Do fast food restaurants need a food court?

As the coronavirus swept across nations and caused a wave of lockdowns, drive-thru fast food chains emerged as heroes. In these trying times, the decades-old drive-thru has proven itself, with fast-food operators even being called upon to lend their expertise for COVID-19 testing and drive-through vaccinations.

While the doors of sit-down restaurants have closed, fast-food chains have simply closed their dining space and thrived with drive-thru orders exclusively. In fact, achieving 100% of sales through the drive-thru has worked perfectly amid fast-food restaurant closure mandates. These chains remained profitable while employees remained a safe distance from customers and from each other in the kitchen.

The influence of the pandemic on foodservice has highlighted how unnecessary sit-down dining is in fast food, so much so that fast food chains are rethinking their plans to reopen their dining spaces under all circumstances.

Is Dine-In fast food a thing of the past?

There’s a practical reason consumers prefer fast food and drive-thru: convenience. Drivers can simply roll down their windows, place their order, pay and take home a hot meal in minutes. Even the unlikely chains that eschew the fast-food label have embraced drive-thru, from Starbucks to Panera Bread and Panda Express.

In reality, the need for on-site fast food is becoming a thing of the past with more drive-thru choices. While some generations would spend time eating at these restaurants, fewer people do so now. This is partly due to the fact that fast food chains have chosen not to reopen their restaurant space, but why?

Labor shortages are a huge component of fast food service reformatting. According to the National Restaurant Association, despite a recent increase in hospitality employment, the restaurant industry was still in decline 794,000 jobs in April 2022– about 6.4% below where it was before the pandemic.

The restaurant industry isn’t really known for its wages, benefits, and working conditions. Currently, the owners are trying to offer a higher salary hire and retain employees. They have to decide what’s most important to their bottom line without staff available to allocate to drive-thru and maintenance of food service areas. As a result, drive-thru has proven its value and popularity.

The end of the food court is changing the drive-thru

The influx of fast food outlets choosing not to reopen to eat in has finally changed the drive-thru experience. Consumers looking for a Big Mac and fries might be surprised to see some of the changes in play.

Drive-thru only

With on-site fast food considered obsolete, chains are laying out the blueprint for the future of fast food service. Recently, a new Taco Bell in Las Vegas opened in a much smaller location than the chain’s other locations across the country, offering drive-thru only.

Of course, one of the benefits of transitioning exclusively to drive-thru is paying for a smaller footprint – fewer people inside require less shopping space. By contrast, fast food chains can focus less on catering to a few customers who arrive in dribs and drabs and instead aim to improve the efficiency and accuracy of drive-thrus.

According to a recent Drive-Thru study by QSR magazine, these two components are most important to consumers buying fast food—89% of respondents named accuracy like a little or most important, with a service speed of 88%. Additionally, 75% of respondents said convenience was their top reason for visiting the drive-thru.

Multiple drive-thru lanes

Eliminating the fast food space means optimizing the drive-thru experience with fewer idling cars. Finding a way to cater to customers using mobile ordering also requires consideration in terms of quick pickup. As a result, multiple drive-thru lanes are becoming the new norm, with consumers likely seeing widespread adoption of this format shortly.

Fast casual chains like Panera Bread traditionally use counter control and assembly preparation stations to serve their bosses. In many places, food is delivered to customers wherever they choose to sit.

However, even Panera Bread has incorporated a dual drive-thru concept – one lane for new orders and a separate lane for their Rapid Pick-Up service. The change came as Panera Bread shifted gears to an enhanced digital customer experience focusing on contactless dining and delivery, ordering kiosks and a fully digitized menu.

However, Panera Bread isn’t the only restaurant exploring multiple avenues of drive-thru. McDonald’s has long implemented dual-lane ordering, while other fast-food outlets are trying three- and four-lane to meet demands and provide better customer service.

ghost kitchens

Fast food restaurant owners know that running successful ghost kitchens takes careful planning, but it’s a risk that many chains seem willing to take. Following the coronavirus pandemic and the rise of third-party delivery apps like GrubHub, DoorDash, and UberEats, some fast food outlets are converting to these kitchens to meet offsite dining demands.

There is no storefront, dining room, or hospitality staff in a ghost kitchen. Instead, a team works solely to fulfill online orders that require delivery – space is rented to prepare food orders made through third-party apps.

The adoption of ghost kitchens is not new, as Chick-fil-a has already experienced. More recently, Wendy’s embraced the idea with plans to open 700 ghost kitchens in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom by 2025.

The dining space may never be the same again

There will likely be a handful of consumers who will be sad to see in-store fast food disappear, especially those who have used restaurants to socialize or take a break from everyday life. However, times dictate change. Although food court space will no longer be available at some establishments, the result will be improved drive-thru.

Emily Newton is the editor of Magazine Revolutionized. She has over five years of writing experience for the food and beverage industry.

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