Drive-thrus have always been the ultimate in convenience and speed but during the pandemic, especially during the mandated dine-in closures, they are also a lifeline for the restaurants that have them, reports The NPD Group.
Drive-thru restaurant visits increased by +26% in the April, May, and June quarter and represented 42% of all restaurant visits. In July when more restaurants were reopened, drive-thru visits still increased by +13%, the highest visit increase among the service modes of on-premises, carry-out, and delivery, according to NPD’s daily tracking of U.S. consumers’ use of restaurants and other foodservice outlets.
Consumer demand for drive-thru has spurred QSR and fast casual brands to revisit their store development plans, adding drive-thrus and contactless pickup options to their new designs.
- Taco Bell Go Mobile restaurants, coming in Q1 '21, will have two drive-thru lanes including a new priority pick-up lane for customers who order via the Taco Bell app.
- Shake Shack plans to debut its first drive-thru next year (and is adding walk-up windows.)
- Starbucks is enhancing the drive-thru and is considering a double lane drive-thru, or drive-thru plus curbside pickup.
- About 70% of new Chipotles will have digital pickup lanes.
QSRs have the majority of drive-thrus and although visits declined to a historical low of -17% during Q2, this segment fared far better than other restaurant categories and segments. Fast casual restaurants, which, prior to the COVID pandemic, outpaced the U.S. restaurant industry in visit and unit growth for several years, don’t have drive-thru operations and experienced steeper declines in the second calendar quarter, down -26%, than traditional quick service restaurants. (Consequently many are embracing off-prem including curbside.) Full service restaurants, most of which don’t have drive-thru and were also most impacted by the mandated dine-in closure, saw traffic declines by -48% in April, May, and June with a decline improvement in July to -32%.
“Drive-thru operations are delivering a high ROI during the pandemic, offering convenience, speed, and the comfort of social distance to consumers using them,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America. “Fast casual and traditional quick service chains have already announced expansion plans for their drive-thru operations, and we will hear more chains doing the same. Drive-thru and other off-premises operations will be a major part of the U.S. restaurant industry’s recovery and future.”