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Why Fast Food Is Racing to Ditch The Dining Room?

In the donut-scented interior, I learned that this store wasn’t taking orders in the store—only at the drive-thru and via the app.
So, I downloaded the app, selected a large cold brew, tapped in my credit card number, and watched in silence as two workers prepared and placed the coffee on the largely counter.
Their “Digital Kitchen” has no cashiers, replaced by touchscreens and mobile ordering, and no seats or tables.

Many fast-food restaurants and the company has recently developed a branch without any restaurant. It’s powered by QR code readers and waiters that bring the food down from a second-story kitchen.
The operation is, by most accounts, astoundingly efficient. “restaurant of the future” doesn’t have seats or take cash.


drive-thru menu boards

What’s driving this trend? Partly savings on real estate and labor. But mostly it’s a response to consumer preference. Pushed by pandemic restrictions and pulled by the increasing ease of mobile transactions, customers have rushed into drive-thrus, delivery, and mobile ordering. Even with coronavirus fears in most people’s rear-view mirror, in-restaurant sales now account for just a third of its business.

It’s a way to cater to changing customer-order behaviors, while smaller store footprints and radical new designs are mostly reserved for new locations, the arms race is on to remodel older stores with drive-thru lanes. Everyone wants double or triple drive-thrus, so those parcels are becoming competitive because there are only so many corner lots that can accommodate that.

Everything is moving in the direction of Checkers and Rally’s, two drive-thru chains that were early to this idea. As a bonus, no public interior space means you don’t need to build customer parking.

Wherever people are eating, it isn’t inside fast-food joints. To meet this shift, some chains, like Wendy’s and Qdoba, have embraced “ghost kitchens,” unmapped, closed-door facilities where food for delivery might be prepared for a dozen different brands at once.

Increasingly, the logic behind ghost kitchens is finding its way into the public-facing retail design too. The good news is they are working on solving the problem. As restaurant workers struggled under a workload that depended little on the number of customers in the store. 

drive-thru menu boards

Like the parallel remote-work phenomenon, the rise of what McDonald’s calls the Three D’s—digital, drive-thru, and delivery—may reflect ongoing social atomization as the shared spaces that emptied out during the pandemic are slow to fill back up, to the point that walk-up, dine-in customers like me are no longer the focus, and might even be a nuisance. Often lauded as a vital “third space” for seniors, teenagers, and families in communities that lack friendly public spaces, McDonald’s unveiled a concept store in 2020 that has no seating at all.

It does, however, have algorithms inside the My McDonald’s App. “Imagine what can happen once we start to know, ‘Oh, Brian’s coming to the restaurant,’ and what we can do,” McDonald’s digital engagement head Lucy Brady told Wired in 2020. It’s like a 21st-century version of the waitress asking if you’ll have the usual.

That’s probably what’s motivating coffee-centric chains, among which Panera isn’t the only one scrambling to scrap seating areas. The fifth largest is Scooters Coffee, which is also a drive-thru-only concept. The fourth largest, Minneapolis-based Caribou, is focusing all its attention on growing drive-thru-only locations.

Something similar is happening at Starbucks. Despite its roots as an urban gathering place whose comfy chairs, Wi-Fi, and bathrooms invite customers to linger, on-and-off closures related to COVID have helped accelerate a business shift toward mobile, delivery, and drive-thru, which now make up almost three-quarters of the brand’s U.S. revenue. And that’s just fine with Starbucks brass: Those customers make bigger purchases than the ones who walk in and order at the counter.

drive-thru menu boards

Starbucks opened its first “Starbucks Pickup” store in 2019, in Manhattan, and the model has since expanded to cities across the country. These stores center on convenience and illustrate one way we can meet evolving customer behaviors in dense, urban locations. As for Starbucks’ role as social infrastructure, the company has said it is “creating the digital third space.” “We plan to create a series of branded NFT collections, the ownership of which initiates community membership and allows for access to exclusive experiences and perks.

Perhaps we shouldn’t take these seatless concept stores too seriously. After all, they represent only a tiny experiment compared to the nation’s tens of thousands of existing fast-food restaurants, which, the Dunkin’ in Gorham, New Hampshire excepted, continue to offer old-fashioned thrills such as ordering with a human cashier and sitting at a table to eat. And let’s be honest, fast food’s appeal has always been the food—not the human connection and certainly not the ambiance.

“Pre-pandemic, about 50 percent of food was consumed on premise and 50 percent was drive-thru and delivery,” said Mark Landini, a retail designer who has worked with McDonald’s and other brands. “Because of the pandemic, that’s now changed to 20-80.”

It’s not just mobile apps that are making these changes attractive, but an older technology that also promised both freedom and a kind of anti-social isolation: the automobile. The pandemic-fueled rise of the drive-thru just isn’t going away. Maybe it’s because remote work has pushed fast-food spending into suburban, car-dependent locations. Maybe it’s because sitting down at Chipotle only seemed like a good idea relative to returning to the office, but nothing beats the kitchen table. Maybe it’s because there are more fun things to do at home, online, than ever before.

One way or another, vehicle miles traveled are back to where they were in 2020, even though many white-collar workers aren’t in the office five days a week. They’re still going to the drive-thru, though.

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