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Not just for fast food: How the restaurant industry is embracing the drive-thru

Applebee's is opening its first-ever drive-thru window at a test location this year.
Illustration of a car floating in front of a drive thru window
Fast casual restaurants and coffee shops have used the drive-thru as another way to serve COVID-concerned customers. Katty Huertas / TODAY / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, the country has seen an increase in drive-thru ordering and it's not just fast food that people are picking up from the takeout window. COVID-19 has certainly changed the way we eat and more and more restaurants are embracing the idea of serving the public in a way that limits potentially risky person-to-person interaction. Ordering and picking up a meal without ever having to leave your vehicle has long been a convenience that consumers have embraced but in a COVID-19 world it's one that has grown by leaps and bounds with no signs of slowing down.

“Prior to the pandemic, what constitutes a restaurant was already rapidly changing," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research, National Restaurant Association in an email to TODAY Food. "In our Restaurant Industry 2030 Report, we forecast that the off-premises market — carryout, delivery, drive-thru and mobile units — would be where the majority of industry growth would come from over the next 10 years. The pandemic has accelerated the industry’s move to create new access points, many using technology, that provide customers more choices to fulfill their desire for restaurant meal solutions.”

Sit-down restaurants such as Applebee's have begun to look toward the drive-thru as another way to serve COVID-concerned customers. The company is set to debut its first-ever drive-thru pickup window in the coming months.

“The demand for to-go and delivery options has been on the rise for more than a decade, with huge acceleration in the past nine months," said Scott Gladstone, VP of strategy and development at Applebee’s in an email to TODAY. "It’s only going to continue growing, so we are focused on how we can meet that guest demand with new enhancements over the coming year, including the test of the pickup window at the Applebee’s in Texarkana, Texas ... It will be the first location in the country to have a pickup window when construction is completed in early 2021, and we look forward to assessing its performance to determine whether pickup windows should be included in future building design packages.”

Fast casual restaurants such as Shake Shack have also turned to the idea of serving customers in their cars. The popular burger restaurant unveiled a plan for a three-lane drive-thru that will accommodate mobile pick up orders, on the spot orders and curbside pickup.

“Shake Shack's new drive-thru format is an example of our increasing focus on convenience across the broader Shake Shack experience," said Andrew McCaughan, Shake Shack’s chief development officer, in an email to TODAY. "While we will always build and welcome guests to our signature community gathering places, we also strive to offer guests new ways to get Shake Shack however and whenever they want it. Our first drive-thru location will be located in Orlando and will be part of the Vineland Pointe development. We plan to expand to five to eight drive-thrus across the U.S. by the end of 2022.”

Like most restaurants, Shake Shack will focus on high-traffic suburban areas for opening more drive-thru options.

For those who have long enjoyed their dine-in experience, it's easy to forget that Starbucks drive-thrus have been around since 1994. According to Erin Shane Riley, global communications officer for Starbucks, 80 percent of Starbucks transactions were “on-the-go” prior to COVID.

"In March 2020 when the pandemic started, Starbucks moved to a 'to go' model across the U.S. and Canada to encourage social distancing in its cafés," said Riley. The “to go” model included drive-thru and to-go orders only as the company pressed pause on cafe and patio seating.

"For drive-thru specifically, our plans include opening new locations outside of densely populated cities and in new markets and designing new experiences which could include double lane drive-thrus, and drive-thru plus curbside pickup formats, which leverage the payment capabilities of the Starbucks App," said Riley. "This store transformation strategy aligns closely with rapidly evolving customer preferences that have accelerated as a result of COVID-19, including higher levels of mobile ordering, more contactless pick-up experiences and reduced in-store congestion, all of which naturally allow for greater physical distancing." 

It seems inevitable that even in a post-vaccine world, the drive-thru experience will only become more prevalent, as customers seek convenience and speed to match their busy lifestyles.