Drive-Thrus See Digital Renaissance As QSRs Seek Growth And Convenience

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It’s official: drive-thrus are having their moment.

First Pizza Hut announced it would be adding “Hut Lane” mobile order-ahead service to 1,500 locations, then drive-thru coffee chain Dutch Bros Coffee was reported to be considering a $3 billion initial public offering (IPO), and then Panera Bread announced a new concept featuring double-lane drive-thrus. Now, pretzel chain Auntie Anne’s is getting in on the trend, having announced its first-ever drive-thru location in partnership with fellow Focus Brands-owned chain Jamba (formerly known as Jamba Juice).

As Auntie Anne’s Chief Brand Officer Alisa Gmelich told PYMNTS in a recent interview, “The demand for consumer accessibility has played an influential role in our focus in expanding Auntie Anne’s outside of our traditional mall locations, and we know the emphasis on drive-thru access has staying power.”

Even as the vaccine rolls out, drive-thru locations continue to drive spending with a significant share of restaurant customers. PYMNTS research from this month’s Order to Eat report created in collaboration with Paytronix finds that more than 1 in 4 already-vaccinated restaurant customers would be encouraged to spend more on their food orders if the restaurant offered drive-thru pickup.

Taco Bell President and Global Chief Operating Officer Mike Grams told PYMNTS in a recent interview, “Right now, everyone in our industry is talking about the drive-thru as the cornerstone of the ‘restaurant of the future.’”

Integrating the drive-thru experience with mobile ordering further propels the channel into the post-pandemic future. Chipotle, for one, has been integrating its Chipotlane digital ordering drive-thru lanes into more than 100 locations with more to come. The company attributes the success of these lanes to the central role that digital ordering plays in the experience, predicting that restaurants limited to more traditional ordering channels may have a rough go of it.

“We now consider that the digital drive-thru of the future,” Chipotle Chief Restaurant Officer Scott Boatwright told Karen Webster in a recent interview for PYMNTS’ ConnectedEconomy™ series. “And I know there are a lot of brands today that are larger that have your traditional drive-thru experience that are entrenched … and I think they’re going to struggle.”

Almost 4 in 10 consumers say their primary pandemic-related concerns pertain to their health, according to PYMNTS research published in this month’s edition of Delivering on Restaurant Rewards created in collaboration with Paytronix, and these health-concerned restaurant customers are eager for the seamless and low-contact solution that digitally-integrated drive-thru ordering offers. In fact, 38 percent of these consumers would be encouraged to spend more if a restaurant offered drive-thru pickup, and 44 percent if that restaurant offered online payment ability.

In addition to bringing the drive-thru experience into the future with digital ordering, some quick-service restaurants (QSRs) are also moving the channel forward with artificial intelligence (AI) enabled digital signage. For example, McDonald’s has partnered with digital signage company Visual Art and tech solutions provider Binary Brains to create artificial intelligence (AI)-powered drive-thru signs to adapt menus in real time to incoming customers, while Burger King is piloting a program that uses Bluetooth to identify Royal Perks loyalty program members, displaying their previous orders on menu boards as they drive by.

Between consumers’ pandemic-driven desire for quick and contact-free meal ordering options and tech companies’ pandemic-accelerated digital restaurant tools, the drive-thru may be as central to the 2020s as it was to the 1950s.

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