CHAMPAIGN — Drive-thrus have been around since the 1940s, but in recent years, restaurants have added new technology to keep track of orders and multiple lanes to handle larger crowds.
McDonald’s locations across the country have been adding large digital menu boards in recent years, and the two-lane drive-thrus are now a more common sight.
Two-lane drive-thrus are “very much a strategy almost exclusive to McDonald’s and Chik-fil-A because they’re the two busiest drive-thrus by far. They’re the only ones that need something like that,” said Sam Oches, the editorial director of QSR (quick service restaurant) magazine, which conducts an annual drive-thru study.
According to its study, when McDonald’s was studied, at least three cars were already in line 42 percent of the time. For Chick-fil-A, there were three or more cars 77 percent of the time.
“Chick-fil-A is a different animal in just how insanely popular it is, at all times of the day,” said Oches, who is based in North Carolina. “Down here, it’s like a religion.”
While QSR’s study didn’t look specifically at the effectiveness of two-lane drive-thrus, Oches is guessing they must be effective.
“Based on how much they rely on those, there’s no doubt it does help,” he said. “A big part of the problem with busy drive-thrus is that you can only fit so many cars on the lot.”
While having two lanes might not necessarily speed up service, it allows the restaurants to handle all the cars that come during busy times, Oches said.
“It’s not necessarily about speeding up, but managing the sheer number of cars during the rush,” he said.
At Chick-fil-A, Champaign store director Jahaun Shirazi said the two-lane drive-thru there appears to be working well since the store opened in October.
Shirazi said some Chick-fil-A locations have single-lane drive-thrus, while others have double-wides, depending on the size of the restaurant.
As for keeping track of cars and their orders, Chick-fil-A uses cameras to take a picture of the car, Shirazi said, as well as taking the customer’s name.
At McDonald’s, franchisee Deanna Witzel said they also use cameras.
“It takes a picture of the front of the car, so that when the car pulls up to the window, they can verify that,” Witzel said.
Her workers are also trained to verify the order at the window, and the new digital menu boards prominently display what’s been ordered.
“Not that mistakes don’t happen, because we’re humans, but that new technology does help mitigate that,” Witzel said.
She said more of her locations are using two-lane drive-thrus, including her seventh and newest location set to open later this year in Covington, Ind.
“It allows us to take two orders at the same time,” Witzel said. “We’ve just found it helps us to be able to deal with busier times a lot better.”
Going forward, Oches said he expects more drive-thrus to take advantage of artificial intelligence, perhaps one day replacing human order takers.
“That will be fairly common within the next five years,” Oches predicted.
He expects AI would improve order accuracy, reduce costs and speed up the process.
McDonald’s bought an AI company last year to adjust what it shows on the digital menu boards based on the time of day, weather and restaurant traffic conditions, among other factors.
“What they’re hoping that can do is better predict what the customer is going to order,” Oches said. “One of the bigger pain points is customers just sitting there looking at the menu.”
And perhaps more immediately, restaurants are grappling with how to handle orders placed online or on mobile apps.
“I don’t think restaurants have figured out the specifics of how to make that work,” Oches said. “That’s a huge opportunity moving forward.”
Chick-fil-A lets customers pick up their order through the drive-thru, but the customer has to sit in the same line as everyone else.
Oches said Dunkin’ has mobile-order pickup lanes at some locations, as well as Chipotle.
The “Chipotlanes” aren’t for ordering, but are instead only for picking up mobile orders, Oches said.
But regardless of all this technology, he said there may be limits to the possible improvements.
QSR has been studying drive-thrus for more than 20 years, and while accuracy has improved, Oches said the high-water mark for speed was reached by Wendy’s back in 2003.
“At a certain point, you can only do so much,” he said.