Americans have rediscovered their love for the drive-thru

McDonald's drive thru
  • Fast-food chains are continuing to emphasize drive-thru improvements.
  • Drive-thrus were critical for chains when the pandemic closed indoor dining.
  • Now customers can eat inside again, but drive-thrus are still key for business after customers rediscovered it.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Restaurant dining rooms are reopening in most of the US, but Americans are still drive-thru devotees.

Major fast-food brands reported quarterly earnings this week, and executives made it clear that drive-thrus are still huge for business.

Yum Brands Chief Financial Officer Chris Turner emphasized Taco Bell’s drive-thru success over the last quarter to investors in an earnings call. “The drive-thru experience is an increasingly critical competitive advantage for our brands,” he said, noting that drive-thru times improved by six seconds year over year even as the chain served four million more cars.

Taco Bell has increasingly prioritized drive-thrus over the last 18 months and made some major changes to improve the drive-thru experience. To some customers’ dismay, last year the chain cut over a dozen items, including potatoes and and Nachos Supreme, to shorten wait times. The cuts paid off – in the third quarter of 2020, Taco Bell served 30 million more customers than in all of 2019, and each order was completed 17 seconds faster.

Read more: Subway tried to give away 1 million sandwiches to promote its new menu. Franchisees say almost nobody wanted them.

Starbucks similarly credits its drive-thrus with the chain’s strong recovery as pandemic restrictions eased. “We continue to see strong sales recovery in the rural and suburban areas of the business, and in particular drive-thru,” Group President, North America and COO John Culver told investors.

Culver said that Starbucks is focusing on decreasing drive-thru wait times for customers. The chain has been testing new strategies for keeping drive-thru wait times down, even as customizations remain popular and average ticket size is elevated. Baristas can take orders through digital drive-thru screens, which the company previously said are installed at about 3,800 stores. Finally, Starbucks is also renovating 150 US drive-thrus that are space-constrained to make them more efficient, Culver said.

McDonald’s also emphasized the importance of drive-thrus in an earnings call. CEO Chris Kempczinski began the call by talking about the “iconic” McDonald’s experience and referencing how the chain pioneered drive-thrus in the early 1970s. He touted McDonald’s improved drive-thru times, which have shortened by 30 seconds in the last several years, with a slight three-second setback this year. He says times are still improving, though hurt by the labor shortage.

Like its competitors, McDonald’s is also investing in drive-thrus to make them even fast and more efficient. McDonald’s corporate has been pushing franchisees to upgrade drive-thrus since 2019 after years of increasingly long wait times. Since then, many of the chain’s 14,000 US drive-thrus now have double lanes, which are key to reducing bottlenecks. McDonald’s is also still working with AI technology in drive-thrus from the startup it bought in 2019, Aprente. Kempczinski said that the technology is in ten drive-thrus right now.

The future of indoor dining is uncertain right now as the Delta variant of COVID-19 spreads and some municipalities reinstate mask mandates, even for vaccinated customers. Drive-thrus allowed fast-food chains to thrive in 2020, and these companies are continuing to invest in the drive-thru.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

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