The COVID-19 pandemic forced restaurant operators to quickly restructure their businesses—both in terms of technology and design—to take advantage of increased interest in takeout and delivery. And with 46% of consumers saying they don’t see themselves returning to pre-COVID-19 behaviors anytime soon, operators are reconsidering the design of future restaurants and the adoption of new technologies to enhance the customer experience and product quality, according to a Deloitte analysis.
Large chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks had an inherent advantage over casual dining and fine dining brands during the pandemic due to their years of experience with drive-thru. But even the large operations struggled with the increase in demand, and many attempted to optimize their pick-up and delivery options with ad hoc curbside pickup parking spots for customers and third-party delivery drivers.
“For quick-service and fast-casual companies that are all about speed, it’s about trying to get food to people quicker,” says R. J. Hottovy, fund manager at Aaron Allen Capital Partners. “This may mean smaller dining rooms—we are seeing evidence that this is the new prototype with news coming out of Shake Shack, Taco Bell, Burger King, and others.”
This past fall, Burger King unveiled plans for future locations that have a physical footprint 60% smaller than a traditional Burger King restaurant. The designs feature dedicated mobile order and curbside pick-up areas, drive-in and walk-up order areas, enhanced drive-thru experiences, and exterior dining spaces. One design option shows a suspended kitchen and dining room above the drive-thru lanes. In this scenario, the kitchen would deliver the guest’s drive-thru order from above using a conveyor belt system.
"With digital sales tripling year over year last quarter, consumers are demanding more digital access than ever before, so we're constantly exploring new ways to enhance the experience for our guests,” says Curt Garner, chief technology officer of Chipotle Mexican Grill. The dramatic increase in digital orders led to many Chipotle locations operating separate make lines to fulfill digital orders. Taking this to the next level, the taco and burrito restaurant opened its first digital-only restaurant called the Chipotle Digital Kitchen in New York. The concept doesn’t include a dining room or front service line and guests must order in advance via Chipotle.com, the Chipotle app, or third-party delivery partners.
Fast-casual concepts like Shake Shack and Sweetgreen that had previously shied away from drive-thru lanes have embraced the change with recent announcements for drive-thru lane locations coming soon. Shake Shack’s first drive-thru location will open in Florida later this year and will feature walk-up windows, drive-up windows, curbside pickup, and in-Shack pickup shelves. Sweetgreen’s first drive-thru location will open in Colorado in late 2021 and, in addition to having a traditional drive-thru, will also feature a “drive-in”—dedicated parking spots with intercom boxes under a solar-paneled overhang for customers who want to order from their cars.
Restaurant operators are also working to make drive-thrus smarter and more efficient. Leading chains are developing the use of artificial intelligence and geofencing to provide personalized and streamlined ordering experiences. Burger King has deployed its proprietary machine learning system, called Deep Flame, to its exterior digital menu boards, enabling the chain to offer personalized menu items based on the time of day or the temperature.
McDonald’s was ahead of the curve when, in 2019, it purchased Dynamic Yield, a startup that uses "decision logic" technology that allows the fast-food giant to switch up menu items based on factors like time of day, weather, drive-thru times, regional menu item popularity, and more. When paired with the use of the McDonald’s app and loyalty program, MyMcDonald’s, the technology will soon be able to make more granular recommendations, such as suggestions for individual consumers based on their past purchases. McDonald’s also acquired speech-based artificial intelligence startup Apprente in 2019 and has been implementing it in franchise locations as a voice assistant to take drive-thru orders. Both tech solutions work to increase the speed of each transaction, making for quicker service and happier customers.
Panera Bread launched curbside pickup in May 2020 to accommodate the increase in takeout orders due to the pandemic. When guests order through the Panera app and provide the make, model, and color of their car, geofencing technology enables the restaurant to be notified when the guest has arrived. Just last month, Panera announced a partnership with Adobe to improve the mobile ordering experience. "As we roll out new capabilities, our partnership with Adobe Experience Cloud will provide us an accurate pulse on customer journeys and enable us to orchestrate great experiences in the moments where it counts most,” said George Hanson, senior vice president and chief digital officer at Panera Bread, in a statement.
Whether it’s shrinking dining rooms, adding multiple drive-thru lanes, or implementing new technologies, we are just beginning to see the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on restaurant operations and design. “Brands may think they are through the uncharted territory,” explains Hottovy, “but there’s still a lot of disruption ahead.” FT
Read about the foodservice industry’s post-pandemic recovery plans in a related article, “Foodservice Picks Up the Pieces.”