Thanks to COVID-19, drive-thrus have reached peak popularity. When lockdowns occurred worldwide, only the drive-thrus remained. Using mobile technology, they offered minimum contact with maximum fast food, what industry experts call “frictionless” dining. They were a safe way to dine in an unsafe world. Drive-thru lineups routinely extended beyond the parking lot and into the road.
While many businesses have suffered, those with drive-thrus have prospered. According to the Chicago-based trade magazine Restaurant News, drive-thrus normally account for two-thirds of McDonald’s sales. During the pandemic, that number increased to 90 percent.
Starbucks closed down outlets, but thanks to drive-thrus, it managed to keep 75 percent of their prior-year revenue. In February 2019, Chipotle had ten drive-thrus. The chain now has 100 “Chipotlanes” and is hiring 10,000 more workers.
It’s not just fast-food companies that are embracing the drive-thru model. In Ottawa, Ontario, Tubman Funeral Homes has held drive-thru memorial services. Students at Central Memorial High School in Calgary, Alberta held a drive-thru graduation ceremony. And, of course, we can’t forget the drive-thru COVID-19 testing lanes.
The popularity of drive-thru service is a telling reproach to those who predict, as the New York Times did a few weeks ago, a “future without cars.” When they feel threatened, people seek shelter. During the pandemic, that has meant automobiles.
Pre-COVID-19, consumers used drive-thrus while embarking on an early-morning car journey, to feed children without having to unleash them on the public and to self-medicate with fast food. Since they combine fast food with zero exercise, many use them because they are alone and have the urge to buy something that is inarguably bad for them.
But drive-thrus aren’t just for giving in to our cravings for salt, sugar and fat anymore. They have become a lifeline to our previous tendencies. The glowing illumination of the drive-thru window at 1 am summons us, promising us that one day we will indeed repeat the past and eat in restaurants without fear.
As the country opens up in stages, drive-thru dining has remained desirable. That’s unlikely to change soon as drive-thrus will remain a fixture in our post-pandemic lives. Many predict that there is currently a drive-thru revolution underway.
According to QSR, a website that focuses on the limited-service food industry, “the newest buzzword is AI – artificial intelligence – which could improve the drive-thru operation by replacing the employee at the speaker, recognizing each car’s past orders, or simply predicting what the customer might want to order at that particular time of day.”
Perhaps one day we might be able to go to a drive-thru and thanks to AI, we won’t even have to order. They may already know what we want. Instead of drive-thrus, we may have walk-ups. There’s a whole new world of indulging in food-based guilty pleasures on the horizon.