A Drive-Thru Only Fast Food Future Isn't Implausible

COVID-19, which caused a worldwide shutdown around March and April 2020 (via Yale Medicine), changed many of our lives for the foreseeable future. During this time, states and countries ordered their citizens to stay at home, schools and restaurants closed, many people either became unemployed or started working from home, and countries even closed their borders in an effort to control the virus. Perhaps the biggest way the pandemic changed our lives was how we eat out at restaurants. According to NPD, delivery restaurant orders grew 116% and drive-thru orders grew 20% from February 2020 to February 2022, while less people were placing carryout orders.

While restaurant closures due to the pandemic were a big reason for the shift in consumer behavior, another big reason for the increase in delivery and drive-thru orders is the overall convenience of the whole experience, from mobile ordering to not having to leave your car or home to get your order. As most of us know, drive-thru fast food restaurants aren't a new creation. In fact, the first fast food restaurant to implement a drive-thru system was none other than In-N-Out in 1948, per History. From there, other chains added drive-thrus to their restaurants, such as Wendy's and Jack in the Box in the 1960s and McDonald's in the 1970s. Now, the future of the fast food restaurant industry continues to evolve, with drive-thru only restaurants becoming the new normal.

The restaurant industry's shift to drive-thru only was inevitable

Apparently, the restaurant industry would've shifted its focus to delivery and drive-thru eventually according to Hudson Riehle, who is the senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association. Riehle says, "Prior to the pandemic, what constitutes a restaurant was already rapidly changing. 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," per TODAY.

According to Nation's Restaurant News, Chick-fil-A, Checkers and Rally's, and Jimmy John's are a few fast food chains that have started shifting their focus to better accommodating drive-thru orders. As of August 2022, around 60 Chick-fil-A locations have express lanes in the drive-thru where customers who placed orders using the chain's mobile app can skip the main drive-thru line to pick up their orders. The chain started testing the new express lane concept around June 2022 and plans to expand the number of stores that have it in 2023. Following suit, Checkers and Rally's and Jimmy John's are also working on adding drive-thru lanes specifically for patrons with mobile orders, with the latter testing a drive-thru only store in Bartow, Florida.

Taco Bell is changing the industry with its four-lane drive-thru only store

Perhaps one of the closest glimpses into the future of fast food comes from popular chain Taco Bell. In August 2020, Taco Bell introduced its "Go Mobile" concept, which featured smaller store locations, "bellhops," a dedicated area for curbside orders, and a two-lane drive-thru with one lane being reserved for orders placed using the Taco Bell app, per Taco Bell. Taco Bell's "Go Mobile" concept isn't too revolutionary considering chains Chick-fil-A, Jimmy John's, and Checker and Rally's are pretty much doing the same thing; however, what's really revolutionary is Taco Bell Defy, which is a two-story Taco Bell that opened in June 2022 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, according to a Taco Bell press release.

Taco Bell Defy has four drive-thru lanes, with one lane being dedicated to mobile app orders, one lane being reserved for delivery drivers, and one lane being devoted to a typical drive-thru experience. In the aforementioned press release, Taco Bell's President and Global COO Mike Grams said that the goal of Taco Bell Defy was to "creat[e] a 2 minute or less drive-thru experience," and that "Taco Bell Defy is the future." The unique contactless fast food concept features "two-way audio and video technology" that allows drive-thru customers to give their orders to the Taco Bell employees stationed on the floor above and digital screens where customers with mobile orders can check in and scan QR codes to pick up their orders.

More chains plan to modify their current drive-thru models

As if Taco Bell Defy wasn't enough proof of the future of fast food, more and more chains continue to reconstruct their current drive-thru models into something more accommodating to the digital age. Health-food chain sweetgreen opened its first drive-thru location in November 2022, calling it "sweetlane" and creating a seamless pickup experience for customers with online orders (via a press release from sweetgreen). Also, burger chain Shake Shack opened its first location with a drive-thru on December 6, 2022 and, at the end of 2022, the chain aims to have a total of 10 locations with drive-thrus, per QSR.

Additionally, Mexican-inspired chain Chipotle has started adding Chipotlanes to its stores, which are designated windows where customers with mobile orders can pick their orders up, according to Restaurant Dive. With the addition of Chipotlanes, customers can get their orders in about 30 seconds now, and the chain plans to open around 255 to 285 new locations in 2023 with around 80% of them being built with Chipotlanes. Furthermore, Chipotle is testing a unique "digital kitchen" experience in Highland Falls, New York, which doesn't have an indoor dining space and only serves delivery and pickup orders. So, it's totally possible that the days of dining in at your favorite fast food restaurant may be numbered.