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May I Take Your Order?: The History of Drive-Thrus

Updated: Feb 19

By: Devyn Nance


Drive-thrus are a quick and convenient place for customers to grab their favorite foods along their daily commutes. Pre-pandemic, 60-70 percent of a quick-service restaurant’s business came from the drive-thru. As restaurants innovate to create additional profit avenues, drive-thru experiences alleviate customer concerns about cleanliness and safety surrounding a dine-in experience. As off-premise dining has become an industry lifeline, drive-thrus provide a precious opportunity for revenue.  Before we look to the future, let’s look at the history of drive-thrus to determine where we’ve been and where we might go next. 


A Convenient Timeline

The earliest iteration of a drive-thru would be the drive-in movie theater or the establishments that provided curbside service in a  designated area. In 1921, the Pig Stand, a chain of restaurants based in Texas, opened their first drive-in on a highway that connected Fort Worth. Similar to Sonic’s business model, customers pulled into Pig Stand’s parking lot and were greeted by carhops for their orders. Guests received their orders on trays clipped to their car windows. 

The drive-thru experience, as we’re familiar with it today, began in 1948 with In-N-Out Burger. At its Baldwin California location, a circular driveway led up to glass walls behind which five cooks prepared meals for passing drivers. Signage reading “No Delay” displayed on the glass walls to draw in motorists. In-N-Out’s combination of the intercom ordering system, lack of interior seating, and exterior parking marked the first restaurant to offer the total drive-thru experience. 

Though this was the case with In-N-Out, larger chains, including McDonald’s, were slow to adopt the drive-thru business model. Smaller chains, like Wendy’s and Jack-in-the-Box, jumped on the drive-thru chain in the mid-1960s. McDonald’s later followed suit, opening its first drive-thru in the mid-1970s. 


Let’s Get Into Drive-Thru Data

Over the past few months, the restaurant industry has taken quite a hit and changed quickly, especially when it comes to fast food. While profits are down, companies like McDonald’s have reported that their sales are almost back to pre-pandemic levels, primarily due to their robust drive-thru service. Every month, drive-thru sales make up 70% of total fast food profit. 

Bluedot reported that customers increased their drive-thru usage by 43%. Curbside delivery also increased by 40%, stating that they used this method for eating out. 

When it comes to customers using drive-thru lanes by restaurant type, the segments break down as follows:

  • 57%  — Fast-food restaurants.

  • 40% — Mexican quick-service restaurants.

  • 38% — Chicken restaurants.

Don’t forget that the orders from your drive-thru follow a similar process as the orders coming through your front of house POS! 


Great Drive-Thru Examples

According to the 2019 QSR Drive-Thru study, based on accuracy, service, and taste, several brands have stood out: 

  • Chick-fil-A — The company led the 2019 QSR Drive-Thru Study and ranked first in the three aspects of accuracy, service, and taste. According to QSR, Chick-fil-A remained in the top spot in 2016, 2017, and 2019. 

  • Wendy’s — Between the three categories, Wendy’s ranked fourth in 2017 and moved to second in 2019. 

  • Dunkin’ Donuts — Interestingly enough, in this study, Dunkin’ ranks fifth in service and first in speed. Overall, the brand tied for fourth in 2018 beside Carl’s Jr. and Taco Bell. In 2019, Dunkin’ ranked fifth. 


The Future of Drive-Thrus

As the restaurant industry shakily navigates a new business landscape, restaurants are considering their options for contactless and socially distant customer experiences. Even though Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, and others are pioneering drive-thru, restaurants still face challenges. Studies show that customers still experience an average wait time of over 4 minutes from ordering at the intercom to picking up their food in the window. 

Overly-complicated menus and unexpected increases in order volume are some of the reasons for this average wait time. Similar to dine-in and carry-out changes, menus have become more simplified in drive-thrus as well. The customer experience will remain a top priority, no matter where their interaction point takes place. 

Experts also recognize more innovations when it comes to technology. We already see instances of that with Shake Shack and other companies. These companies are investing in more real estate to push into the drive-thru segment. 


Conclusion

Irrespective of the restaurant segment, off-premise dining has never been more critical, and drive-thrus help realize that potential. Right now, restaurateurs hungry for a slice of that pie are innovating with their DIY drive-thrus to remain competitive in a challenging market. The history of drive-thrus shows that a simple concept can grow into an integral part of your business plan. By looking at yesterday, we might get an idea of what’s to come tomorrow. What works for you? Let us know in the comments below which drive-thrus you love and what you hope to see in the future.

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