Drive-ins are back: How fast food is adapting to the Covid era

Burger King, Starbucks and Taco Bell are among the fast food chains adapting their restaurants’ design to be more Covid-19 secure, with drive-ins making a comeback, drive-thrus going double-laned, and a range of novel customer interfaces enabled by mobile phones.

Demand for our drive-thru at an all-time high– Mike Grams, Taco Bell’s chief operating officer

The moves come as drive-thru restaurant visits jumped by 26% in April, May and June as coronavirus restrictions took effect, according to market research company, NPD Group. 

Burger King has unveiled two new restaurant types with a 60% smaller footprint than traditional layouts and a "100% touchless experience". 

The company says its designers raced to rethink trade when the pandemic struck and "pushed the limits of what a Burger King restaurant could be".

Indoor dining space will shrink with more seats placed in outdoor shaded patios, while a "suspended kitchen and dining room" will be built over drive-thru lanes, reducing the building’s scale and allowing visitors to collect food from conveyor belts.

Drive-ins are back, with some modern twists. Diners can park under a solar-powered canopy to escape the sun, place orders on a Burger King app, scan a QR code, and have their burgers brought to the car.

Mobile phones also facilitate curbside delivery as well as order pick-ups from coded food lockers installed on the buildings’ exterior.

Josh Kobza, the chief operating officer of Restaurant Brands International, Burger King’s owner, said: "In March our in-house design and tech team accelerated new restaurant design plans and pushed the limits of what a Burger King restaurant could be."

"We took into consideration how consumer behaviours are changing and our guests will want to interact with our restaurants. The result is a new design concept that is attractive to guests and will allow our franchisees to maximise their return.

Burger King’s first Covid-era restaurants will appear in Miami, Latin America and in the Caribbean next year.

Image courtesy of Starbucks/Eric Soltan

Starbucks has also redesigned its coffee shops, with more pickup shops operating in cities such as New York City, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco, and more curbside pickup options, drive-thru and walk up windows in suburban areas.

The first pickup-only Starbucks opened in November 2019 in New York’s Penn Plaza, with a second in New York City due to open near Grand Central Terminal.

Starbucks’ curbside pickup service has been increased due to the coronavirus, with the company piloting a number of shops which will only offer this service.

The firm will also add drive-thru stores outside cities, some with double lane drive-thru, or a drive-thru with curbside pickup.

Image courtesy of Taco Bell

Taco Bell is following suit with restaurants shrinking from 2,500 sq ft to 1,325 sq ft, and doubling drive-thru lanes, one for ordering and one for collection.

It is also introducing a concierge service, known as "bellhops" to fulfil curbside pickup orders and drive-thru deliveries.

Mike Grams, Taco Bell’s chief operating officer, said: "With demand for our drive-thru at an all-time high, we know adapting to meet our consumers rapidly changing needs has never been more important.

"The Taco Bell Go Mobile restaurant concept is not only an evolved physical footprint, but a completely synchronised digital experience centred around streamlining guest access points. For the first time, our guests will have the ability to choose the pick-up experience that best fits their needs, all while never leaving the comfort of their cars."

The first Taco Bell Go Mobile restaurant is due to open in a few months.

Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams, said to GCR: "From prefabricated structures and indoor seating to drive-thru windows and contactless commerce, the fast-food industry has always adapted to new consumer behaviour and external circumstances.

"We wouldn’t have McDonald’s or Taco Bell without the rise of cars and highways and so it’s fitting that there is already a solution to how we eat in the time of social distancing."

Top image courtesy of Burger King/Business Wire

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