Food
7 minute read - Sep 18, 2020

More Than Just A Window - How restaurants are embracing drive-thru to stay afloat during COVID

As restaurants adapt to diners’ ongoing needs for safety, here is how you can add or enhance a drive-thru program for your business.
Marshall Pierce
Enterprise Partnerships

Americans got their first taste of drive-thru dining in 1948 in Baldwin Park, California, when a tiny burger place called In-N-Out featured a new-fangled intercom ordering system and a circular driveway.

This was the start of our national love affair with fast food, and many establishments were soon to jump on the bandwagon with their own drive-thru options. Today, drive-thru service is not just for burgers and fries. Along with curbside and delivery, it has become a lifeline for restaurants during the pandemic.

During April, May, and June, -- when restaurant were hardest hit -- drive-thru restaurant visits actually increased by 26%, representing 42% of all restaurant sales. Even when restaurants started opening back up for dine-in service in July, drive-thru visits continued to grow by 13%, according to research by the NPD Group.

It’s easy to see why drive-thru programs appeal to restaurant owners. Analysts of the quick service restaurant (QSR) industry estimate that up to 70% of a restaurant’s sales can come from its drive-thru.

Despite softening dining regulations helping restaurants open up outdoor dining, many customers still feel uneasy about eating outside their homes. And reports like this one from the CDC back up those fears, showing that even outdoor dining carries risk of contamination. This is the ideal time for restaurants to set up drive-thru programs to offer customers a safer alternative that is even safer than outdoor dining, in-person pick up, and delivery. 

Drive-thru operations offer convenience, speed, and, most importantly, the safest method to pick up food. How can you launch a drive-thru program? Or boost the one you already have? We have identified five critical steps for creating a successful drive-thru for your restaurant.

1. Make driving through fun

People are tired of eating at home all the time and long for the restaurant food they love. In order to draw customer attention, plan for your drive-thru as you would prepare for the addition of a new dining room. In other words, give them a reason to try your new program.

Can customers easily see your drive-thru from the road? If not, use multiple and clear signage to direct drivers to your drive-thru entrance. Ensure there is ample room for drivers to enter and exit safely, revamping your parking lot and repurposing parking spaces as needed.

Also, take a close look at the areas of your establishment that customers will see when they visit your drive-thru. Add flower beds and small trees along the way to make your drive-thru location look as appealing as your food. Also, no one wants to see your discarded boxes and trash as they wind around your building. Consider fencing off or moving unsightly dumpsters, so they are not in view when customers are ordering.

2. (Accurate) service with a smile!

While waiting in a car is comfortable and safe, how long is too long to wait? The clock is definitely ticking as soon as your customers pull in. According to QSR’s 2019 Drive-Thru Performance Study, 81% of survey respondents said waiting more than 10 minutes is unacceptable. During the pandemic, an analysis by Bluedot found that the drive-thru service speed was just over four minutes, which equates to only two cars getting served before frustration sets in.

However, Chick-fil-A, which ranks 10th in speed in the QSR study, ranks high in customer experience. Nearly 95 percent of that chain’s drive-thru customers said that they were either “satisfied” or “highly satisfied” with Chick-fil-A’s drive-thru, a number that is higher than the 79 percent sector-wide total.

Why? Customer experience counts. Participants in the survey gave Chick-fil-A drive-thru employees high scores for their pleasant demeanor and accuracy. If you have employees taking orders outside, make sure they are wearing the proper protection such as gloves and masks.

Image courtesy of businessinsider.com

To optimize your drive-thru service, make sure you have at least two windows – one for orders and payments and the other for food delivery. Having separate employees handling the payments and the food not only increases efficiency on your end, but it also reassures guests in terms of health and safety.

Another critical way to improve both speed and accuracy is with the use of proper technology.

By equipping employees with tablets, you can send them outside to take orders while drivers wait in line. Tablets send the orders right to the kitchen so that orders can be worked on right away and minimize the wait.

Headsets and microphones can also allow staff to communicate in real time and prepare orders effectively. A well equipped and well-trained staff will be able to handle just as many drive-thru orders as they could over the counter.

Image courtesy of thedailymeal.com

3. Drive customer loyalty

You can use your social media channels to drive more online and mobile orders for your drive-thru. Try posting high-quality photos of your drive-thru operation or offering a few items or discounts that are only available for drive-thru customers.

Another way to boost customer loyalty through social media is to feature your mobile pre-order and pre-pay options. These functions give your customers more time to look over the menu. No one likes to feel pressured to make a decision by seeing a long line of vehicles in their rearview mirror.

Consider adding a loyalty app that offers discounts for repeat visits and introduces new menu items or combinations. These apps have the added benefit of providing you with valuable marketing data.

Here’s a couple of examples. McDonald’s offers coupons each week that are only available on its app. A recent one offered a sixth free McCafe drink after the purchase of five. Taco Bell offers customers who have its app a food reward after spending $25 as well as other goodies exclusive to the app.

If space on your property permits, you also could offer a mobile order pick-up lane during your rush times. In 2018, Dunkin’ introduced its “Mobile Order Pick Up” lane to reduce drive-thru delays. After they order online, customers receive a pick-up time for their food. No waiting in lines!

4. Safety First!

The way we look at eating out has altered because of the pandemic. Many of us will be more cautious and will expect to see safety measures in place long after the pandemic has ended.

Here are some steps to include in your drive-thru plans to address customer concerns.

Image courtesy of chicagotribune.com

5. Invest in professional photography for irresistible drive-thru menus and online ordering

What if stopping at a restaurant drive-thru is a spontaneous decision? You could be on a drive trip or just having a case of late-night munchies. In those situations, we often rely on menu boards and photos to choose what to order. When prices are hard to find, print is too small, and images are unclear, we can become confused and frustrated. As a result, we may order less food or even bale on the order altogether.

On the other hand, vibrant, easy-to-read menu boards result in faster order times and increased sales. When it comes to menu board design, less is more, David Watford, director of QSR for LSI Industries, told QSR Magazine.

One way to streamline your menu board and increase sales is to highlight your high-profit menu items with a clean design that features professional photos.

Photography by Kathy Pilch

Since menu board photos must be large enough for people to see clearly from their cars, high-quality photography really matters. Smartphone photos often lack definition and clarity when they are enlarged. No one wants to order an item that has a strange color or looks out of focus. You also should feature professional photos in your online menus to encourage orders.

How can you find a professional photographer in your area?

Snappr has the world’s largest network of trusted photographers providing professional work on-demand. Photoshoots can be done anywhere and anytime - often with as little as two hours advance notice.

And with the best-in-category tools and API, Snappr is the fastest and most effective way for restaurants to manage shoots at scale. Best of all, every Snappr shoot is professionally edited by a single in-house team, resulting in high-quality images that are always consistent with your brand.

Ready to take your restaurant to the next level with a new or enhanced drive-thru program? Contact Snappr’s Enterprise Team today to learn how we can boost your restaurant’s brand with professional photography that is second to none.

About the author

Marshall Pierce
Enterprise Partnerships

Marshall Pierce leads partnerships for enterprise Food clients at Snappr. He has helped dozens of major players in the industry with their content strategy. He is available for a no-obligation consultation about your Food photography needs.

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