it's no wonder so many fast-food chains have seen a huge uptick in drive-thru orders over the course of the past 12 months.
Drive-thru restaurant visits increased 26% during 2020's second quarter, according to NPD Group. And while some of that may be attributable to the fact that sit-down dining was largely off-limits during that time, in July, drive-thru visits increased by 13% despite the fact that more restaurants had reopened by then.
Of course, there will hopefully come a day when restaurants can operate at full seating capacity and when customers can dine indoors without having to worry about picking up a dangerous virus. But even so, many popular chains are banking on the fact that drive-thru ordering will retain its popularity beyond the pandemic. And they're rethinking the way they set up their restaurants as a result.
New designs for better results
A number of popular chains are already altering their designs to facilitate drive-thru ordering. McDonald's (NYSE: MCD), for example, has introduced some restaurants with express pickup lanes for drive-thru customers who order in advance using an app. The chain is also looking to replace some employees with machines at the drive-thru in an effort to speed up the turnaround time on orders and reduce errors.
Burger King, a Restaurant Brands International (NYSE: QSR) chain, is doing something similar by introducing restaurants that offer more room for drive-thru lanes. And Taco Bell, a Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM) company, is reducing its dining space and adding more drive-thru lanes as well.
The fact that these restaurants are investing in these new designs means they clearly think the drive-thru trend is here to stay. And actually, drive-thru ordering aligns very well with a number of other trends that have taken off during the pandemic: curbside pickup for retail purchases and BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store).
Of course, some restaurants may seek to reduce their total square footage as part of their new designs, and if they start leasing less space, commercial landlords may take a hit. On the other hand, if these drive-thru-focused designs prove effective, it could lead fast-food chains to open new locations -- and that could mean more revenue for landlords looking to lease out space.
It'll also be interesting to see if the drive-thru trend extends to restaurants outside of the fast-food realm. Traditionally, sit-down restaurants haven't offered drive-thru as an option; customers looking for takeout need to park, enter the premises, and retrieve their orders. During the pandemic, many restaurants have allowed diners to pick up their orders curbside. But if drive-thru ordering continues to dominate, we could see more traditional restaurants alter their designs, too.