In June, RaceTrac opened an 8,100-square-foot outlet in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, about 25 miles south of Louisville. In addition to the usual new-store bells and whistles, such as Wi-Fi and an electric charging station, the latest RaceTrac offers drive-thru service for everything from fast food to in-store merchandise.
Atlanta-based RaceTrac opened its first drive-thru in 2020, and the Shepherdsville location houses the chain’s fifth. “It’s an ideal location to offer our drive-thru concept, which has fared quite well in other markets,” said Jeanine Jones, communications manager for RaceTrac.
Depending on the time of day, guests use the drive-thru to purchase food and drinks. “But what makes a RaceTrac drive-thru unique is the opportunity for on-the-go guests to pick up a package of batteries, snacks, candy, beverages or anything else offered in-store,” Jones said. “The convenience factor of the drive-thru appeals to guests since they can simply pull around and get what they need without exiting their vehicle. We are happy to fulfill large orders and make it a priority to get guests back on the road as quickly as possible.”
Auto Begats Drive-Thru
The Model T rolled out in 1908, and the original foodservice drive-thru appeared in 1947. That’s when Red’s Giant Hamburg (the owner couldn’t fit the entire word “Hamburger” on his outdoor sign) of Springfield, Missouri, reportedly became the first eatery with a side window for serving customers in their cars. The novel idea spread through the growing fast food industry, and as more convenience operators began offering food to-go, drive-thru service appeared there, as well.
According to the 2022 Restaurant Friction Index from PYMNTS, about half of all U.S. restaurants today offer drive-thru service, and almost two-thirds of restaurant owners who don’t have it say they plan to invest in that convenience in the future.
Several big brands have opened or announced plans for drive-thru-only locations
The original Starbucks concept was to provide customers with a relaxing coffee shop environment where they could read or work while sipping a cup of java. But last year, Starbucks reported that more than two-thirds of all orders are now purchased through the chain’s app, in the drive-thru or for delivery, and management plans to add drive-thrus to 90% of all new stores constructed. In 2022, McDonald’s announced that in its top markets, 70% of all sales came from drive-thru customers.
Is a sit-down venue mandatory if shoppers prefer to grab and go without ever walking inside? Recognizing consumers’ propensity for stay-seated shopping, several big QSR brands have opened or announced plans for drive-thru-only locations, including Dunkin’, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s and Tim Hortons.
New Drive-Thru Technologies
Curby’s, a growing three-store chain in Lubbock, Texas, opened during the pandemic and immediately recognized the power of the drive-thru. The chain sells everything from fresh food to any of the stores’ 3,000 SKUs to drive-thru shoppers.
All Curby’s team members wear a headset plus microphone, so everyone hears the drive-thru orders in real time. During busy periods, the stores rely on a runner, who collects items to fulfill each request.
“The stores have a staging table where team members place ordered items in the special slot assigned to each car in line,” said Tony Sparks, head of customer wow for Curby’s. The chain also uses “line busters,” those employees armed with a tablet who are often seen taking orders from motorists in line at Chick-fil-A. Currently, the company is upgrading tablet technology to give shoppers a superior drive-thru experience.
Always on the lookout for handy new tools, Sparks is considering the advantages of having a runner wear a live body camera much like those used by law enforcement.
“Say someone pulls up and is looking for the energy drink they had the last time they came by, but they don’t remember the product’s name,” Sparks said. “The runner could go to the energy door, and the customer could see the available products projected directly onto the electric menu board outside. The customer could say ‘The third can on the left’ or whatever. It’s basically a live feed.”
Currently, select McDonald’s locations are using a comparable system to broadcast a real-time shot of the order taker onto the menu board. “The technology exists,” Sparks said. “It’s just how you use it.”
AI on the Job
Point of sale (POS) systems and digital menu boards were game-changers for foodservice when first introduced, and now AI-enabled voice technology is speaking up in drive-thrus nationwide.
The technology can take customer orders, repeat the order back to the customer in detail, make changes to the order and submit that information directly to the kitchen and POS. When integrated with a digital menu board, AI provides visual confirmation that the system got the order correct and displays the total price for the customer to see. Without the need for a human order taker, the system helps alleviate staff shortages.
California-based Presto is one of several firms that develop AI-enabled voice technology for drive-thru operations. Currently, the company works with Checkers, Del Taco and Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s to communicate with on-the-go customers in select outlets, according to Dan Mosher, president of Presto.
When investigating an AI solution for the drive-thru, foodservice operators must consider how quickly the system responds to the customer’s vocalized request, handles complex order revisions and then upsells.
AI will be a practical way for people to solve challenges in places where it’s hard to find labor.”
“Those are the critical pieces that form a great customer experience,” Mosher said.
He added: “The system must have a friendly and approachable voice that doesn’t sound robotic. … We’re able to switch voices so customers don’t always hear the same one. And voices can be tailored to a specific market. We can have a southern accent in Atlanta, a West Coast accent in L.A. and a different accent in Boston.”
According to Mosher, store employees who have experienced the system appreciate having an AI co-worker. “We get a lot of feedback, such as ‘I typically do three to four jobs, and taking orders is one of them. With the Presto system, I don’t have to do that specific job, and I can spend more time and energy bagging food, talking to guests and taking their payment.’ They don’t have to triple task,” he said.
He believes AI-enabled voice technology has yet to reach its full potential, and in the future, it could take phone-in orders and even be used for in-store training.
“A new employee who needs to know how to make a specific burger could verbally ask the system instead of checking a standard operating procedures book,” Mosher said. “And there’s potential to use the system to order inventory [by voice].”
And perhaps one day, the brainy technology will be able to recognize customers’ cars when they pull up. If so, it could ask them if they want the same order requested on their last visit and if they want to pay with their most recently used card.
With 130,000 foodservice drive-thrus in the United States, Presto is focused on meeting the needs of QSRs, but Mosher believes there are opportunities for convenience stores and car washes to use the same technology.
“AI will be a practical way for people to solve challenges in places where it’s hard to find labor, and it will do some of the laborious tasks humans don’t want to do,” he said. “We feel like we have a solution that’s ahead of the curve. The feedback we get is quite positive.”
Future Food Delivery
Most consumers are familiar with pneumatic tube systems that propel cylindrical containers through a pipeline using compressed air or vacuum suction. Pneumatic systems are common at drive-thru pharmacies and were once a handy way to make bank deposits before technology enabled financial institutions to accept deposits via electronic images. A technology company based in Austin, Texas, has teamed with Wendy’s to move food orders from the kitchen via an underground tube to hungry consumers waiting in the parking lot.
A “hyperlogistics” developer, Pipedream Labs, is working to create robot-powered underground delivery systems, and by year-end, plans to unveil its first pilot at a yet-unannounced Wendy’s outlet on the East Coast.
“We’re on the path to automate delivery to consumers,” said Justin Robinson, head of strategy and partnerships at Pipedream. “This will be the first time that any company has sent autonomous robots through pipes to deliver goods.”
Because a Wendy’s fast food order is larger and heavier than a paper check or bottle of pills and must travel a longer distance, the company will rely on robots moving on a track through 20-inch-wide PVC pipes that are buried in the same way PVC now protects underground utility lines.
According to Pipedream’s plan, the customer will place and pay for the order using a mobile phone. After pulling into the Wendy’s lot, the guest notifies the kitchen of their parking spot number. Then, a staff member places the order in a tote, which features temperature-controlled spaces for cold items, such as a soda or Frosty. The tote goes into the robot and is transported through the underground pipe to the customer.
“Think of it as an automated drive-thru system,” Robinson said. “Customers don’t have to leave their car or even talk to another human if they don’t want to.”
Installing the underground robot system will cost no more than building a physical drive-thru, Robinson said, and it takes up considerably less real estate. Plus, the system could be installed in a parking lot next door to the food retailer to increase the number of pickup locations and reduce traffic around the store.
Pipedream Labs is working to create robot-powered underground delivery systems.
“Obviously, drive-thru is a very important part of Wendy’s business,” he said. “For locations that don’t have a drive-thru, this is a way to unlock drive-thru revenue and increase mobile and digital orders.”
The Pipedream team sees the Wendy’s test as the first step in a future underground system that will deliver goods from stores directly to homes and offices. “We’re trying to reduce emissions by getting packaged goods off the street and moved underground,” Robinson said. “It’s 100% feasible in the same way as running water, fiber and electric lines underground.”
There are challenges to creating and operating a drive-thru. Adding one to a new build requires more real estate and strategically placed entrances and exits. And there’s always that concern about lost impulse purchases when customers don’t come inside. But drive-thrus are an important advantage for c-stores that want to compete with QSRs, according to Tom Cook, principal at King-Casey, a restaurant and foodservice consulting firm.
“Without a drive-thru, [convenience stores] are less convenient than a QSR, and historically convenience has been [c-stores’] competitive advantage,” he said.
Before the pandemic altered consumer habits, “On average, 50% of QSR business went through the drive-thru. Now, it’s something like 70-plus%,” Cook said.
Today’s drive-thrus are crowded, causing some foodservice operators to increase the number of lanes to move more customers through faster. “People are on the go and moving more,” Mosher said. “Some of that is the aftereffects of COVID when people got used to using the drive-thru. Drive-thrus are here to stay.”