6 Characteristics of the Perfect Drive-Thru Restaurant

by | Feb 15, 2023 | Restaurant Trends

Drive-thru restaurant sales make up 70% of fast food sales in the U.S. During Q2 of 2020, drive-thru visits increased by 26%, causing them to become some restaurants’ primary source of revenue. While many restaurants were closing their doors in 2020, many drive-thru restaurants saw profits. With the experts in the QSR industry predicting even more drive-thru success in the next five years, many restaurants are considering to invest in drive-thrus. However, what else is there to consider before investing? 

Key Takeaways:

  • When it comes to quick service restaurants (QSRs), there are two types of establishments with similar operating methods: fast food and fast casual.
  • Drive-thrus have been around since 1947, when Red’s Giant Hamburg opened its first drive-thru. A year later, In-N-Out opened its drive-thru restaurants.
  • Drive-thru restaurants offer self-service options and provide limited on-premises dining and simple menus. They do not serve alcohol but serve up a good deal.
  • Drive-thrus are typically open late. Some are even open 24/7 to accommodate the late-night crowds or those who work late-night and overnight shifts.

Fast Food Vs. Fast Casual and What That Means for Drive-Thrus

The fast food and fast casual business models sound similar and have similar functions. However, there are significant characteristic differences between the two. Fast-food giants like Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Burger King offer incredibly low prices and quick meals when customers need the speed of a quick-service restaurant (QSR), not a full-service restaurant (FSR). Fast food restaurants generally focus on off-site dining and primarily focus on value and speed versus quality. 

Panera, Chipotle, and Sweetgreen, on the other hand, are examples of fast-casual restaurants. Their main differences are a higher price, more customization, and upscale onsite dining experience in exchange for higher quality food. Drive-thrus are fast food establishments, while drive-ins are fast-casual restaurants.

6 Characteristics of the Perfect Drive-Thru Restaurant    

Drive-thrus have been around since 1947, when Red’s Giant Hamburg opened its first drive-thru. A year later, In-N-Out opened its drive-thru restaurants. Since that time, the popularity of drive-thrus has grown. As you can see from the graph below, experts anticipate substantial growth in the drive-thru market to continue through 2027 (and beyond). 

Bar graph of the drive-thru market revenue trend for 2014 to 2027

Image Courtesy of Cognitive Market Research

One noticeable trend in the chart above is the rise of these establishments in countries outside the U.S. For example, the number of drive-thru restaurants in South America has doubled in the last 10 years, and experts expect it to double again from 2023 to 2027. Let us review some of the characteristics of these establishments that help them thrive as the market continues to climb.

1. Self-Service Establishments  

When it comes to drive-thrus, it is all about convenience. Not only do consumers want their meal hot and fast, but they also want the freedom to get the food exactly how they want it, allowing the customer to place their order, pay for it, and pick up their food, all without having to interact with staff. Fast-food restaurants are turning to automation to make this a reality in many establishments.  

2. Limited On-Premise Dining   

One clear characteristic of a drive-thru is they tend to offer limited space in their dining room for diners. One exception to this would be when McDonald’s began building giant play centers for children, often designed with large dining rooms. However, if the goal is to entice customers to use the drive-thru at your restaurant, offering spacious on-premise dining defeats that purpose.  

3. Simple Menus    

Since speed and convenience are the main purpose of a drive-thru, a simple menu will help keep orders simple. The food on the menus should be easy to assemble and have few ingredients. That way, customers who want modifications have few options for substitutions, keeping “fast” as part of your fast food restaurant’s drive-thru.  

4. Alcohol-Free

Drive-thru restaurants (almost) never serve alcohol. There are a few exceptions at places like Taco Bell, where they do serve alcohol at some locations. However, by law, these beverages must come in sealed containers that no one can open while the vehicle is in operation. Generally, drive-thrus will not take on the liability of serving alcoholic beverages through a drive-thru.  

5. Affordable

Drive-thru restaurants are not only known for their speed and convenience but also for their great value. Many of them offer dollar menus that allow patrons to order something small but filling or a value meal for just a few dollars. The graph below shows how fast-food restaurant chains fared in the 20th Annual QSR Drive-Thru study conducted in 2021.  

Infographic of the drive-thru performance benchmark report.

Image Courtesy of Modern Restaurant Management

6. Late Opening Hours

Many drive-thru restaurants are open late at night. Many remain open 24/7 to accommodate patrons who work late-night or graveyard shifts. Taco Bell launched a special late-night menu to market specifically to these customers and even dubbed the term “Fourth Meal” – introducing the concept of eating a late-night meal after dinner. 

There was a time during the beginning of the COVID pandemic when establishments closed early. Even today, staffing shortages make it difficult for some drive-thrus to stay open late, so fewer fast food drive-thrus are open 24/7. However, as establishments start to solve some of their staffing shortages (often with the help of automation), more places can keep their late-night hours and accommodate patrons who work late or keep less traditional hours.  

Where to Speak with Experts in the QSR Space  

Drive-thru restaurants are unique to all other fast-food and fast-casual establishments. Understanding the characteristics of the perfect drive-thru will help you create a dining experience for your patrons to generate customer loyalty and boost profits. Whether you plan to open a new drive-thru restaurant or renovate an existing location, we encourage you to speak to experts in the QSR space. They can help you learn about the strategies that worked for them and the challenges you can avoid.

At SIAL, we bring experts in all sectors of the food and beverage industry together at one event every year. On our next show, we will be showcasing some of the big names in the industry along with some newcomers to the field of food service. We hope you will join us this spring.

Register today to attend or become an exhibitor at our show this coming March.