When the pandemic made social distancing a necessity, drive-thrus saw a huge spike in traffic. Restaurants had to serve not only traditional drive-thru orders placed over a speakerphone and picked up at a window, but also customers arriving to pick up their online orders for takeout, as well as third-party delivery drivers picking up delivery orders. If critical time in the drive-thru once looked like a rush-hour traffic jam, the pandemic has turned it into a traffic jam.

Avoid the traffic jam

Restaurants have tried various tactics to speed up guest lines through drive-thrus while avoiding departures. Some send crew members across the line to take customer orders on a handheld device while signage directs delivery drivers and takeout customers to locations to wait for their order, for a service model that is “driving/curbside hybrid”. Other brands have tried new drive-thru configurations or multiple lanes to handle the different types of offsite services.

Obviously, anything involving construction or renovation requires significant capital outlays and can result in service disruption. And with some brands seeing 60-70% of their business going through the drive-thru, who can afford to shut it down even for a day?

Let’s take a look at some of the practical, low-cost improvements and changes a restaurant can make that deliver impressive results, including the convenience, speed, and accuracy that customers crave.

ConvenienceCustomers embraced the drive-thru out of necessity when the pandemic closed dining rooms, but they seem to be sticking with the drive-thru if brands make it convenient. Some customers still prefer to avoid contact with other customers and employees, and staying in their car helps them feel safe. As restaurants continue to refine their methods for serving all types of takeout/takeout orders, they are discovering technologies that help move traffic quickly. Customers appreciate the attention to convenience. But so do third-party delivery services and drivers, for whom time is money.

What might a delicious and convenient food pickup experience look like in a fast drive-thru?

It streamlines communication. Gone are the days of pulling into a parking spot and scanning a QR code or texting or calling a number to let the team know you’ve arrived to pick up your order. New curbside solutions use geolocation to detect when a customer enters the car park and seamlessly informs them of where they should go once they arrive. On a dashboard inside the restaurant, staff can view and interact with orders as they come in, in real time, and see arrival notifications based on continuous GPS tracking.

Restaurants can access consoles on various devices to interact with and manage orders as they are placed, returned and delivered. They can also customize customer notifications and arrival time.

The rapidityDuring the pandemic, average wait times and speed of service at most drive-thru services have increased. Between 2020 and 2021, over a period of approximately one year, the average total time spent in the drive-thru lane increased by more than 25 seconds for 382 seconds. This, despite operators’ best efforts, including making innovative operational changes and optimizing drive-thru menu options for speed.

Forward-thinking restaurants recognize that persistent customer habits and ongoing staff shortages require long-term changes that can maintain service levels. Some have announced or are piloting completely new concepts focusing more off-site; others announced reinvented drive-thrus. Some, like Taco Bell, sue both.

Some operators are accelerating drive-thru times by incentivizing their drive-thru teams to improve service speed. How? Gamification. Timer systems that use friendly and fun competition between restaurants can increase service speed. These solutions rank competing crews, displayed on a screen facing the crew. Seeing their team’s position ranked against other teams motivates staff to work together and serve customers quickly. When teams compete and take ownership of their success, everyone wins: customers, employees, individual restaurants and the brand.

Since employee satisfaction is a critical aspect of employee retention, providing a fun and engaging “gamified” work environment can boost employee happiness and encourage them to stay longer.

Precision-Anyone who has opened their container of food after driving to find an error in their order has experienced the frustration that restaurants try to avoid. It goes without saying that customers place a high value on precision in the drive-thru, and good two-way communication is key to ensuring accurate orders. Customer-facing order confirmation screens are one aspect of the precision solution. Restaurants must remove all barriers that prevent accurate service. Good verbal communication, whether within one’s crew or between the crew and the customer, is always essential for a customer’s order to be correct. Having a good drive-thru headset solution can help brands improve the accuracy quotient by delivering crisp, clear sound quality. These modern systems can increase speed of service with two-way capability, built-in greeting with 16 pre-recorded messages and order taking modes.

As an industry, we are at the forefront of new solutions that not only speed up drive-thru times, but also improve our customers’ experience. Only time will tell how “smart” drive-thru technology will be, but one thing is certain, it’s time for brands looking to evolve and adapt to the era of drive-thru.

Brittany Maroney is an 18-year veteran of the restaurant industry, where she has spent her career developing concepts and motivating brand loyalists. As Director of Marketing and Communications for the premier loyalty software solution Punchh, as well as PAR technology, Maroney brings unique insight into the challenges and opportunities for restaurateurs across the country.

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