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7 Hacks for the Drive-Thru Experience

car in drive thru

Quick serve restaurants (QSRs) have long relied on drive-thru operations. As far back as 2018, according to a QSR magazine study, 70% of fast-food earnings came from the drive-thru. Now, in part due to the pandemic’s impact on the restaurant business, leading restaurant brands are looking to better leverage their drive-thru lanes. Many franchises are deploying technologies and creative strategies to increase the speed of order fulfillment within a single lane when adding new lanes isn’t possible. They are also rewiring how customers think to break the pattern of waiting until they reach the speaker to submit an order.

Here are 7 hacks for restauranteurs to help shift customer behaviors, improve the drive-thru experience and maximize sales revenue opportunities.

  1. Use QR Codes. Display QR codes everywhere on your property for customers to see. If QR codes are accessible for every driver or passenger waiting in line at all points along the drive-thru lane, you can encourage them to review the menu and prepare in advance to place their order. Consider placing QR code signage even from the roadway if your peak traffic lines extend that long.

  2. Integrate QR codes with POS. Another option for QR codes is to invite customers to begin their orders on their mobile devices, and then finish up at the register. This requires integrating your mobile app, online and point of sale (POS) systems, if you haven’t already. You can streamline even further by using QR codes to support order placement and payment, and have customers simply advance to the pickup window.

  3. Employ Computer Vision solutions. Artificial intelligence and image or data capture technologies can be deployed to identify customers via license plates as they enter or approach the restaurant. Then, you can automatically adjust the physical lineup of orders in the kitchen to align with the sequence of cars in the drive-thru lane. These types of time and motion studies coupled with innovative solutions can greatly improve process efficiencies. Alternatively, you can use Wi-Fi analytics or blue-tooth beacon technologies to identify customers as they arrive.

  4. Deliver food to those in line. Use every opportunity to improve the customer experience, including having runners available to deliver food to those in the drive-thru lane. This allows customers to enjoy food that’s been freshly made or cooked while they wait their turn to exit. Plus, if your drive-thru lane has natural exit points, you can free up space and capacity for new customers more quickly.

  5. Create a virtual drive-thru experience. The drive-thru lane doesn’t need a formal structure with a menu board and a window. You can create a "virtual" drive-thru experience by establishing a track around the parking lot perimeter. Perhaps cars enter the lot on one side and exit on the other. Employees can take orders using tablets or mobile devices, with food delivered to waiting cars when it’s ready.

  6. Get creative with messaging to promote order options. Real estate developers often use signage to target people stuck in traffic: "If you lived here, you’d be home by now." Consider a similar messaging strategy to reach customers sitting in your drive-thru: “If you ordered through our mobile app, you’d be home by now!”

  7. Recognize your high performers. When the goal is to increase the operational efficiency of the drive-thru, it is important to realize your staff’s important role. Because it is not just a technology challenge, but also a labor and performance challenge. Since drive-thru performance is very much a team sport, be sure to reward team members. For example, establish a leaderboard across the brand for specific drive-thru key performance indicators, or KPIs. Let stores know how their performance compares to their peers. Then, recognize and celebrate your high performers.

If, as the QSR study noted, the number one task in the drive-thru is to ensure top-notch accuracy, customer experience, and speed of service, these 7 hacks will enable tech-savvy restaurants to get food orders out faster so satisfied customers can get on their way.


About the Author:

With a background in both engineering and human/organizational studies, Tim Tang has degrees on both sides of his brain. With over 20 years of professional experience in developing enterprise solutions, Tang is keenly interested in the intersection of technology and humanity. As a director at Hughes, Tang studies various enterprise markets (e.g. Restaurant, Retail, and Banking/Finance) to anticipate trends that will enable enterprise customers to fully unlock the business value of technology. Click here for more content from Tim.