Zooming In: The Evolution and Future of Drive-Thrus

by | Sep 28, 2022 | Restaurant Trends

Image of an old drive-thru restaurant moving into the future of drive-thrus

The future of drive-thrus involves the integration of new technologies that once seemed like something from a sci-fi movie. Drive-thru processes are moving into the digital era like never before.

It’s exciting to think of how far we have come, from improvements in simple communications to advancements in ordering. In today’s digital age, earlier innovations are even more advanced. And new evolutions are coming for the very-near future of drive-thrus. 

Key Takeaways:

  • The evolution of drive-thrus includes technologies that improved operations over time. It began with better communication methods in the ’40s to A.I.-powered voice assistance today.
  • Digital signage, automated ordering, robots, and delivery drones are a few advancements experts expect to see in the coming years.
  • Drive-thru innovations today are meant to improve speed, convenience, food safety, contactless dining, and quick access to deals.
  • Technology is improving curbside pick-up processes and online ordering. It also allows people to download apps that make it easier to order remotely and get discounts on food.
  • Express lanes allow customers to order online and bypass the drive-thru lines. This express feature and multiple lanes will reduce drive-thru wait times.

Drive-Thru Past: The Evolution of “To-Go” Technology

The first drive-thru restaurant opened in Springfield, Missouri, in 1947 and was called Red’s Giant Burgers. It got the idea from a bank in Syracuse, New York, that opened a drive-thru teller window in 1928, nearly 20 years before Sheldon “Red” Chaney opened the first restaurant drive-thru.

Image of Red's Giant Hamburgers – the first drive-thru restaurant in America

Image Courtesy of Fox

After the first drive-thru opened, operators began looking for ways to improve the process. Check out the evolution of drive-thrus with the innovations of years past:

Two-way Speaker Boxes – 1940s

By the 1940s, more people owned cars than ever before and grew the popularity of drive-ins and drive-thrus. That required communications technology that allowed customers to communicate without someone coming to their car to take their orders. 

Intercom Systems – 1970s

This technology allowed front-of-the-house employees to communicate better with the kitchen staff. Order accuracy increased, as did the speed of service.

Point of Sale (POS) Terminals – 1980s

The restaurant industry adopted the first digital technology. POS systems streamlined the ordering process along with payment processing. Cashiers no longer had to decipher handwritten orders.

Kitchen Display Systems (KDS) – 1990s

Now that cashiers no longer had to deal with trying to make out handwritten orders on tickets, KDS systems brought this innovation to the kitchen staff. Servers put the orders in the system, and it goes straight to the kitchen.

Order Confirmation Boards (OCB) – 2010s

These boards allow customers to see their orders as they place them, allowing them to notice any errors that might get entered before the kitchen makes the food.

AI Voice Assistant – 2020s

AI-powered voice technology means customers can order their food without staff assistance. These devices are similar to an automated board where the customer enters the order into the system, with one difference. The customer uses their voice to order, not a POS kiosk.

A company called Presto developed an AI-powered voice assistant program for restaurants. They plan on partnering with McDonald’s and Checkers & Rally’s to install this technology in over 267 restaurants for their initial launch. 

According to its Forbes interview, Presto claims its software is over 95% accurate and improves labor productivity. 

3 of the Latest Drive Thru Innovations 

One thing past and present innovations have in common is the goal to improve the customer experience. Moving forward, streamlining workflows, enhancing food safety, and simplifying ordering methods will be the focus of these advancements, with the use of the following:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Digital signage
  • Robots
  • Delivery drones
  • Contactless technology

Here are three areas these innovations will improve the way customers patronize the drive-thru today:

1. Curbside Pick-Up   

Offering this service gives dine-in family-style restaurants a competitive edge over fast food establishments. Get all the convenience of a drive-thru with food quality equal to what customers could make at home. 

Customers can either order online, over the phone, or in person and wait in their car until their order is ready. The staff brings the food to the car sitting in the designated space. 

Advancements include customer relationship management (CRM) software and digital experience platforms (DXPs) that streamline the ordering and curbside delivery process, ensuring increased accuracy and less wait time.

2. Online Ordering    

Online ordering dates back to the mid-1990s when the internet became a household innovation. Pizza places were some of the first to offer online food orders. 

By the early 2000s, digital food ordering platforms became more prevalent. Now, nearly every restaurant offers online ordering. 

Online ordering also allows consumers to leave a review for your establishment. The reputation of your establishment matters, so make sure to address any issues left on a review. Address it with the customer directly, along with any staff involved. 

Along with online ordering, the development of fast food apps that offer special deals and online ordering methods have increased in recent years. As have online food delivery services, a segment of the food service industry experts project to reach $323.3 billion by the end of this year with annual revenue of $164.1 million. 

Bar graph of the online food delivery revenue statistics and forecast from 2017 to 2024

Image Courtesy of Statista

3. Automated Ordering   

Automated ordering boards allow customers to place orders on a kiosk or POS station. As this technology advances, so will the capabilities of these ordering systems. For instance, currently, these systems allow you to order your food when you are ready to eat it. 

Developers are looking into the possibility of pre-ordering from multiple restaurants at one kiosk. This innovation is ideal for busy shopping centers with multiple drive-thrus nearby or establishments with additional locations.

QR code menu and ordering processes are another advancement customers will continue to see more of in the future of drive-thrus. 

Stay Tuned for the Next Evolution of Drive-Thrus

For the latest innovations in the food service industry, attend the next SIAL show to learn more about how the evolution of the drive-thru and what innovations will drive advancements in this sector. Interested in sharing your expertise? Consider becoming an exhibitor at the next event. 

Network with others, influence innovation, and learn more about restaurant industry innovations at the next SIAL America food conference.